By Anastasia Foster
I read the “Bathtub Treatment” story in this paper with great interest last weekend, and it got me to thinking about the SMRR Hotline. For exactly 40 years this April, Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights has been tackling the issues facing renters, and perhaps no action of theirs (outside of helping implement rent control in the first place and supporting candidates who support rent control) has been more impactful than the venerated SMRR Hotline. I know, because I’ve worked that line.
The hotline has been run entirely by volunteers, 52 weeks a year for 27 years. That’s pretty remarkable. It works like this: There is a telephone line maintained by SMRR. Volunteers take a two week shift every four months, during which they dial into an answering system and retrieve the calls. They log the messages, consult with SMRR leadership and mentors if necessary, then call the person back at the arranged time or range of time left in the message. It’s up to each volunteer whether they choose to remain anonymous or not. After all, it’s their time and their phone number they are calling back from. The reason for the messaging system is to protect the volunteers’ privacy while still helping the callers, and it’s worked quite well for 27 years. How many callers? I’m so glad you asked.
When I last worked the hotline, back before I was on the Rent Control Board, I logged 2-3 calls per day, every day for two weeks. That’s about the average, though it can spike to over 5 calls per day in election season or during contentious times over the years. Some calls were quickly resolved with a little or a lot of information or a referral to the right spot, but some were emotional and complex and took multiple calls to help resolve. For the life of the hotline, that’s well over 25,000 calls. 25,000 concerns, questions or fears.
What do people call about? Well, bathtubs, for one. Sometimes it is lighter fare, like questions about rent levels or roommates or pets. Other times, those calls are intense. I vividly remember an elderly woman who called during my last shift. She broke down in tears while leaving her message, and the calls were very difficult. Her adult daughter who had been on the lease as a child had to move back in with her to help document the harassment she was suffering, and I spoke with her several times to coach her through that process. Other calls were frantic tenants with a three-day notice on their door on a Friday afternoon. For one call, I enlisted the help of a translator. So, how do volunteers know how to handle these complicated calls?
When you volunteer to be on the hotline, you get to meet Michael. Michael Tarbet has been running this hotline for most of its 27 years. He knows more about Rent Control and landlord/tenant law than most of us ever will. He insists that you go through hours of training before he’ll trust you to answer or to triage people’s questions. We leave these training sessions armed with a huge folder full of resources, phone numbers, websites and information.
The hotline has rules. We analyze the situation, then we hand out various pieces of non-legal advice and information on the resources available for certain situations. Black mold or rats? County Health. Rent amount doesn’t match the mailer you received? Rent Control. Excessive construction? Rent Control and code enforcement. Your landlord looked at you in a way you didn’t like? Sorry to hear that. Refusal to accept checks or illegal uses of your neighboring unit? City Attorney and code enforcement. Roommate struggles or your deposit wasn’t returned? Call a private attorney or legal aid. Just need someone to listen and offer practical advice from having had years of experience hearing these kinds of problems? Sure. We’re here. By the end of the call, at the very least, you’ll know what your next steps should be. And, yes … Beth at Rent Control is amazing. That agency works very hard at serving the public, landlord and tenant alike.
I loved working the hotline, and someday, when I’m no longer on the Rent Board, I’ll go back to it. Serving on the Board brings that experience full circle. I now get to do the policy work that is informed by the real-world experiences of the tenants on the other end of that line.
Whomever is working the line this shift…thank you…and get ready. I’ll bet you’re about to receive a few new calls.
The SMRR Hotline number is 310-394-0848.
Anastasia Foster, Santa Monica Rent Control Board Commissioner