Giving Thanks for a Decent Property Manager [Updated]

One of the things I’m thankful for is the quiet enjoyment of my apartment with friends and family on Thanksgiving. Quiet enjoyment is my right as a tenant (the court has ruled) and I am thankful that my property management company conducts business professionally to allow it. That includes responding to problems relatively quickly – something that every tenant should be able to take that for granted.

The landlord-tenant relationship seems pretty straightforward: tenants pay rent and the landlord provides properly-maintained housing services. This is a contractual obligation. (That’s regardless of whether or not there exists a lease. Month-to-month tenancies must accord with the provisions of the original signed lease.)

Common Sense Guidance

Beyond legalities, it is in the landlord’s interest to manage his property competently. That includes proper maintenance; conditions conducive to the quiet enjoyment of the property; and keeping the relationship between landlord and tenant positive and constructive.

Yet I frequently hear from tenants about poor treatment and unprofessional management practices. Indeed some tell astonishing stories of harassment and even intimidation. Why do thee practices persist when industry associations advise against them and the state outlaws them? Because Beverly Hills has no law, policy or program to regulate property managers. City city doesn’t even enforce the required business license too stringently.

Public agencies and private industry associations alike promulgate guidance for residential property managers because good management is better for both landlords and tenants. There is even a book written for the small-time property owner who can’t afford to manage professionally. ‘Every Landlord’s Guide to Managing Property‘ is is the “ultimate property management guide for the do-it-yourself landlord.”

State Guidance

The California Bureau of Real Estate (CalBRE) publishes its Reference Book for real estate professionals. In an entire chapter devoted to competent residential property management it cites a “dual responsibility” to both property owners and tenants:

Tenants want to get the most they can for their rental dollar and feel safe in their surroundings. The property manager must set policies which will give tenants the most benefits commensurate with a proper return to the owner. Effort expended for tenant retention will result in more satisfied residents and increased profits for the owner. Here, the manager has to use experience and courtesy as well as psychology. — CalBRE Reference Book Chapter 22, ‘Property Management.’

That passage begins to hint at the qualities that make for a successful manager. Then the chapter elaborates further. See if these qualities apply to your own property manager.

The manager must also be soft-spoken, fast-moving, poised, quick-thinking, non-tiring, ever-available, mechanical-minded, all-knowing and never-ailing. This “expert” knows how to visit without visiting, sell without selling, see without judging, hear without repeating – and all without having time for an uninterrupted meal. — CalBRE Reference Book, Chapter 22.

National Guidance

If your manager falls short, perhaps he is not credentialed by the National Association of Residential Property Managers (NARPM), an industry association formed two decades ago to ensure adherence to best practices across the real estate industry. NARPM crowns those who meet its standards a ‘Residential Management Professional’ or ‘Master Property Manager.’ Regardless, NARPM says, every professional property manager should be cognizant of best practices:

The Property Manager shall endeavor to eliminate, through the normal course of business, any practices which could be damaging to the public or bring discredit to the profession… The Property Manager shall comply with all relevant local and state ordinances…[and] shall not exaggerate, misrepresent, misinform, or conceal pertinent facts in the advertising, leasing, and management of property.” — NARPM Code Of Ethics and Standards Of Professionalism (2016).

Indeed the property manager’s obligation to his tenants is stated plainly:

The Property Manager shall treat all Tenants honestly and professionally when they are applying for, living in, and/or vacating a managed residence, including through the deposit refund process. — NARPM Code Of Ethics and Standards Of Professionalism, Article 4, ‘Obligations to Tenants.’

NARPM ‘Standards of Professionalism’ are intended to ensure “a high regard for the safety and health of those lawfully at a managed property” (the tenants):

The Property Manager shall not manage properties for Clients who refuse, or are unable, to maintain their property in accordance with safety and habitability requirements of the local jurisdiction. — NARPM Code Of Ethics and Standards Of Professionalism, Article 5, ‘Care of Managed Properties.’

Why Do Landlord Abuses Persist?

How can these practices persist when they contravene professional guidance and even the law? Because Beverly Hills has enacted no law to protect tenants against harassment; and the city has no policy or program to police or prosecute landlords for misconduct. However well-meaning are our code enforcement inspectors, the fact is that their responsibilities do not include policing landlords for misconduct.

Here are code enforcement responsibilities as outlined by the Fair Housing Handbook:

Role of code enforcement via Fair Housing Handbook

As a tenant may find out, ever repeated instances of improper unit access or landlord retaliation will be referred for a civil action. That is, it’s not the city’s job to police the landlord. The tenant’s recourse is through small claims (for a withheld deposit for example) or superior court actions (for damages related to harassment or other malfeasance).

Take for example this criminal activity: eavesdropping and surveillance. A tenant in contact with Renters Alliance  had turned to the police and the city prosecutor to investigate and bring charges but she was disappointed.

In retaliation to my discovery of mold, the landlord broke into my unit and installed hidden cameras with recording/streaming devices. Again, as a tenant I am always without recourse to this criminal act and breach of my privacy so much so that over six months later, the Beverly Hills Police Department has still not held my landlord accountable for his criminal acts.

Santa Monica Offers an Alternative Approach

Santa Monica offers an illustrative example for Beverly Hills: enact a local law to police landlord misconduct and then enforce that laws locally and strictly. Municipal Code Chapter 4.56 (Tenant Harassment) prohibits as a matter of local law practices like misrepresentation, deceit or concealment by a landlord who might also withdraw, remove, or fail to maintain the tenant’s housing services (including among other things, storage, laundry privileges, janitor services, interior furnishings, parking, painting, “and any other benefit, privilege or facility that has been provided by the landlord” (emphasis mine).

Landlords are also explicitly prohibited from threatening tenants “by word or gesture” intended to provoke. They can’t maintain conditions that interfere with a tenant’s quiet enjoyment of the property. And what will be of interest to that Beverly Hills victim, they cannot violate any tenant’s right to privacy, which includes “entering or photographing portions of a rental housing unit that are beyond the scope of a lawful entry or inspection.”

Santa Monica enforces those protections locally. An civil or criminal action may be brought by those harmed as well as by the City Attorney. That city’s attorney won’t hesitate to bring that action unlike our own city prosecutor, which is a hired-out position.

This spring and summer we will be revisiting our rent stabilization law. As that policy process proceeds, we can’t lose sight of the fact that we need not concern ourselves only with the 3% cap or the relocation fee schedule but also with additional local protections tenants need.

Update: Not a month after expressing thanks for a good property manager, my landlord went and hired Essential Management Inc. The new manager tacked to our doors a demand for prompt payment just a few days before the end of the month. (At least one tenant had already sent off his check to the old manager.) More worrisome, the new manager was quick to hand out a 3-day notice for non-payment to one tenant and seems to have imposed a new $100 late fee too. If the one-star Yelp reviews for Essential Management Inc. are to be believed, the days of good-faith property management are likely over for my neighbors and me.