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Long Beach moves to boost landlord penalties; tenants say more is needed

Long Beach boosts fines for housing code violations at rental units

The Long Beach City Council gave preliminary approval Tuesday to a controversial plan that increases penalties for landlords who fail to properly maintain their rental properties but falls short of what tenant activists say is needed.

The 9-0 vote followed several hours of debate on a draft ordinance, prepared by city staff, that would boost fines for housing code violations found at rental units and expand efforts to educate tenants about their rights. Renter advocates opposed the proposal, saying it would not do enough to crack down on the worst landlords.

With dozens of tenants in matching T-shirts and property owners in the audience, council members amended the measure to increase the proposed landlord penalties. They also instructed city officials to utilize a state-run program that denies income-tax deductions to property owners with histories of outstanding housing codes violations.

“It's a step in the right direction,” said Councilwoman Lena Gonzalez. “There is no easy fix for a problem so enormous.”

The council rejected demands from renter groups who want the city to adopt an enforcement model, similar to one used in Los Angeles, that allows officials to temporarily seize rent payments when landlords fail to make required repairs.

Councilwomen Suzie Price said the L.A. program "is not fiscally or legally feasible.” 

The council action followed a Times story Tuesday reporting that unsafe conditions can go undetected by Long Beach rental housing inspectors for months or even years, and that the city's oversight effort is less aggressive than those of some other large municipalities.

Council members, citing the story, called for staff to report back on the feasibility of upgrading the inspection program to regularly include more rentals. Currently, inspectors only initiate periodic visits to properties with four or more units. At smaller buildings and duplexes, inspections are only conducted in response to complaints.

During Tuesday night's council meeting, tenants carried signs with messages such as “NO MORE SLUMLORDS.” They called for additional renter protections to be added to the ordinance before the council gives its final approval.

“This supposedly new program falls way short of what residents really need,” said Jorge Rivera, an organizer with Housing Long Beach, a renters group. “It is simply not good enough.”

Landlords, clustered on the opposite side of the council chamber, supported the lawmakers' action Tuesday.

“The proposed ordinance is a balanced work product in the best interest of the city.” said Paul Bonner, president of the Apartment Assn., California Southern Cities.

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