Tenants will soon have the right to sue landlords who violate restrictions that Los Angeles has placed on evicting renters during the coronavirus crisis, under a law passed Wednesday by the City Council.
Renters could potentially win penalties of up to $10,000 per violation — or $15,000 per violation if the tenant is disabled or a senior. The effort was about “giving the tenants a big stick,” Councilman Bob Blumenfield said.
After the vote, Council President Nury Martinez said in a statement that although good landlords were working to help tenants stay in their units, “I want the bad operators to know, today, the city of Los Angeles is putting you on notice.”
Landlords are currently barred from evicting tenants who have been affected by the coronavirus, although the council has held off on imposing a blanket ban on evictions sought by tenant activists.
The City Attorney’s Office said in a report that the new measure would help deter “bad conduct” by landlords such as posting eviction notices that cannot be legally enforced during the pandemic, a tactic that might nonetheless spur tenants to leave if they don’t understand their rights.
A recent UCLA analysis found that many economically vulnerable households also face barriers to learning about those rights, including lack of broadband internet and limited English proficiency.
The law also prohibits landlords from pressuring tenants to hand over money from the federal stimulus or other government relief programs. Tenant advocates have complained about landlords pushing those who can’t cover their rents during the COVID-19 pandemic to agree to unusual terms for repayment plans, including handing over money from stimulus checks.
The council voted 13-0 to approve the new law, after accepting an amendment from Councilman John Lee to give landlords 15 days to fix any violations before tenants can exercise their right to go to court. Tenant advocates celebrated the move, saying it would give renters a needed tool to fend off harassment during the pandemic.
Landlords are “notching up the pressure on these tenants who are extremely vulnerable in this time of crisis,” said Larry Gross, executive director of the Coalition for Economic Survival, who said he had seen cases of landlords trying to demand stimulus money from their tenants. “It’s an extremely needed ordinance to protect tenants.”
Several landlords phoned in to the meeting ahead of the vote, arguing that the measure would lead to costly and frivolous litigation. One complained she was losing money on a tenant who stopped paying rent long before the crisis.
“I feel our plight has been largely overlooked by this council,” the woman said. “We are not faceless corporations. We are individuals and small businesses.”
The Apartment Assn. of Greater Los Angeles argued that the measure would impose excessive penalties and exacerbate financial hardships for building owners, even if violations were minor or unwitting.
“All these overreaching regulations do is punish small owners for issues that do not exist” and add “unnecessary costs at a time when owners are not collecting rent and dealing with COVID-19 themselves,” executive director Daniel Yukelson said.
Council members also voted to prevent any rent increases in units covered by the Rent Stabilization Ordinance, which limits annual hikes in older apartments, for a year after the end of the emergency period. Mayor Eric Garcetti had already ordered a freeze on rent hikes in such units, but that measure only lasted 60 days after the end of the emergency.
Some council members had also pushed unsuccessfully for the city to order a halt to rent increases in other apartments that are not covered by the Rent Stabilization Ordinance. City attorneys had warned that unless a California law known as Costa-Hawkins was suspended, the city would probably be blocked from doing that in court.
The council voted 14 to 1 Wednesday to support any state efforts to suspend or lift Costa-Hawkins, with Lee casting the sole vote against the move. Business and landlord groups argued against the effort, pointing out that California voters turned down an earlier push to repeal the law at the ballot box.