LA Tenants Have New Protections From Landlords Who Harass Them
After years of debate, the Los Angeles City Council on Wednesday passed an ordinance giving renters new protections from landlords who harass them.
The ordinance lists a number of actions that could constitute harassment, including:
- Reducing the services outlined in a tenant’s lease (for example, taking away a parking space)
- Failing to perform necessary repairs
- Unlawfully entering a tenant’s unit
- Threatening physical harm
- Refusing to accept payment of rent
- Asking tenants to disclose their immigration status or threatening to report them to authorities
- Other repeated acts that “substantially interfere with or disturb the comfort, repose, peace or quiet of a tenant”
Tenants will be able to sue landlords for violating any of the provisions in the ordinance. When it comes to repairs, a tenant must notify their landlord and give them a “reasonable period of time” to make the repairs before pursuing legal action.
Tenants could be awarded up to $10,000 in damages per violation, with an additional $5,000 in damages for tenants who are disabled or age 65 and older.
Under the rules, landlords who cut off water and power to tenants — among other actions — could face misdemeanor fines of $1,000 per violation, or up to six months in jail.
Local lawmakers first proposed the idea of an anti-harassment law in early 2017. It gained momentum last year as the city dealt with COVID-19.
Housing rights advocates say they have seen a dramatic increase during the pandemic in landlords trying to informally remove tenants from their units.
"You have landlords who have harassed tenants by knocking on their doors at all hours of the night, trying to make their lives miserable," said Joe Delgado, director for the Los Angeles chapter of Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment.
"You have habitability issues that continue to be not taken care of. You have issues around physical and verbal threats. The housing crisis that existed before the pandemic has only been magnified," Delgado said.
During the pandemic, many low-income tenants lost their jobs and could no longer pay rent. State and federal laws have given them temporary protections against eviction. But tenant advocates say landlords have become more aggressive in pressuring tenants to leave without a formal eviction notice.
"The truth of the matter is, harassment happens," said Chancela Al-Mansour, executive director of the Housing Rights Center. "And the reason why it happens is because oftentimes, the penalties are not severe enough."
Landlords: 'We Just Don't Think It's Necessary'
Rental property owners say the new provisions go too far at a time when small landlords are struggling to stay afloat.
“We just don't think it's necessary,” said Cheryl Turner, president of the board of directors for the Apartment Association of Greater Los Angeles. "We do not encourage that type of behavior but we believe that state law already covers [harassment]."
Turner said, in some cases, tenants have avoided paying rent for more than a year and small landlords have had to use their own savings to keep up with mortgages on their properties.
"We're just wondering how much longer we can hold on to the properties before we are faced with issues regarding foreclosure and bankruptcy," she said.
'I Was Scared... Where Am I Going To Go?'
For some tenants, harassment can raise the specter of homelessness.
Alma Quinonez lives with her 10-year-old son in the backyard unit of a property in L.A.'s Wilmington neighborhood. She said she moved into the unit in 2019 based on a verbal rental agreement but early in the pandemic, the landlord made it clear she wanted her to leave.
Quinonez said the landlord stopped accepting her rent payments and wouldn't let her sign a written lease. The conflict escalated to the point where her utilities were temporarily shut off and she was told she'd be arrested if she didn't leave.
"It was a pandemic," she said. "I was scared. I'm like, 'Where am I going to go?'"
Quinonez said figuring out her rights was difficult and she wished the city had clear laws against harassment in place at the time.
Without explicit protections, many tenants who are facing prolonged harassment simply leave, according to housing rights advocates. They said tenants experiencing harassment are often low-income and living in rapidly gentrifying parts of Los Angeles. Many of them are paying far less than what the landlord could get by renting the unit today.
"If the apartment is rent stabilized, and the tenant has been there for a number of years, they may be paying several hundred dollars a month less than what the owner could get on the fair market," said Al-Mansour.
The new L.A. city ordinance will prevent landlords from raising the rent in any rent-controlled unit that has been vacated due to harassment by the landlord. Al-Mansour hopes taking away that profit motive will deter landlords from engaging in harassment.
Tenant Advocates Don't Love Everything About The New Law
The city council vote is a victory for housing activists who have fought for years to pass an anti-harassment ordinance in Los Angeles. Cities such as Santa Monica, West Hollywood and Oakland already have similar laws on the books.
But tenant groups say certain provisions in the law could weaken protections for renters.
For instance, the ordinance defines harassment as a landlord’s willful targeting of specific tenants through behavior that "serves no lawful purpose." Delgado said that phrase could leave many cases up to interpretation.
"If it's left up to the discretion of a judge, it's a coin toss for the tenant," he said.
For example, a tenant may feel that certain construction work in their building is being done in a deliberately intrusive and harassing way. A landlord could argue that it's lawful to carry out repairs as they see fit.
Tenant advocates also wanted the ordinance to require landlords to pay the attorney's fees of tenants who succeed in court. Instead, the ordinance says tenants "may" be awarded attorney's fees. With these uncertainties, housing rights advocates worry lawyers may be hesitant to represent low-income tenants who want to sue their landlords.
"There aren't enough attorneys out there who are able and willing to take cases pro bono or free of charge for tenants who can't afford their services," said Al-Mansour.
Still, Al-Mansour believes the ordinance will make it easier for tenants to assert their rights and defend themselves in court if they’re facing eviction.
For tenants who feel like they're being harassed, Al-Mansour recommends reaching out to local housing rights organizations through the website StayHousedLA.org.