Our Recap of the Beverly Hills Bar Legal Seminar

The Beverly Hills Bar Association Barristers today organized a free landlord tenant legal seminar at the Roxbury Park community center. Billed as a ‘pro bono legal clinic’ the event was more a presentation of relevant rental housing regulations punctuated by by audience questions. For tenants with specific questions there were individual consultations. This was not a city event. However it was timely given the coming changes in state law that will affect tenants. Here’s the recap.

The legal seminar caught our attention despite the very late (36 hours) advance notice for a few reasons. First, it was not sponsored by the city but rather organized by the Beverly Hills Bar Association. In August the city’s rent stabilization office held a first-ever tenant workshop that on general points of law covered more ground. No city staff were on hand today. And turnout was light.

Beverly Hills Bar Association legal seminar

Second, the sponsor was Los Angeles County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, which is notable because the County has recently gotten into the rent control business! County Supervisors enacted a bold interim program to cap rents, provide relocation fees and protect against eviction from rental housing that extends protection to many households in unincorporated areas of the county. Many of them are economically disadvantaged.

And third, the involvement of Beverly Hills Bar Association Barristers suggested an agenda. The Barristers is the “young and emerging” cohort of Association members who are foremost about career development (according to the BHBA website). No surprise then that the reception table featured branded swag like pads and fridge magnets that advertised the Association’s lawyer and referral service!

Beverly Hills Bar Association swag
However none of the Barristers here were presenters. The presenters were Cynthia Chagolla, director of Bet Tzedek’s Preventing and Ending Homelessness program; her colleague attorney Matthew Kay; and Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority attorney Calvin Bryne who explained the evolving state tenancy laws. All are nonprofit-employed attorneys, not private sector attorneys looking for paying clients.

Beverly Hills Bar Association legal seminar

Now, if Association Barristers were on hand for later individula consultations we weren’t introduced to them. Here the nonprofit attorneys did all the talking. The Beverly Hills Bar Association’s pro bono work is organized though the Association’s foundation, which is a nonprofit, but attorney referrals are surely a means to for-profit representation of tenants.

What We Learned at the Seminar

The legal seminar provided an overview of tenancy law basics. But it also raised more questions that it provided answers. That’s a good thing because there’s always more to learn about the laws that regulate tenancy here and statewide. (That rule has applied at every landlord-tenant workshop.) Sometimes mistakes are made in presenting topics that give food for thought too.

Beyond the basic tenancy law (which is covered here) and our rent stabilization ordinance provisions (deep dive here) the most valuable aspect of this legal seminar was the discussion about new state laws taking effect next year.

These include AB 2343 which will exclude Saturday, Sunday and judicial holidays from counting in 3-day and unlawful detainer notice periods; AB 2219 which will require landlords to accept third-party rent payments (in case a friend or relative has to pony up the rent); and two bills to tighten-up discrimination in housing, SB 222 for veterans and AB 1497 for those who rent hosted housing online — like AirBnB.

Surely the most significant bill to be signed by the governor is AB 1482 (the Tenant Protection Act of 2019) that caps rent increases and establishes just-cause as the only reason for eviction.

The new law establishes a new cutoff point for exemption from rent control, for example. Where the Costa Hawkins Rental Housing Act exempted rental housing newer than 1995 from price controls, AB 1482 extends that exemption back only 15 years (to 2004 in Beverly Hills, for example, and not as far back as 1995). And the 15-year cutoff is a rolling cutoff: next year that exemption cutoff will advance to 2005 and the year after that 2006. That provision means more and more tenants over time will benefit from protections they never before had.

Also AB 1482 also limits the exemption from the new tenant protections for single-family homes and condominiums. They were long categorically exempted but now when they are corporately-owned that exemption disappears. That’s a big win for households living in single-family homes bought up by an octopus like Blackstone.

The latter provision will have more limited reach in Beverly Hills where corporate ownership is more limited. Which suggests that these new state tenant protections may interact with local rent control laws in unanticipated ways. The new protections apply statewide, that is, but they will not override local rent stabilization ordinances, according to our presenters.

AB 1482 takes effect in January with some provisions taking effect after July. But we have received no guidance from our rent stabilization office. As our presenters said, ultimately the reach of the protections may be decided on a case-by-case basis in the courts. Case law is a very important element in tenant-landlord law and that partly explains why it is so complicated.

My Take on the Legal Seminar

Compared to the city’s tenant workshop in August, this seminar had to encompass more than our own rent stabilization ordinance. Bet Tzedek’s homelessness project is active in Beverly Hills but also West Hollywood and West Los Angeles too, and about two-thirds of attendees (10!) were from outside Beverly Hills. But as the saying goes, “all politics is local,” and that goes double where rent control is concerned: it’s all about the local ordinances. The legal guidance on offer here could not be focused exclusively on the laws that affect tenants in Beverly Hills (which makes our own city’s tenant education efforts more important).

That said, more tenant education is always better and I appreciate any opportunity where tenants can access legal guidance (if not precisely ‘legal advice’). For that reason there should be no place for an agenda of any kind at a tenant education event. We want to see any legal seminar serve only a tenant’s best interest.

That’s why I was concerned about the Bar Association of Beverly Hills role as organizer. The Association didn’t have an active role, evidently, and it’s not clear if it had even financially sponsored the legal seminar. But the Barristers are about career-building and they did bring with them that branded swag!

In my view we can’t let these events be about attorney referrals. We can’t bait tenants inside with an offer of legal guidance, only to then turn them over to the Bar Association of Beverly Hills. It feels a little like the Glengarry Glen Ross boiler room.

Don’t get me wrong: private-sector attorneys play an important part in securing tenants’ rights. Often a tenant may not qualify for free assistance; or a civil claim may not attract the talents of an overtaxed, free legal services firm. In those cases a referral is the only option. Still I would prefer to see tenant-education events free of any possible motive that could put the attorneys’ interests above any tenant’s interest.

Why the Bar Association Interest Now?

The Beverly Hills Bar Association has had an opportunity to compete for our city’s housing rights legal services grant over the past three grant cycles. And they did apply for the grant in the 2017–18 fiscal year and again for 2019–20. But those applications fell so far short of the mark that they didn’t indicate serious interest in competing.

In 2017 the Bar Association wrote in its application:

We propose to provide accessible pro bono landlord/tenant legal services through the BHBA Lawyer Referral and Information Service by State Bar-licensed attorney members of the BHBA to qualified Beverly Hills residents…

So attorney referrals was a key element of the program. Perhaps that’s why the Association was not selected for funding. Bet Tzedek, a nonprofit legal advocacy firm, won the grant that year and every cycle since.

The next year, 2018, I reached out to Bar Association CEO Marc Staenberg to encourage the organization to apply again. I was unhappy with Bet Tzedek’s first-year growing pains and wanted competition. I received no reply to my outreach. The Association did not apply for the grant in 2018.

The following year, in 2019, I again reached out to Staenberg to encourage the Association to apply. “My interest is to give tenants more [legal] support and to give our policymakers more choice when it comes to housing-related legal programs,” I said in my email. But again I received no reply. A follow-up email to the organization’s general email address was ignored too.

However the Association did submit a grant application this year. Again it failed to win the city’s housing rights legal services grant.

Part of their challenge is incumbency: it is tough to beat Bet Tzedek when that latter organization is clearly making an effort. In fact Bet Tzedek received double the funding this year when Cedars Sinai stepped up with support for its work.

But incumbency is not solely the reason that the Bar Association of Beverly Hills could not even win a city commission recommendation for the grant funding. Instead it was the Association’s own lazy grant-writing effort that surely tanked their bid.

After today’s seminar I went back to review the Bar Association’s applications from 2017 and 2019. I was shocked to see that the Association’s 2019 grant application was a word-for-word cut-and-paste job from its prior 2017 application. It was exactly the same answers to the questions!

In contrast, Bet Tzedek’s application dug deep: it acknowledged changes in our rent stabilization ordinance (the Bar Association had not; and it spoke with an advocate’s voice. In contrast the Bar Association basically phoned it in: terse answers and little sense of how it would serve Beverly Hills tenants’ interests. And when the Association’s CEO can’t bother to acknowledge a tenant advocate’s outreach about grant money for the organization, well, that says something too.

I can’t know the Bar Association’s motives for organizing this event or holding weekly Saturday “free legal clinics” at Roxbury Park. Presumably good guidance will be indeed dispensed for free at the upcoming sessions. But if it’s about career-building referrals then I’ll stick with Bet Tzedek’s regular Monday morning appointments at Roxbury Park. Have a tenant legal question? Reach Bet Tzedek at this Beverly Hills program extension: (323) 939–0506 extension 499.

Beverly Hills Bar Association legal seminar refreshments
At least the refreshments included real coffee and real dairy creamer. Take a lesson, Beverly Hills rent stabilization office!