On City Council’s Agenda: Legal Assistance for Those Who Rent [updated]

City Council at its Tuesday, May 16th 7pm meeting will discuss whether to fund a new housing rights legal services program. For the first time the city recognizes that residents who rent can find themselves at the wrong end of an eviction notice, or be harassed by a landlord or even suffer retribution for reporting mold, say. If this proposed $60,000 grant is supported by Council tonight, then residents will finally have access to free legal advice if we need it.

Update: City Council did approve a legal services program to the tune of $60,000 and Bet Tzedek was the bidder chosen for the program. Consultations will be open to both landlords (!) and tenants. Legal representation will be means-tested, however. Recipients must fit the County‚Äôs definition of ‘moderate’ household income (80% Average Median Income or AMI) which is the same criteria the city uses for Community Development Block Grant Program awards. Currently, ‘moderate income’ ranges from $50,500 for a family of one to $95,200 for a family of eight. We campaigned to limit assistance to tenants only, and to make consultations available regardless of income. We won only the second argument!

In the past our options for legal advice were few. We could take our chances with hiring an attorney, but where to look for one experienced in tenant issues? Or, you might be referred to a nonprofit legal services organization already overburdened with cases. Worst is going it alone against a landlord. He has an attorney on retainer who cranks out unlawful detainers like widgets in a factory (and courts are very much like factories). For a tenant facing a landlord for the first time holding a short straw, an on-call housing legal services program begins to level the playing field.

How did this proposed new program come about? The city funds programs for cultural and public health services but it also funds grants to organizations that help seniors, homeless, and low-income populations. But not residents who rent. When it was pointed out to Human Relations liaisons Lili Bosse and John Mirisch that there is no help for the precariously housed, namely some of those who rent, Mayor Bosse and Councilmember Mirisch directed staff solicit bids for such a housing rights legal services program.

In a sign of the city’s commitment, Mayor Bosse suggested that the city pony up $60,000 for the service. (Just 4 of the 18 recommended Community Assistance Grant Fund proposals this cycle receive that much, so it’s a very significant commitment indeed.) Both West Hollywood and Santa Monica provide legal support to residents and this would be a major step forward for rent stabilization in Beverly Hills too.

The first step is City Council review tonight, Tuesday May 16th at 7pm. (Here is the agenda.) Because this is a late addition to the annual Community Assistance Grant Fund program, Council may refer it to Human Relations Commission next Monday, May 18th at 9AM, to review proposals from three organizations that responded to the city’s call. (Thursday’s HRC agenda – item #3.)

Consider dropping City Council an email or just show up to City Hall tonight to speak up on item G-1 (Housing Rights Legal Services). Here is the City Council staff report FYI.

The city has finally completed its first-ever inventory of rental units. It is the first step toward the rental unit database and registry. The inventory is revealing! Of the grand total of 8,662 rental units, more than half were built before 1950. In fact over the past 40 years fewer than 500 rental units (under 6% of our total) were added.

The relatively few units built in two generations says something about the city’s disinclination to keep pace with housing demand. That has helped to create what the city recognizes as a housing crisis. But it also suggests something of a market mismatch in that most of our units are not necessarily competitive in the larger market – or perhaps be what today’s residents would expect.

As for rental properties, many of them (43% of the total) are 5-10 unit buildings while almost as many (41%) are 2, 3 and 4-unit buildings. Buildings built after 1977 are very few though, they do tend to be larger buildings. These do not include the condominium buildings that have added most of the housing stock post-1995.

Why has the city fallen short of demand to the point of a housing affordability crisis? While our city has cranked out required housing reports over the decades, it did not have an understanding of the rental unit market – neither prices nor inventory. It’s difficult to craft sound housing policy when policymakers are unsure about greater than one-half of the local housing market (that is, housing for households that rent).

With the new housing inventory largely complete, the city is moving ahead on a database and registry of rental units. You know, the tools that the landlords’ lobbyist spoke up against.) City Council recently unanimously appropriated $250,000 to hire consultants, so the effort is underway. Rest assured that the figure is but a small down payment. We can expect to spend ten times that to set it up – and as much annually keep it running – if the city commits to a robust rent regulation regime.

Next the city will hire a facilitator for the roundtable dialogs and decide on a format. Stay tuned for more on that when it comes back to Council in an afternoon study session.

Other news items…

Health & Safety Commission next Monday takes its last pass at a non-smoking policy for multifamily buildings. The commission to date has recommended that smoking be banned in multifamily rental building common areas and has tentatively suggested that smoking be prohibited for all new rental unit construction and even new tenancies. (The policy will not apply to condos – yet.)

If you care about non-smoking policies, or perhaps you yourself have been annoyed by smoking, this is your opportunity to give the commissioners a piece of your mind. Contact staffer Linda Kyriazi at 285-2537 or by email. Remember that’s Monday, May 22nd at 4pm. Check here for the agenda which will be posted this Friday.

California cities continue a march toward rent stabilization. Recently both Richmond and Mountain View enacted new policies, which brought swift lawsuits from the landlord’s state organization, the California Apartment Association (CAA). Now the association has announced it is withdrawing those lawsuits. Let’s hope it’s not merely a strategic move with re-filed suits to come.

Did you know that the city has a handyworker program for multifamily households? Every year the city funds a handyworker program to the tune of more than $100,000 to benefit low-income households. “Minor home repairs include weatherization, security, mobility improvements, and improvements to increase energy and water efficiency and other eligible repairs,” the city says. Need your windows weatherproofed but the landlord won’t do it? Need help with disability improvements like shower handrails? Read the flyer in English and Farsi. If you qualify ($46,000 annually for a 1-person household) you can get needed help around the house if your landlord is not responsive.

In closing, let me remind you to please share the Alliance’s email newsletter sign-up form with your friends and neighbors. Find it on the homepage. And please contact the Alliance if you can share your experiences regarding:

  • A visit to the city’s tenant-landlord forum (was it successful?)
  • Your effort to hire an attorney to fight eviction (could you stay?)
  • Your battle with a landlords over your pet (what’s the issue?)
  • And any lease you had terminated after January 24, 2017 (let us know what happened).

The Alliance wants to hear from you! And we want to keep you informed so be sure to sign up for our email newsletter.

Mark Elliot

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