A Gentle Hand With Landlords Encourages Impunity

The New York Times today published another installment in its year-long series focused on predatory landlords and the damage they do to tenants. ‘Bad Landlords Dodge Full Bite of a Watchdog’ explains why recidivist property owners aren’t ever held accountable by City of New York. Lax enforcement, paltry penalties, and a bureaucracy insufficiently committed to protecting tenants is to blame. Sound familiar?

It should sound familiar because those problems have historically plagued the residential rental market in Beverly Hills too. Where New York City would seem to have little in common with Beverly Hills, that city’s regulatory agencies have fallen down on the job too. All bark, no bite. Here in Beverly Hills it was no bark, no bite.

The Times explains tht the NY Department of Housing Preservation and Development recovers less than one dollar for every ten bucks it levied in penalties. “In more than two-thirds of the cases the city settled for less than 15 percent of penalties available,” it continues. “The median settlement was $4,000.” And some settlements amounted to as little as a few hundred dollars.

This bit sounded especially familiar: “The city’s housing department says its goal is to correct violations, not to punish landlords.” That’s the Beverly Hills code enforcement approach too: compliance, not sanction. Unfortunately it has bred a culture of non-compliance: renovations without permits; evictions without proper documentation; and for some bad actors, tenant harassment. There was no sheriff on patrol.

Our City Fail Too Often Has Failed Us

Where we differ from New York City is a matter only of degree: our 7,700 rent stabilized apartments is a rounding error in a city of a million apartments. Yet the dynamics and dysfunction are not very different!

Neither city has a housing department proper that is tasked with ensuring the livability of rental housing. New York City enforces city codes monitors housing through its Department of Housing Preservation and Development. Beverly Hills enforces through our Community Preservation division of the Community Development Department. Not so different! Our new rent stabilization program is a step in the right direction, though.

Little political attention is focused on those who rent. Services in New York have always been monopolized by affluent white households in certain zip codes. Race and class is the lens through which officials view constituents. Beverly Hills may not have the diversity but officials here know that election-day turnout is disproportionately lower in multifamily areas. Candidates don’t stump door-to-door and ask for our vote (much less solicit our concerns). Disengagement from the political process only discourages future participation. And residents who rent garner even less of City Hall’s attention than we should.

Regulators do not protect tenants. The Times article showed clearly how New York City lets landlords off-the-hook for serious and sustained health and safety violations. The focus is on compliance. Likewise Beverly Hills code enforcement prioritizes compliance and sanctions seem to be a rarity. For the scofflaw landlord the administrative process may spool out over many months before finally squeezing even a modest penalty ($500) from the violator.

Complaint-based enforcement is reactive. The tenant becomes responsible for policing housing conditions and reporting problems. A former City Council declined to create a systematic housing inspection program ten years ago. Recently the current City Council also declined to go in the direction of systematic inspection. Instead our councilmembers opted for a mix of tenant complaints and random inspection. This is why health and safety problems persist in our rental housing.

Civil remedies stand in for real public-sector enforcement. Cities are content to let tenants and their nonprofit representatives battle it out with landlords and their attorneys in court. For example, the Times found that in the most serious cases tenants must sue the landlord for basic maintenance. That plays to the advantage of housing providers. Beverly Hills tenants must also go to court to realize their remedy for unlawful rent increases, unlawfully-billed utilities, unpaid relocation fees, landlord retaliation and more. Our rent stabilization ordinance identifies no specific penalties for these violations. (Other rent control cities may.)

Low penalties do not discourage those landlords who would violate the law. New York City allows bad-apple landlords to settle substantiated city claims for a dime on a dollar — and sometimes as little as a few hundred dollars. That is outrageous. Does Beverly Hills do better?

We don’t know the extent of the misconduct because there is no transparency around code violations. Substantiated violations are rarely seen in online records and it takes a deep-dive via a public records request to learn the enforcement history on any rental property. There is no public accounting of actual penalties paid. Advocates here don’t have the resources that The Times can bring to the task (and landlords like it that way).

Tenants: Be On Your Best Behavior!

Last year Susan Healy Keene, Director of the Community Development Department in Beverly Hills, moderated a public information session for tenants and landlords. She addressed a tenant’s concern about landlords having too much power by cautioning, “Tenants should maintain a good relationship with their landlord.” And while that is advisable it is exactly the wrong message to send from an agency charged with regulating landlords.

The Times says about New York’s Department of Housing Preservation: “The agency takes a gentle hand with landlords who deprive tenants of basic services, declining to enforce the maximum penalties for even the worst offenders.” Indeed! New York City and Beverly Hills have more in common than we might have thought.