It’s completely legal for a Santa Monica landlord to evict a rent-controlled tenant so that the owner or a relative can move in. But what if this happened to you, and you found out that instead of having a family member move in, the landlord rented the apartment to new tenants for nearly five times what you were paying?
That’s exactly what happened to one 82-year-old Santa Monica resident whom we’ll call Millie. She got a notice stating that her landlords (a husband and wife) intended to move in to her $529 per month, two bedroom apartment, and that she had to vacate. So Millie moved out, and only later found out that the landlords never did move in. Instead, they rented Millie’s unit to new tenants at market rate – $2,400 per month.
Santa Monica’s rent control law protects longtime tenants by keeping rents affordable. Landlords can’t raise controlled rents to market rate unless tenants leave voluntarily, are evicted for just cause or another lawful reason such as owner occupancy.
However, in this case, the landlords used fraud to make Millie move, so their actions violated Santa Monica’s Tenant Harassment law. Millie filed a complaint with the City Attorney’s Consumer Protection Division, who later filed a lawsuit against the landlords for violating the law. These landlords learned a hard lesson – they ultimately paid out $200,000 to settle the case: $160,000 to Millie for her damages and an additional $40,000 in penalties to the City.
The Tenant Harassment law prohibits certain wrongful actions by landlords and managers, including:
o Using lies, intimidation, or fraud to make a tenant leave. (Like in Millie’s case.)
o Taking away services that came with the apartment. (Such as parking or laundry.)
o Abusing their right to enter the apartment. (Owners can enter an apartment under limited circumstances, but they can’t abuse that right and go on fishing expeditions.)
o Serving a “three-day notice” or other eviction action based on knowingly false charges. (The tenant first has to win their case for this rule to kick in.)
o Refusing to make necessary repairs.
o Using fighting words, threatening bodily harm, or interfering with a tenant’s privacy or peace and quiet.
o Refusing to acknowledge receipt of a lawful rent payment. (Owners can wait to cash a check if there’s a dispute pending; but they can’t pretend not to receive rent that’s lawfully paid.)
A key requirement of the law is that, for any of the above violations, the landlord must act with “bad faith,” that is, the intent to harm or annoy the tenant.
Each violation of the law can be prosecuted as a misdemeanor crime (with up to six months in jail plus thousands in fines and penalties for each violation), or a civil lawsuit (with fines of up to $10,000 per violation, attorneys’ fees and possible punitive damages). Tenants can file a complaint with the City Attorney’s Office or hire a private attorney.
For more information, contact the City Attorney’s Consumer Protection Division at (310) 458-8336, or visit smconsumer.org.
The City Attorney’s Consumer Protection Division enforces the law and educates the public about tenants’ rights, fair housing, consumer protection, and other issues. They can be reached at 310-458-8336 or smconsumer.org.