Most Santa Monica landlords are happy when tenants pay their rent on time. However, a few property owners have been known to play games with tenants – refusing to accept rent and then pretending they didn’t receive it. Some landlords try to do this so they can force tenants out of rent-controlled apartments and re-rent them at much higher, market-level rates.

That was the case with one pair of Santa Monica landlords, who refused to sign for a tenant’s certified mail containing the rent payment, then tried to evict the tenant for non-payment of rent. The tenant had the lowest rent in the building ($598), less than a quarter of some of his market-rate neighbors. The landlords also falsely accused the tenant of subletting, and were aggressive and hostile to the tenant when they met face-to-face.

The City of Santa Monica filed a lawsuit against these landlords and won after a two-year legal battle. The landlords ultimately paid a steep price for their bad behavior – a $20,000 fine for violating Santa Monica’s Tenant Harassment Law. They also agreed to a permanent court order barring future harassment against their tenants.

The Tenant Harassment Law bans many kinds of harassing behavior by landlords, including refusing to acknowledge lawful rent payments.

But what is a lawful rent payment, and how should it be delivered? California law says rent payments are generally governed by the lease agreement between the landlord and tenant, whether it’s written or oral. However, in some cases, the landlord is allowed to change the method or delivery of rent if the tenant is given 30 days notice in writing (60 days for rent increases greater than 10 percent). One common change is directing tenants to pay rent by mail instead of to a resident manager or drop box. Although these types of changes are often upsetting to tenants, they are generally lawful.

Regardless of the rental agreement, there are some hard-and-fast rules under state law for rent payments. The landlord must provide a method of payment that is neither cash nor electronic transfer (except under certain circumstances such as when the tenant has bounced a check, when the landlord can demand cash for up to three months). The landlord must also disclose either the address where rent is to be paid, or the bank account to which rent can be paid. If the landlord doesn’t allow rent to be personally delivered, the rent is presumed to be delivered on the date it is mailed, as long as the tenant can show proof of mailing.

The Santa Monica City Attorney’s Consumer Protection Division is a resource for both landlords and tenants seeking information about rent payment and other housing issues. If you’re having problems with rent payments – or have questions about other Santa Monica landlord/tenant issues, contact the City Attorney’s Consumer Protection Division at 310-458-8336, or visit smconsumer.org.

– By Andrea Cavanaugh