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Rent Board Chair Fears New Water Rules Could Lead to Tenant Harassment

Santa Monica Real Estate Company, Roque and Mark

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By Jonathan Friedman
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December 15, 2014 -- In an effort to conserve water in Santa Monica, financial penalties are expected to go into effect soon for excessive use. This concerns Rent Control Board Chairman Todd Flora, who fears such rules could lead to tenant harassment.

Flora’s comments were made at Thursday’s rent board meeting when Dean Kubani from the City’s Office of Sustainability and the Environment made a presentation on the proposed Water Shortage Response Plan that will go before the City Council next month.

The plan’s purpose is to reduce water use by 20 percent during the State’s worst drought in many years. Those who exceed the maximum-allowed use could be fined an amount yet to be determined. The fines could start being assessed next summer.

“I’m concerned this is going to become a tenant harassment issue … some of the bad apple landlords are going to start getting frisky and messing with folks,” Flora said.

He added that he was especially concerned because Kubani’s presentation included a statement that 13 percent of the water use in Santa Monica comes from leaks.

“I don’t want landlords to be able to pass through expenses to tenants for a leak [and] claiming it’s not a leak, which we’ve had some bad apple landlords say,” Flora said.

Tracy Condon, the rent board’s executive director, said that in the early 1990s when there was another severe drought, the board approved what she called “pass-through provisions.”

Under these provisions, if penalties were assessed, landlords had to provide proof that they had made efforts to install conservation-control features such as low-flow toilets and showerheads.

Condon said she hoped similar provisions would be approved this time, which she said would protect tenants.

In a related issue, the council will consider proposed changes to the City’s Tenant Harassment Ordinance on Tuesday.

The proposed changes include some technical language, but also increasing the penalty for violating the ordinance from “the current fixed sum of $1,000 to an amount of up to $10,000.”

“The new rule would give courts important discretion to award various amounts of penalties depending on the severity of the case, rather than the single fixed amount under current law,” City Attorney Marsha Moutrie wrote in a report to the council.

An additional proposed change calls for a separate penalty for ordinance violations committed against elderly and disabled tenants.

“Staff has noticed that these vulnerable segments of the population are especially susceptible to being harassed out of their apartments and entitled to increased protection under the law,” Moutrie wrote.

Moutrie has also proposed a new law that would “increase protections for tenants who receive buyout offers from their property owners.” 

She wrote that the added protection is needed because some landlords have used unfair tactics to remove long-term tenants from units via buyouts so they could be replaced by people who would pay market rates.

“Anecdotal evidence indicates that many buyout negotiations are not conducted at arms-length, and landlords sometimes employ high-pressure tactics or intimidation to induce tenants to sign the agreements,” Moutrie wrote.

She added, “These tactics sometimes result in tenants entering into buyout agreements without a full understanding of their rights. The buyouts vary widely in amounts and, in some cases, are even below minimum relocation benefits which are required to be paid for all no-fault evictions.”

Under the proposal,  buyout offers would have to be in writing, landlords would be required to give tenants a written disclosure of their rights before making the offers, buyout agreements would have to be filed with the rent board and tenants would have a 30-day period to rescind agreements.

Also, tenants “and others” could bring a civil action to challenge alleged rule violations.

Council members asked City staff in September to explore how to further protect tenants from harassment.

At that meeting, Moutrie was blunt that new rules could only do so much. She said the financial incentive for landlords to get long-term tenants to leave was too high.

“It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t continue the good fight to the extent that we can,” Moutrie said. “But it is raising false hopes if the council tells people that if you change what our harassment law says, [harassment] is going to stop.”

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