Op-Ed: It’s past time to stop tenant harassment from unscrupulous landlords

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Photo courtesy of Norberto Lopez

The Signal Tribune provides a space for those wanting to submit an op-ed on issues affecting the communities of Long Beach and Signal Hill. Op-ed’s do not necessarily reflect the views of the Signal Tribune.

Imagine: in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, on top of the many stresses you’re dealing with—income loss, online schooling for your kids, elderly parent care—you also have to endure water leaks, black mold, and a rat infestation in your home. You’ve asked your landlord to fix these problems, but instead, the landlord illegally doubles your rent and threatens you with eviction and other lawsuits if you don’t pay.

We don’t have to go far to see this exact scenario in real life. For months, 12 families in an apartment building at 5th and Daisy in Council District 1 have faced harassment from their landlord, Bradley Johnson of Trusted Real Estate Advisors, and Harbor Associates. Johnson has refused to make building repairs in clear violation of health and safety codes, barged into tenants’ units without notice, and tried to force illegal rent increases ranging from 66% to 90%, threatening the tenants with eviction if they can’t pay.

Johnson owns another apartment building at 15th and Orange in Council District 6, and when tenants started organizing against their illegal rent increases, he retaliated by removing the building’s security gates and outdoor security lights. Now the building is pitch dark at night.

Johnson is not an outlier in his conduct. Ruthless and coercive harassment by landlords against tenants is happening all across our renter-majority city. This is by no means a new problem, but it’s especially despicable during the pandemic. As housing rights organizers, we know first-hand of countless families experiencing harassment from their landlords, including unlawful eviction attempts and lockouts, verbal and physical intimidation and threats, failure to make timely repairs, entry into homes without notice, and intentional distribution of false information about COVID-19 emergency housing policies.

Here is just a sampling of the cases we are dealing with:

• In Council District 1, 12 families have faced illegal rent increases, physical intimidation, and eviction threats. On Saturday, October 10 several families received no-fault eviction notices for “substantial remodeling,” even though Los Angeles County’s eviction moratorium prohibits all no-fault evictions.

• In Council District 2, a single mother has been illegally locked out of her storage twice. A Black veteran with PTSD has been harassed multiple times. Five tenants at Ocean and Cherry endure unnecessary construction hazards like workers without PPE, dust, and water shutoffs. And a single mother on Freeman Ave has faced constant harassment including just last week when the landlord cut off her internet while her kids were doing virtual schooling.

• In Council District 3, a family received a voicemail from their landlord threatening them with gun violence.

• In Council District 4, a woman who lost her wages due to COVID has black mold in her bedroom, but instead of making repairs, the landlord has harassed her for rent payment and threatened to evict her.

• In Council District 6, eight families have faced illegal rent increases and unscrupulous retaliation from their landlord, Bradley Johnson described above.

• In Council District 9, one tenant was locked out of their unit illegally, and 16 families at 64th and Linden, who have been resisting their vicious corporate landlord WestStar since last year, now face needless water shutoffs. WestStar is the same company harassing tenants in the District 2 building on Ocean.

And these are just some of the cases we know about, with potentially many more that haven’t come to our attention.

We can’t legislate a cure for horrible people, but we can legislate protection from abuse. The City Council must immediately adopt a commonsense Tenant Anti-Harassment Urgency Ordinance to give tenants real legal options when they suffer landlord harassment. When a tenant behaves badly or violates their lease, the landlord can evict or take other legal action—but when a landlord behaves badly and harasses a tenant, the tenant can’t do anything about it because they’ll just be handed an eviction notice or be told, “If you don’t like it here, you can leave.”

Critics say that California state law already prohibits harassment of tenants. But the state laws in place are toothless, limited in scope, and do not actually deter abusive behavior from landlords. For instance, a landlord who repeatedly pounds on a tenant’s door at 2:00 a.m. won’t face any consequences unless the tenant can prove the landlord’s motive is to force them out of their unit. The only recourse for an abused tenant, apart from a month-long civil lawsuit, is to call the police, which is problematic because oftentimes landlords have the upper hand, and there is longstanding distrust between communities of color and police. In District 1, for example, the landlord of a building on Parade Street has called the police on a tenant family with completely false accusations. The police said it was fine for the landlord to record a video of the tenant’s young children through their bedroom window. This harassment is borderline stalking and must be stopped.

Long Beach needs a local Tenant Anti-Harassment Urgency Ordinance—such as those adopted by Santa Monica, West Hollywood, Oakland, San Francisco, and Berkeley—that will create real, substantial penalties for specific abuses without requiring tenants to prove landlords’ motives or move out first and sue later. This is a matter of basic human decency. Everyone deserves the safe, quiet enjoyment of their home, especially during a pandemic. If you are a kind, decent landlord, you have nothing to worry about; this ordinance will not impact you. If you are a landlord who harasses and intimidates to squeeze your tenants, then your opposition to this ordinance is more a reflection of your shameful character than anything else.

We call on the City Council to adopt a Tenant Anti-Harassment Urgency Ordinance at a special meeting on or before October 27, 2020. After mid-October, the Council is not scheduled to meet again until November 17. Long Beach families are suffering now and deserve justice without delay.

If you are experiencing any type of harassment from your landlord, please feel free to share your story with us at [email protected] or [email protected]

Norberto Lopez is the Project Director of Long Beach Residents Empowered (LiBRE). Andrew Mandujano is an organizer with the Long Beach Tenants Union.