Despite split vote, ordinance to protect tenants from harassment moves forward in LB City Council
Updated: Oct 27, 2020
Carousel ● City Council ● News ● Politics October 21st, 2020
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Emma DiMaggio, Production Manager | Signal Tribune
After nearly two hours of discussion, the Long Beach City Council split in a 5-3 vote in favor of creating an ordinance to combat tenant harassment on Tuesday, Oct. 20.
Tenant harassment has been an issue in Long Beach long before the pandemic began.
“I can imagine that circumstances that make this policy sadly necessary are unimaginable to most Long Beach residents,” Councilmember Mary Zendejas said. “But me? Each week I hear from my residents on how they are being harassed by their landlords, mostly because they don’t either speak the language or they don’t know the law.”
This isn’t the first time the council has considered an ordinance to deter tenant harassment. Similar agenda items have come to the council twice before, the last of which was removed from the council agenda before their Sept. 1 meeting.
This week’s item was brought forth by Vice Mayor Dee Andrews and Councilmember Roberto Uranga in response to ongoing cases of tenant harassment in their districts.
In the past month, tenants at apartment complexes on 436 Daisy Ave. and 1454 Orange Ave. have unionized against their landlord, Bradley Johnson.
“When you have residents come to your door at 8 p.m. on a cold evening because their security lighting on the second story apartment complex is removed, you must take action,” Andrews said.
Tenants at these complexes have faced illegal rent hikes. Elsewhere, tenants have been served illegal 60-day eviction notices, death threats and utility shutoffs, according to Andrew Mandujano, a community organizer with Long Beach Forward. The ordinance hopes to address a slew of other forms of harassment.
“Imagine your safety fences being removed and retaliation for not signing a lease that increases your rent by $800. Worse than that, being threatened to be evicted if you do not sign a document not in your native language or having no idea what you are signing,” Andrews said. “These kinds of actions are the ones we are facing in the Sixth District.”
By outlining definitions of tenant harassment, the local ordinance would allow renters to take their landlords to civil court for damages.
“There’s times when I just break down in tears hearing the stories of my tenants.”
— Councilmember Mary Zendejas
Tenant protections exist, but they’re not exhaustive
The State of California already boasts a slew of tenant protections, many thanks to the Tenant Protection Act of 2019.
Deputy City Attorney Rich Anthony pointed out that, while the state does have anti-retaliation provisions, it does not have any provisions to address harassment.
Cities like San Francisco, Oakland and Berkely all have varying levels of anti-tenant harassment policies. Some even have the infrastructure to streamline administrative hearings to offset the lengthy and expensive proceedings of traditional civil court cases.
While Anthony said it would take “a heavier lift” and “a lot more changes” to be able to achieve this kind of infrastructure, the ordinance would nonetheless give tenants valid cause to challenge harassment from landlords.
Both Councilmembers Stacy Mungo and Rex Richardson pointed out that the ordinance would not be able to fully address the root causes and challenges that come along with tenant harassment.
Things like substantial rent hikes and some evictions are already illegal under state law, but civil proceedings can be costly and time-consuming. Mungo suggested the creation of an administrative position to conduct hearings with more expediency and ease.
Both landlords and tenants can be unfamiliar with the most up-to-date housing laws. Richardson pointed out that the conversation was integrally tied with their consideration of a Rental Housing Division within the City.
Both conversations were put on hold to address the problem at hand— the proposed ordinance on the floor.
“A policy like this would limit the ability of continuing the harassment of our tenants. Unfortunately, there is only so much we can do as a councilperson to defend the most vulnerable among us,” Zendejas said. “There’s times when I just break down in tears hearing the stories of my tenants.”
During public comment, Maria Lopez, a community organizer with Housing Long Beach, said that she’d seen over 600 cases of tenants “varying in different amounts of harassment, micro-management and just complete degradation of persona” in the past four years.
“We tell the tenants to go ahead and detail in a tenant journal,” Lopez said. “Even with all that evidence, there is still fear of losing one’s home, losing one’s security and stableness. I urge you to support the stability of our families.”
Fred Sutton, from the California Apartment Association, expressed concerns that stakeholders were not contacted to give input on the process.
“We do not tolerate any forms of harassment. It is our members who house Long Beach,” Sutton said. “The motion does not display a single point of data communications received which would justify the fast-tracked nature of this proposal. The best way to resolve disputes is through communication.”
A young protester holds a sign in Cesar Chavez park on Aug. 22 that reads “Stop Tenant Harassment.” Protesters demanded that the City of Long Beach adopt a strong anti-tenant harassment policy with strict penalties for landlords who transgress. (Kristen Farrah Naeem | Signal Tribune)
Other commenters, like Elsa Tung, a research and policy analyst for Long Beach Forward, said that “If you are a kind, decent landlord, you have nothing to worry about. This ordinance will not impact you.”
“But if you are a landlord who harasses and intimidates to squeeze your tenants, then your opposition to this ordinance is more a reflection of your shameful character.”
Final changes to the proposed ordinance
During questioning by the deputy city attorney, councilmembers agreed to the following changes:
•The ordinance will not apply to commercial properties.
•Landlords are allowed to request a social security number from their tenants before signing a lease.
•It’s acceptable for a landlord to reject payment of rent if the three days have already expired on a valid notice to pay or quit.
•Landlords are not required to provide an online payment option.
•The city will not have an enforcement mechanism for the ordinance. Rather, tenants will be able to take landlords to civil court for damages if a landlord violates the ordinance.
•The ordinance will include requirements to provide a lease in the renter’s native language if it’s legal to do so.
There was some disagreement about when the ordinance should come back for final approval. Since it’s being written as an urgency ordinance, the item could be approved the next time it comes to council, as long as councilmembers don’t make any substantive changes to the policy at the next meeting.
If they do make changes, the ordinance will have to come back for another first reading, further delaying its implementation.
During public comment, many residents urged the council to bring the item back next week on Tuesday, Oct. 27. However, city attorneys pointed out that they would not be able to finish the ordinance in just one week.
With meetings canceled during the first weeks of November, councilmembers eventually compromised by agreeing to a special meeting on Tuesday, Nov. 2.
The final vote was 5-3 in favor of creating the ordinance, with Councilmembers Suzie Price, Stacy Mungo and Daryl Supernaw opposing due to additional questions about the scope of the ordinance.
The next city council meeting is expected to take place on Tuesday, Nov. 2 during a special meeting.