For Renters, Landlord Accountability Key to Fixing Substandard Housing

Jan. 30, 2015 / By

For the two and a half years Long Beach resident “Hippie Chuck” lived at 1152 Hawthorne, he says conditions in the apartment were a “nightmare.”

There was mold behind the toilet, rat and mouse feces, and the carpet was filthy. “If you walked across the carpet wearing white socks, the socks became black at the bottom”, said Chuck (who only gave his first name). “Every time I complained to the manager, he said if you don’t like it, leave.”

Eventually the building manager tore out the bathroom and kitchen floor, forcing Chuck and his roommates to use a separate toilet outside their unit.

“We used to have to walk across a rickety plank to get to the bathroom,” he recalled. “James (Chuck’s roommate) had to help me walk across the plank. It was a total nightmare.”

Eventually Chuck and his roommates sued the manager of the complex and got the Long Beach Code Enforcement office and the city police on their side.

“The police said it smelled like somebody died,” he explained.

But Chuck and his roommates are among just 5 percent of Long Beach residents who have sought the help of the code enforcement office in dealing with negligent landlords.

According to a recent survey of 600 Long Beach tenants conducted by Housing Long Beach, 64 percent of renters are not aware the city has a code enforcement department. Out of that 64 percent, only 5 percent have reported housing problems to the city.

Community activists and residents are now fighting for renter protection and landlord accountability.

Jorge Rivera, Housing Long Beach’s Community Organizer, says that tenants don’t report problems to the city for fear of retaliation from their landlords, which could come in the form of rent increases or even eviction.

“People in general are living in fear of requesting repairs from their landlord just because they’re scared of what their landlord might do,” said Rivera.

Rivera and his colleague, Housing Long Beach Executive Director Kerry Gallagher, are trying to change this by lobbying the city council to take up and pass REAP (Rent Escrow Account Program) here in Long Beach.

The program, which already exists in Los Angeles, would protect tenants from unfair retaliation if they report to the city’s code enforcement.

“Currently there is no protection for renters,” said Gallagher. “The only enforcement for landlords not making improvements is a fining system, and we’re not totally clear about the effectiveness of that fining system.”

Under REAP, tenants who report dilapidated conditions to Code Enforcement would have the option of paying a reduced rent to their landlord or to the city until their landlord makes all the necessary improvements.

“Once the renter is in the program they cannot be evicted or have a rent increase,” said Gallagher. “And then for six months after that those protections remain.”

According to the Los Angeles Housing and Community Investment Department , property owners that are subject to REAP would also have to pay a $50 administrative fee per unit for every month that their property is in the program. In addition, a notice of REAP would be filed with the County Recorder’s Office which would restrict the refinancing or even sale of the property.

Gallagher says that currently the renter has to prove retaliation on the landlord’s part, which can be extremely difficult.

“About 99 percent of the time, if you don’t have an attorney you’re going to lose in court,” said Gallagher. “And if you lose in court you’ll have an eviction notice that goes on your credit report for 10 years, so you’re essentially setting yourself up for homelessness.”

On Jan. 20 a march was held for renters rights that went from St. Luke’s Church to City Hall.

“It was really great. We had about 60 or 70 people march and had 20 people join us at City Hall,” said Gallagher. “I think it was really just about the community coming together and saying we’re not going away and we want to work with our city leaders to make something happen.”

Gallagher says that since the city staff does not plan on moving forward on REAP it is up to the City Council to make it happen.

“We have a number of legislative visits set up with council members to figure out how to move this forward,” said Gallagher. “We’ve met with every single council member and their staff and now we’re doing second or third rounds.”

Housing Long Beach also recently conducted a residential visit with councilmembers Rex Richardson and Lena Gonzalez, who were able to speak to residents in their districts regarding housing conditions.

“Even though I had heard from (a) renter just minutes before, I didn’t fully comprehend the conditions until I saw them with my own eyes,” said Richardson.

But Gallagher adds that even if the city council does eventually decide to bring up and pass REAP, there will need to be a massive community outreach and education campaign in order to educate Long Beach residents about the program.

“If this city-wide program is implemented, then we ought to let people know so they can start using it,” said Gallagher.

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Ben Novotny

Ben Novotny is an alumnus of California State University, Long Beach where he majored in Journalism and minored in American Studies. At CSULB Ben was a staff writer for The Union Weekly, the student-run campus newspaper and was actively involved with the school's TV production studio. Ben was a Contributing Writer for The Long Beach Post and the Long Beach Business Journal and has been a Youth Reporter at VoiceWaves for four years.