California Cities Pass New Landlord Harassment Laws
The state of California has laws in place to prevent harassment against tenants; landlords cannot verbally or physically harass or threaten tenants or force them to move out. Anti-harassment laws are common throughout the country, but they don’t always stop harassment from happening. Stressors on housing and the economy during the pandemic have led to an increase in harassment reports in cities along the west coast. Many cities in California are beginning to pass their own laws to further protect tenants from mistreatment and coercion.
One of the first cities to propose local harassment bans since the start of the pandemic was Los Angeles. An ordinance proposed in 2021 banned any “knowing and willful course of conduct” that is aimed at a specific tenants, has “no lawful purpose”, and causes harm. The ordinance named a number of specific examples of harassment, including:
- Neglecting repairs or maintenance
- Coercing a tenant to leave by offering payment
- Threatening tenants with physical harm
- Eliminating housing services required under lease
- Requesting information that violates tenant privacy
- Doing anything to make the unit unfit for human habitation
- Refusing to accept or acknowledge lawful rent payment
The law also bans any actions that are meant to make a tenant give up their unit and “interfere with or disturb the comfort, repose, peace, or quiet of a tenant”.
Similar ordinances have been approved in Long Beach, Concord, and Richmond, and councilmembers in other cities like Chula Vista and Antioch are already considering similar propositions. Most of the newly proposed laws have been spearheaded by tenants’ rights organizations, reporting increases in calls concerning landlord harassment in the last few years. They see landlords shutting off utilities, changing locks, or threatening to call Immigration and Customs Enforcement in order to intimidate tenants into leaving their unit.
As the rental market shifts and eviction moratoriums and tenant aid are running out, harassment cases are becoming more common. Shanti Singh, a spokesperson for Tenants Together, explains that the organization’s hotline has been overwhelmed with calls through the pandemic. “Harassment really, really went up during COVID from the beginning, but especially as the rent relief program sort of wore on and people were waiting.”
While proponents of these ordinances argue their necessity to protect tenants in these cities, landlord advocates are pushing back against new policies, claiming that they aren’t needed in addition to the statewide laws already in place. If landlords break state anti-harassment law, they are required to pay a $2,000 fine. Local bans are adding further penalties, with fines up to $5,000 in Concord and $10,000 in Los Angeles per violation. Under the Los Angeles ordinance, tenants may also be awarded attorney fees, damages, rent funds, and other relief should they prevail in court. Additionally, landlords found guilty of harassing someone out of a rent-stabilized apartment may be barred from charing more to the next tenant.
Joshua Howard, member of the California Apartment Association, argues that new ordinances “invite excessive penalties on landlords for making what could be considered an innocent mistake,” criticizing the broad wording of the laws and their overlapping jurisdiction. “So not only could the landlord be sured under state law, but they could also be sued now under the local law. It creates a double penalty and a second mechanism to sue the owner and impose some significant fines, fees, and penalties.”