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Small Changes in Tenant Laws Could Have Big Impact

By Olin Ericksen
Staff Writer

October 17 -- For the first time ever, Santa Monica – known for its ardent protection of renters’ rights – will put a cap on how much local landlords must pay tenants moved from their units for less than 30 days.

Unlike State law, Santa Monica does not limit how much landlords must pay when they temporarily move a tenant out of an apartment for such things as repairs, which in some instances, can fast add up to thousands of dollars.

City Council members last week unanimously voted to change that policy, adding clarity and assigning cost to a pervasive problem that has existed in Santa Monica since rent control began nearly three decades ago, City officials said.

“In our years of interpreting and enforcing the temporary relocation ordinance there has been some recurring issues and problems that we are… addressing,” Deputy City Attorney Adam Radinsky told the council last week.

“One of them is the age-old issue of how nice a place does the landlord have to find for the tenant,” Radinsky said. “Does it have to be the Loews (Hotel), or can it be a very low-priced motel in an undesirable area.”

In 2005, that “age-old issue” contributed to nearly $50,000 in relocation fees – almost half fronted by the City – for a family being temporarily housed at a Travel Lodge on Pico Boulevard. ("Family Fights to Stay Off Streets, as Relocation Costs Soar," and "Family Still Struggles as City Closes Unusual Housing Case.")

Eventually the units the family lived in were declared uninhabitable, and the family was paid a permanent relocation fee, on average, of about $6,500. But not before landlord, Ricco Ross, had paid nearly $25,000 to temporarily relocate the family at the local motel.

While that was considered an unusual case -- and dragged on far longer than 30 days -- the City attorney’s office and Rent Control Board said the question of how much a landlord must pay to temporarily relocate a tenant has led to many a dispute.

“This is a question that we get quite a bit, I’d say almost twice a week,” said Tracy Condon, the spokesperson for the Rent Control Board.

The change – which establishes a “per diem” rate or a flat-fee per day for tenant housing, as well as meals and, in some cases, pet vouchers, until the apartment or unit can be inhabited again – will most likely be welcomed by Rent Control officials, Condon said.

“Establishing a per-diem will give clarity for everyone involved,” she said.

However, it all depends on the per-diem rate eventually set by the council, she said. “As long as it is sufficient to cover all the costs…then it should be a good thing.”

The council is expected to make the policy changes law by next week, Radinsky said, adding that it has not yet been determined who will help calculate a fair per-diem fee or when the council will take up that issue.

In the meantime, City Attorney Marsha Moutrie said the change would benefit landlords.

“This is a better law for landlords, because it will make much clearer what their obligations are,” said Moutrie, whose department also handles landlord and tenant disputes.

The flat-fees, however, will not apply in relocations that last longer than 30 days, Radinsky said.

In those cases, the relocation fees are still determined under current City guidelines that allow tenants and landlords to find an apartment or other housing, either comparable, or better, than the vacated unit.

The council also refused to seek an alternate ordinance change – used in cities such as Berkeley or West Hollywood – that limits the amount of time that a landlord has to pay for temporary housing.

“In the past… council has opted against (time) limits largely because of the strong incentive of many landlords to force controlled rent tenants out and the fact that this whole ordinance is in large part designed to give incentives to landlords to complete repairs promptly,” Radinsky told the council.

In addition to the per-diem rate changes, council members agreed to statute amendments that explicitly deny benefits to “a tenant who causes or substantially contributes to the condition requiring the order to vacate,” and establishes an appeals process for landlords.

It is still unknown what effect this change may have, but it is expected to play some part in attorney’s fees currently being sought from the City in a case filed by a local landlord.

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