Tweaks Tenant Protection Laws
By Anita Varghese
September 27 -- City Council
members modified Santa Monica’s
law governing tenant harassment and
clarified another law on permanent
relocation benefits Tuesday in an
effort to protect tenants facing eviction.
The City was required to amend its tenant harassment
law after the California Supreme Court recently
struck down one part of the local ordinance, ruling
in Action Apartment Association vs. City of Santa
Monica that specific phrases in the ordinance
conflicts with state law.
An amendment to the ordinance now requires that
a tenant first prevail in an unlawful detainer
(eviction) action before a landlord could be liable
for bringing a wrongful eviction action to recover
possession of a rental unit.
Tenants who have successfully defended themselves
against an eviction in which the landlord issued
eviction notices in bad faith may sue their landlords
for malicious prosecution.
Prior to the Court’s ruling, the ordinance
allowed tenants or the City to sue landlords for
malice while eviction cases were still pending.
“This section is an important one for the
City,” said City Attorney Marsha Moutrie.
“It provides a needed check on frivolous
and malicious eviction actions at a time when
landlords have a strong financial incentive to
remove tenants who pay controlled rents.”
The Costa-Hawkins Act mandates statewide vacancy
decontrol, which allows landlords to raise the
rent to market rates when a unit is voluntarily
vacated or the tenant is evicted for not paying
In cities and communities where market rates
outpace controlled rents, landlords see incentives
to force tenants to move out, so that the units
can be rented for newer and higher market rates.
City officials had noticed that some Santa Monica
landlords were issuing tenants eviction notices
in bad faith by, for example, telling a tenant
that the owner would be moving into the unit when
there was no plan for the owner to actually move
Moutrie believes the Court ruling is a victory
for tenants because it preserves some of Santa
Monica’s wrongful eviction penalties, when
a previous lower court decision had struck all
of them down.
Also, tenants who win their eviction cases can
make stronger arguments if they choose to sue
their landlords for malicious prosecution because
tenants can tell the court that the landlord lost
the eviction case.
“This Council has historically acknowledged
the inherent disparity of power when a tenant
finds herself or himself going to court by trying
to write ordinances that fully protect the tenant,”
said Council member Kevin McKeown.
“It is not an easy matter for us to pull
back on such an ordinance, but we have a Court
decision that forces us to amend the ordinance.
We don’t have to remove the ordinance.”
In another action favorable to tenants, the Council
clarified requirements of an existing permanent
relocation benefits law without changing any part
of the law.
Landlords must pay a flat fee to tenants who
are forced to move because the owner wants to
occupy the unit; empty the building under the
Ellis Act, which allows the owners of rent controlled
apartments to go out of the rental business, or
tear the building down.
An automatic periodic increase goes into effect
each year on July 1 based on inflation. This year,
new fee amounts are:
- $5,300 for a single unit
- $6,650 for a one-bedroom
- $7,500 for a two-bedroom
- $9,300 for a three-bedroom
- $9,750 for four or more bedrooms
Each of these fees is increased by
$1,500 if the displaced tenant is
age 62 or older, disabled or has a
child under age 18 and the tenant
occupied the unit before November
The date when landlords actually pay the fee
has always been in Santa Monica’s municipal
code, but recently there was some confusion about
the law’s language.
“Periodic increases – which become
effective on or before the date the tenant actually
vacates a rental unit – would be payable
to the tenant even when filings or proceedings
related to the relocation predates the effective
date of the increase,” Moutrie said.
If a landlord puts relocation funds into escrow,
for example, and then the amount of
benefits due to the tenant increases
because of a periodic adjustment,
the amount of relocation benefits
the landlord has to pay is the amount
in effect on the day the tenant vacates