LA tenants now have more options to sue landlords for harassment

New law cites examples that include retaliating for tenant organizing; property owners say “unscrupulous” lawyers will take advantage

The ordinance was first proposed in 2017, and finally passed by City Council in June (Getty)
The ordinance was first proposed in 2017, and finally passed by City Council in June (Getty)

A controversial ordinance in Los Angeles that gives renters more legal recourse to sue their landlords for harassment and stiffens penalties goes into effect today.

The citywide measure defines more than a dozen examples of landlord misconduct, including inquiring about a tenant’s immigration status, retaliating for tenant organizing, failing to perform necessary repairs and refusing to acknowledge receipt of payments. Aggrieved tenants can use the protections as an “affirmative defense” against action brought by landlords; they can also use the ordinance as a basis to sue.

Under the law — called the Anti-Harassment of Tenants Ordinance — local civil courts can award tenants up to $10,000 per violation, and an additional $5,000 if the tenant is over 65 or disabled. The ordinance also classifies the harassment as a criminal misdemeanor, with a maximum $1,000 fine per offense.

The ordinance, similar to measures on the books in Santa Monica and in San Francisco, was first proposed in 2017, and finally passed by City Council in June.

Although state laws banning landlord harassment are already in place, L.A. tenants and advocates have argued that beefed up local protections were a necessary defense against a rising tide of aggression by landlords who turn to nasty intimidation tactics as a displacement strategy. The problem has likely been exacerbated during the pandemic, as many renters have been unable to make payments and eviction moratoriums have prevented landlords from initiating legal proceedings. L.A. County’s eviction moratorium runs through September.

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“The truth of the matter is, harassment happens,” Chancela Al-Mansour, executive director of the nonprofit Housing Rights Center, told LAist. “And the reason why it happens is because oftentimes, the penalties are not severe enough.”

As the law went through public comment late last year, numerous tenants expressed their support, describing landlord harassment that included death threats, early morning door banging, lock changing and removing tenants’ belongings. “For the landlord who wants only higher profits, direct harassment is often a cheaper and faster road to vacating a unit,” one nonprofit attorney wrote to the City Council.

Property owner groups view the ordinance as both unnecessary, because of existing protections, and a potential legal disaster for unsuspecting landlords.

“It’s like open hunting season on landlords by unscrupulous lawyers,” Dan Yukelson, executive director of the Apartment Association of Greater Los Angeles, told the Los Angeles Times in the spring.

The law comes amid a highly difficult climate for tenants and property owners. This week, President Biden extended a federal eviction moratorium for 60 days in much of the country; in California, only 5 percent of the $5.2 billion in designated federal and state rent relief funds has been paid, and landlords have grown increasingly frustrated by a series of tenant-oriented protections.

“Unfortunately, rental property owners are being made into bad guys,” Yukelson told The Real Deal last month. “The only thing they have left to do is paint us with horns and a tail.”