The Rent Control Board is considering allowing tenants to challenge citations from code enforcement officers after a longtime renter was evicted for installing a trellis on her patio.
It’s a unique case, the board’s general counsel J. Stephen Lewis said, but vice chair Nicole Phillis wants to prevent it from happening again. In May, she asked the board to consider recommending that City Council prevent code violations from being used as a basis to evict rent-controlled tenants and grant tenants the ability to seek variances from the code. The board will vote Thursday whether to make such a recommendation.
“I recommend writing a strongly worded letter to City Council … calling on them to stand firmly with us and honor the city’s tradition of renter’s rights,” Phillis said in May.
The renter’s landlord received a citation after a code enforcement officer noticed the trellis that the renter had installed years before to shield her patio from the street. The officer found that the trellis violated Santa Monica’s zoning ordinance because it exceeded three and a half feet in height.
The landlord ordered the tenant to remove the trellis. When she refused, he took it down himself. She put it back up because she thought the citation had no grounds and believes the trellis is necessary for her privacy and safety.
When the landlord was cited again for the trellis, he gave the renter a three-day notice to take it down or be evicted. The renter fought the eviction for several months in court, but a judge ruled in favor of the landlord in May and she lost her apartment.
Shortly before the ruling, Phillis asked the board to consider prohibiting code violations from being used as grounds for eviction and let renters seek variances from the code.
“While there’s nothing we can change about the outcome of that judicial decision, I think this does raise the issue of whether code violations can be misused to get tenants out of rent-controlled properties,” he said. “It would make sure that tenants have standing to clear violations they may have caused.”
The board could recommend that City Council allow tenants to challenge citations, Lewis wrote in a report. He said if the renter who wanted to keep her trellis had a way to dispute the citation, she could have settled the question of whether it was illegal or not before getting caught up in an eviction case.
“It may be that the trellis on the tenant’s patio really was a code violation, and it may be that the tenant should, in all fairness, have been required to remove it,” he said. “If the tenant had had the chance to challenge the citation’s validity, that question could have been settled well before … her entire tenancy was at risk.”
The city could require a citation be sent to both the property owner and the tenant, he said. Both parties would be able to dispute it.
Lewis did not support or oppose such a policy but cautioned the board to weigh its potential consequences.
“Every new law, or change to existing law, carries with it the danger of unintended consequences, and policymakers would be wise to consider whether the risk of such consequences is outweighed by the need to solve a problem that rarely occurs,” he said.
However, Lewis recommends against allowing tenants to seek variances. He said state law does not allow cities to grant variances because the code burdens a resident or owner of a property.
“Under well-settled state law, the government may grant a zoning variance only for an exceedingly narrow set of reasons,” he said.
The RCB will meet on July 11 at 7 p.m. in City Hall.