LA Landlords Fight ‘Unconstitutional’ Housing Inspections

LOS ANGELES (CN) — Landlords sued Los Angeles in a federal class action this week, claiming a rental ordinance gives city officials and employees law enforcement-like powers that violate protections against unlawful searches and seizures.

Pasadena landlord Brandi Garris and Venice landlord Jason Teague on Wednesday also sued Los Angeles Housing and Community Investment Department, formerly known as the Housing Department. They claim that City of Los Angeles Housing Code is “facially unconstitutional,” under the Fourth Amendment, and allow city employees to seize evidence and make arrests.

If landlords or tenants are uncooperative they can be charged with a criminal misdemeanor and fined $1,000 a day.

“The inspection ordinance in reality authorizes wholesale searches by law enforcement officers of every rental residence in the city without any showing of probable cause,” the lawsuit states.

The landlords cite the 2015 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in City of Los Angeles v. Patel, which affirmed a Ninth Circuit ruling that city officials could not force hotels to keep records of guest registries for 90 days.

The city said it needed access to guest registries day and night for the LAPD to combat prostitution and drug dealing in some motels. The motel owners successfully argued the spot checks violated their constitutional rights.

Garris and Teague say the city should modify the ordinance so that a neutral arbiter can review landlords’ objections before they face criminal or civil penalties.

Their attorney Dominic Surprenant, with Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan, said the ordinance is unfair to landlords and tenants.

“It’s essentially saying to renters: ‘We’re going to send police officers — city inspectors who also have the powers of police officers — into your homes. And you can’t say no, and you can’t get a hearing,’” Surprenant said in a telephone interview.

Surprenant said there had been some “friction” between the city and the two landlords before they filed suit, but declined to comment on whether they faced criminal or civil liability.

University of Southern California adjunct assistant professor and constitutional expert Olu Orange said he was surprised the Los Angeles City Attorney’s Office did not resolve the dispute before a lawsuit was filed.

“The ordinance as it’s drafted would seem to conflict with the current state of the law,” Orange said. “It makes sense that this would be a problem, because the ordinance seems to allow inspectors to bypass a determination that they should be on the premises to look for evidence of crime or misdeeds in the absence of there being a determination by a magistrate or some exigent circumstances.

“You can’t just write a law that lets government agents walk into people’s abodes and do stuff.”

Los Angeles City Council this year amended an inspection ordinance to increase the frequency of inspections in the city of 700,000 rental units. Officials now can inspect rentals every two years. Previously, inspections happened every four years.

Though most landlords act lawfully, Rushmore Cervantes, general manager of the city’s Housing and Community Development Department, said in a radio interview that about 4 percent of landlords neglect their properties or do not have the money to properly maintain their rentals.

Angelenos face an ongoing struggle to find affordable housing in the city where the median household income hovers just above $50,000 a year, according to the most recent U.S. Census data.

One-bedroom apartments in Los Angeles have a median rent of $1,870 and two-bedroom apartments cost $2,600, according to the Apartment List’s February Los Angeles rent report.

Landlords pay a regulatory fee of $43.32 per rental per year under the ordinance. Surprenant said that landlords sometimes pass on the fee to their tenants. The general manager enforces regulations and city employees have the power to make arrests without warrants, according to the lawsuit.

The landlords say they represent a potential class of hundreds of thousands of people. They seek class certification, an injunction against the ordinance, reimbursement of inspection fees and penalties.

Jason Switzer, a tenant who says he paid inspection fees under the ordinance, is also a party to the complaint.

The Los Angeles City Attorney’s Office and Los Angeles Housing and Community Investment Department did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

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