At Tuesday’s meeting, the Santa Monica City Council approved a series of changes to the city’s renter laws to protect renters from “drastic rent increases, unjust evictions and harassment,” per a press release from the city. Census data estimates that nearly ¾ of Santa Monica’s residents are renters.
The approved amendments will take effect 30 days after the second reading of the ordinances, which will take place at the council meeting scheduled for Feb. 13.
Much of the debate at Council was centered around two issues. The first was how to best protect renters from accepting “predatory buyouts” and the second on whether or not these protections would hamper landlords ability to maintain their units and collect rent from those unable (or unwilling) to pay rent.
The definition of a “predatory buyout” is when a landlord offers a tenant, oftentimes in a rent controlled unit, money to have them vacate their unit so they can upgrade it and put it on the market at a higher rate. Oftentimes this creates a new revenue stream for the landlord, but the money doesn’t go very far for the renter.
“$40,000 might seem like a lot of money to someone who is poorer,” explained Councilmember Oscar de la Torre. “But a year or two later, that money is dried up and they can’t make their new rent…this could lead to someone (who was stably housed) becoming homeless.”
“By preventing evictions, we can prevent homelessness,” said Councilmember Gleam Davis, echoing public speakers earlier in the evening.
City staff stated they were working on outreach to better inform renters of their rights when buyout offers are made and the anti-harassment changes also strengthens their rights in negotiations.
During question and answer Mayor Phil Brock, who is a landlord, is concerned that the new rules would allow for renters to live free for five months between when a landlord could file for eviction (a renter must miss a second consecutive month of payment under the current rule) and three months for the eviction process.
“Corporate landlords, they have bank. Small business owners, they don’t. That extra month could be a burden,” said Brock. Noting that it would take time for a unit to be ready for market after eviction, “It could be half a year before a landlord can start making rent again.”
To that point, de la Torre suggested later that the city create a Tenant Eviction Protection Fund that would allow the city to help tenants that were behind on their rent avoid eviction. This would also allow landlords the ability to recoup at least some of their lost rent without going through a six month wait before a non-paying tenant could be evicted and replaced.
City Manager David White responded that a program similar to what de la Torre suggested is being worked on by staff to be unveiled later this year as is a “right to counsel” program for renters facing eviction or harassment.
Despite his concerns, Brock voted for and applauded the measure for protecting not just tenants, but the Santa Monica community as a whole.
“Renters make up the majority of our Santa Monica community, and many have called this city home for years,” Brock said in a statement released by the city. “It is critically important that families who make up the fabric of our city have the ability to stay here.”
A statement from the city outlined the changes that will occur when these amendments become law:
- Financial assistance for constructive evictions: amendments to the Tenant Relocation Code will add five additional grounds under which tenants can receive permanent relocation financial assistance, including if:
- their housing is not covered under state or local law on excessive rent increases and their landlord imposes an increase of more than five percent plus inflation, or ten percent, whichever is lower;
- they are forced to move because their living situation is not tenable, including if they’ve been displaced for six months or more or if a building official orders relocation because the housing is unhabitable.
- Protections against excessive rent increases: an amendment to the Tenant Protection Code would bar landlords from imposing excessive rent increases that substantially exceed the market rate, a tactic sometimes used to influence tenants to move out, in effect circumventing the requirement for the landlord to have just cause for eviction.
- Further strengthening anti-discrimination rules: amendments to the Housing Anti-Discrimination Code will prohibit discrimination based on housing status and bar landlords from refusing to make basic repairs required by the Santa Monica Housing Authority to participate in the Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher program.
- Added protections from harassment: amendments to the Tenant Harassment Code to clarify and expand the types of actions that constitute harassment, including:
- changing locks and doors to evict a tenant
- refusing to accept rent payments
- imposing excessive or unlawful rent increases and
- retaliation against a tenant for reporting a violation
The amendments also outline examples of prohibited coercion and intimidation, including:
- refusing to cooperate with a tenant’s request to lawfully replace an occupant who has moved out
- repeatedly offering to buy a tenant out after having been informed the tenant does not want to be bought out
The amendments increase the maximum penalty for harassment from $10,000 to $20,000 per violation.
- Extending protections to tenants in non-rent-controlled units: amendments include extending buyout agreement protections to tenants in non-rent-controlled multi-family housing subject to local just cause eviction protections. Any buyout agreement — when a tenant agrees to move out of their unit in exchange for money or a waiver of rent — must be for at least the amount required by the Tenant Relocation Code, and the new rules allow tenants to cite a landlord’s failure to file a buyout agreement with the city as a defense against an eviction.
“What has kept our city so diverse is our rent control,” stated Vice-Mayor Lana Negrete. “We need to remember that we are talking about the ability to keep a roof over your head, feed your kids, and still live in a city like Santa Monica.”
In addition to the code amendments listed above, the City Council directed staff, in consultation with the city’s Rent Control Board, to draft a charter amendment to go to the voters that would prohibit evictions for tenants with small rental debts and evictions based on a tenant making authorized alterations to their unit without a city permit.