Protestors hold up signs in support of a rent escrow program at a City Council meeting in January 2015. Photos by Jason Ruiz.
Renters in Long Beach scored a small victory as renter’s rights were again a topic of discussion for the Long Beach City Council last night.
Recommendations made earlier this month to city staff were returned to the Dius for approval. Three amendments were made to a proposed ordinance that tenant advocates have objected to through demonstrations. They had demanded more protections be granted by the council.
Three amendments were presented for addition to the city’s Proactive Rental Housing Inspection Program (PRHIP), a program that had been in existence for decades but was formally codified earlier this month. They were read last night and will be revisited at next week's council meeting for a final approval.
“These amendments are for the worst of the worst, and so I just need to say that once again so we can really understand that,” said First District Councilwoman Lena Gonzalez.
The changes proposed included the adoption of the State Franchise Tax Board program that would no longer allow the collection of income tax deductions units found in noncompliance with the minimum habitability requirements, an increase in the frequency in which fines are assessed to landlords who operate units in violation and a requirement for city staff to provide a review of the PRHIP program as part of the annual Housing Element Report.
The amendments also tweaked existing processes to allow for cases which pose immediate health risks to the tenant to be referred to the city prosecutor’s office within 24 hours.
Under the old program, this process would’ve taken 120 days. The fine schedule was also amended to cut in half the time between citations being issued from 30 days to 15 days if the owner does not fix the habitability issue within the first 30 day window.
The motion, which passed with a 7-0 vote, also included provisions for city staff to report back within the next 90 days on how the city might go about publishing a list of bad landlords. It also explored how the staff would incorporate an earlier part of the ordinance that included $75,000 in annual education funds to help tenants better understand their rights as well as the code enforcement process.
“This codifies state law, but locally we are adding to the basic standards under state law to reflect the local needs so we do believe it goes far beyond what state law requires,” said Director of Development Services Amy Bodeck.
The PRHIP program, which aims to inspect thousands of rental properties with four or more units annually, is accused of falling woefully short by rental advocates in the city. The city classifies such units as businesses and requires landlords to acquire a business license to operate them, but that classification creates several holes for inspectors that under the city’s ordinance are not instructed to inspect rental properties with less than four units.
Housing Long Beach, a non-profit advocacy group in the city, had pushed for a rent escrow program similar to the one in Los Angeles that would’ve allowed for tenants facing habitability issues to pay rent into an escrow account that would only be released to the landlord after the issues were fixed and approved by the city.
The REAP program would’ve also provided measures to disallow the raising of rent or issuing of eviction notices as form of retaliation for reporting issues. In a memo earlier this year, city staff shot down the idea of implementing it in Long Beach, stating that it was prohibitively expensive and illegal given that Long Beach doesn’t have a rent control ordinance to support it.
Representatives from Development Services, which oversees the city’s Code Enforcement Division, say that PRHIP has provided adequate service for the city’s nearly 90,000 rental units. However internal figures published in the most recent Housing Element by the department showed that not only did the department fail to meet its own quote of units inspected annually, it only addressed a small fraction of the overall rental units in the city.
Despite representatives from the Apartment Association of Southern California Cities and Housing Long Beach—the non-profit group that had spearheaded the push for a rent escrow program and stronger protections against unwarranted evictions—being at odds, last night’s reading of the proposed amendments provided a brief moment of agreement.
“Strengthening the ordinance is very important, the apartment association is behind that 100 percent,” said Mike Murchison, speaking on behalf of the apartment association. “We don’t want to have slumlords in our city and I don’t think anyone else does either.”
Housing Long Beach Executive Director Josh Butler, who earlier this month applauded Gonzalez for her push to strengthen the ordinance, conceded. However, he admitted there was still a ways to go before the renters in Long Beach are fully protected.
“In a rare moment here, I’m just going to concur here with Mr. Murchison,” Butler said. “We look forward to working with him and the apartment association as well, and I thank the council for strengthening this ordinance. I think we have work to do but this is a good start.”