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

CITY HALL — After numerous conversations over the course of months, City Council tightened up tenant harassment laws last week.

The unanimous vote increases penalties, prohibits landlords from entering apartments for certain reasons, and modifies the standard for what’s considered tenant harassment.

Tenant harassment complaints have been rising in the city by the sea. 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.

The previous tenant harassment ordinance prohibited 12 wrongful actions by landlords when performed with “malice.”

Council’s update changes “malice” to “bad faith,” a move that may allow city attorney’s more leeway when litigating bad landlords.

Another addition clarifies, through examples, situations in which a landlord is harassing a tenant by illegally entering their apartment.

“There have been increased reports of owner and managers making unlawful ‘inspections’ of units solely as a pretext to search for possible grounds for eviction,” city attorneys said in a report to council, “and of otherwise valid entries that were extended into improper areas for similar reasons, or simply to harass tenants.”

The clarification would increase the laws deterrent effect and inform the public of the ordinance’s scope, attorneys said.

Penalties, which were previously fixed at $1,000, now start at $1,000 and go up to $10,000.

Council also approved of requirements that landlords file copies of buyout agreements with City Hall or the Rent Control Board.

Given Santa Monica’s rent control laws, landlords are often willing to pay thousands of dollars to get long-term tenants to move out of their apartments, thereby allowing the landlords to raise rents to market rate.

“Anecdotal evidence indicates that many buyout negotiations are not conducted at arms-length, and landlords sometimes employ high-pressure tactics or intimidation to induce tenants to sign the agreements,” city officials said. “Some landlords threaten tenants with eviction if they do not accept the terms of the buyout.”

These cash buyouts sometimes result in tenants moving out without fully gripping their rights, city officials said.

On top of requiring landlords to register the buyouts, the new rules would give tenants the right to back out of the agreement within 30 days and require landlords to present all offers in writing.

Council members made mild alterations to the ordinance before passing it but they wanted to add more changes. Councilmember Ted Winterer, noting that the priority was to get the ordinance passed that night, suggested tacking on the more complicated requests after it passed, giving attorneys time to consider the suggestions and return with more changes at a later date.

Councilmember Gleam Davis suggested enacting rebuttable presumptions about the number of times a landlord could request to enter an apartment before it is considered excessive. Many tenants have reported that landlords will claim they are interested in, for instance, fixing a leak but, upon entering the apartment take the opportunity to look for excuses for eviction.

Councilmember Sue Himmelrich suggested setting that number at three inspections a month. Landlords could rebut the claim that their inspections were excessive if they needed to enter the apartment four times in the month.

Attorneys said they would consider the idea.

Similarly, Himmelrich suggested that more than three claims of non-receipt of rent over a six-month period could be considered excessive. Tenants have complained that landlords pretend not to have received rent checks in order to start the eviction process.

City attorneys said they would consider this idea as well.

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.

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