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Rent Board Wants More Charter Changes

By Teresa Rochester

April 16 -- The Rent Control Board is looking to bolster tenants' rights at the ballot box by amending the City's 23-year-old rent control law to allow tenants to sublet when a roommate moves out and prohibit evicting the family of tenants who die or are incapacitated.

The rent board's unanimous vote last Thursday to recommend that the City Council place the two amendments on the November ballot was greeted by tenant advocates as much-needed protections and by landlord representatives as nothing more than an election-year ploy.

Coupled with seven earlier recommendations made to the council last fall, which have yet to be approved, the proposed changes represent the first major overhaul of the City's restrictive rent control law in more than two decades.

"This is a good thing," said Michael Tarbet, a lead organizer for the powerful tenants' group Santa Monican's for Renters' Rights. "I think these changes are very significant. People who would be evicted in their current situation and would have to leave their units won't have to."

But landlord representatives charge that the purpose of the changes is to draw tenants to the polls in November and allege that the board has stepped out of bounds. They also argue that the sublet provision may be illegal and that the other provision is toothless and will have little impact.

"In general the Rent Control Board is seeking to expand its' powers into areas in which it does not have jurisdiction," said attorney Gordon Gitlen, president of ACTION Apartment Association, which represents mom and pop landlords. "It's a political maneuver to try and get more people out to vote on issues they are inventing."

"All these changes the Rent Board wants to bring to the Charter amendments is really a waste of time," said attorney Rosario Perry, who often represents landlords.

One proposed amendment would prohibit a landlord from evicting a tenant for replacing a departed co-tenant, even though the rental agreement does not allow sublets.

To sublet, the tenant would have to continue living in the unit and only bring in the same number of tenants that moved out. The landlord would not be able to turn down a tenant who is subletting without reason after written request by the current tenant.

Robert Sullivan, owner Sullivan-Dituri Realtors, one of the City's largest property management firms, said the proposed amendment seeks to abolish legal contracts between landlords and their tenants.

"It's election year," said Sullivan. "They abrogate contracts and make it sound like they're giving more protections to tenants... This is still America and there's still contract law."

The second proposed Charter change would prohibit the eviction of a tenant's spouse, children and/or domestic partner if the tenant has vacated the unit due to death or incapacitation.

The subtenants would have to had lived in the unit for at least one year at the time the tenant departs. The City of West Hollywood has a similar ordinance.

However, landlord representatives contend that it is likely this law may not have much of an impact because state law allows landlords to raise rents to market value when a tenant leaves and a subtenant stays.

"It doesn't help them," Perry said.

But Doris Ganga, attorney for the Rent Control Board, said the change would give sub-tenants a chance.

"Costa Hawkins (the state's vacancy de-control law) says that if the original occupants are no longer in units, the owners can raise the rent for a remaining sub-tenant," Ganga said. "It's true the spouse, the domestic partner or children are not tenants, but maybe they can pay increased rent. It would give them a chance. Maybe the landlord would be human in their time of trouble."

The Rent Control Board's current recommendations follow seven other changes it proposed late last year. Those proposals -- which included provisions protecting tenants from harassment and eviction -- were forwarded in September to the City Council, which directed its staff to work with the board's staff in hammering out the charter changes. The work was completed but the changes have not yet gone before the council.

One of the amendments proposed last year addresses the same issue as the subletting provision recommended last week. Under the earlier proposal, a tenant would have the right to have the original number of roommates in the unit when the person moved in. If a landlord does not allow a tenant to replace a roommate who moves out with a different roommate, the unit's rent is subject to a rent decrease.

A landlord also would be required to file a copy of an eviction notice with the Rent Control Board within a week of sending it to a tenant. Three-day notices to vacate or pay rent would be exempted.

The recommendation stated that "making a demand for possession of a rental unit" and threatening to terminate the tenancy" are actions a landlord may not take without good cause. If a landlord makes a demand for a unit or threatens to end a tenancy without one of the reasons listed in the charter as the primary motivation, he or she is subject to wrongful eviction action, according to the staff report.

The recommendations will go before the City Council, which will vote whether or not to approve it for the November ballot.
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