The new member of the Rent Control Board sees a growing tenant harassment problem in Santa Monica and wants to strengthen the City’s power to address it.
Veterans rights attorney Naomi Sultan was sworn in Tuesday, joining four other board members, three of whom are also attorneys. She said she wants to immediately start reevaluating the City’s approach to preventing and enforcing laws against tenant harassment. Landlords are harassing tenants more and more as property values continue skyrocketing because they can raise rents when rent-controlled tenants move out.
Sultan said she has heard of landlords starting construction on their buildings without offering tenants another place to live or refusing to fix maintenance issues. Other actions prohibited under Santa Monica’s 1996 Tenant Harassment Ordinance include lying to make a tenant leave, taking away services that come with the apartment and abusing the right to enter an apartment.
“They really have a financial incentive to turnover tenants, especially tenants who have been there longer, which means elderly folks who often have disabilities are particularly vulnerable,” she said.
Sultan said the board needs to both develop new policies to protect tenants from harassment and assess whether Code Enforcement, which investigates tenant harassment, has enough resources to adequately enforce the law. This could mean adding more staff to the department or creating a separate group to focus on enforcing harassment laws.
“I absolutely agree with this,” said board member Caroline Torosis. “I don’t think Code Enforcement has the appropriate tools or support from the City Attorney to handle tenant harassment cases.”
Sultan said she is also looking to protect rent-controlled housing by shoring up the loopholes in the city’s short-term rental law. City Council will be exploring that issue in a study session at its Dec. 18 meeting.
“Companies are able to use them to house either short-term employees or rent them as extended hotel stays to wealthy folks even though they’re supposed to be rent-controlled units for folks here in the long term,” she said. “We need to look at changing some of the definitions within the law because corporations know exactly what they’re allowed to do under loopholes created by the law.”
Santa Monica Municipal Code describes corporate housing as a residence designed for use by individuals who will reside on the property for a minimum stay of at least 30 consecutive days, but who otherwise intend their occupancy to be temporary.
Buildings that include certain amenities, like maid service and furnishings, is also considered corporate housing.
While Sultan is aiming to hold more landlords accountable to the law, she wants to ensure they are treated fairly and given due process. She also hopes to hold more events like the annual Landlord/Tenant Forum, which was held earlier this month, to try to prevent disputes between landlords and tenants.