The COVID pandemic and its economic fallout have continued to alter the housing rights landscape in Santa Monica as many families still struggle, despite trends toward improvement.
According to the City’s COVID-19 Response Dashboard, in Santa Monica there have been 6,978 cases, with 42 new cases reported in the past four days, and 189 deaths reported, all as of November 18, 2021. Los Angeles County’s unemployment rate is 9.8% (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, as of October 22, 2021), and with some eviction moratoriums lifting, eviction filings in the County are beginning to increase.
The good news is that Santa Monica has a vaccination rate of 88% for the population over 16, and that the wave of evictions is not as high as had been feared. Also, under Santa Monica’s and Los Angeles County’s most recent emergency orders, some eviction protections remain for Santa Monica tenants until January 31, 2022. For more information about these ongoing protections, see the City’s Eviction Moratorium Summary and FAQ (https://www.santamonica.gov/coronavirus-eviction-moratorium).
To help hold the line against that feared wave of eviction and to stay ahead of the pandemic’s effects, the Public Rights Division of the Santa Monica City Attorney’s Office (PRD) has increased its already considerable efforts in community outreach, enforcement, and proactive projects.
Community Outreach: The PRD spearheaded a large team effort to increase awareness and the number of applications among Santa Monica tenants and landlords for California’s COVID-19 rental assistance program. The program plays a crucial role in minimizing pandemic-related evictions: until March 31, 2022, the state law prohibits a court from issuing a summons in an eviction case unless the landlord declares under penalty of perjury that he or she applied for government rental assistance and was rejected; and provides a copy of the final rejection. Even after March 31, 2022, tenants who can pay all the rent owed with the help of rental assistance have more time to pay to avoid eviction.
Since the City’s outreach campaign began, applications for relief have doubled and the City’s tenants and landlords have now received a total of over $21 million in rent relief.
Given the rental assistance program’s importance, the PRD with other City divisions such as Community Services and the Office of Communications, and with community partners such as Santa Monica Rent Control, Legal Aid Foundation (LAFLA), Disability Community Rights Center (DCRC), Housing Right Center (HRC), and Santa Monica Renters’ Rights (SMRR), has as a team launched the outreach. They delivered information and presentations in the following workshops and social media campaigns:
• A community education campaign to alert tenants and owners of the availability of state rent relief funds in situations where COVID-19 impacts prevent the tenant from paying some or all of the rent. The City delivered information about state rent relief via postcards, door hangers, flyers, social media, reaching over 55,000 Santa Monica households. As those door hangers say, for more information about and to apply for the state’s COVID rental assistance program, go to housing.ca.gov/covid_rr. or call the California COVID-19 Rent Relief Center at 833-430-2122.
• A series of fair housing and COVID-19 webinars hosted by LAFLA, the Western Center on Law & Poverty, and the San Diego Fair Housing Council.
• A fair housing webinar in April (National Fair Housing Month), hosted by the PRD.
• The PRD and the Rent Control Board are co-hosting their annual Landlord/Tenant Forum on December 14, 2021. To register for this free workshop, go to https://forms.gle/tH7Up2LnE5WBP46i6.
• A webinar co-hosted with LAFLA on source of income discrimination (which includes discrimination against Section 8 voucher holders) for case managers at local non-profit agencies such as WISE and St. Joseph’s Center.
• Housing rights presentations to both the Southern California ACLU and the Committee for Racial Justice.
Enforcement. The Public Rights Division continues to investigate and litigate housing rights and consumer protection cases. Regarding housing rights, during 2021, the PRD has filed first-of-their-kind cases and obtained judgments and settlements. The 2021 court filings and case resolutions include:
• Filed a fair housing lawsuit against a Santa Monica landlord for housing discrimination based on a tenant’s race and national origin discrimination. Among other violations, the City alleges that the landlord made discriminatory remarks to a tenant from Japan.
• Obtained a $100,000 settlement against a Santa Monica landlord who had allegedly entered a rental home on numerous occasions without notice or justification. The City had previously obtained an injunction against the landlord.
• Obtained a stipulated judgment and permanent court-ordered injunction in a tenant harassment and fair housing case against a landlord who tried to use their subtenants’ immigration status against them to force them out of their home. The judgment is believed to be one of the first in a lawsuit using the Immigrant Tenant Protection Act.
• Filed a lawsuit against local landlords for tenant harassment based on the landlords’ refusals to make repairs.
• The City, with the Rent Control Board, filed a lawsuit against owners for violations of the Ellis Act, Rent Control regulations, the City’s Tenant Harassment Ordinance, and other local and state laws. The lawsuit alleges that the owners and managers of a residential rental property unlawfully converted what had once been a rent-controlled multi-family residential apartment building with long-term tenants, into a building that is now used for unlawful vacation rentals and other unlawful rental activity.
• Resolved another series of Section 8 discrimination cases when the owners and property managers agreed to take the applications of voucher holders. Since our March column on this topic (“Pandemic Heightens Importance of Housing Rights” Santa Monica Daily Press March 2, 2021) the City, often working with LAFLA, has resolved another six of these cases in which the Section 8 voucher holder got a new home. In one case in which PRD staff intervened, along with LAFLA, the mother of two children was finally able to move her family from a shelter on skid row and into a beautiful new apartment in Santa Monica.
The PRD also has litigated one of the first fair housing cases filed against an owner who refused to accept the Section 8 voucher of an existing tenant.
• With demand letters, PRD staff, working with the City’s Housing Division, persuaded two owners of affordable housing units to remove onerous terms from the leases of those units.
Right to Counsel Pilot Program. In another effort to confront the expected post-pandemic wave of eviction attempts, the City has implemented a two-year pilot Right to Counsel program. The purpose of this program is to assure that low-income tenants caught in the squeeze created by the economic shutdowns have direct legal representation in eviction proceedings.
Under the City’s pilot program and Los Angeles County’s parallel program, StayHousedLA, LAFLA has already helped 32 Santa Monica tenants facing eviction obtain full-scope legal representation. Another 29 have received limited scope services. For more information go to StayHousedLA.org or call 888-694-0040.
This is a momentous time for tenants and owners in Santa Monica and elsewhere. The Public Rights Division and other City divisions and community partners will continue to do all we can to keep the public aware of housing rights and rental assistance, and to help assure that no tenant or family unnecessarily loses their home.
Gary Rhoades is a Deputy City Attorney in the Public Rights Division of the Santa Monica City Attorney’s Office. For housing and consumer rights issues in Santa Monica, the Public Rights Division can be reached at 310-458-8336 or at email@example.com.