City of Los Angeles is poised to enact a comprehensive ‘Tenant Anti-Harassment Ordinance’ to enact sanctions and remedies when residential landlords engage in lawful and unlawful actions intended to influence tenants to vacate. Notably it establishes civil penalties up to $10,000 per violation and criminal misdemeanor fines up to $1,000 for each offense. With this ordinance Los Angeles will protect tenants at the very moment when tenants are the most vulnerable to unscrupulous practices.
Los Angeles city council on June 9th agree to add to the municipal code a new article (5.3) that would broadly define harassment of tenants as a “knowing and willful course of conduct directed at a specific tenant or tenants that causes detriment or harm, and that serves no lawful purpose.”
The proposed anti-harassment ordinance would expand tenant protections beyond the current prohibition on harassment in retaliation against a tenant on the basis of immigration or citizenship status. Indeed it would extend anti-harassment protection to all tenants in all rental units including single family residences and condominiums. Only Santa Monica has on the books such an expansive prohibition.
Harassment Broadly Defined
Among the specific examples of landlord conduct that are called out in the amended draft ordinance:
- Failing to perform and timely complete necessary repairs and maintenance required by law or local housing, health, and safety codes;
- Failing to follow industry standards to minimize exposure to noise dust, lead paint, asbestos, or other building materials with potentially harmful health impacts;
- Attempting to coerce the tenant to vacate with offers(s) of payments; and,
- Disclosing, or threatening to disclose, information about a tenant to any government entity to influence them to vacate.
The precision in the ordinance’s description of prohibited conduct underscores the very need for a law that takes square aim at unscrupulous landlord conduct:
It shall be a misdemeanor to attempt to interfere with the peaceful enjoyment, use, possession or occupancy of any premises by the lawful lessee or tenant of such premises either by threat, fraud, intimidation, coercion, duress, or by the maintenance or toleration of a public nuisance, or by cutting off heat, light, water, fuel or free communication by anyone by mail, telephone or otherwise, or by restricting trade or tradesmen from or to any such tenant. This subsection shall not apply to a duly authorized officer pursuant to the authority of legal process. — Section 45.33
It is important to note that the conduct addressed in the anti-harassment legislation is not explicitly unlawful. In fact it criminalizes otherwise lawful conduct when the intent is to coerce a vacancy, to intimidate a tenant into relinquishing rights, or even to accept a cash-for-keys buyout offer. Read the draft ordinance and the adopted amendments to get a sense of the breadth of the law.
Penalties and Sanctions
The draft Tenant Anti-Harassment Ordinance not only expands the scope of conduct that could constitute harassment of tenants but it also provides for stiff penalties.
As agreed by city council, the civil penalty — what a tenant could realize in court — rises to $10,000 per violation. That is just at the threshold for small claims court. However tenants older than 65, or who are disabled, can bring an action for $15,000 per violation. Additionally, tenants could be relocated or provided other relief “as adjudged by the court.”
The civil actions acts as an incentive to tenant-advocacy nonprofits and private attorneys who would go to court on a tenant’s behalf to stop the offending conduct. Because tenants can recover attorney fees and sue for punitive damages there are added incentives for taking a tenant’s case.
More important, the anti-harassment ordinance treats covered conduct as a criminal violation to be charged as a misdemeanor with a $1,000 fine for each offense. The relatively small penalty belies the key benefit of criminalizing the conduct: it opens the landlord to city prosecution which is a real disincentive to unscrupulous landlords.
We are big supporters of criminalizing conduct in addition to providing tenants with a civil remedy. And so is Councilmember Gil Cedillo (CD1). “We should have a process — administrative hearings — to solve these tenants’ problems in a timely way,” he said, “so tenants don’t have to go to court [to get relief].”
Cedillo may have helped to move this ordinance through the council’s first reading, but the star of the discussion was Councilmember Nithya Raman (CD4).
Nithya Raman is a highly-educated city planner and was elected in 2020 by unseating an incumbent councilmember (a rarity in Los Angeles). She promptly brought a more progressive — and pro-tenant — perspective to the office. “The more vulnerable the tenant,” she said at the meeting, the more likely they are to be affected by harassment and to be displaced by harassment.”
The draft ordinance (as amended) sailed through a first reading on June 9th where Raman successfully added a raft of amendments to the draft ordinance to make it more effective. And she beat-back a push by landlords which first tried to derail the ordinance shortly after was proposed nearly four years ago; and then tried to water it down in committee earlier this year.
Despite their efforts this robust anti-harassment ordinance looks set for adoption on second reading and that should put an end to the most egregious unscrupulous conduct in the City of Los Angeles. Heck it’s already doing its job! The Apartment Association of Greater Los Angeles has already posted a webinar titled, Learn Effective and Safe Tenant Communications. Indeed!
Whither Beverly Hills?
The Beverly Hills rent stabilization ordinance is silent on tenant harassment just like it is silent where it comes to many tenant protections we find in neighboring localities. Tenants in Beverly Hills have no right-to-council (though means-tested tenants can contact city legal services provider Bet Tzedek). We have no rental housing inspection program so it falls on the tenant to report problems like water damage and mold and then hope that code enforcement steps up.
Most important, the Beverly Hills rent stabilization ordinance does not classify any unscrupulous landlord conduct as criminal no matter how egregious it may be. We’ve heard from tenants about landlords that enter without notice, or harass and intimidate senior households, and even in one case that planted a hidden camera inside the premises rented by the tenant. The city simply points tenants to the few civil remedies that exist in the ordinance. But that won’t help a tenant looking for immediate relief — or who cannot find an attorney willing to work on contingency.
When it comes to stopping landlord harassment, the Beverly Hills tenant is advised to look to the federal Fair Housing Act. When conduct can be tied to a violation of that act a tenant may find some support from Housing Rights Center which focuses on discrimination complaints. Find them at 3255 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 1150 Los Angeles, CA 90010 or call (213) 201–0867.