Habitability Comes Back to the Rent Stabilization Commission

On January 5th the Rent Stabilization Commission continues its habitability discussion and will likely decide whether or not Beverly Hills should create a local standard for minimum conditions in rental housing — and whether we need a rental housing inspection program to ensure landlords meet the standard. Today the city defaults to the state’s minimum standard — fit for human habitation — and with no systematic inspection some landlords fail to even meet that low bar. Let’s look at the commission’s prior discussions and what to look forward to at the next meeting.

By way of review let’s revisit the commission’s first two meetings about habitability. We want to offer a brief summary and key documents and video links so that tenants at home who don’t tune into the commission meetings have some idea what the commission is talking about. The rent stabilization division gives tenants no heads-up about these meetings and provides no after-the-fact report. Let Renters Alliance keep you informed.

November 3, 2021 meeting

This is the third time the Rent Stabilization Commission has discussed habitability. In November the commission received an 11 minute introductory presentation on the issues from Helen Morales, deputy director of the rent stabilization division. She described the bare-minimum state standards for a ‘tenantable’ dwelling under state law to set the stage.

However the presentation was not only short but light on substance. There were no actual tenant habitability complaints referenced or reproduced in the accompanying November staff report, for example. The discussion lasted barely 40 minutes and half of that time was to present four policy options which were recycled from a 2018 habitability memo. One option was to make no change to the current system. That option would keep the current complaint-driven system that makes tenants the city’s amateur housing inspectors. A second policy option proposed a whole-enchilada option including a local habitability standard, a rental housing inspection program, a replacement schedule for apartment fixtures and furnishings and specific penalties too.

Another two of the four policy options would implement a ‘self-certification’ system. In one of those options the landlord would ‘self-certify’ that the premises meet the habitability standard without an inspection. In the other option the landlord self-certifies but tenants have to sign-off in agreement. Neither of these options includes a city inspection. These are honor system options. The city likes self-certification because the RSO division only needs to file a form.

Again all of these four policy options were simply recycled verbatim from a 2018 habitability memo.

What was missing from the November staff report and the RSO division’s presentations were tenant voices. Despite two years of public meetings where habitability was a consistent concern among tenants, the habitability staff report did not reproduce or reference any specific comment.  There was only a one-page bullet list of the most common habitability complaints recycled from 2018. The bullet list was provided to the commission on page 29 of a 32-page staff report but as far as we remember was not referenced at all.

For the full picture of the November meeting find the video online.

December 1, 2021 meeting

At the next meeting in December Helen Morales returned with an even shorter (six minute) presentation and a brief 4-page December staff report. The tone of the December discussion was set when she told the commission that habitability calls were on the decrease and that relatively few cases are opened anyway.

Habitability cases table FY2020-21
The table presented to Rent Stabilization commissioners in the December 1, 2021 PowerPoint presentation.

And RSO division’s figures do support the claim. Habitability calls showed a sharp decrease in the July 2020 to June 2021 fiscal year compared to the prior fiscal year. Of course FY2020-21 was the year of the pandemic shutdown!

Her presentation also noted that only 30 habitability-related code enforcement cases were opened last year (as this table shows). In one-quarter of those cases there was no substantiated violation; half of the cases were marked ‘resolved’ though no specifics were offered to the commission about them. In no case was there a description of the nature of those calls or cases or whether any case actually proceeded to a substantiated violation.

Commissioners asked about those cases. How big a problem is it? Do we have a lot of slumlords in Beverly Hills? “I don’t know that I would call it slumlords, but we do get complaints,” replied code enforcement officer Michal Masini. “I don’t know if I would use that for people who have violations sometimes not on purpose. But we do deal with it fairly regularly.”

Incoming commission Chair Donna Tryfman was inclined to see a smaller problem than a larger one. “I am encouraged we only had 30 habitability calls into staff [last year],” she said. “I think that is pretty good, especially since we have such a high percentage of rentals in the city.”

A fuller picture of the data show that tenants are much more concerned about habitability than Morales’s presentation and table of cases would suggest. Buried in the staff report is a table that shows that the rent stabilization division was receiving more than 600 habitability-related calls each year prior to the pandemic shutdown. That’s more than fifty per month on average.

Yet only about 1-in–10 of the habitability calls results in a code enforcement case. Fewer still proceeded to a violation. We brought together three tables presented at different times in different staff reports to show how a large volume of tenant habitability calls get winnowed down to relatively few cases and violations.

Habitability calls and complaints comparison tables FY2018-21
These three tables were presented to the Rent Stabilization Commission at different times so they were not shown together. From top to bottom the total incoming habitability-related calls to the rent stabilization division; the number of cases actually opened; and the number of violations — just 5% of the total fiscal year 2020-21 incoming calls. Shouldn’t that small fraction of calls that result in a correctable violation prompt a question: What are the rest of the habitability calls if not habitability violations? (Illustration: Renters Alliance.)

That difference between tenant habitability calls and cases opened highlights the key problem: those calls represent tenant habitability problmes but most of those problems are not technically a violation under the city’s rent stabilization ordinance and state law. For example complaints about old paint, worn carpets, inoperable appliances, poor maintenance of common areas and even suspected mold in the apartment don’t qualify. That is precisely why tenants are calling for a higher habitability standard: so that those conditions cannot persist in Beverly Hills.

We know what concerns tenants because tenants have showed up to more than a dozen public meetings over the course of two years to give City Council an earful about unsatisfactory living conditions. But again the commission was not provided with a substantive representation of those tenant habitability concerns or complaints. Throughout the December meeting commissioners didn’t once reference the bullet list of habitability complaint topics from 2018 which was provided to the commission the month prior.

If commissioners aren’t talking about what is bothering tenants, how can the commission credibly entertain a recommendation related to habitability standards?

The commission’s December discussion lasted just over an hour at which time commission chair Lou Milkowski seemed prepared to usher his fellow commissioners toward a decision. Were commissioners prepared to make a motion on any of the four policy options? The two landlord commissioners wanted the no-change option; they were ready to vote. The other commissioners couldn’t agree though and the discussion was continued to January. For the full picture of the December meeting find the video online.

Looking Ahead: What to Expect on January 5th

The Rent Stabilization Commission will continue the discussion about habitability at the January 5th meeting. The January staff report frames the discussion with four questions:

  1. Whether to establish Beverly Hills habitability/maintenance standards that go beyond the state standards, such as requiring units to be painted periodically;
  2. Whether to establish a proactive City inspection process in addition to the existing complaint-based process;
  3. Whether to have the Commission act as an administrative hearing board to determine habitability violations and associated rent reductions; and
  4. Whether to restrict the annual rent increase for properties with ongoing or unaddressed habitability violations during the time when there is a failure to comply with habitability/maintenance standards.

The one question that is not posed in the staff report seems like the most important question that should be answered: What can the city do to improve the housing conditions that have prompt 600 calls each year to the rent stabilization division?

The staff report provided isn’t much help to the commission: it consists of one page of new material and 100 pages of repackaged prior reports and attachments that commissioners tend not to reference anyway. As a public service Renters Alliance has separated the wheat from the chaff. Below we post the key documents and skip the rest. If past experience is any guide the commission may well decide the habitability issue at the January meeting without seeing a single tenant complaint — and probably move to adopt a recommendation without tenant-commissioner support.

What’s Wrong With This Picture?

The fact that 9-in–10 tenant habitability calls don’t get traction with the city should be the focus of this discussion. The fact is that most calls don’t result in a code enforcement case because the rent stabilization ordinance is silent on the problems tenants are reporting. That includes for example the renewal of furnishings; landlords are not required to replace carpets or to repaint. The ordinance does not specify a maintenance standard so some landlords can allow their properties to fall into disrepair. A serious issues like visible mold is referred by the rent stabilization division to the county Department of Health and Safety.

This is a system that is easily gamed by unscrupulous landlords. That’s why fifteen years ago city building officials proposed a systematic rental housing inspection program. Their objective: “To ensure that all residential multi-family rental dwelling units meet and exceed minimum habitability standards…. [and] to ensure the on-going quality, maintenance and safety of the City’s aging multi-family housing.” The problems that program would have addressed are as relevant today as in 2006! Unfortunately the commission didn’t hear any reference to that proposal even though an inspection program is a discussion topic.

What else didn’t commissioners see? No tenant’s habitability complaint. There was no visual evidence of substandard housing conditions even though over many years our code enforcement division has received such complaints with documentation. We know because Renters Alliance has filed those complaints. We recount one such experience apartment shopping at 421 South Maple. Read more: ‘Fit for Human Habitation’ is Too Low a Habitability Standard.

Suggestions for the Commission

Understand tenants’ habitability concerns

Incredibly the commission was presented with no specifics about the 600 habitability-related calls that the rent stabilization division receives each year. Commissioners had no breakdown of the nature of the habitability code enforcement cases filed. They read none of the comments that tenants had spoken or written in years of public meetings. The commission simply doesn’t have an understanding of the problem.

Acknowledge the insufficiency of the ‘fit for human habitation’ standard

If the city is receiving so many calls about housing conditions but only 1-in–10 results in a complaint (and far fewer in a substantiated violation) then we have to ask if the habitability standard meets our needs. This is the crux of the issue! But without sufficient information to understand the problem, the commission couldn’t be expected to assess whether a local habitability standard could be the fix.

Recognize that some landlords are not meeting their maintenance obligation

The landlord must at the very least ensure the property meets health and safety regulations — and most do meet that low standard. But some landlords allow the property to descend into disrepair and dilapidation. That puts in jeopardy our supply of naturally-occurring relatively-affordable housing. Rental housing is a renewable resource but it must be renewed — and that means replacement of housing systems such as plumbing and electrical.

Distinguish between maintenance and improvement

This is another key point not addressed by the commission! Maintenance is necessary to ensure that a tenant continues to enjoy conditions comparable to when the premises were leased. Improvement represents investment that results in a qualitative change in the premises for which higher rent may be demanded. Landlords like to conflate these concepts to sometimes imply is that maintenance should be rewarded with higher rents as if it is not a responsibility that comes with providing the housing in exchange for rent. Improvements may be rewarded with higher rents — but not maintenance for which rent is already paid.

Mandate a replacement schedule for furnishings and fixtures

West Hollywood takes this approach: some furnishings like paint and carpet must be replaced on a 7-year schedule. But our landlord commissioners summarily rejected the idea without discussing, for example, that tenants may live with paint and carpets for decades without a refresh (at the discretion of the landlord). Had the commission been willing to discuss it, we would have pointed commissioners to an amortization table for major repairs, replacement and maintenance in subsection 4–6–11(B)(7) of the rent stabilization ordinance. If landlords can depreciate the cost of flooring over 7 years, why not adopt that period as the replacement schedule? Likewise major appliances can be depreciated over 7 to 10 years. Is it unreasonable that appliances should be replaced on a similar schedule? The commission never discussed it because the rent stabilization division never brought to their attention the amortization table.

Consider the benefit of a systematic rental housing inspection program

One of the benefits of a systematic program is that it provides as assessment of the current state of our rental housing stock. The city hasn’t systematically surveyed rental housing in two decades; until three years ago city hall couldn’t say how many residential multifamily properties were rent-stabilized. A rental housing inspection program would identify the most serious health and safety issues for immediate action and direct the city’s limited enforcement resources more efficiently.

Specify sanctions for landlords when they refuse to repair and maintain

Our rent stabilization ordinance is notably light on specific penalties for landlords. In nearly every instance of landlord misconduct, for example, the tenant has to take her landlord to court. Were there specific and actionable penalties written into our ordinance, then we could ensure that the city holds the landlord to account for failing to repair and maintain. At a minimum that could be a temporary rent reduction but we are really more interested to use sanctions to connect the dots and identify landlords who suggest a pattern and practice of refusing to repair and maintain.

Disallow landlords to game the city’s lax enforcement regime

Time and again we have heard landlords recommend the city double-down on the current enforcement system rather than implement something new. We heard that from the landlords on the commission too. They like the current system because it is not an efficient system and it often fails to hold problem landlords to account. Long enforcement timelines and paper-tiger threats of prosecution too often allow landlords to skate on their maintenance obligations. Again, specific sanctions written into the rent stabilization ordinance would reduce the opportunity to game the code enforcement system.

There is a lot more the commission should discuss about habitability, inspections and enforcement. But what they need is to hear from tenants. Have your say! The Rent Stabilization Commission meets at 6pm on Wednesday, January 5th. You can phone in a comment as the issue is introduced by calling 310–285–1020. Tell the receptionist you want to comment on item #4: possible ordinance amendments regarding habitability. Or send an email prior to the meeting to commentRSC@beverlyhills.org and note in the subject line, ‘Comment on agenda item #4 habitability.’ Find the agenda online. If you can’t write or call in you can at least watch the meeting at home on Channel 10 or streaming online.

Referenced Resources

Habitability staff report (January 5, 2022)

Habitability staff report (December 1, 2021)

Habitability staff report (November 3, 2021)

Table of calls to the rent stabilization division FY2018-21

Habitability checklist (exhibit 4 in the November staff report)

Rental housing inspection program staff report (November 7, 2006)

Amortization table B.H.M.C. 4–6–11

Related Renters Alliance Explainers

Exterior Maintenance: Our Code Violation Spotter’s Guide

Interior Habitability: Weak Standard, Few Violations

Clean & Sanitary: The Most Basic Multifamily Maintenance Standard

How to File a Code Enforcement Complaint

Code Enforcement: A Primer

TCM Fest O’Pests Reminds Us: Close Those Gaps!

Terms Explained: Habitable vs. Tenantable

Related Renters Alliance Posts

Habitability Comes to the Rent Stabilization Commission

Time for a Systematic Housing Inspection Program!