Santa Monica landlords who unfairly use a new statewide law to force tenants out of their apartments may be subject to fines and lawsuits under a city Rent Control Board proposal.
Commissioner David Finkel said the rent board staff is studying regulations that would protect tenants from unfair evictions when the law takes effect in July. Finkel told the City Council on Tuesday that the board, instead of the City Council, should be allowed to create and enforce the local regulations.
"This is another opportunity for the City Council to cooperate with and support the efforts of the (rent board) to protect the tenants of Santa Monica," Finkel said, "and (we) know that the council will take that opportunity."
The rent board proposal comes in response to the so-called Ellis Bill, which will allow landlords to go out of business without permission from authorities. It supersedes a Santa Monica law that required apartment owners to obtain rent board approval to close their buildings.
Rent Board administrator Howell Tumlin added that the Ellis bill, which was passed by the state Legislature last year, gives cities such as Santa Monica the specific authority to create and enforce tenant protections.
But Finkel's proposal angered at least two landlords who attended the meeting. John Jurenka, a longtime rent board critic, stood as the council was discussing the plan and said, "Will the public be heard or will you get confused if you hear all the facts?"
Given permission to speak, Jurenka told the council that it would be grossly unfair to allow the rent board to judge the fairness of evictions. "Now you're talking about letting the fox run the chicken coop," he said.
K. B. Huff, another landlord, argued that apartment owners should be included in the discussion on any new rent board regulations to ensure fairness. "We don't know what's going to happen here," Huff said. "You may be shooting the first cannon. Do you want to start a war with the owners?"
The council said it favored legislation protecting tenants, but voted to refrain from acting on Finkel's proposal until after City Atty. Robert M. Myers releases a report on the possible effects of the state law. The council also instructed Myers to study specific regulations proposed by the board and the advisability of allowing the board to enforce the regulations.
"There's a difference of opinion in the community as to how many evictions are likely," said Councilman David G. Epstein. "We want as few tenants as possible in Santa Monica to be evicted. That's the goal."
'Apple Pie' Issue
Others stressed that the council should stand behind the rent control board. Councilman Dennis Zane said he supported the "independent role" of the board. Councilman Alan S. Katz said that supporting rent control and tenants' rights is like supporting "motherhood and apple pie."
"It is in this city," Mayor Christine E. Reed replied.
One landlord organization using the acronym ACTION (A Commitment to Insure Owners' Needs) is already using the state law as leverage to promote a city measure that would allow substantial rent increases on vacant apartment units. They claim that the Ellis bill will lead to as many as 4,000 evictions because landlords who are frustrated by the city's powerful rent control board will simply go out of business.
Others, such as Rent Board administrator Tumlin, contend that the law will have little effect because existing city ordinances make it virtually impossible for a landlord who goes out of business to do anything else with his property. He said the idea of wholesale evictions is "silly."
But Tumlin added that he still supports the idea of creating regulations to discourage unfair evictions. Tumlin said any landlord who violates the spirit of the new law should be subject to punishment. He said an apartment owner who evicted a tenant with the intent of renting the unit to someone else for a higher price would be penalized under the plan.
The protections require that apartment units come under local rent controls if they are re-rented after a landlord goes out of business. Apartment owners who leave and then re-enter the apartment business will have to pay damages to displaced tenants. The bill authorizes civil suits against apartment owners by local jurisdictions for damages to displaced tenants and gives first right of refusal to displaced tenants if their units are re-rented.