The AZ Shores apartments at 1305 Second St. in downtown Santa Monica. (Brandon Wise)

CITY HALL — City Council will try to strengthen its response to the growing number of tenant harassment claims.
City attorneys are scheduled to review the current ordinance and plans for addressing the issue at council’s Tuesday meeting.
Earlier this year, city officials acknowledged that harassment complaints are rising — they nearly doubled in the last fiscal year, which ended in July.
As the real estate market rebounds, incentives rise for landlords who’d like to oust long-time rent control tenants from their homes. Under vacancy decontrol laws, landlords can bring rents back to market rate when a tenant leaves.
Council and the Rent Control Board heard reports on the issue earlier this year. City attorneys outlined a plethora of tactics being used by some landlords.
They might, for example, pretend not to have received a payment and use that as a means of eviction. They might pretend to serve notices that haven’t actually been served.
Even if the tenants beat the phony eviction cases in court, they are costly and time-consuming for the resident.
In the city attorney’s recent report, they acknowledge that existing law does permit them to go after landlords who falsely claim not to have received rent.
“In cases where there is a genuine misunderstanding, or where tenants have in fact failed to pay their rent, staff works to educate the parties about their responsibilities under the law,” city attorneys said in the report. “Staff will also report back to Council on developments relating to this issue.”
In the report, attorneys lay out the reasons that a landlord can legally enter a residence. These include: during an emergency, to make necessary or agreed upon repairs, and under a court order.
The landowner can’t simply schedule an inspection without a valid, stated reason and, if they do enter for that reason, they can’t start checking out other parts of the residence.
“Staff plans to increase awareness of the entry and privacy laws through public education and to monitor the results of this effort,” city attorneys said. “Staff will report back to Council on this effort and whether the results suggest that local law should be changed.”
City attorneys recently announced that they are suing a landlord who, they say, harassed tenants through sham inspections executed under the guise of checking smoke detectors.
In this case, and in others, the landlord allegedly offered to buy the long-term tenants out of their residences — a move that city attorneys say is legal. They are not, however, allowed to mislead them about their rights or threaten and intimidate them if they don’t agree to the buyout.
“Rent Control staff recommends that Council change the law to require all tenant buyout offers to be simultaneously filed with the City, or the Board, similarly to how eviction notices are filed under current law,” city attorneys said. “Such information could be useful to City Attorney staff in its investigation of some tenant harassment cases.”
At past meetings, Rent Control Board and council members repeatedly asked the attorneys responsible for handling these tenant harassment cases if they’re understaffed. They generally said that, with some hesitance, that they are not understaffed. The report for Tuesday’s meeting proposes adding a new member to the team.
“Staff believes there could be significant benefit from adding at least a part-time employee who would act as the City Attorney’s main liaison with the public on housing cases and who would assist with the initial investigation of housing questions and complaints,” they said. “This would free up time and resources for the pursuit of larger investigations by other staff, among other benefits.”
The position would cost less than $60,000.
They will likely come back to council with an official request at the end of the year.
dave@www.smdp.com

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