Santa Monica City Hall (Daniel Archuleta

CITY HALL — City Council heard the testimony of dozens of residents who feel they’ve been harassed by landlords, last week.

City Attorney Marsha Moutrie said the tenants need attorneys to defend them in court, not new tenant harassment laws.

“Your fight is not with us or with how we allocate our resources,” she said. “Your fight is in Sacramento and we lost it when Ellis got passed. And I’m sorry to say that, because it’s a very dark thing to say, but I truly believe that’s what happened. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t continue the good fight to the extent that we can.”

Tenants told a range of sad housing stories. Some have landlords who, they said, pretend not to have received a rent payment. Others said their landlord would make unannounced inspections, searching for any grounds for an eviction. One woman had been ousted from her apartment three times under the Ellis Act. A man wrote from Chicago — he too was forced from his home and couldn’t afford the Santa Monica rents.

Tenant harassment complaints have been rising, city attorneys acknowledge. A landlord cannot raise rent on rent controlled units to market rate until the current tenant moves out. As real estate values rise, thanks in part to a recovering economy and the incoming Expo Light Rail, the incentive to get long-time tenants out climbs, city attorneys said.

In August, city attorneys brought a lawsuit against a landlord who they claim harassed three tenants by making up bogus excuses to enter their apartments. Once inside, they say, she performed full searches of the property without the tenants’ permission.

But the City Attorney’s Office, Moutrie said, cannot represent tenants in eviction cases. They can enforce tenant harassment laws that are being broken to the detriment of tenants but, if a tenant is facing threat of eviction, City Hall can’t step in, she said.

“You can help us with evidence — you have — and we’ll try to be attentive with your needs,” Moutrie said, “but I’m very concerned with the tenor this is taking if the tenor is, ‘If we just change this law, this is going to get better.’ That’s not true. We can fight the better fight with more resources but it really does take a lawyer in court and not a word on a page.”

Nicole Phillis, who spoke at the meeting and is running unopposed for the Rent Control Board, called the response “defensive.”

“Would-be tenant harassment plaintiffs are not bringing these cases because the legal standard for intent (malice) is too high,” she said.

Further, she used strong words to describe the city attorneys’ record of enforcement.

“The bottom line is that the City Attorney has done a poor job at enforcing our tenant harassment ordinance — both civilly and criminally,” Phillis said. “Rather than acknowledging its office’s own subpar performance, the City Attorney seemed to shift the blame back to the private sector. This is simply unacceptable.”

City attorneys suggested that council fund a new half-time employee to help handle tenant harassment complaints. Several council members asked that the position be funded sooner than the city attorneys’ proposal of the end of the year.

Councilmember Gleam Davis had several suggestions for improving the law.

“I don’t know if there’s some way to create the presumption that over some number of inspections in a certain time period is presumptively harassment,” she said. “It seems to me that if you have to go into somebody’s apartment three times a week there’s something wrong.”

She also supported a suggestion — from the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles — that penalties be increased for harassment of both seniors and those with disabilities.

“They’re the most vulnerable and the ones that people tend to pick on,” she said.

Davis had suggested that City Hall could provide legal muscle to the harassed tenants by training lawyers to defend them in court pro bono.

“If we could give them a half day of pro bono training and then do sort of like Public Counsel does where they register and when a tenant comes up Legal Aid can say here’s a Pro Bono attorney who can help you,” she said.

One reoccurring problem is that eviction cases are being sent to courtrooms on the other side of Los Angeles County where judges might be less familiar with Santa Monica’s laws.

Councilmember Tony Vazquez suggested, laughing, that City Hall should offer training sessions for judges.

City attorneys will likely come back to council with specific options for council later this year or early next year.

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