LA City Council broadens aspects of a draft tenant harassment ordinance ahead of final approval

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LOS ANGELES (CNS) - The Los Angeles City Council today strengthened aspects of a draft tenant harassment ordinance, including through an expanded definition of harassment, and directed the City Attorney's Office to incorporate the revisions and bring the measure back for final approval.

The draft ordinance defines tenant harassment in several ways, including reducing or eliminating housing services, such as parking; failing to perform necessary repairs and maintenance; abusing the right to access a rental unit; threatening a tenant with physical harm; misrepresenting to a tenant that he or she is required to vacate the unit; refusing to accept rent payments; and inquiring about a tenant's immigration status.

The City Council amended the definition to include tactics like coercing a tenant to vacate with offers of payment; failing to perform necessary repairs on time as required by federal, state, county or local housing, health or safety laws; failing to minimize exposure to noise, dust, lead, paint, asbestos and other harmful building materials; and interfering with the comfort, peace or quiet of a tenant.

While the definition was expanded to include a wider range of harassment tactics, council members also set the bar higher for what classifies as tenant harassment, as proposed by Councilman John Lee. The definition includes "a landlord's knowing and willful course of conduct directed at a specific tenant or tenants that causes detriment or harm and that serves no lawful purpose."

Councilwoman Nithya Raman had proposed lowering the bar for what would qualify as tenant harassment with an amendment which was not incorporated and defined harassment as a landlord engaging in "knowing and willful commission of" the defined acts of harassment.

She expressed concern about the approved amendment, saying that some landlords lawfully remove amenities, such as parking spaces, from tenants as a harassment tactic. David Michaelson of the City Attorney's Office told Raman that it would be up to a court to decide if the intent was lawful, even if the tactics were.

Under the draft ordinance, if harassment occurs, a tenant who prevails in court may be awarded compensation for damages, rent refunds for reduction in housing services, reasonable compensation for attorney's fees and more. A landlord might also be fined up to $5,000 if the tenant is older than 65 years or disabled. For repair or maintenance issues, a tenant is required to provide written notice to the landlord of the alleged violation before initiating a civil proceeding or small claims case.

The Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment requested the ordinance be strengthened by making tenant harassment a misdemeanor, which the City Council added to the draft ordinance. According to that amendment, it will be a misdemeanor "to attempt to interfere with the peaceful enjoyment, use, possession or occupancy of any premises by the lawful lessee or tenant of such premises either by threat, fraud, intimidation, coercion, duress or by the maintenance or toleration of a public nuisance, or by cutting off heat, light, water, fuel or free communication by anyone by mail, telephone or otherwise, or by restricting trade or tradesmen from or to any such tenant."

The group also sought funds to implement the law and a provision that would allow tenants to return to the unit and pay the same amount of rent if a judge finds that an eviction occurred through harassment.
  Council members amended the ordinance to force rental units protected by the Rent Stabilization Ordinance to be rented at the lawful rent in effect at the time of the most recent termination of tenancy if the landlord is found to have vacated the unit through harassment.

Raman told council members before the vote that this amendment is one of those she is most proud of, as it "eliminates the incentive for landlords to engage in this kind of behavior in the first place."

"I really want to be clear today, as we're talking about this issue, who this ordinance will help," Raman said. "The more vulnerable the tenant is, the more likely they are to be affected by harassment and to be displaced by harassment." She added that people of color, low-income renters, women and families with children are disproportionately affected by tenant harassment.

The Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment held a news conference Wednesday morning to urge the City Council to add amendments to ensure enforcement of the ordinance, including forcing landlords to pay a tenant's legal fees. The proposed ordinance says a tenant that prevails in court "may" be awarded attorney's fees.

"This is a crucial loophole in which can be the difference between gaining access to lawyers for these tenants of harassment. We have to close this loophole, the law has to be clear," an ACCE representative said. "As the ordinance stands now, the burden of proof is on the tenant to prove harassment. We want to change this language so that the burden of proof is on the landlord to prove that they are not harassing the tenants."

Councilman Gil Cedillo, who chairs the council's Housing Committee, said that he would support shifting the burden from the landlord to the tenant and asked the City Attorney's Office to update the ordinance if it thinks it will help.

"If we can shift to the landlord having this as a defense, in other words, their actions have to be lawful, have to be legitimate. We're trying to stop harassment and what we should be able to do is take a claim from a tenant and then the burden should shift to the landlord in a way where they're able to raise these defenses if they're legitimate," Cedillo said.

Several people called into a Housing Committee meeting on April 14 to relate stories of being harassed by their landlords, including one woman who said her landlord attempted to drive tenants out by removing the entire roof.

Landlords also called in to oppose the ordinance, with some saying tenant harassment is exaggerated and other saying that landlords also need protection from tenant harassment.

Cedillo said during the Housing Committee's discussion of the ordinance, "for the landlord community, let me say that we are talking about outliers, we're talking about the small percent of despicable, predatory bulling landlords. Not the community of landlords or housing providers and home providers ... these are outliers."

"The type of egregious cases that were brought to us today were beyond anecdotes. The type of experiences and reports that we get in our office go beyond anecdotes, and those are the outliers that we are trying to protect tenants from," he said.

The process leading up to drafting the ordinance began in February 2017, when former Councilman Jose Huizar introduced a motion to have the Housing and Community Investment Department review other cities' tenant harassment ordinances and report on the feasibility of adopting a similar one in Los Angeles.

It was not immediately clear when City Council will vote on the proposed ordinance as amended, but the City Attorney's Office suggested it would happen before recess on July 6.