Empowerment is Missing from Education Workshops

City of Beverly Hills recently hosted Community Education Workshops for landlords and tenants. The purpose of this ’community education workshop’ was stated plainly on the flyer: to provide an “overview” of the rent stabilization program. It recapped recent changes to the rent stabilization ordinance and gave a heads-up about the next steps in the process. However what was not on the agenda was tenant empowerment.

Power Imbalance

Tenant empowerment is critical to the proper operation of our rent stabilization program precisely because tenants are at a disadvantage relative to landlords. We are reluctant to complain even about health-and-safety problems because we can be evicted. For some landlords, the nail that sticks up is the one that gets the hammer.

The facilitator hired by the city for the tenant-landlord dialogues last summer put an academic label on it: a ” power imbalance.” (Read his summary report to the city.) One need only contrast the tenant protections offered by Chapter 5 rent stabilization with the fewer protections offered by Chapter 6 to see that the latter chapter covers 97% of renting households but provides scant protection. It even allows for a 60-day notice of termination.

Also, Chapter 6 households can be summarily dispatched with 60 days notice for remodeling, where Chapter 5 households get a heads-up one year in advance. Chapter 5 tenants also get a right-to-return to their remodeled unit (though at a somewhat higher rent).

But it is in the area of eviction where we come to know what ‘power imbalance” really means. We have to lawyer-up on our own dime if we are to realize the protections that we do have under the law.

Education is Not the Same as Empowerment

If Beverly Hills tenants must defend ourselves then we should be educated as to our rights and empowered to act. But education and empowerment are not the same thing, and it’s a problem if tenants and landlords receive the same education program. Landlords are already empowered!

Our city’s Community Education Workshops should recognize the power imbalance and help us be our own best advocates. Other rent control cities recognize the distinction, after all; they hold separate workshops because tenants and landlords have different rights and responsibilities under the law.

The first giveaway that the Beverly Hills Community Education Workshop held this spring would not well-serve tenants was reflected in the tone of the workshop. Like the Education Workshops a year ago, officials here were studiously neutral; they were careful not to offend ’housing providers’ (in the officials’favored term). Even when tenants expressed concern about eviction, say, where the power imbalance yawns widest, our rent stabilization officials expressed compassion but betrayed no hint of advocacy. (Read our recap Community Education Workshops: The Good, Bad and Ugly.)

Instead city staff played it straight down the middle for both audiences. They were on nobody’s side. “A lot of it is the relationship between you and your landlord,” said Susan Healy Keene, the Director of the city’s Community Development Department, reminded us. But that note of caution from the top rent stabilization official was not for landlords; it was for tenants who must mind the power imbalance.

It was a message was repeated time-and-again: keep on the landlord’s good side.  “Can a landlord evict me for reporting a problem?” a tenant asked. Keene acknowledged her concern. “You do run the risk,” she said, “depending on the landlord.” Better to tiptoe around!

If city officials can’t have our back when things go sideways with the landlord under our current ordinance, at least tell us how to help ourselves in a tenant-empowering workshop.

What Tenant Empowerment Could Look Like

The Beverly Hills Rent Stabilization Program could take a cue from municipal neighbor West Hollywood. That city provides a model of city-driven tenant empowerment that is ready for replication here. There is no need to reinvent the wheel.

West Hollywood Building Blocks program logoWest Hollywood holds a tenant-only workshop. The city ‘Building Blocks’ seminar series to educate both tenants and landlords separately about the law.

A ‘tenants basics’ seminar covers finding and leasing an apartment and explains how the city’s ‘maximum allowable rent’ translates to an annual rent increase (and more). There is also an tenants advanced seminar that deep-dives into issues such as discrimination, reasonable accommodations (i.e., service and emotional support animals), and remedies for rent overcharges.

West Hollywood has created an online educational series called ‘Things to Know.’ The 3-part online series provided an overview of the Rent Stabilization Program and describes the nuts-and-bolts of the process. [Update: the series appears to be on hiatus for now.]

West Hollywood also publishes a variety of informative reports and bi-annual tenant newsletters that keep tenants informed about program news. In general the West Hollywood Rent Stabilization Program website is information-rich and well-organized. There is even a section of the rent stabilization website for Russian-speakers.

West Hollywood RSO Russian language section

Have a look. You will find the stuff of tenant empowerment! And in my experience they will even take your questions.

How Does Beverly Hills Compare?

Compare the West Hollywood outreach to tenants with what we get from Beverly Hills. We covered the workshop shortcomings earlier. What else does the city offer?

Of course there is the Rent Stabilization Program website. It provides some basic information but it is not well-organized; some content is outdated or broken; and some resources are simply not made available. Legal advice is crucial for tenants, for example, and last year the city funded a housing rights legal services program. Yet it took months of prodding to get a program link posted on the city’s rent stabilization website.

The city publishes a Tenant-Landlord Rights and Responsibilities Handbook. Yet only two-and-a-half pages of this 8-page pamphlet focuses on the fine points of the law. The rest is white space, cover page and boilerplate. It’s not nearly as helpful as it could be. In fact this is a disclosure document foremost: tenants sign it when leasing an apartment. It really just lets the city off the hook for having informed the prospective tenant of fundamentals, like the landlord can evict for no-cause in Beverly Hills.

The website has posted a Chapter 6 FAQ that answers some basic questions but it is only 20 questions. That’s it! The guidance therein may not be up-to-date also.

Tenant empowerment will require something of a mission change in City Hall. That could begin with the hiring of a program director; City Council authorized the position in September but it’s still unfilled. Then let’s turn to tenant news-you-can use: how we can help protect ourselves under the laws we have.