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Council Directs Staff to Tighten Santa Monica's Reoccupancy Law

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By Jorge Casuso

August 16, 2019 -- The City Council directed staff on Tuesday to find ways to deter Santa Monica landlords from illegally renting rent control units that have been removed from the market.

The motion by Councilmember Kevin McKeown, which was approved unanimously without discussion, did not indicate if the practice is widespread.

"As a City of mostly renters, Santa Monicans are threatened by many things," McKeown said, noting that notable among them is the 1985 Ellis Act that allows California rent control landlords to get out of the rental business.

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Landlords who plan to reoccupy their buildings must obtain an occupancy permit from the City that does not allow them to charge rent.

McKeown said the item is "crucial" because some landlords have acted illegally by "surruptitiously" re-renting the removed units.

"Sometimes they do that through subterfuge and have the rents paid surruptitiously and claim that actually no one is paying rent on the building," McKeown said.

"We've had some difficulty apprehending people doing that and enforcing our existing laws," he said.

The Council's action comes ten years after a crackdown was initiated at the request of the Rent Control Board, which created a task force “to monitor withdrawn properties to ensure that owners adhere to use-restrictions imposed by the withdrawal.”

The reoccupancy permits posted on the City's website show there have been 20 permits granted in the last three years, most of them for smaller buildings.

McKeown's motion, which drew no public speakers, asks staff to review the re-occupancy application form, the penalties imposed on violators and the City's power to press criminal charges.

"Some of the fines are so small, they present no deterent," he said. "It looks like we can increase those fines."

The motion also asks staff to explore if criminal charges can be brought against violators and if the City has the power to gather evidence such as rent checks deposited by the landlords.

The Rent Control Board's General Counsel Stephen Lewis said reoccupancies do not seem to pose a threat to Santa Monica's rental market.

"In many cases, quite a few of the propoerties Ellised were small properties that had been used as single-family homes at one time," Lewis told the Lookout.

"There are very few cases of multi-unit properties that people Ellis and the family moves in," he said.

McKeown's motion asks the City Attorney to "bring back to Council as soon as possible any ordinance amendments and/or resolutions necessary to implement recommended actions."

Councilmembers Ted Winterer and Ana Jara jumped at the chance to second the motion, with Jara winning out.

During Tuesday's hearing there was no mention of the 2009 crackdown by the City ("Who’s Living in Those Ellis Units? Santa Monica Wants to Know," June 3, 2009).

During the crackdown, City inspectors monitored 73 apartment buildings and found that some 30 buildings showed signs of being occupied -- an active water meter, mail being delivered or someone spotted inside, City officials said at the time.

More than a dozen of the targeted owners said they or family members or friends were legally occupying the units by not paying rent.

Most of the others did not have reoccupancy permits and obtained them, while a few hired local attorneys to fight back.

Deputy City Attorney Adam Radinsky said at the time that “it’s possible (the buildings) are owner occupied and not re-rented.”

As of January 2010, a total of 79 reoccupancy permits have been granted by the City, records show.

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