The harassment of tenants by unscrupulous landlords is a growing problem in Los Angeles. Although most evictions are banned right now due to the COVID-19 pandemic, housing advocates have reported increasing cases of landlords agitating or abusing their tenants in order to force them to vacate their residences. While this behavior is punishable by law in Santa Monica, San Francisco, and West Hollywood, the City of Los Angeles does not have a strong local ordinance to prosecute and punish landlords who are harassing their tenants, nor is the City proactive in identifying and prosecuting landlords who have a history of abusive behavior towards tenants.
After three years of discussion, the City Attorney released a draft Tenant Anti-Harassment Ordinance last month. This much-needed and long-overdue ordinance does two important things:
- First, it defines and codifies illegal harassment activities. The proposed ordinance defines harassment as “a landlord’s knowing and willful course of conduct directed at a specific tenant that seriously alarms or annoys the tenant, and that serves no legitimate purpose,” and prohibits harassing behavior, such as failing to perform unit repairs, refusing to acknowledge or accept lawful payments from tenants, and inquiring about a tenant’s immigration status.
- Second, it toughens civil and criminal penalties for landlords who are abusing their tenants. The ordinance would help tenants make a stronger legal case if they pursue a civil suit against an abusive landlord, and would establish criminal penalties for landlords who are convicted of tenant harassment. Landlords who are found guilty of criminal charges would face fines and possible jail time.
The City Council’s Housing Committee is voting on the ordinance on Wednesday, March 24, with a full vote of the City Council expected soon after. Here’s what else you need to know about the proposed tenant anti-harassment ordinance, and about your rights as a renter in the City of Los Angeles:
What are some examples of tenant harassment?
Tenant harassment can include: a landlord’s failure to perform requested repairs, entering the unit without proper notice, refusing to acknowledge or accept lawful payments from tenants, intentionally disturbing a tenant’s peace and quiet, violating a tenant’s right to privacy, inquiring about a tenant’s immigration status, or other dishonest or intimidating behavior.
Why do some landlords harass their tenants?
In rent-controlled apartments, large rent increases are only allowed when the apartment is vacant, and eviction is generally limited to “just cause” scenarios (for example, failure to pay rent). Dishonest landlords use harassment to force a tenant to “voluntarily” move out of an apartment (although they haven’t done anything wrong), in order to charge a higher rent to a new tenant.
What are the consequences for violating the new anti-harassment ordinance?
Landlords who violate the ordinance would be subject to civil and criminal penalties, including prosecution for an infraction or misdemeanor charge. If found guilty, the landlord would have to pay up to a $1,000 fine for each offense or serve up to six months of jail time. The penalties are stiffer if the tenant is over 65 years old.
Does the new ordinance fully solve the problem of tenant harassment?
Although the new anti-harassment ordinance is a major step in the right direction, there’s more that the City could do to protect renters’ rights:
- The City’s approach to enforcing renter protections is largely complaint-driven (i.e. it requires direct action by the tenant), and the ordinance does little to make this a proactive enforcement system. The public messaging of tenants’ rights in Los Angeles is often confusing or lackluster, leaving many people unsure of their rights (that’s why we’re writing this article).
- Studies find that most tenants often do not file complaints to HCID for fear of being evicted, or not knowing where to report such complaints. The City needs to more proactively inspect properties and actually track landlords who have a record of dishonest or abusive behavior.
- Most tenants are at a significant disadvantage in court: only 15% of tenants in Los Angeles have access to legal representation in eviction cases, while landlords almost always do. Since harassment claims are generally contested in court, tenants need access to free legal representation in order to successfully hold abusive landlords accountable. Los Angeles must create and fund a guaranteed right to counsel program to ensure that tenant complaints are taken seriously in the legal process.
What can I do if my landlord is harassing me (for example, by refusing to make necessary repairs)?
You have the protected right to clean, habitable housing, and landlords must maintain adequate living conditions. If your landlord is violating your rights, first, tell your landlord verbally. If abuse continues, write a letter detailing the problem with photos and documentation, which will help you prove that the landlord was aware of the issue and did nothing. Keep a timeline of when pictures and documents are taken. Then, submit these materials in a formal complaint to the Los Angeles Housing and Community Investment Department; you can do this online or by calling the department to speak to a counselor at no cost.
I’m currently facing the threat of eviction. Where can I go for more help?
First, make sure to file a complaint on the HCID website if your landlord is harassing you. You have the right to institute civil proceedings against a landlord who is harassing you, even if you have already vacated the premises after harassment. Next, seek legal representation: BASTA is a legal aid organization that provides free eviction defense to tenants. The current eviction moratorium protects you: as long as you are paying at least 25% of your rent, you cannot be evicted lawfully. If you need assistance paying your rent, California’s COVID Rent Relief program may be able to help you with unpaid rent and utilities.
What can I do to ensure that the City Council adopts the anti-harassment ordinance and gets it on the books?
You can sign onto Abundant Housing LA’s letter urging the City Council to quickly vote to adopt the anti-harassment ordinance. Our letter also asks the City Council to fund a guaranteed right to counsel, and to more proactively enforce the new tenant protections codified in the anti-harassment ordinance.