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Santa Monica Landlord Harassment Case Highlights Strong Tenant Protections  

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By Jorge Casuso and Niki Cervantes

May 4, 2107 -- The case of Nina Edwards, a tenant who successfully held on to the rent-controlled condominium on Ocean Avenue she has occupied for more than three decades, serves as a cautionary tale for those buying condo units in Santa Monica, according to local rent control experts.

Edwards -- who rented the condo unit in the upscale oceanfront neighborhood near Montana Avenue for $850 month -- will stay in the unit after the City Attorney's office won a $30,000 settlement from the condo's new owner, Sean Gharib

The City charged that Gharib had “tricked” Edwards into not paying her first month’s rent, then tried to evict her, City officials said.

The next day, Gharib filed eviction papers in court, citing non-payment of rent.

Gharib sold the property and no longer is landlord in Santa Monica, said Eda Suh, Deputy City Attorney for the Consumer Protection Division.

Attorney Rosario Perry, who represented Gharib, said Edwards occupied a unit converted under the City's 1984 Tenant Ownership Rights Charter Amendment (TORCA).

TORCA allowed landlords between 1984 and 1996 to get out the rental business by converting their apartments into condos.

TORCA units account for about 3,100 of Santa Monica's 27,594 units covered by rent control, Rent Board officials said.

Tenants who occupy TORCA units have the same rights as rent control tenants, and those like Edwards, who occupied the unit before it was converted, have a further protection against owner occupancy evictions, rent control officials said.

"When you see a condo in Santa Monica for sale for much less than market rate, you can assume the tenant is protected," said Tracy Condon, executive director of Santa Monica's Rent Control Board.

Perry said tenants who occupied TORCA Units before conversion have what is in effect a "life estate."

"The lesson here is that tenants are totally protected in Santa Monica and those in TORCA units have a life estate," Perry said.

The case -- which was filed by the City in Santa Monica Superior Court in 2015 alleging violations of the local Tenant Harassment Law -- was recently resolved at a settlement conference before a Superior Court judge.

The case was scheduled to go to trial in August 2017.

The proceeds of the settlement will go to reimburse Edwards’s damages -- which include fees for her attorney Sonya Bekoff Molho -- and the City’s attorneys’ fees.

Edwards’s controlled rent, which was $850 when the lawsuit was filed, will only increase by the annual amounts approved by the City's rent control law.

Had Edwards vacated the condo she shares with her son, its rental value under the State Costa Hawkins Rental law -- which allows landlords to raise the rent to market rates -- would be at least $2,000 per month, City officials said.

“This is a cautionary tale for those landlords who would consider using deception or intimidation to get their tenants to leave,” said Suh. “Tenants like Ms. Edwards pay their rent on time, comply with their leases, and just want enjoy living in their homes.”

“We will use all the legal tools available to vigorously protect tenants from being illegally forced out of Santa Monica.”

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