The Wheels Have Fallen Off the Rent Stabilization Commission

On the Rent Stabilization Commission’s March 3rd agenda was action item: relocation fees. Commissioners had earlier reached consensus on reducing the relocation fee but this fourth round of discussion was to nail down the many details yet to be decided. Just three minutes into the meeting, though, after the pledge and roll call, it came to an abrupt end. No business could be done because no tenant representative was on hand. This was the moment when the wheels finally came off.

To be sure the wheels were wobbly long before the March meeting was cancelled. The commission had ended its January meeting after only four minutes and for the same reason: lack of quorum. A quorum is the minimum number of commissioners required to do business and the tenant representatives were absent.

Most commissions number five members and three at a minimum must be present to take a vote. The Rent Stabilization Commission is different. City council established it as a six member body composed of two tenants, two landlords and two are at-large members (they are neither a tenant nor do they own rental property in Beverly Hills). There is also an appointed ‘alternate’ for each category to sub when a regular voting member is absent.

If two tenant representatives are absent there is no quorum even if a tenant-alternate does attend. This was the case at the March meeting. “With the roll call it appears that we do not have a quorum because we are down two tenant commissioners,” said the staff secretary. Chair Lou Milkowski (an at-large member) adjourned it. “Sorry about this and thank you for being here.”

Left in the lurch were four commissioners and at least one alternate. City staff standing by were Helen Morales, deputy director of the rent stabilization program; recently-appointed community development director Ryan Gohlich; and city attorney office staffer Robin Harris.

The challenges for this commission have extended beyond only attendance. Each meeting has been marked by circuitous and sometimes digressive discussions that gets bogged down in points of law or ancillary or immaterial questions. Ever-present is the tension that permeates tenant-landlord policy discussions and the occasional suggestion of bad faith poisons the water. Two steps forward and one step back.

City council established the Rent Stabilization Commission in April of 2019 to recommend changes to the rent stabilization ordinance regarding the relocation fee, the maximum allowed rent increase, potential exemptions from rent stabilization, and about six other topics. City council subsequently expanded its charge to also hear appeals in cases where the landlord had denied rent forbearance to COVID-affected tenants.

Early progress was hopeful: commissioners found unanimous agreement last August to eliminate major remodeling as a lawful reason for tenancy termination and to reject a tenant’s COVID appeal. Commissioners found quick agreement each month to approve the draft minutes and established the commission’s regular meeting day & time with little discord.

Since then progress has been halting. Commission consensus on the relocation fee discussion remains elusive after three rounds. After three rounds a split commission decided not to substantially discuss the regulation of cash-for-keys buyouts even as council requested a recommendation. (That leaves Beverly Hills an outlier among rent-control cities in not regulating the agreements.) There was the COVID tenant appeal that dragged on for three meetings while another was withdrawn minutes before the hearing was to begin.

It seems like commissioners are a bit frustrated with serving on the commission and who can blame them? The city did not prepare commissioners for the task. Tenant-landlord policy is complex and it is a lot to ask volunteer appointees to master the details without sufficient training. This is a specialty area for attorneys and even landlord associations and tenant organizations alike hire policy directors to make sense it. (Read more: The Landlord-Tenant Law Layer Cake Explained.)

Our Take

Having listened to every meeting (and many on video replay) we have two observations to make about the Rent Stabilization Commission.

Commissioners make a good-faith effort. These are first-time commissioners (all but the chair) who had to become familiar with the commission process. That includes the city’s commission rules (an entire handbook is devoted to it) and the state’s ethics and sunshine laws. It doesn’t help that these meetings started during the pandemic and have been exclusively virtual. Not only is the opportunity to build camaraderie limited because each commissioner sits in a Hollywood square; the technology itself can be a barrier to effective communication.

Commissioners were poorly prepared by the city. Without much prior knowledge about tenant-landlord law they were thrown into the deep end with just a minimum of education and training. Literally just a few minutes. Consider the inaugural June commission meeting. RSO director Helen Morales provided commissioners with a condensed history of the the rent stabilization ordinance.

“I’m going to go as quickly as I can through this,” Helen said, as she parceled out 30 seconds on the RSO mission, one minute on the commission’s purpose, 30 seconds for an overview of the city’s rental housing stock, and one minute on the history of rent stabilization in Beverly Hills. Over the next 8 minutes she described the rent stabilization ordinance’s most important provisions.

All told these commissioners —  most of them unfamiliar with the ordinance —  were brought up to speed in 11 minutes flat.

Next up was the commission’s responsibility to adjudicate tenant COVID-19 appeals. Robin Harris from the city attorney’s office took 7 minutes to give an overview of the COVID–19 tenant appeals process and then another 11 minutes about the importance of due process. Total prep time for COVID-19 appeals: fewer then twenty minutes.

The longest presentation of the meeting was from David Snow with the city attorney’s office. He schooled commissioners for more than an hour on commissions and the process and provided important information about conflicts-of-interest and ethics. The gist? “Don’t take a bribe,” he said.

This was this the longest and most detailed presentation because the city is protecting itself from any claim that the commission was not provided the proper guidance where conflicts and ethics is concerned. In comparison the rest of the tutorial was not as important.

As the meeting neared hour three, Helen observed, “everyone’s getting a little tired.” The chair with characteristic understatement seemed to agree. “We have our plate full.”

And that’s the problem in a nutshell: this commission has plenty on its plate but was simply unprepared for the complex business of tenant-landlord law and policy not to mention hearing appeals.

Want a 40-minute crash-course in Beverly Hills rent stabilization? Check out the June 3rd meeting video. Find all of the commission’s archived videos online.

"Don't take a bribe," cautioned city attorney David Snow
City attorney David Snow offers new Rent Stabilization commissioners good advice!