The rent stabilization websites for West Hollywood and Santa Monica are chock-full of news-you-can-use: tenant-specific workshops (both basic and advanced), archived program newsletters, FAQs on topics like pets and security deposits and much more. Each city also provides a well-organized overview of the rent stabilization ordinance as well as state tenancy law. Why not Beverly Hills?
The obvious answer is that our rent stabilization office is only a year old and remains understaffed; and the rent stabilization ordinance is in flux as City Council continues to nail down policy particulars. But that’s not a complete answer. In fact the city has never been effective at communicating policies to the public and that includes rent stabilization. It was not a priority except when it comes to crisis management. So city webpages are poorly-organized; content is stagnant; and broken links hang around for far too long.
A case in point: the link that would take the visitor back to the main rent stabilization portal page is in the footer of several RSO pages, but that link was broken until this weekend. It had been inoperable for a long time! Prior to that, email address link for the program office was broken too. Had no city staffer ever clicked on those links? They were fixed only after a complaint was made.
I was reminded of all this when I received an email from the rent stabilization office on January 2nd advising me that the annual rental unit registration process has kicked-off. Maybe you received it too. It read in part:
Subject: Notice Requiring Registration of Rental Units
Housing providers have 30 days from receipt of the mailed notice to register. City RSO staff must confirm receipt of the notice before you can register. Housing providers can register online….
Last I checked I didn’t own any rental property. So I assume that RSO staff sent the message to everyone on their contacts list. (Indeed I received it another email address too, but neither of those email addresses were provided for the purposes of registration.)
I didn’t think too much about what seemed like an oversight until I read down the message: “Beverly Hills Rent Stabilization staff will host office hours twice a week. Housing providers can stop by City Hall Mondays and Wednesdays, between 1pm and 3pm.”
Why no tenant workshops? Why no appointment hand-holding for us? After all, we tenants are asked to verify the rents that landlords report for their units. And it is important that the city certify an accurate base rent. But we are offered no meaningful guidance beyond a bloated and rather confusing Beverly Hills Rent Registry Citizen User Guide. (Do read more about the registration process.)
Of course the most recent ‘community education workshop’ for both landlords and tenants was held in April of 2017. (The session before that was a full year earlier.) Yet West Hollywood, Santa Monica and Los Angeles each host regular workshops for tenants and landlords separately because those RSO staffers understand that tenants have different needs.
Arguably city officials have a different obligation when it comes to educating residents who occupy rental housing because tenant law, and local ordinance, is so complex. With that obligation to tenants in mind, I checked to see if the city’s posted Rights and Responsibilities handbook is current.
The Handbook is a summary of local and state tenancy laws and the city requires every landlord to provide it to prospective tenants. The tenants then sign-off on having received it. Sounds official, right? Presumably it should reflect the current state of the law.
But the Handbook is not current. It does not include important policies like the prohibition on no-just-cause termination. Or the new city law whereby landlords and neighbors can refer a ‘disruptive’ fellow tenant for termination.
In August Renters Alliance provided to the Human Relations Commission three pages of corrections and recommendations for the revised Handbook. To their credit, the commissioners entertained every one of them! And they agreed to perhaps half. But the Handbook was not subsequently updated. (I will not link to the outdated version because it is no longer authoritative.)
Likewise, the Chapter 5 and Chapter 6 frequently-asked-question documents that are posted to the rent stabilization website have not been substantially improved since they were first posted two years ago and also do not include any recent changes to the rent stabilization ordinance. (I won’t link to those either because they are not up-to-date.)
It is not only outreach material that is outdated: even the the actual rent stabilization ordinance (both chapters 5 and 6) that is posted on the rent stabilization website are not authoritative any longer. For example, Council recently harmonized important sections of these two historically different dimensions of the rent stabilization ordinance. But that important change is not at all reflected in the posted PDFs of the Municipal Code (these are no longer authoritative either.)
There is one more silly quibble: the RSO page for tenants posts an announcement for the “new tenant landlord forum.” But that forum doesn’t exist anymore. It was created two years ago by the Human Relations Commission once Council tasked it with receiving RSO-related complaints. (The forum was an opportunity for tenants and landlords to optionally air a grievance and come to an agreement.) But the forum was little used and the commission wasted no time in shuttering it after the rent stabilization office was up-and-running. Yet there is the forum announcement. “New!”
To the rent stabilization staff’s credit, some of these issues were address as soon as they were reported. That’s much better than City Hall performance in the past. Yet there is still more to do: the main rent stabilization webpage is difficult-to-comprehend given the chaotic layout and less-than-relevant material (like old meeting notices). I’ve archived an image of the whole page for posterity’s sake though it doesn’t look ready to evolve any time soon.
Even beyond the main RSO portal the program pages are not at all intuitive. I could go on and on about it. The ‘web coordinator’ that the city hired a year ago apparently hasn’t done much coordinating!
However the most important problem as I see when I look over the RSO webpages is the lack of a broader message. This is the key takeaway:
The Rent Stabilization Program is responsible for administering the City’s Rent Stabilization Ordinance to ensure the rent stabilization guidelines are properly followed and to educate renters and housing providers about their rights and responsibilities.
If there is a vision or a mission for the program posted anywhere I couldn’t find it. So I will suggest that the message communicated to tenants who visit the rent stabilization program online could be this:
Residents who rent housing in Beverly Hills are important to the city. It is our mission to preserve and maintain rental housing stock so that members of our community, at all income levels, can make their home in our city. The rent stabilization program is here to help you understand the laws, policies and city programs that support those who rent housing in Beverly Hills.
That message would be reinforced by a website and outreach materials that enable every tenant to be her best advocate. We are not yet there, but every bit of progress makes Beverly Hills that much better for those who rent.