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Board Tweaks Santa Monica's Rent Control Law

Santa Monica Real Estate Company, Roque and Mark

Pacific Park, Santa Monica Pier

Harding Larmore Kutcher & Kozal, LLP  law firm
Harding, Larmore
Kutcher & Kozal, LLP

Convention and Visitors Bureau Santa Monica

By Hector Gonzalez
Special to The Outlook

August 17, 2015 -- The Santa Monica Rent Control Board voted unanimously Thursday to redefine the “principal place of residence” regulation that excludes from rent control duplexes and triplexes whose owners prove they live in one of the units.

Commissioner Nicole Phillis, who at the board's July 9 meeting initiated a discussion into what she said were ambiguities in the City's residency requirement for those landlords, dropped her previous proposal that the owners be required to stay living in their units for at least 120 before they can apply for a rent control exemption.

Phillis said she suggested increasing the wait time after hearing tenant complaints about new landlords moving in, waiting 120 days, then raising rents to market rates beyond what the tenants could afford, essentially “forcing them to vacate the property.”

However, she and the four other commissioners in the end deferred to the legal opinion of their general counsel, J. Stephen Lewis, who advised in a staff report against increasing the waiting period.

“No current evidence” exists that the 120-day waiting period “is too short” for the City to make an assessment of an owner’s residency status, Lewis said.

Commissioner Todd Flora agreed with Lewis' additional opinion that the board's recently adopted rule requiring owners to reapply for the exemption on an annual basis “will get us where we need to be” in ensuring owners are actually living in their units and not just buying property with the intent of ultimately selling it after 120 days.

“I'd be inclined to waiting to see how the re-certification process goes first” before increasing the time length of the residency requirement, said Flora, whose suggestion was backed unanimously by the board.

One of two public speakers who addressed the board during a public hearing expressed concern that the new language redefining what is a person's “principal place of residency” was confusing.

Under the old regulation, a principal place of residence was where the person “actually resides a majority of the time,” but some board members at the July 9 meeting worried about the language since many people spend more time at work than they do at home.

As the new regulation now reads, a person's principal place of residence is “a dwelling place in which his or her habitation is fixed, wherein the person has the intention of remaining, and to which, whenever he or she is absent, the person has the intention of returning.”

In determining where someone lives, what's most important is not where they spend most of their time, but whether the person intends that the place where they reside “is his or her home,” according to staff.

“This is something that is really important to me and that I've thought a lot about since coming on the board,” said Phillis, who was appointed last year. “As to whether the proposed definition is confusing and its impacts would harm both tenants and residents, I'm persuaded that it would not.”

Phillis said the change actually makes the local regulation clearer because it uses the state of California's  “proven model” for determining the voter eligibility of citizens. It also helps shield the city against any legal challenges to the regulation by modeling the language after an established legal precedent, she added.

Previous “principal place of residence” language was adopted by the board, with input from staff, whereas most other rent control boards around the state use the Election Code as a guide in determining a person's residency, Phillis added.

Some of the state Election Code's checklist of requirements used to define a person's legal dwelling are utility bills, driver's licenses, previous voters registration and vehicle registration all made out under the person's name and address, according to staff.

City rent control inspectors also can consider whether the owner “carries on basic living activities at the dwelling place” in determining if the owner qualifies for the exemption, as well as whether the owner maintains a second home and how much time the owner spends at each dwelling, the regulation states.

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