Housing: The City Attorney’s office has worked on a variety of fair housing issues. Courtesy image

It has been fifty-four years this month since the passage of The Fair Housing Act of 1968, and discrimination-free housing is still a critical factor needed for the general health and welfare of the Santa Monica community.  

Fair housing outreach, pioneering laws, and vigorous enforcement all help to combat housing discrimination in its many forms and to protect the housing stability of the City’s tenants, especially the most vulnerable. On behalf of the City, the Public Rights Division (PRD) of the City Attorney’s Office continues with these efforts and commemorates Fair Housing Month.

Fair Housing Outreach Efforts

The federal, state and Santa Monica fair housing laws prohibit discrimination in the rental of housing. Fair housing’s protected classes include race, national origin, disability, gender, families, source of income, sexual orientation, and many others. For at least the past two decades worth of Aprils, the PRD has celebrated the Fair Housing Act by launching campaigns that include public forums such as workshops and symposiums, public service advertisements, Daily Press columns, and a fair housing poster contest among local students.

Fair housing workshops and forums: The PRD commemorated the 54th anniversary of the Fair Housing Act of 1968 with a virtual Fair Housing Workshop on Tuesday, April 26. The online workshop covered several topics, including reasonable accommodations for tenants with disabilities, the City’s Right to Return program, pandemic-related issues in fair housing, and source-of-income discrimination laws which protect Section 8 voucher-holders and users of rental assistance. 

The PRD has planned and hosted such workshops for each April since 2007. Over the years, hundreds of tenants and housing providers have attended. The workshops have covered a range of fair housing topics such as protections for Section 8 voucher-holders, immigrants, and families with children, along with reasonable accommodations for tenants with disabilities. 

The workshops have also featured a dynamic variety of speakers, including from the Santa Monica Rent Control Board staff, tenants’ rights attorneys from the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles (LAFLA) and Housing Rights Center (HRC), landlord attorneys, and disability support groups such as the Disability Community Resource Center (DCRC). The PRD’s workshops continued even through the pandemic, with a switch to virtual settings. 

The staff have also made fair housing presentations to other local and regional groups. Just since April of 2020, they have presented or even co-hosted housing rights events sponsored by Santa Monica Rent Control Board, the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, Western Center for Law & Poverty, Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights, Fair Housing Council of San Diego, ACLU of Southern California, WISE & Healthy Aging, St. Joseph’s Center, and the Santa Monica Committee for Racial Justice. 

Student Poster Contest: Except for the pandemic years, the PRD has sponsored a fair housing poster contest every year for at least two decades. One purpose is to have elementary and junior high students begin early-in-life conversations with their teachers and parents about fair housing rights and responsibilities. Most years, more than 300 students participate by creating a poster with the year’s theme, such as Fair Housing Opens Doors.

Public Service Messages: The PRD has frequently published large full-color fair housing awareness displays. The ads feature the winning posters by Santa Monica students.

The Public Rights Division has also produced Follow John to Fair Housing, an innovative public service video about fair housing rights in which animators brought to life one of the student’s posters. And ever since its creation, Follow John has had a life of its own, running on City TV and with over 8000 views on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ttGwtZHLPH8 and over 14,000 views on Facebook. 

Newspaper Columns About Fair Housing: The PRD staff have written and published over thirty columns about fair housing rights and responsibilities in the Santa Monica Daily Press and in the legal newspaper, The Los Angeles Daily Journal. The columns’ topics have ranged from the legislative history of the Civil Rights Act (aka The Fair Housing Act) of 1968 (“The Fair Housing Act’s Long and Stormy Trip”) to fair housing in COVID time (“Pandemic Heightens Importance of Housing Rights in Santa Monica”).

The City’s comprehensive multi-prong approach to fair housing outreach helps prevent housing discrimination from occurring and increases reporting when it does occur. 

Fair Housing Laws and Orders

The City’s Municipal Code includes three sets of ordinances that help protect Santa Monica residents from housing discrimination, some of which have been pioneering laws influencing the rest of the state and country. 

The Housing Anti-Discrimination Ordinance: This law, found at Santa Monica Municipal Code chapter 4.28, prohibits various types of housing discrimination—such as refusal to rent, differential treatment, discriminatory statements—on the basis of disability, age, source of income, parenthood, pregnancy, or the potential or actual occupancy of a minor child.

In 2015, as an affordable housing measure, the City added Source of Income as a protected class and then added an extra layer of protection with a pioneering definition for Source of Income. For the first time in Santa Monica and in California, the fair housing law expressly protected recipients of rental assistance such as Section 8. 

Santa Monica was one of the first cities in the country to adopt a law that expressly protects Section 8 participants. The PRD drafted the law, successfully defended that law against a lawsuit by the Apartment Owners Association of Greater Los Angles (AAGLA), and then began enforcing it (often working closely with LAFLA and the Santa Monica Housing Authority) to turn dozens of housing providers’ no’s into a yes. Many Section 8 voucher holders have either escaped homelessness or been able to stay in Santa Monica thanks to the City’s law. In 2019, the California legislature began consulting with the PRD about its enforcement and decided to amend California law to also protect Section 8 voucher-holders, beginning in 2020. 

The Tenant Harassment Ordinance (THO): The THO prohibits landlords from various types of conduct made in bad faith. The prohibitions, found at S.M.M.C. section 4.56.020, include attempts made in bad faith to do the following: to refuse repairs, cut off services, abuse right to enter a tenant’s home, attempt to coerce or intimidate or defraud a tenant to vacate the unit, interfere with privacy, interfere with the quiet use and enjoyment of the unit, or attempt a baseless eviction.

While the protections in this section apply generally to protect all protected classes from housing discrimination, the THO has a unique fair housing prong that borrows the state and federal fair housing laws to allow the City and the CAO to pursue bad faith housing discrimination against all protected classes for any type of unlawful housing discrimination. 

As with its decision to protect Section 8 recipients from housing discrimination, the Santa Monica City Council was a pioneer in the fight against tenant harassment. In 1995, Santa Monica became one of the very first cities to adopt such an anti-harassment law. Since then, many cities and countries have adopted very similar laws, including recent adoptions by the cities of Los Angeles and Culver City. 

The Tenant Protection Ordinance: Found at S.M.M.C. section 4.27.050, this innovative law protects teachers and students from being evicted during the school year and thus prevents disruptions to school. 

Emergency Eviction Moratorium: In response to the pandemic and economic shutdown that affected many tenants’ ability to pay rent, the CAO’s Public Rights Division helped draft one of the nation’s very first eviction moratoriums and then conducted outreach and enforcement for that moratorium throughout the emergency period. As such housing crises invariably include a disproportionate and adverse impact on protected classes such as race and disability, the moratorium was no doubt itself a fair housing measure

“Santa Monica has enacted innovative, comprehensive and outstanding tenant protection laws beyond what almost any other city has done for its residents,” said LAFLA senior attorney Denise McGranahan. “Santa Monica enforces its laws through its City Attorney’s office and a network of agencies. Our work at LAFLA—to prevent homelessness and to help provide Santa Monica tenants with fair and habitable housing—has been dependent upon the array of these critical tenant protection laws”

Investigations and Enforcement

The PRD takes fair housing complaints from Santa Monica residents. For the past two years, the top two protected classes identified in these complaints have been source of income and disability. Most of the cases are resolved informally, using demand letters, calls, and meetings to either to persuade the need for a change in what the landlord is doing or to conclude that there is insufficient evidence of a fair housing violation. However, if there is sufficient evidence of ongoing fair housing violations and the landlord has refused to correct the problem, then the PRD often files a lawsuit in court to enforce the fair housing laws. 

Here are examples of the fair housing cases litigated in the past two years by the CAO’s Public Rights Division:

• A Santa Monica landlord allegedly rented exclusively to young female students, then regularly used his key to walk into their home without notice. The PRD obtained a preliminary injunction preventing the conduct and then a $100,000 award for the tenants and City.

• A landlord allegedly engaged in a campaign of unfair demands and rules to make life exceedingly difficult for a single mother and her severely disabled daughter. The PRD obtained seven injunctions against the landlord, including one that prohibited the landlord from coming within fifty feet of her rental property. The case goes to trial in October of 2022.

• A Santa Monica landlord (main tenant) allegedly threatened to report her subleasing tenants to the police based on their immigration status if they did not pay a higher rent or leave. The PRD obtained a first-of-its-kind injunction that prevents the defendant from subleasing apartments.

• Two different local landlords have allegedly refused to allow their disabled, senior, and severely rent-burdened tenants to use a Section 8 voucher to help pay the rent. The PRD has filed lawsuits in both cases and obtained an agreement pending trial in one in which the tenant only pays what would have been her share of the rent under the voucher pending trial.

• A landlord harassed a single mother with children by, among other things, refusing to make much needed repairs. The PRD and the tenant together obtained a permanent injunction that requires the landlord to hire a professional property manager. The landlord also paid $200,000 to the City and tenant.

• A landlord allegedly committed housing discrimination based on a tenant’s race and national origin discrimination. Among other violations, the City alleged that the landlord made a discriminatory and racist remark to a tenant from Japan. For that remark, the City obtained a stipulated judgment for $19,000 and a permanent injunction against the landlord this month.

As mentioned above, many of the fair housing cases opened and closed in the past two years have been Section 8 discrimination cases in which housing providers eventually agreed to take the applications of voucher holders after initially saying no to the voucher. The PRD, often working with LAFLA, has resolved dozens of these cases in which the Section 8 voucher holder either got a new home or the severe rent-burden in their existing home was lifted. In one case in which PRD and LAFLA staff intervened, 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 passage of a bold source of income anti-discrimination law here in 2015 led to other cities and the state enacting similar protections,” said McGranahan. “With the collaboration of the City Attorney’s office, we have successfully assisted at least 15 voucher-holders in the past two years, to the benefit of the City’s goals to maintain diversity and reduce homelessness.”

Other Efforts by PRD

There are three other projects by the PRD works that either directly or indirectly support fair housing. First, the division works with the Housing Division to help monitor compliance with the City’s affordable housing laws and filed deed restrictions. As we have said before, affordable housing for people of all walks of life is a crucial piece of a community’s fair housing puzzle. The division has also filed several first-of-their-kind lawsuits to enforce affordable housing rules and restrictions. 

Second, the PRD helped spearhead outreach to all Santa Monica residents (both tenants and landlords) to help make them aware of how to apply for state’s COVID-19 rental assistance.  To date over $28 million dollars has been paid to Santa Monica tenants and landlords from the State’s COVID-19 Rental Assistance Program. 

Third, and 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 40 Santa Monica tenants facing eviction obtain full-scope legal representation. Another 42 have received limited scope services. (For more information on how to apply for this service, go to StayHousedLA.org or call 888-694-0040.)

In conclusion, fifty-four years after the Fair Housing Act of 1968, it continues to be a challenging time for fair housing in our community. The Public Rights Division will continue to work with other City divisions and community partners to do all we can to keep the public aware of fair housing rights and obligations, and to use enforcement of our laws to help stop housing discrimination in Santa Monica whenever it appears.

Gary Rhoades is a Deputy City Attorney in the Public Rights Division of the 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 consumer.mailbox@santamonica.gov.