A Year Into New Los Angeles Law to Protect Renters, City Has Taken Zero Landlords to Court
This story was originally published by Capital & Main.
A year after Los Angeles adopted an ordinance to protect renters from harassment by taking their landlords to court, the law has largely failed its purpose. The city has not provided resources to thoroughly investigate complaints filed under the law. It has yielded no criminal prosecutions against landlords. Nor has it generated the civil lawsuits by tenants that supporters of the ordinance had hoped would deter abuses.
City officials and aggrieved renters blame each other, but they do not dispute a key fact: No landlords have yet been found guilty of violating the ordinance. “We haven’t had any proven harassment cases,” a senior official at the housing department said. (The official did not want to be identified, saying that only the media desk could speak on the record for the department.)
Since the law’s adoption, more than 2,330 harassment complaints have been filed, and the city says it has resolved more than 1,700 of them. The Los Angeles Housing Department (LAHD) has not yet referred any cases to the city attorney for prosecution. Cases that aren’t referred and that can’t be investigated as a violation of other housing laws are closed.
As gentrification, rising rents and escalating homelessness continue to strain U.S. cities, L.A.’s attempt to prevent landlord abuse has become a case study in the inability of a city to protect tenants in rent-controlled housing.
Frustrated tenants who believe their landlords are trying to push them out of rent-controlled units to lure higher-paying renters say they have no recourse.
* * *
The Tenant Anti-Harassment Ordinance (TAHO), which became law on Aug. 6, 2021, sought to make abusive landlords subject to heavy fines and possible jail time. Its sponsors also intended it to enable civil lawsuits against abusive landlords.
The ordinance contains what critics say is a structural flaw that makes it practically impossible for tenants to get lawyers to represent them in civil lawsuits: The law does not guarantee lawyers reimbursement for legal fees.
“It is purely a law on paper,” said Joe Delgado, who until August was L.A. director of the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment Institute. Tenants cannot find lawyers to take their cases, while complaints submitted to the housing department have been closed by form letter, he said.
LAHD spokesperson Sandra Mendoza said in a statement that when TAHO went into effect, “No funding was approved for enforcement of the program. However, the [City] Council did approve some funding in the fiscal year 2022-23 budget, which will be used to fund staff positions for the tenant harassment program.”
The senior official at LAHD said the department was not referring cases for prosecution because it had not received any that were strong enough to merit such action.
“The truth is that harassment is really broad and subjective, and we haven’t got any strong cases,” the official said. “A lot of the things people are calling harassment are not or are misunderstandings in some way.”
“There was no staff for implementation or anything for implementation provided by the council until July 1, 2022,” the official added in a later interview. “The best that we could do was send an informational letter to the landlord.”
Asked for specifics on how the department will enforce TAHO differently with more funding, spokesperson Mendoza said in an email only that investigations will “intensify.” Anna Ortega, an assistant general manager for LAHD, said the department will look for “a pattern of abuse by the landlord in multiple cases affecting different tenants.”
“When contacted by LAHD, and being informed about the City law, we find landlords most often correct their actions,” Ortega wrote.
LAHD is preparing two cases for referral to the city attorney, according to Ortega.
In February, the City Council asked the housing department to report by June on how many cases it referred to the city attorney and how many TAHO lawsuits were filed by private attorneys. The report has not yet been delivered to the council.
The L.A. law is one of several passed in California as rents continue to rise across the state: San Francisco passed the first such law in 2008. Oakland, Berkeley, Concord, Richmond, West Hollywood and Santa Monica now all have their own tenant harassment ordinances. Because landlord abuse often leads to eviction and homelessness, tenant harassment laws can allow for early intervention in the eviction process, and that’s the kind of tool American cities may be increasingly interested in as the housing crisis spreads from the coasts to the rest of the United States.
The L.A. City Council first began work on TAHO in 2017, but it languished in the housing committee for years. When the law was finally written in 2021, a pandemic hiring freeze meant it was passed without funding for housing department investigators or city attorney prosecutors to enforce it.
This year’s budget funded four positions at LAHD and one prosecutor at the City Attorney’s Office to investigate and enforce TAHO cases, but only one position has thus far been filled — an investigator at the housing department hired in August. The City Attorney’s Office will hire its prosecutor in January.
Among other things, TAHO makes it illegal to threaten tenants with physical harm or deportation, interfere with tenant organizing, reject rental payments and falsely tell tenants they must move out.
The law also bars landlords deemed in violation of the ordinance from charging higher rent to the next renter of the property. This clause is meant to deter landlords from using harassment to drive tenants from rent-controlled apartments and then renting the same apartments out at market rates. (No landlord has received this sanction yet, the housing department said.)
Tenants groups say landlords have increasingly used harassment to steer tenants into accepting “cash for keys” buyouts, in which they are paid a lump sum in exchange for moving out. Such buyouts are legal as long as they are not coerced. TAHO makes coerced buyouts illegal.
COVID-19 eviction protections may have driven more landlords to illegally harass tenants from their units. In 2020, harassment complaints to L.A.’s Eviction Defense Network (EDN) were up 352% from the previous year. EDN Executive Director Elena Popp said without the option to evict, landlords instead tried to harass renters into leaving their units.
But TAHO failed to provide adequate means to deploy the most forceful tool for aggrieved tenants: litigation.
That’s because TAHO does not guarantee tenant lawyers their legal fees if they prevail in court. With no such incentive, private lawyers have been unwilling to take TAHO cases.
Elba Chavez is a single mother in L.A.’s Mid City neighborhood who considered suing her landlord based on TAHO. Her landlords have been rejecting her rental payments, which she says is harassment meant to drive her from her rent-controlled unit.
But she can’t find a lawyer to take her case, she said.
Chavez had lived in the apartment with her mother and sister for 30 years. Her mother and sister moved out in 2021, and then her landlord said she was not eligible to live there.
The landlords also sued her mother and sister for violating their lease agreement, arguing that they were not allowed to leave the unit to Chavez when they moved out.
If the landlords had tried to formally evict Chavez, she would have found a lawyer, according to Ghirlandi Guidetti of the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles. Pro-bono eviction defense is relatively well funded at the legal service providers partnered with the city and county to help tenants stay housed. But money for lawsuits against landlords is extremely limited.
Chavez needs a pro-bono private attorney to take her lawsuit, but none will accept her TAHO case without guarantee of payment if she wins. Her mother and sister couldn’t find a pro-bono attorney either and are fighting a lawsuit they can’t afford.
The one bedroom apartment rents for $928. The average rent for a one bedroom in Los Angeles is currently more than $2,700, according to RentCafe. Chavez now shares the unit with her son.
“I’ve gone through so many places and I just don’t know where else to go,” Chavez said.
L.A.-based tenant lawyer Frances Campbell said she is “loath to file a case that is just for tenant harassment” in Los Angeles, because it would risk working without payment.
Campbell and other attorneys say one word is to blame. The ordinance states that private attorneys “may” be awarded reimbursement if they win TAHO cases, not that they shall be awarded reimbursement.
Councilmember Nithya Raman proposed an amendment to change “may” to “shall” in a Housing Committee meeting on April 14, 2021. But Housing Committee Chair Gil Cedillo refused to debate any amendments to the legislation. Instead, he called for the City Attorney’s Office to write the final language of the bill for the committee.
“We have very capable city attorneys,” Cedillo asserted. “That will be their charge, not our charge.” (Cedillo’s office did not reply to a request for comment on the exchange.)
The city attorney went with the “may” language that didn’t guarantee attorney reimbursement. The wording was consistent with tenant harassment laws in Santa Monica and West Hollywood, Chief Assistant City Attorney David Michaelson told the housing committee on May 26.
In fact, Santa Monica and West Hollywood both use the “shall” language, and so do San Francisco, Berkeley, Richmond and Concord.
Asking the city attorney to pick between amendments is “very unusual,” said School Board Member Jackie Goldberg, who served on the City Council from 1994 to 2000. “The council does not leave it up to the city attorney to make policy.”
“We were pushing for that ‘shall,’” said Joe Donlin, director of research and policy advocacy at Strategic Actions for a Just Economy (SAJE). “We did not get that ‘shall.’”
* * *
When the housing department receives a TAHO complaint, investigators check if it can be reclassified as one of the kinds of complaints the LAHD already investigates.
Harassment complaints regarding issues in a physical unit, like a water shutoff or a broken window, would be referred to a code enforcement inspector and become a code complaint. An illegal rent increase in a rent stabilized building would be reclassified as a violation of the city’s rent control law, called the Rent Stabilization Ordinance (RSO), and assigned to an RSO investigator.
If a complaint can’t be reclassified and reassigned, the department can refer the case to the city attorney for prosecution. But if it can’t be referred for prosecution, the department sends an informational letter on TAHO to the landlord and closes the case.
The LAHD has not yet sent any TAHO cases to the city attorney. The only TAHO cases the housing department has acted on, beyond the mailing of its informational letter, are cases it could reclassify as other kinds of complaints, like nullifying an illegal rent increase or late fee. Those are cases it could have handled before TAHO became law.
No TAHO complaint has ever remained a TAHO complaint and resulted in anything but case closure.
But that’s not because the system does not work, according to the senior official at the housing department.
“We haven’t got any strong cases,” the official said. “So far, not one of those complaints has been a strong case we can take to the city attorney.”
Tenants in Boyle Heights say their case is strong, but the housing department appeared uninterested in gathering evidence.
In May, Anne Orchier and her neighbors submitted TAHO complaints against their landlord for violations that included interfering with union organizing, rejecting rental payments and issuing baseless eviction notices. The complaint was closed on Aug. 23.
Following tenant union meetings throughout the year, landlord Bruce Tehrani sent letters to tenants saying they could not hold meetings in common areas without permission and threatened them with legal action if they continued to do so, Orchier and her neighbors told the housing department. They said that he watches them through 12 cameras he installed after they went on rent strike in 2020, when some tenants were unable to pay rent because of the pandemic. Orchier said that after they began their tenant organizing, Tehrani demanded regular inspections of her unit.
When Orchier told Tehrani she wasn’t available for an inspection because she was quarantined following COVID exposure, he wrote to her, “We have noticed that you enjoy walking your dog twice daily. For example, last night you walked your dog for 31 minutes from 9 p.m. to 9:31 p.m.”
Orchier said this monitoring of her activity is a violation of her right to privacy under TAHO. Tehrani denies harassing his tenants and insisted to Capital & Main that this wasn’t spying.
Orchier told housing department investigator Luis Gonzalez about the dog-walking email in a follow-up phone call on her TAHO complaint. She asked where to submit the email as evidence, she said, but Gonzalez never got back to her. While she waited, Tehrani’s lawyer sent a letter to Boyle Heights tenant organizer Leonardo Vilchis, accusing him of trespassing at the property and threatening him with a $1,000 fine and potential jail time.
The complaints the neighbors submitted to LAHD were meant to be an initial batch, Orchier said, and represented only a “fraction” of what they wanted to file. On the phone in early June, Gonzalez could not answer questions about how to organize the additional complaints and told Orchier he would get back to her on how to proceed, she said.
“I was never able to get a hold of him,” Orchier said. “I left him a bunch of voicemails and never heard back.”
Gonzalez did not reply to a request for comment. LAHD Assistant General Manager Anna Ortega said investigators tried to call Orchier twice, couldn’t reach her and closed the case. Orchier said she only has one missed call from Gonzalez in August and she called him right back.
The next time Orchier heard from Gonzalez, it was in a voicemail informing her the department had sent its informational letter to Tehrani, she said.
Even when the housing department can investigate the content of a harassment complaint, like a water shutoff or an illegal rent increase, those issues are reclassified as separate cases and the harassment case is closed, according to ACCE organizer Hassan Zuniga. LAHD’s Ortega said that the harassment side of such reclassified complaints are closed on a “case by case basis.”
In Downtown Los Angeles, jeweler Angel Diaz submitted a TAHO complaint for multiple issues including a mysterious smell in his apartment so pungent it gives him nosebleeds. His landlord, who could not be reached for comment, will not fix whatever is causing the smell.
LAHD reclassified Diaz’s harassment complaint as a code complaint and sent code inspectors to Diaz’s apartment. They cited his landlord with code violations, but Diaz’s harassment complaints were closed. Inspectors also said they couldn’t address the smell and referred him to the Department of Public Health, Diaz explained in Spanish through ACCE organizer Zuniga, who interpreted.
Zuniga said that instead of building a criminal harassment case against landlords, the housing department is asking landlords to correct violations cited in a harassment complaint, like conducting a repair or rescinding a late fee. “There are no consequences,” said Zuniga.
The senior official at LAHD affirmed that strong cases show a “pattern” of abuse.
Tenants in buildings owned by infamous landlord K3 Holdings feel they documented that pattern, but the housing department keeps reclassifying their TAHO complaints as separate issues without investigating K3 for harassment.
On July 21, officials from the code enforcement section of the Housing Department met with K3 tenants to discuss the company. K3 tenants have submitted TAHO complaints across properties while listing harassment allegations in monthly letters to the housing department. They complain of noise harassment, rampant mold, unwanted (and relentless) cash for keys offers and floods. K3 is now facing a federal housing discrimination lawsuit alleging harassment against Latino and immigrant tenants.
On June 13, a K3 tenant who submitted multiple TAHO complaints received a phone call from LAHD investigator Gregory Alvarado.
“It’s up to you as a tenant to pursue it in court because this ordinance gives the tenant the private right of action,” Alvarado told her in a voicemail. “We’ll step in to notify the landlord about the ordinance, but at the end of the day, if you want to take it any farther you’d have to take it to court yourself.” (Alvarado did not respond to a request for comment.)
“LAHD is reviewing the practices of the K3 building management for potential additional enforcement,” Ortega said.
For TAHO to succeed, city officials will have to invest in staff to enforce it, tenant groups say.
In 2018, the Housing Department recommended that the City Council fund seven positions at the housing department and the city attorney’s office to enforce TAHO.
But with the city in a hiring freeze because of coronavirus budget shortfalls in 2020, the law was written without funding for positions at either department.
Further funding for the ordinance could be secured this fall via a ballot initiative, which would tax real estate transactions over $5 million to fund tenant protections, eviction defense and homelessness programs, and sets some money aside to support the enforcement of city harassment protections.
Joe Donlin, deputy director at Strategic Actions for a Just Economy, part of the coalition supporting the initiative, said it could yield as much as $60 million to enforce the ordinance.
“Citizens initiative is the route we have gone, because we have been frustrated by the City Council not taking action,” Donlin said.