L.A. Lawmakers Could Empower More Tenants to Sue Landlords for Harassment

Renters and supporters march in L.A.’s Chinatown on July 8 in support of tenants’ rights. Photo courtesy the Chinatown Community For Equitable Development.

The city could guarantee payment to lawyers who win cases for renters, as alleged abuses continue despite 2021 anti-harassment law.

Thousands of Los Angeles residents who live in rent-controlled dwellings have accused their landlords of trying to drive them out in order to charge higher rents to new tenants.

Two years ago, the city passed a sweeping law to bar tenant harassment practices such as falsely telling renters they must move, refusing repairs, and threatening physical harm or deportation. But with the city government lacking sufficient money or staff to enforce the law, reports of such coercion are still pervasive, and the city remains in a housing crisis in which rents and homelessness continue to soar.

Now, the City Council is considering a proposal that could give more tenants a way to fight back: guaranteeing legal fees for tenants’ lawyers who win judgments against landlords.

Currently, the law does not require landlords to pay for tenants’ legal fees if they lose tenant harassment lawsuits. The ordinance says only that tenants “may” be reimbursed for their legal fees, not that they “shall” be.

Tenant lawyers in Los Angeles say they will not take on tenant harassment cases — because even when they win, there is no guarantee that they will be paid.

The city also has the power to criminally prosecute landlords for harassment, but such efforts have failed completely.

More than 6,000 complaints have come to the city since the Tenant Anti-Harassment Ordinance was adopted in 2021. Just 12 of those complaints were referred to the city attorney for criminal prosecution. None of those complaints has led to a landlord being charged. More than 5,000 complaints have been closed.

Eleven of those complaints to the city attorney come from just two properties. The city attorney referred all 11 back to the Los Angeles Housing Department for more investigation, according to Ivor Pine, spokesperson for the City Attorney’s Office.

Councilmember Nithya Raman said in a statement that lawmakers knew the city would be unable to enforce the law when they wrote it.

“The theory for enforcement was that because the City didn’t have its own enforcement apparatus already up and running, we would depend on private attorneys to bring these cases forward,” she said.

Two years later, both the city and the private bar have failed to litigate tenant harassment in Los Angeles, said Sergio Vargas, co-director of the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment Institute, which organized for TAHO before it passed.

Instead, the ordinance is just “a symbolic piece of paper that gives you a definition of what harassment is, but there’s no enforcement,” he said.

The proposed amendment before the City Council to guarantee tenants’ legal fees is opposed by the powerful Apartment Association of Greater Los Angeles (AAGLA), which represents landlords.

The association’s executive director, Dan Yukelson, said tenants could file lawsuits as a pretext to cover their own transgressions, like not paying rent. Guaranteeing legal fees would “only be opening the gates for more owners to be harassed,” he said.

Yukelson said AAGLA is not yet lobbying against the amendment because it is fighting a council effort to make landlords install air conditioning.

Lawyers say they are not likely to take many tenant cases because of the high risk they will not be adequately paid. Currently, legal fees are determined by a jury when awarding damages at the end of a trial. Harassment cases often involve “psychic damages, not physical damages,” said Frances Campbell, a Los Angeles tenant lawyer. She stressed that psychic damages are real — but because of their subjective nature, “a jury gets to decide how much that’s worth. It could be $20,000 or it could be $300,000,” Campbell said. “No one’s going to spend two years with a case on their caseload only to maybe or maybe not get fees.”

Campbell said the amendment could remove an obstacle to representation because “at least if there’s a right to attorney’s fees, a court will have to give you fees for how much time you spent,” she said.

That proposal is before the City Council’s Housing and Homelessness Committee, where it appears to have just one of the three votes it requires to advance to a full council vote. Only Councilmember Nithya Raman has said she will support the change. Councilmembers John Lee and Monica Rodriguez did not answer repeated questions on whether they support the amendment. Neither did Raman’s fellow progressive on the committee, Councilmember Marqueece Harris-Dawson.

Councilmember Bob Blumenfield said he is still considering the idea but prefers guaranteeing reimbursement only in lawsuits against corporate landlords.

Councilmember Raman proposed an amendment to TAHO in 2021 that would guarantee tenants legal fees if they won in court — but it failed.

At the time, Councilmember Gil Cedillo, who then chaired the committee, asked the City Attorney’s Office to pick and choose between Raman’s amendment and others instead of letting the committee vote on them. The city attorney did not pick Raman’s amendment, selecting language that did not guarantee legal fees for tenants — and which the housing department now recommends correcting.

Cedillo’s move was “highly unusual,” according to Jackie Goldberg, a former councilmember and current school board president. “The council does not leave it up to the city attorney to make policy. Picking one [amendment over another] is making policy. City attorneys don’t make policies.”

Last year, Cedillo’s office did not respond to requests for comment on that deferral to the city attorney. He has since left the council after losing his re-election to Eunisses Hernandez last summer.

The city’s housing department blames its poor enforcement record on a lack of financial resources, but nearly $12 million in funding for enforcement may be available this year through a tax on real estate transactions.

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