By Harold Greenberg, Esq.
Many years ago, a self-appointed group calling itself the Blue-Ribbon Committee on Slum Housing surfaced in the City of Los Angeles calling for major changes to the City’s rental housing inspection system. The City’s Building and Safety Department was to be replaced by Housing Department inspectors who would be more responsive to tenant activist concerns. Every apartment in the City of Los Angeles would be inspected, not just those where tenants had filed complaints about habitability violations. Radio, television, and newspaper articles exploded on the scene, triggered by Blue Ribbon claims that 107,900 rental units were rat-infested, and another 131,700 units had non-operating toilets. University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) law students under the direction of tenant activist retired professor Gary Blasi used numbers from the 1995 joint U.S. Housing and Urban Development Department and U.S. Census Bureau “American Housing Study” to substantiate their claim that almost half the rental units in the City were uninhabitable.
The Blue-Ribbon Committee numbers were totally exaggerated. Former Mayor Richard Riordan and the City Council at the time did not listen. Pushed along by tenant biased former Council members Jackie Goldberg and Mike Feuer, the Systematic Code Enforcement Program (SCEP) was enacted, first as a temporary and later as a permanent part of the Los Angeles Municipal Code. With the former Mayor and tenant-biased Council members in tow, inspectors made highly publicized visits to target slum properties. The anomaly that slum busting took place under the existing complaint-driven procedure and was conducted by the Building and Safety Department was ignored. The former Council and the former Mayor pushed for and got a new $7,500,000 a year inspection bureaucracy, SCEP, and a new agency to enforce it, the Los Angeles Housing Department (LAHD).
Finally, on September 5, 2001, the LAHC produced “SCEP Study-2001,” which provided reliable numbers on the number of rat-infested and toilet-less rental units there were in the City of Los Angeles In a sample of 5,443 units inspected by LAHD over three years, there were 97 units with rat infestation and 125 units without an operating toilet. Projected to the 750,000 rental units included in SCEP, the total number of rat-infested units in the City was 13,366 instead of 107,900 and 17,224 instead of 131,700 units having an inoperative toilet.
The major defect of SCEP is that inspectors are forced to randomly inspect all 635,000 rental units in some 77,000 apartment buildings instead of concentrating on the 1,336 buildings with rat problems and 1,722 buildings with toilet problems. Because of this nuclear bomb rather than targeted missile approach, the prevention of slum conditions is less effective today than before SCEP program was imposed.
The time has come to evaluate the effectiveness of and reconsider SCEP. Los Angeles Housing and Community Investment Department (HCID+LA) should improve its computer system so the actual number of problems can be tallied automatically. A Problem Property Task Force should be established to examine the effectiveness of SCEP and possibly recommend that Council return to an effective complaint driven system. If SCEP is retained it should periodically examine only those buildings where complaints are verified and possibly at the time of sale to protect a buyer against hidden defects.
Another life-threatening problem area should be corrected. The SCEP Study-2001 found that in almost 20% of the units, the tenants had disconnected smoke and fire detectors, leaving the units open to life-threatening danger. Inspectors should be able to issue orders to correct and, where necessary, cite tenants on the spot when they discover units where the occupants have disconnected smoke detectors, fire alarms, or made fire door inoperative. While campaigning, Mayor Garcetti promised us a new beginning as Mayor for the entire City. Since then we have heard, seen and read his statements and policies pertaining to multi-unit housing. They are one-sided, unfair, and detrimental not only to increasing the housing stock, but also to maintaining it.
Shortsightedness on the part of the Mayor, HCID+LA, and City Council bodes ill for the owners of rental housing, and for tenants. The double standard applied by the HCIDLA, and in turn the Mayor’s office, is not only one sided, but is a flagrant violation of our constitutional rights. It is shortsighted and will do nothing but increase crime as neighborhoods deteriorate due to governmental policies.
Tenants’ Rights Advocates Wrong for the Job
HCID+LA is relying on tenants’ rights advocates with proven agendas against owners. It is not right, it is not just, and it is not fair. The Mayor and HCID+LA are quick to appear at targeted properties with the requisite media display pointing out slumlords and deficient properties. When have you ever seen the Mayor, or HCIDLA, standing up for an owner, and saying the conditions at the property are caused by the “Tenants from Hell” and the lack of adequate police enforcement and assistance, or help from the city?
The City Attorney’s Office calls press conferences indicating injunctions against landlords and closing buildings. But have they ever called a press conference to state that they are criminally prosecuting tenants who willfully vandalize their apartment buildings to the detriment of the owner and the other tenants? “Tenants from Hell” do exist and they drive away good tenants and reduce viable residential housing stock. SCEP included a tenant outreach program and a landlord outreach program when passed by City Council. Your SCEP fees pay for the tenant outreach monitors, who are actually tenants’ rights advocates through and through.
Why is it fair or just that the City can spend taxpayers’ monies to pay these tenants’ rights advocates and attorneys to harass owners. The time to act is now and that’s just what we must be doing. This flagrant violation of not only delegating ministerial functions to biased, prejudiced individuals, but also for not providing attorneys for mom and pop landlords. When has the City or HCID+LA provided equal access to policies and procedures that assist you in fulfilling your function and duties as an owner? The answer is “never.”
When and if your property is inspected by the HCID+LA, you will be invoiced for the inspection, for re-inspection, processing fees and eventually, if you don’t pay, for a late fee which is an outrageous amount. If a private individual charged the same rate the City is charging you, he would be prosecuted for usury. How many times are landlords cited due to tenant intentional acts of destruction or negligence?
You also have to pay when you are criminally prosecuted pursuant to the tenets of the HCID+LA when they process your inspections, re-inspections, putting a file together and forwarding it to the City Attorney’s Office. Can the City show us one other “criminal,” such as a murderer, rapist, or child molester who has to pay to be prosecuted? But it only gets worse! Under the doctrine of the Bachrach case, a 1980 Los Angeles Appellate Department case that only affects the County of Los Angeles, you cannot put on any defense. The City Attorney’s Office only has to show that you owned, possessed or managed the property while there was a code violation. This is known as strict liability. Prosecution does not have to show mens rea, a guilty state of mind, nor actus rea, a guilty act.
Even the Taliban and terrorists may put on a defense in court. You, as an owner of rental property, cannot. Is this fair? Is this right? Is this justice? Why are the Mayor and the City Council afraid of giving you the rights of any other criminal defendant? Is it a surprise that there is inadequate housing and a diminishing affordable housing base?
The REAP Rape
REAP (the Rent Escrow Account Program) is always accompanied by a rent reduction of up to 50%. This means that if your property is in REAP, your tenant pays rent into a trust fund at a reduced rate, with you not receiving any monies. The City will charge you $50 per unit per month for the “privilege” of being placed in REAP. Of course, you still must pay for gas, water, electricity, insurance, your trust deed on the property and all the other expenses. Additionally, you must bring the building into code compliance. Where is the money coming from to make all these payments? At the same time, the City will file a substandard order, which is recorded against your property. This effectively means that most lenders will not refinance the property. Get the point! They want your building and they’re not shy about taking it away from you.
Most Council members and the Mayor have not, are not, and will not, in the near future, be redressing your grievances and helping you. It is equally clear that in addition to the political endeavors we engage in, we must aggressively go forth to slay the dragons in courts of law. This, of course, requires the expenditure of monies. We need your political, emotional, and moral support. But we also need, and strongly request, your immediate financial support.
If not now, then when? If not you, then who? If you don’t step-up to the plate and be counted, who will be around when you need immediate help? Rodney Dangerfield said it many times, “I don’t get no respect.” Let us show the Mayor and City Council that we aim to get respect. We aim to do what’s right. The time has come. The time is now.
The Apartment Association of Greater Los Angeles has worked hard and been fair with the City Attorney’s Office and HCID+LA in setting up programs and courses to instruct, teach, and educate owners how to manage, operate and perform as the owners of rental housing. The public does not understand, the worse slumlord in the City of Los Angeles is the City of Los Angeles. Who wants to live in a City-owned rental housing unit? We are no longer willing to be doormats but will stand up for our rights by taking the appropriate legal action.
The present system is not working when profit becomes a four-letter word. Unless we develop an open line of communication where government does not favor one side over another, or actively work hand-in-hand with tenants to the detriment of owners, we will have no alternative other than continuing to file lawsuits against the City.
Harold Greenberg, Esq. is the Managing Partner of The Law Firm of Harold Greenberg, a boutique law firm based on Los Angeles. He is a member of the Board of Directors and is a Past President of the Board of Directors of the Apartment Association of Greater Los Angeles. You can reach Mr. Greenberg at (323) 732-9536.