Monday, February 20, 2012

Why the Santa Monica hot tub rent control case makes me mad

Oh, man, is this one ever bad for rent-controlled tenants. Sadly, it's the fault of two rent-controlled tenants in Santa Monica who could not quit while they were ahead.

See, these two women were already paying respectively $1214.25 and $1440.23 per month for two-bedroom, two-bath apartments, each with half again more square footage than your basic Berkeley bungalow, with shared access to Jacuzzi and a sauna.

And then they complained that, heavens, the landlord had turned down the daytime temperatures on the Jacuzzi and had shortened the (repeatable) toasting time on the sauna's control knob from an hour to 25 minutes.

The Santa Monica Rent Control Board foolishly backed them up.

So of course the board's decision was slamdunked on appeal.

The opinion from California's Second District sounds morally sensible. It interprets the Santa Monica ordinance to find that "A reduction in recreational services may be considered on a rent decrease petition, but where, as here, the reduction is a minor adjustment in the hours of luxury spa services, no rent decrease may be ordered without evidence that it resulted in excessive rent or an unjust return on the landlord's property."

But here's the thing: as judges do, these judges responded more to the facts than to the principles involved. Because they had a stupid whiny complaint to respond to, they ended up eroding the worthy principle that tenants are entitled to keep getting what they bargained for when they moved in.

Their decision could sooner or later hurt tenants in slumlord buildings that have full-on problems like broken windows and pigeon crap in the light wells and unmaintained hundred-year-old elevators.

It could also hurt, well, me.

We're rent-controlled here in San Francisco. We have a good deal by many standards. It's not as good as the one in the Santa Monica case. Probably because San Francisco has always had vacancy decontrol (landlords can raise the rent when they change tenants), whereas until 1999, Santa Monica rent control just kept rents down forever, while the "finder's fees" charged to new tenants went up and up and up.

We have a modest one-bedroom apartment. It has some wood rot and peeling paint and no vent over the stove (we therefore rarely use the oven) and a dishwasher that we're afraid to use because it has not been started since we had the mouse problem a dozen years ago. Yesterday we discovered a vine had started to grow inside one of the window sashes. Because we are rent-controlled we'll be trimming that out ourselves. We do a lot of our own pruning here.

Over fifteen years we have paid other prices of rent control, to our landlord's advantage. We defended our end of the block against condo developments that would have been worse neighbors without our effort. We helped to armor the back of our unit after a burglar held us up in our own bed. We custom-ordered and paid for window screens to deal with mosquitoes. We endured a year of ugly vapors and night alarums caused by serious drug dealers moving in on an addict neighbor downstairs. After the drug people were gone at last, several of us organized a half-jokey "exorcism" to reboot our sense of community. Incidentally preserving value for the landlord.

Sometimes it's also part of the price of rent control that we have to insist on repairs and replacements to get them. Just this past year, the Rent Board had to be mentioned in a discussion leading our landlord to replace the decaying garden benches in our courtyard.

This is why I'm a little personally mad at tenants who would push a complaint all the way to state appellate court over frevvinsakes, a hot tub? They not only make the rest of us rent-controlled tenants look bad, they've created bad appellate case law for us all.

The next time we and our neighbors have something like a garden bench problem, this case could get thrown in our faces. I think our bench situation is distinguishable because the court in the hot tub decision noted that some problems with recreational facilities really could be part of a valid complaint. Having a courtyard that is not barren concrete, but has plants and usable benches as it did when we moved in, is way more basic than having a suitably toasty Jacuzzi to come home to in the daytime and not "merely" at night, or having to turn the start knob on a sauna twice rather than once in an hour. I still don't like having this hot tub case out there to deal with.

It's not just hard cases that make bad law. It's also cheesy cases, cases where by majority human standards the complaining party shouldn't complain.

The case is Santa Monica Properties v. Santa Monica Rent Control Board, Cal. Second District Court of Appeal Case No. B227868, filed February 16, 2012.

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