The Challenge of Holding a Nuisance Landlord to Account

State law says that a tenant who is “maintaining, committing, or permitting the maintenance or commission of a nuisance” on the premises has effectively terminated his lease. The landlord can petition the court for restitution of possession of the premises upon serving the tenant only a 3-day notice. It is an effective means of dealing with the nuisance and preserving the quiet enjoyment of the premises for both landlord and other tenants. But no provision in state law protects tenants when it is the landlord himself who is the nuisance!

Take for example 201 South Reeves (also known as 9428/9430 Charleville). This 8-unit corner apartment house is well-known to neighbors for conditions at the property. It is in regular violation of Beverly Hills municipal code section 5-7-3.

Any person, or the agent thereof, owning, leasing, occupying, or having charge or possession of any premises in the city, shall keep and maintain such premises and the right of way abutting such premises in a safe, clean, orderly, sanitary and aesthetic condition. — B.H.M.C. 5–7–3(a)

The language plainly says the property owner must keep his property clean. And most Beverly Hills landlords do. But not Dr. Stephen Copen.

At 201 South Reeves the litter goes uncollected, the lawn goes unwatered, whatever grass survives goes uncut and the corner tree goes untrimmed. Tenants at 201 Reeves, as well as neighbors and visitors to South Beverly, must suffer the blight at this property on a daily basis. We all know a nuisance when we see one.

In this regard the property is not unique in Copen’s portfolio of five rental properties on Reeves. His apartment house at 133 South Reeves is also strewn with litter. All of the five Copen properties on Reeves betray some kind of neglect. Past complaints have called-out peeling paint, broken shutters, crumbling retaining walls, leaking plumbing and, at 156 South Reeves, overhead garage doors so deteriorated that they presented a clear and present danger to passers-by for months.

In each case the maintenance came only after we filed of one or more complaints with the Community Preservation division at city hall. No doubt Copen is a sort of frequent-flier there. Code enforcement is simply part of this landlord’s maintenance program evidently.

Community Preservation case CP2100553

The litter, trash and debris that blighted 201 South Reeves became too much for the community to bear. Neighbors talked about it; complaints were filed. We filed our own complaint on April 3, 2021 with documentary evidence.

“Owner Stephen Copen will not maintain his 201 S Reeves property without filing a complaint apparently. Trash has been strewn about the front yards and parkways since at least March 23rd as the images show. He visited the property on 3/28 and the trash remains today.”

201 S Reeves conditions complaint March 2021201 S Reeves conditions complaint March 2021201 S Reeves conditions complaint March 2021201 S Reeves conditions complaint March 2021

A few days later in April we added an addendum: “This ongoing problem continues today. I’d like to share an image from this morning.”

201 S Reeves conditions complaint April 2021On May 10th the trash and litter was still present. Adding to the problem, a resident at the property, known to neighbors for disruptive behavior, evidently placed food and other organic matter onto the parkway along Charleville.

Again and again we reached out to Community Preservation about this “continuing nuisance” as we called it. The violation we cited was pulled right from the code: “Failure to maintain landscaping (overgrowth adjacent to meter shed and in parkway near utility boxes) and trash littered about the property,” is how we put it. The blight continued through May and beyond.

201 S Reeves conditions complaint May 9, 2021201 S Reeves conditions complaint May 10, 2021201 S Reeves conditions complaint May 31, 2021

Aware that the city had issued at least one citation for the violation, we followed up on June 6th about the non-compliance and provided more images such as this one.

201 S Reeves conditions complaint June 1, 2021

To put a fine point on it we even started to notate on the images the relevant code sections.

201 S Reeves conditions annotated June 1, 2021

This morning, while walking back from South Beverly, we snapped a few more pics to show 201 South Reeves in its dilapidated splendor.

201 S Reeves June 7thThat came three months after we reported the conditions at 201 South Reeves and yet the nuisance conditions remain: litter; dying landscaping; untrimmed grass, hedges and trees and, in general, an overall condition that does not reflect well on Beverly Hills.

City Responds

After each contact about 201 South Reeves the Community Preservation division took a step to compel landlord Stephen Copen to clean-up his premises.

  • Community Preservation division formally opened a complaint (#CP2100553) in March.
  • A code enforcement inspector visited the property soon after and issued a notice to clean the property.
  • When the date for compliance came-and-went a first citation was issued for non-compliance.
  • A second citation was issued when the compliance deadline passed yet again without action and a new compliance date was established: June 15.

When we followed-up yet again today the inspector gave us an update. “Following our protocol, if the property remains in violation a final third citation will be issued before sending the case to our City Prosecutor.”

It may yet take the city prosecutor to get Stephen Copen to clean-up the premises. But we can’t fault the city because the law provides limited means to abate a nuisance condition when it is the landlord himself who is the nuisance!

The Challenge of the Nuisance Landlord

State law is clear on how to abate a nuisance when the tenant is at fault. The landlord serves a 3-day notice and takes the tenant to court because maintaining a nuisance is not a correctable violation. The state Code of Civil Procedure explicitly states that maintaining a nuisance is grounds for the immediate termination of a lease:

Any tenant, subtenant, or executor or administrator of his or her estate heretofore qualified and now acting, or hereafter to be qualified and act, assigning or subletting or committing waste upon the demised [i.e. leased] premises, contrary to the conditions or covenants of his or her lease, or maintaining, committing, or permitting the maintenance or commission of a nuisance upon the demised premises or using the premises for an unlawful purpose, thereby terminates the lease, and the landlord, or his or her successor in estate, shall upon service of three days’ notice to quit upon the person or persons in possession, be entitled to restitution of possession of the demised premises under this chapter. -- CCP 1161(4)

When the landlord is the nuisance there is no state statute that allows for the immediate termination of his property interest, of course, so we must take him to court. The next available remedy is to work within the existing code enforcement process (which we have done).

But as the case of 201 South Reeves shows, it can take many months to hold a landlord to account. That means much time and effort for us and many wasted hours for city staff.  What is needed is a sort of watchlist for nuisance landlords coupled with effective sanctions. Otherwise it is a game of whack-a-mole for tenants, neighbors and the broader community while the landlord cashes the rent checks.