Our Recap of the First Tenant RSO Workshop

On Monday City of Beverly Hills held its first ever rent stabilization workshop specifically for tenants. We pressed for a tenant-only workshop because tenants and landlord have different concerns (not to mention responsibilities) even though we contract with each other under what we’ve called a ‘layer cake’ of tenancy law. This workshop was a big improvement over past workshops. Here’s our recap.

Held in the Municipal Gallery in City Hall and taped for broadcast on BHTV, this first ‘RSO Basics and Update for Renters’ session was organized as a presentation followed up by a question-and-answer session. The presentation component was divided into state/county laws on one hand, and provisions in our local rent stabilization ordinance on the other.

State Laws Component

The state and county presentation was delivered by Jessica Gallegos from the new Los Angeles County RSO office. She touched on the key aspects of tenancy in California: leases and rental agreements, just-cause termination, termination notice, interior unit habitability (and the limits thereof), and disputes. Much of the information is derived from the essential California Tenants Guide so we won’t dive too deep here.

Jessica Garregos at the RSO tenant workshop August 12, 2019
Jessica Garregos (left) provides an overview of state tenancy law.

Jessica noted that City of Beverly Hills contracts with Loyola Marymount for free mediation services and she recommended it in cases of disputes. Our rent stabilization office is quick to refer tenants to mediation too. But one tenant questioned whether it was prudent that law students at Loyola should conduct the mediation. (Great question!)

We asked about mediation, specifically whether mediation was appropriate in circumstances where the law is clear about the landlord’s responsibilities. The answer from Jessica on mediation: it is preferable to court whenever a tenant can take advantage of it.

We used as an example the landlord who does not return a deposit, in full, within 21 days, as required by law, less any deductions specifically allowed by law. Should a tenant be asked to meet the landlord halfway to get some of the withheld money back? We don’t really think so.

(We cover the deposit issue in our explainer, Security Deposits: A Primer, and talk about the small claims process in Small Claims: A Tenant’s Guide.)

Additional questions for Jessica addressed mold testing and remediation (a county Department of Public Health responsibility) and questions about provisions in our rent stabilization ordinance. Helen Morales, deputy director of the rent stabilization program, then picked up with a presentation on the Beverly Hills ordinance.

Local Ordinance Component

Helen presented on some generalities of our rent stabilization program including the number of rent-stabilized units (7,702) and that fact that many of our rental properties are old (in fact 41% predate World War II, as if any tenant with water leaks, plumbing problems, and popping circuit breakers does not already know.)

Helen covered the reasons for eviction, noting that those reasons are now limited to for-cause and just-cause circumstances. For-cause reasons now include a reason of our own here in Beverly Hills: ‘disruptive tenant.’ A new provision in our ordinance allows a landlord to apply to terminate a tenant for causing problems with the neighbors. City Council decides those cases. Here’s her slide from the RSO Basics PowerPoint:

RSO tenant workshop slide: disruptive tenant

Just-cause reasons include remodeling or redevelopment. Helen (importantly) pointed out that tenants are concerned about being evicted for remodeling. While she noted that remodeling applies to work in two units or more, she didn’t mention the relatively low dollar thresholds that can trigger an eviction for remodeling:

RSO tenant workshop slide: major remodeling

Those thresholds have not been updated in 15 years to account for inflation!

There was also a slide on civil remedies. The rent stabilization ordinance provides tenants with civil recourse in some circumstances when the landlord violates a provision of the ordinance (for example withholding the relocation fee):

RSO tenant workshop slide: civil remedies

But a civil remedy requires a tenant to bring the landlord to court. The practical challenge for the tenant-plaintiff is that the dollar damages are relatively low and an attorney may not be encouraged to take the case.

Another challenge for tenants pursuing a civil remedy is the adverse outcome that Jessica talked about: courtroom adjudication may not turn out as well for the tenant. Helen reiterated the point but didn’t really address the seeming contradiction: why offer civil remedies in the ordinance yet instead recommended that a tenant use mediation?

Helen’s presentation closed with a look at the one-annual unit registration process. (It’s coming up in January.) The office has posted online material for registration but that material is geared to landlords who do the paperwork. However the slide she shows is notable for this flowchart:

RSO tenant workshop slide: appeals flowchart

That is a little confusing. It might have been better broken out as two flowcharts: one for a tenant appeal at the time the unit is registered and an appeal that a tenant can pursue anytime. The first is the annual registration (or re-registration) and the latter is whenever the tenant has a question about the accuracy of the certified rent. We won’t go into the details here. Instead read our tenant-specific explainer about registration.

While registration seems like a bureaucratic formality, it is actually a process that should concern the tenant because it determines both the base rent and housing services. Perhaps the RSO office can schedule another workshop for tenants just about registration (as is done for the landlords).

The next workshop is RSO Basics and Update for landlords on September 12th at 6PM. We saw a few landlords sit-in on our session so feel free to join Renters Alliance to hear what the landlords have to say!

Our Take

Holding separate tenant and landlord sessions is a major improvement over the prior two years’ come-all format. As we said in last week’s announcement, New RSO Workshops are Scheduled, tenants and landlords may have many mutual concerns but they diverge when it comes to protecting our respective interests under the law. The rent stabilization office should be able to guide us, and to respond to our concerns, without having to walk a neutrality tightrope!

On that note, what we thought was missing from this workshop was a clear sense of in what circumstances the rent stabilization office will go to bat for tenants. There are instances where we know the office steps in: to advise the landlord of an illegal rent increase; to demand an overdue relocation fee perhaps; to negotiate a reduction in rent.

How helpful would it be to have a list of common issues with simple checkboxes next to each when the rent stabilization office will engage on behalf of tenants? For example:

  • The landlord refuses to even consider adding an additional occupant like a partner to the lease;
  • The landlord is reluctant to make a repair that clearly implicates a habitability concern (like water damage);
  • The landlord moves to evict a tenant for cause for some condition without giving an opportunity to correct.

Will the office step-in in such instances? Inquiring minds want to know!

Also missing was specifics on mold testing and remediation. Tenants spoke up throughout the meeting about their experiences with water damage and mold. That suggests mold is an emerging problem in our older rental housing.

The county Department of Public Health is the agency with health inspection responsibilities in Beverly Hills. Jessica suggested that tenants buy a DIY mold testing kit at the hardware and, in case of a positive result, call on the county to send an inspector.

However that advice was quickly swatted away by tenants with experience. One tenant explained that the county only considered “visible” mold as an issue to deal with (true). Another described in detail her experience with county inspectors and suggested that a tenant concerned about mold would be better off hiring a professional tester to sample the air and the surfaces.

Mold s clearly an issue of concern and arguably should have been included in the presentation. But this was an ‘RSO basics’ workshop and there wasn’t time to get into every issue, of course. That’s why we need an RSO advanced workshop to dig into tenant questions about mold and other specific issues.

Which brings us to another missed opportunity: we didn’t hear from Bet Tzedek. Representatives were on their way to the workshop but unfortunately were involved in a car crash. (We hope to hear from them as soon as recovery allows.)

There should be another opportunity to hear from Bet Tzedek: the organization’s contract includes a community presentation (in addition to regular Monday morning intake at Roxbury Park Senior Center). Tenants would appreciate a standalone, 2-hour Q&A to enlighten us as to our tenant protections from the courtroom perspective.

In closing, let’s visit the emphasis in the presentation on recommended mediation. When we look to our neighbors in West Hollywood and Santa Monica, we see city hall willing to step in on behalf of tenants. In contrast, the emphasis on mediation here makes it seem like Beverly Hills tenants should find some middle-ground agreement even when the landlord’s obligations are clearly prescribed.

Take the deposit for example. Withholding a deposit unlawfully is larceny in any other context. What is there to mediate when the law is clear on its return? It would be better for the city to step in with a demand letter.

In sum, this workshop was a promising down-payment on the kind of community outreach we want to see. West Hollywood and Santa Monica are the exemplars in this area: they hold sessions, post online videos, publish regular newsletters and fact sheets, and feature robust ordinance information on the web. All of it makes being a tenant in those cities less fraught with uncertainty. We can provide tenants that comfort here too.