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A knock came on Sarah’s door.

Imagine her surprise when she opened the front door of her Santa Monica apartment late one evening to find her landlord waiting outside, with an entourage of three people holding clipboards and cameras.

“Mr. Harrah, what a surprise!” she said. She hadn’t seen him in years. “Is everything OK? Didn’t you get my rent check?”

“For $800?” Mr. Harrah replied. “Yes. I also got your new neighbor’s check for $3,000.” He walked past Sarah with the entourage right behind him. One of them, a gardener Sarah knew as Rudy, awkwardly held up a smartphone. Sarah realized Rudy was videotaping the visit.

“Well, I’ve been a good tenant for twenty years in a rent control apartment, so that’s my rent,” Sarah said. “What can I do for you?”

“Nothing. This is a routine smoke detector inspection,” Harrah said. After scanning the kitchen ceiling, he suddenly opened the oven door to see a half-full pan of lasagna from the night before. “Rudy, are you getting this?”

After the long, room-by-room, drawer-by-drawer inspection of her apartment, Sarah was glad to see Harrah and his team finally leave. Later that night, as she was closing a drawer Harrah had left open, Sarah suddenly realized that he had never inspected the smoke detector after all.

The next day, she got a legal notice listing many different “violations” in her unit – and confirming that the visit had never been about the detector. Sarah had already felt like her privacy was violated, but now with the legal notice she was also scared that she might be forced out of her home.

The above is a composite of actual complaints filed by Santa Monica tenants with the City Attorney’s Office. Claims of owners and managers entering apartments have increased in recent years. They raise obvious concerns about privacy – and harassment.

California law permits a landlord to enter a tenant’s unit only in a few situations:

ο in an emergency

ο to make necessary or agreed repairs or services (this includes required things like regular smoke-detector inspections)

ο to show the unit to possible buyers, tenants, or workers

ο to conduct a pre-move-out inspection

Landlords and managers can’t just enter a tenant’s unit to “inspect” it.

Even if landlords have a valid reason to enter, they still need to give the tenant advance written notice – usually at least 24 hours. The notice needs to say the date, approximate time, and purpose of the entry. (No notice is required if the landlord enters due to an emergency.)

Due to the increase in complaints about landlord entries, Santa Monica expanded its Tenant Harassment law to ban wrongful entries. The law now protects tenant privacy by prohibiting owners from entering or photographing a tenant’s home beyond the scope of a legal entry.

The City also increased the maximum penalty for each act of tenant harassment, from $1,000 to $10,000. So tenants like Sarah now have a better way to address misleading and invasive entries into their apartments.

– By Gary Rhoades

The Consumer Protection Division of the City Attorney’s Office 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.