Council passes ordinance that could penalize landlords for ‘bad faith’ harassment of tenants

The Long Beach City Council approved a new ordinance on Tuesday intended to protect tenants from being harassed by landlords, but the council tweaked the law’s language to include a requirement in some sections that required landlords to act “in bad faith” before facing consequences.

It was a controversial move that property owners said would protect ethical landlords but something tenants groups warned would would make it harder to seek justice for renters.

The new ordinance provides a legal avenue for tenants who feel they have been intimidated or retaliated against by landlords who do things like shut off utilities, fail to cash rent checks in a timely manner or withhold repairs as a means of forcing tenants out of their units.

Adding the requirement that landlords acted “in bad faith” was previously requested by Councilwoman Suzie Price, one of the members who originally voted against the ordinance last month. She argued it brought clarity to the rules. However, her suggestion faced opposition from community members because of the requirement it would create for tenants to prove the motivation of a potentially abusive landlord.

On Tuesday, the council struck a compromise by adding “in bad faith” only to certain sections of the ordinance dealing with landlords not carrying out timely repairs, providing tenants with false written information, failing to process rent payments and not attempting to communicate with tenants in the language they speak.

“In many of these, they already have elements of bad faith as requirements,” said Councilman Rex Richardson, who proposed the compromise. “I’m not sure how you can engage in abuse, intimidation or threats in good faith, so it’s already implied.”

Last month, the council introduced the ordinance in a move to provide tenants with a new tool to defend against harassment from landlords after complaints about some property owners raising rents by hundreds of dollars, removing security doors and implementing other tactics to try to force tenants to leave even though they were legally protected by an eviction moratorium instituted during the pandemic.

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The decision to bring the ordinance before the council came in a rare Monday-morning vote prior to Election Day. Several members of the council voted against it, saying there was too much ambiguity about what the ordinance would actually do, and if it would stand up legally.

Advocates for renters have also pointed to what they say is another flaw in the ordinance: The city would not enforce any of the provisions of it. Instead tenants would have to sue in civil court with landlords potentially being on the hook for fines of up to $5,000 per violation.

While the council was discussing whether or not to add the “bad faith” requirement as well, Deputy City Attorney Rich Anthony said that similar clauses were included in ordinances in cities like Oakland and West Hollywood. He said it could protect landlords who are acting in good faith but may forget to cash a check or make a mistake in how they characterize the eviction moratorium when they inform their tenants about it.

When pressed, he conceded that the language would likely make proving landlord harassment harder, but he wasn’t sure how much more difficult the added language would make it for tenants to do so.

The addition was divisive. Members of the public took sides with renters and tenants-rights advocates calling for the council to shoot down the amendment, stating it would undermine the intent of the new ordinance.

“All of the language in this current ordinance is very clear, and we do not want, as residents here, to have it watered down or made difficult for the tenants to be able to exercise their right when they have to go to court,“ said Leanna Noble, a renter in Downtown.

But landlords and industry representatives argued it would level the playing field.

Fred Sutton, senior vice president of public affairs for the California Apartment Association, said that the original ordinance was problematic and taken up with zero input from stakeholders. He said omitting the “bad faith” requirement would ensure that the ordinance remained flawed.

“Adding this small ‘faith’ clause ensures that housing providers do not fall victim to frivolous lawsuits or predatory dwelling tactics,” Sutton said, characterizing the amendment as “common sense” and “reasonable.”

Because the ordinance was presented as an urgency ordinance, it took effect immediately after the council’s vote Tuesday night. The ordinance was approved unanimously with only two members—Councilman Roberto Uranga and Councilwoman Mary Zendejas—opposing the amended language being added.

Editor’s note: The original version of this story said that only Councilman Uranga voted against the amendment. Councilwoman Zendejas also opposed its passage.

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Jason Ruiz has been covering City Hall for the Post for nearly a decade. A Long Beach resident, Ruiz graduated from Cal State Long Beach with a degree in journalism. He and his wife Kristina and, most importantly, their dog Mango, live in Long Beach. He is a particularly avid fan of the Dallas Cowboys and the UCLA Bruins, which is why he sometimes comes to work after the weekend in a grumpy mood.