Habitability Comes to the Rent Stabilization Commission

The Beverly Hills Rent Stabilization Commission on November 3rd will discuss a rent stabilization ordinance amendment concerning a new habitability standard for rent-stabilized housing, housing inspections and other policies related to maintenance of the rental housing stock. This is not the first city policy discussion about it. Fifteen years ago City Council considered and rejected a rental housing inspection program that might have made all the difference to tenants today. Will this time be any different?

Tenants complain about interior repairs not completed, poor property maintenance, and a hazardous condition like mold that is allowed to fester. These complaints are as old as our rental housing stock! And those complaints keep coming. The rent stabilization division reported receiving 74 habitability-related calls for only July and August — more than one every day.

That should be no surprise because some rental property owners in the city — perhaps a majority — practice what is known as ‘managed decline.’ That’s where the landlord allows his housing systems like plumbing and electrical to age past their useful life; where water damage is repaired only cosmetically and mold is left to grow; and where general conditions trend toward dilapidation.

You can see it on a stroll around town. It’s the peeling paint, broken shutters, roofs with tarps and obvious safety problems that mark a property as an example of managed decline.

Yet these uncaring landlords continue to collect the rent while skipping the maintenance so that as much as 70 cents on each rental dollar goes to net income (profit). Many such landlords have operated their properties like that for decades. We comment on one in a recent post, The Challenge of Holding a Nuisance Landlord to Account.

Why can landlords continue on in this fashion despite the city’s concern for appearances? Two principle reasons: 1) City of Beverly Hills has not adopted a local habitability standard beyond the bare-bones requirement in state law that a dwelling need be fit only for human habitation; and 2) because our city is not proactive about identifying problems in rental housing that beg for repair even under the state’s lax standard.

Here’s a fun fact: of those 74 habitability-related complaints received by the rent stabilization division there were exactly ZERO referrals to code enforcement for a habitability-related complaint. No case was opened. That 0-for–74 record is not at all a surprise to Renters Alliance: we regularly field complaints from tenants about habitability issues but must point out that under the city’s nonexistent local habitability standard it gets a pass unless it is a pressing safety concern.

We have made it a specialty to assist rent-stabilized tenants in distinguishing actionable conditions prohibited by state or local law from conditions that those laws do not address. We also go to bat for tenants at city hall when the civic gears grind too slowly.

The Need for a Habitability Standard

State law is long-winded in many aspects but downright succinct when it comes to protecting tenants from conditions that are not fit for human habitation. In brief a ‘tenantable’ unit must have:

Effective waterproofing and weather protection of roof and exterior walls

Secure (i.e. unbroken and with locks) windows and doors

Plumbing, gas and heating facilities which conformed to applicable law in effect at the time of installation and in working order

Electrical lighting with wiring and electrical equipment maintained in working order

All areas under the control of the landlord kept in clean and sanitary conditions and free from rubbish, rodents and vermin

There is no mention in our rent stabilization ordinance about keeping furnishings and fixtures in repair, nor is there any remedy available to the tenant if the landlord fails to keep them good repair. We know of landlords that claim to lease premises with major appliances in ‘as-is’ condition: if it breaks it’s on the tenant to fix.

Mention mold it to a city staffer, for example, and they duck-and-cover! We go into much more detail with examples in our post, Interior Habitability: Weak Standard, Few Violations.

Exterior maintenance fares only slightly better and that’s because the city is concerned with appearances. Broken or loose building elements will get addressed. Serious structural defects will get addressed. Signs of dilapidation? Not so much! Have a look at our Exterior Code Violation Spotter’s Guide.

These problems suggest the need for a local habitability standard and that is what will come before our Rent Stabilization commissioners this Wednesday. From the staff report:

The City Council discussed possible amendments to the RSO to establish Beverly Hills habitability standards, proactive inspections, a mediation board to address habitability violations and associated rent reductions, and to restrict rent increases if the property has habitability violations….Staff encourages the Commission to discuss what, if any, revisions should be recommended to the City Council to be made to the RSO to add Beverly Hills habitability standards, proactive inspections, a mediation board to address habitability violations and associated rent reductions, and to restrict rent increases [due to failure to maintain] for both Chapter 5 and Chapter 6 of the RSO.

The discussion will focus on these four components:

  1. A Beverly Hills habitability standard that exceeds state standards;
  2. A proactive inspection program to systematize assessment of the “habitability status” of the rental stock;
  3. A city body that would adjudicate habitability violations, consider rent reductions or to simply work as a mediation board to “assist the parties to mediate their habitability concerns”; and,
  4. An amendment to the rent stabilization ordinance to prohibit the landlord from taking the maximum allowable annual rent increase if the property is not in compliance with the habitability standard.

That is a lot to consider and the staff report provides an awful lot to chew on. Specifically it offers four policy options even before our commissioners have spent a minute on the issue. If you thought that relocation fees was tough — five meetings and counting — just imagine the challenge of ginning up a new habitability standard and inspection regime!

Causes for Concern

One major cause for our concern is that the staff report includes no recent data on substantiated code complaints related to habitability. Surely there are some; we have filed dozens of them. So we can’t imagine it is difficult to run a report and provide that to the commissioners. Just how big is this problem anyway?

Or the rent stabilization division could identify the top 5 or 10 concerns as expressed by tenants in calls to the division about habitability. The division receives hundreds of such habitability calls every year. Where is that important information? Instead we have a stale one-pager description of complaints (page 29) in the staff report that looks like it was penned in 10 minutes.

Another cause for concern is that we see signs in the staff report that city staff have provided some escape hatches to allow the Rent Stabilization Commission to slip away from taking a stand with a tough habitability standard and inspection regime. Consider these policy options:

  • Policy option #1: no change. “This policy package would allow for the current enforcement of habitability through the City’s current complaint-based enforcement program.” That’s a nonstarter. Five years of inaction since the city moved to amend the rent stabilization ordinance is not an option. Literally it’s not an option. So let’s look only at options #2–4.
  • Policy option #2: Self-certification inspection program and creation of a mediation board. For one thing, a self-certification program is what it sounds like: an honor system for landlords. Landlords inspecting their own properties not only won’t work — just look at the rental stock! — but this is an invitation to inspect tenant premises under the guise of a city requirement. And another thing is that we don’t see the need to mediate a habitability complaint: it either succeeds based on allegations and then is investigated; or the complaint is dismissed because the reported conditions don’t rise to a level of concern under the law. What’s to mediate?
  • Policy option #3: This is the whole enchilada: annual inspections, mandatory replacement of carpets and window treatments,  mediation board and a rent-reduction clause. It’s the option we like but it is so packed with good that it is the ‘poison pill.’  The commission can dismiss it out of hand.
  • Policy option #4: Self-certification process and mediation board. We had to read this twice to distinguish it from option #2. The difference is a self-certification inspection versus a self-certification process.  This option is even worse than #2 because it rejects the inspection requirement entirely.

Inspection is the Key

The great value to an inspection program run by the city is that it would assess conditions across our rental stock and flag the maintenance and safety problems, both interior and exterior, that need immediate attention. The inspection would also establish a baseline for future inspections.

That’s why we’re especially concerned about policy options like ‘self-certification.’ That will let problem landlords continue to skate from their responsibilities and, perhaps more important to city hall, will relieve the city of its responsibility to ensure that rental housing remains habitable to whatever standard we set for ourselves.

We’ve heard all of this before. That’s why it is important to remain vigilant and on-guard, always looking for sleight-of-hand tricks like policy options that substitute weak policies for sound policies because it is less work, costs less money, or, worse, because city hall thinks we won’t even notice.

Have Your Say

Find the Rent Stabilization Commission agenda online and refer to item #4 under new business when contacting the commission. You can phone in a comment just as the item is being introduced at the meeting on November 3rd after 6 pm. Call 310–285–1020 and tell the receptionist which item you are calling about. Or send an email prior to the meeting to commentRSC@beverlyhills.org and note in the subject line that it is comment on agenda item #4 habitability.

Do you have a concern about habitability violations at your property? Please get in touch with Renters Alliance!