An introduction to the rights of tenants today
Renting in Los Angeles is about as enjoyable as having a third job—which some renters have been compelled to do, owing to the fact that many spend nearly half their monthly income on rent. As neighborhoods from Venice to Highland Park gentrify, the city's rental market is intensifying, prompting rising prices and increasing social pressures. Renters compete to lease units they can barely afford. Unsurprisingly, tenants feel more vulnerable as these processes accelerate. If you haven't received a surprise notice on the door turning your world upside down, surely you know someone who has.
Rather than fanning the flames of paranoia, now is the perfect time for a levelheaded review of the laws and protections in place for the city's renters. Education is at the core of our work in the L.A. Tenants Union. We run workshops to teach renters about existing rights with which they may be unfamiliar, and we also facilitate conversations about potential rights that renters should demand in the future.
Few topics are as likely to elicit Economics 101 axioms as rent control, but let's be clear: The City of Los Angeles does not have rent control. While many other cities have rent-controlled units, in Los Angeles there are no limits on how much an owner can charge for rent. Instead, Los Angeles has the Rent Stabilization Ordinance (RSO).
What's the difference? Rent stabilization means that there are city-determined limits on how much your rent can increase while you are renting. Someone living in an RSO unit in Los Angeles can only have their rent increased 3–5% annually, e.g. from $1,000 to $1,030–$1,050 (depending on whether or not the landlord pays utilities). If a building is covered by RSO, the landlord could not legally increase rent by 15%, for example.
But there are no limits on how much the same unit might cost once it has been voluntarily vacated. If a tenant has been paying $1,000 per month but decides to move out, the landlord might notice new shops and restaurants opening nearby and decide that the local market can absorb higher rents. The landlord could raise that unit's rent to $2,000, $4,000 or as much as they think the market will bear—RSO doesn't affect this. Renters' advocates say this is a major factor driving gentrification and displacement. Once a unit's rent shoots up, it's not likely to go down. Rent control, however, would set a maximum rent cap enforced by the city.
Many tenants are unsure if their unit is covered under RSO. Landlords are legally obligated to post a notice from the City of Los Angeles Housing + Community Investment Department (HCID) in a public place. This provides resources for tenants to contact if they have any issues or concerns.
If you rent in a multi-unit building that had its Certificate of Occupancy issued before 1 October 1978, your building falls under RSO. Live in a dingbat—that is, a two-floor apartment building from the 50s and 60s? You are covered under RSO. Courtyard apartments from 1936? Under RSO. 1905 warehouse converted to apartments in 2008? Not under RSO. Complex built in 1985? Probably not under RSO. You can check to see if your unit is covered under RSO at the city's zoning information site.
RSO only covers buildings with a Certificate of Occupancy issued before October 1978 because that was when the ordinance was approved. It cannot be expanded to include newer buildings thanks to state laws like the Costa-Hawkins Act, which prohibit our city's ability to modify that cut-off.
If your building is not under RSO, the unpleasant truth is that you have fewer protections. Rent increases cannot occur during the term of your lease—whether thirty-day, sixty-day or one year. At the end of the term, however, your landlord is free to charge as much as they like, though the law does require advance written notice.
Rent increases cannot be retaliatory or discriminatory, and landlords must give thirty-day notice for increases up to 10% of the previous rent charged at any time in the past year, and sixty-day notice if the increases are greater than 10%. If you come home tomorrow and there’s a notice on your door that says your rent is going up 40% in sixty days, it’s likely a legal increase and your only option may be negotiation or direct action.
Some renters in Boyle Heights recently came home to $800 per month increases and have now begun to organize a public campaign against the landlord's treatment. This is the reality for many Angelenos, and that is one of the principal reasons that the L.A. Tenants Union continually pushes to expand the number of buildings protected by RSO.
RSO AND TENANT EVICTIONS
Besides placing restrictions on rent increases, RSO also sets the terms for when a tenant can be evicted. This is referred to as a "just-cause eviction." The city outlines fourteen legal reasons for a landlord to evict someone from a rent-stabilized unit. Eight of these are the result of actions (or inactions) by the tenant. The other six are not attributable to any faults of the tenant, but they are allowed nonetheless.
Failure to pay rent, violating the terms of the lease, being a nuisance, using the apartment for illegal activity and not being the person who signed the lease (or someone approved to live in the unit) are five obvious reasons for an at-fault eviction. California law states a landlord can move to evict a tenant with only three-day advance written notice for these faults. In turn, tenants have up to three days to correct them to avoid eviction.
One can also lose their apartment for denying the landlord entry after twenty-four hours’ notice has been given or for obstructing the landlord’s ability to do major repairs. The latter only applies if the landlord has filed a Tenant Habitability Plan (THP) with HCID, which is tasked with enforcing the Rent Stabilization Ordinance. THPs are intended to ensure tenants’ right to temporary replacement housing under the same conditions of the lease while the landlord undertakes significant construction. Unfortunately, the L.A. Tenants Union has found that this system is ripe for abuse, with certain landlords making tenants leave via the THP process and then not providing relocation services, and sometimes even obstructing tenants’ return. If you receive a notice regarding a THP for your building, be sure you confirm all details (such as the address of your relocation—one landlord in Echo Park listed a cemetery for his tenants) and seek help from an attorney or tenants’ rights organization.
Finally, tenants can be evicted if they refuse to renew or sign a new contract that is the same as the expiring one.
No-fault evictions result from altogether different circumstances. One can face a no-fault eviction from an RSO unit if the landlord needs to move their family, building manager, or themselves into the apartment. A tenant can also be subject to eviction if a government agency instructs a landlord to empty the units, or if the Federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is the owner and wants to sell the building. A landlord might also evict a tenant if they plan to convert a building into government-certified affordable housing. The same holds true if the building is a residential hotel that the landlord will convert or demolish.
The most frequent type of no-fault evictions occur when a landlord intends to remove a building from the housing market—for example, to convert it to condominiums or offices. These evictions happen under the Ellis Act, a 1985 state law that allows landlords to evict tenants when removing units from the rental pool. As with THPs, the process must be approved by HCID before commencing, but there is little oversight after the fact. After an Ellis Act eviction, a building must remain out of the market for five years. Yet the L.A. Tenants Union has found units available on AirBnB immediately after an eviction, as well as instances of new tenants moving in while evicted tenants move out, and emptied buildings being immediately sold to developers to build new apartments in their place. All told, there have been nearly 23,000 Ellis Act evictions in Los Angeles since 2001.
Whatever the reasons for a no-fault eviction, the landlord is required to compensate a tenant for relocation. According to HCID, payment "depends on whether the tenant is an Eligible or Qualified tenant, the length of tenancy, and the tenant's income." A Qualified tenant is 62 or older, disabled, or has minor dependents living with them. All other tenants are considered Eligible. Current relocation rates run $7,550–$19,500 per leaseholder.
If a tenant does not live in rent-stabilized housing, a landlord may evict them for any reason. However, the law requires that tenants receive advance written notice depending on the length of occupancy. A landlord terminating a month-to-month tenancy must offer sixty-day notice to someone who has lived in a unit for more than a year, or thirty-day notice for less than a year.
Usually, that notice does not have to state the landlord's reason for eviction. This is one of the key arguments for expansion of RSO: anyone in a unit built after 1978 is susceptible to a sudden eviction with nary an explanation. Trying to secure new housing on a sixty-day notice in the middle of a worsening affordability crisis only adds to the anxieties and vulnerabilities of tenants across the city.
This precarity has been one of the driving forces behind a growing statewide movement for repeal of the Costa-Hawkins Act. While such legislative action would free up California's tenants to initiate new rent stabilization measures city by city, conservative forces are once again speaking out against rent regulation in favor of a delusional faith in market forces. Much like the eight-hour workday or food processing reforms, rent regulations were not dreamt up in a vacuum; rent control and rent stabilization efforts are a response to overwhelming exploitation. From New York in the 1910s to Los Angeles today, the propertied will—by and large—take advantage of those who rent if the system accommodates it and tenants remain silent.