It’s Time to End Tenant Harassment | by Chelsea Kirk | Oct, 2020


Yes on Proposition 21

Chelsea Kirk
Lynn Byers in her home in Mid-City Heights.

Lynn Byers moved to Los Angeles in 1994 from New Jersey when she was 33 years old. In 2001, she rented a one-bedroom apartment in Mid-City Heights for herself and her two dogs. There was no lease. She just handed the landlord $500 and moved in. She loved the area, which was centrally located and near the 10 Freeway. The building was perfect. It had only two units, each one was very large, like its own individual house. There was even a backyard and parking. Homeownership had never been Lynn’s aspiration. She wanted to stay in this apartment forever.

After 18 years in the apartment, her landlord hired a man named David Booth of the Jireh Group — a property management company in South Pasadena — to empty out the building. Suddenly Lynn’s future was at stake. The landlord’s son, who’d become close to Lynn over the years, warned her that his mom was selling the building and that she had hired a “gangster property manager” to drive her out. Lynn told me recently that she’d overheard that “boys would be over to throw her and her dogs out on the street”. She was scared to death, ready to take gun lessons, afraid to go outside. She had no idea what to expect.

Booth started calling her every single day, multiple times a day. Next, there were cash offers to leave. He told her to take $7,000 and go. She wouldn’t. He offered $8,500 next. Then came the eviction notices. There was a 60-day move out notice which she ignored, then a 120-day notice, which she also ignored. A lawyer informed her that the notices weren’t legal; she was rent stabilized and had the right to stay.

Booth quickly moved on to other tactics. He issued her a notice that her dogs were a lease violation and needed to be gone. Then, he took away her parking spot. When she brought the matter to a local housing agency, Booth produced a forged lease demonstrating she wasn’t entitled to parking. Lynn stopped parking there, and the spot remained empty. A chirping device that went off nearly every 5 minutes soon appeared outside her front door.

As did Booth. Multiple times a week he notified her that he needed to access her apartment to take measurements, and that she legally had to let him in. He would enter her apartment up to four times a week with a blue notebook and a pencil in hand. He would point to walls and corners and use his arms in lieu of a measuring tape, spreading them horizontal and vertical. How many times did he need to measure? The walls weren’t changing sizes.

One time, she noticed Booth left behind the blue notebook on her dining table. She opened it up. There were algebra problems. It was a child’s math homework. He had lied about the measurements.

At 59 years old, Lynn didn’t want to leave her apartment. She was paying $900 in rent. “I have two dogs, my salary isn’t going up, and my rent would triple. Where was I going to go? I thought I’d be homeless,” she told me. Rents for a comparable apartment were more than $2500 a month. She had been a good tenant, and now she was seeing a psychologist because of the stress this tenancy was causing her.

Lynn’s neighbor wasn’t as resilient. Her next-door neighbor, an elderly man, took $8,000 and left. The Saturday before Easter, a wrecking ball came crashing through his old unit, which Lynn shared a wall with. Lynn’s medicine cabinet detached from the wall, and objects cascaded onto her sink, breaking the porcelain. Construction debris was being discharged directly into her apartment through fresh holes in her hallway and bathroom. The noise was terrifying, too. She called the police, showed them the holes, said this level of noise was insufferable. The officer told her there was nothing he could do. The construction could continue. The sink was never fixed, and the holes were never patched. For nine months, Lynn only spent Sundays at home, when the workers were off, because of the noise.

Lynn’s story isn’t an isolated incident. It is part of a larger epidemic of tenant harassment in Los Angeles that current tenant protections not only fail to address but incentivize.

Over half of the City’s population is protected under the Rent Stabilization Ordinance (RSO), the City’s version of rent control which caps annual rent hikes and stipulates that a landlord needs a legitimate reason to evict a tenant, like nonpayment of rent. Earlier this year, the Tenant Protection Act of 2019 extended similar protections to all of the City’s residents — there was an uptick in evictions in the months before the law took effect — but it didn’t stop the rate of evictions as intended, it merely changed their form.

Between and 2018, landlords filed 505,924 eviction proceedings. Prior to the Tenant Protection Act a landlord could issue a 60 day move-out notice and then file an unlawful detainer with the court if a tenant didn’t comply. Now, rather than use the court system, creative harassment tactics are the primary weapon to cajole tenants into abandoning their homes, essentially constituting an eviction. Landlords will shut off the hot water, threaten to call ICE, let bed bugs penetrate your furniture freely, cut down the property’s trees, call, knock, and email at odd hours of the day, or say an elderly relative isn’t allowed on the lease.

This comes as no surprise. The math is simple. The average rent has increased 65% since 2010. What profiteering landlord is content to receive $900 in rent when the market says they can earn $2,500? The financial incentive to harass is greater than ever. Because of Covid-19, a staggering loss of income and an inability to pay rent has inflated the problem. The Los Angeles Police Department reported a 300% increase in landlord-tenant disputes since April.

However, LAPD can’t do much when it comes to these disputes. When Lynn called the police about the construction — which was found to be illegal by a City inspector nine months later — they told her it was outside the scope of their work and that she needed to take the matter up in civil court, a costly enterprise requiring an attorney and time. When she filed a fraud report about her forged lease, she was assigned a detective who spoke with her once and then never again. Landlords are exempt from criminal punishment for harassment because their behavior remains outside the parameters of the State’s legal definition of harassment, which is narrow in scope and doesn’t include actions like installing a chirping device, something tenant advocates recognize as a harassment tactic.

In 2017, the Los Angeles Tenants Union presented recommendations to the City for an anti-harassment ordinance, which would define tenant harassment broadly and make it punishable by law. As a result, a local housing agency was directed to produce a report on the issue. Three years have passed, tenant harassment persists, and an anti-harassment ordinance still does not exist.

One way to put an end to tenant harassment is with a form of rent control called vacancy control. When a city has vacancy control it means that the rental rate of a unit is tied to the unit, not the tenant. If a unit is vacated, the unit must legally remain at the same rental rate. If the incentive to harass is to maximize profit, this nips that in the bud. Studies show that when West Hollywood had vacancy control in the 1980s, it contributed to longer tenure by tenants and kept people in their homes compared with neighboring Los Angeles.

The problem is that vacancy control is illegal. The Costa Hawkins Act — a California State law passed in 1995 to roll back rent control measures in cities — explicitly outlaws vacancy control, which is why rent is set at market rate once a unit is vacated. There have been calls for state officials to reverse the Costa Hawkins Act due to the growing housing crisis, and Governor Newsom was even asked to suspend the law earlier this year. Neither seem likely to happen at this time.

The Rental Affordability Act is the most direct path to accomplishing the remaining critical task — namely to protect tenants like Lynn from harassment by de-incentivizing landlord greed. Named Proposition 21, it is a California ballot measure that would amend the Costa Hawkins Act to allow local governments to enact some form of vacancy control and cap the increase of a unit to 15%. Is going through the hassle of harassing a tenant worth it for a 15% increase in rent?

The real estate industry is, of course, against the measure. They say Proposition 21 will lower their motivation to build new units. Yes, this may be true, but I will tell you that there are at least 93,535 vacant apartment units in Los Angeles. For scale, the City has 41,299 unhoused persons. The old adage that building new units is the key to solving the City’s housing crisis does not hold weight here. There are plenty of apartment units in Los Angeles, but they aren’t being filled. The bottom line is that prices are too high.

If the concern here is to meet the demand for housing, a more effective (and convenient) strategy is to focus on keeping people housed and stabilizing rent rates, especially when the link between eviction and homelessness is stronger than ever. Realistic rent increases of the broad city, established by vacancy control, is the best solution to meet this demand, and it would help Angelenos immediately.

Without a policy like vacancy control, and with rental rates continuing to skyrocket year after year, over 2 million people — the number of renters in the City — are at risk of displacement. That’s sixty-four percent of the City’s population. This raises serious questions:

  • What happens when people like Lynn get harassed out of their homes?
  • Who moves into these units with 200% — 300% rate increases?
  • What happens to a displaced tenant who is expected to pay 200% — 300% more for similar housing?
  • What happens to the City’s homelessness rate when they cannot afford a sudden rent increase?
  • If Angelenos vote No on Prop 21, are we not actively promoting homelessness?

Vacancy control preempts these questions. It keeps people in their homes, and it keeps rents stable. It can transform and improve the city for generations of residents in need. So, it’s imperative that Los Angeles, and the state of California, vote yes on Proposition 21.

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