New Renter Protections to Take Effect in Santa Monica, Including Rent Stabilization and Anti-Retaliation Measures

A suite of new tenant protections will go into effect for renters in Santa Monica, California, on March 14, 2024. Created by “Ordinance No. 2776,” which was enacted on February 13, the measures will support renters by establishing (1) protections against excessive rental increases that exceed the average market rental rate; (2) relocation assistance for tenants under certain circumstances; (3) stronger anti-discrimination protections for tenants based on their housing status; and (4) added protections against harassment, including prohibitions on lockouts and retaliatory behavior. The law allows for financial penalties of as much as $20,000 per violation to be imposed on offending parties.

With the passage of the city’s new tenant protections package, Santa Monica joins more than a dozen other localities in the California that have enacted similar rent stabilization protections for tenants, while also becoming the first jurisdiction in the state to add “housing status” as a protected class. Under the law, landlords and property owners are prohibited from discriminating against a tenant who may be experiencing homelessness, living in transitional or temporary housing, or lacking a residential rental housing history. Similar laws do not exist at the state-level in California but have been passed elsewhere across the country. In 2022, the District of Columbia became the first jurisdiction in the nation to have enacted such protections, though the scope of its law is not as broad as in Santa Monica. In the District of Columbia in particular, the law distinctly prohibits discrimination against an individual based only on their “homeless status.”

In Santa Monica, the inclusion of housing status as a protected class will likely strengthen already existent source-of-income (SOI) discrimination laws in the city. SOI protections were passed in 2015 to ensure that renters who receive federal or state public assistance, including individuals participating in the Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher program, are not denied housing based upon the income they use when paying rent. By including a specific clause on housing status in the city’s anti-discrimination housing codes, lawmakers in Santa Monica hope to close a loophole that has continued to allow landlords and property owners to deny Section 8 voucher holders from securing housing – even in the presence of the SOI law.

In a report released by the Santa Monica City Council in 2024, landlords and property owners have been able to circumvent the law by instead denying public assistance recipients on the grounds of other identifying information, such as if an individual has experienced homelessness. This practice, as a result, has created undue barriers for the lowest-income and most marginalized individuals attempting to gain access to safe, stable, and affordable housing. For individuals who hold a housing voucher, moreover, the denial of housing can increase an individual’s chances of having to return the voucher if it goes unused. Together, this “double negative” has exacerbated the threat of housing instability across the city, and in some instances, can even close off the pathway for individuals experiencing homelessness to enter stable housing.

Addressing housing instability has been a focal point for lawmakers in Santa Monica. In 2023, the Santa Monica City Council even listed housing as one of the Council’s top legislative priorities, in part due to a growing eviction crisis that has raised alarms within the city. At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2021, Santa Monica reported 19 evictions filed that year. By 2023, with pandemic-era tenant protections no longer in place, eviction filings increased to 67 cases reported. Similar trends have been reported across the entire state. In 2023, 12 of the state’s most populous counties reported eviction averages higher than pre-pandemic levels. In areas such as Santa Clara County ,for example, the county reported that the average number of evictions filed in August 2023 was 35% higher than in 2019.

By passing “Ordinance No. 2776,” lawmakers in Santa Monica seek to ensure that the 70% of the city’s population who are renters have the necessary safeguards against the threat of eviction. As noted, in addition to classifying housing status as a protected class, the law seeks to protect renters against excessive rent increases. Specifically, the law allows individuals who have had their rent increased substantially to assert an affirmative defense in court if an eviction case has been brought against them for non-payment of rent. The law will cover individuals who are not already protected by existent city or state-level rent control laws.

With the passage of such protection, the city seeks to strengthen existent “just cause” eviction protections. “Just cause” or “for cause” eviction laws limit the reasons for which a landlord and property owner can evict a tenant from their residence. By prohibiting “no cause” evictions, or evictions that occur without reason, a landlord or property owner can instead only evict a tenant with verifiable intent, such as non-payment of rent, criminal activity, or a clear violation of the lease agreement. In 2024, there are nine states – California, Connecticut, the District of Columbia, Louisiana, Michigan, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Oregon, and Washington – that have passed some form of just cause eviction protections, though the scope and strength of these laws varies based on state context.

In the City of Santa Monica, lawmakers note that landlords have been able to skirt the just cause law by using non-payment of rent as a cover for removing a tenant from their home. Through this practice, a landlord and property owner will increase a tenant’s rent to price them out, making their rent wholly unaffordable in the meantime. Once a tenant has accrued rental arrears, the landlord sets the stage to assert a just cause eviction rationale and remove the tenant from their home.

For tenants who are evicted, the city also offers new relocation assistance protections for tenants under certain circumstances. Under the current city law, tenants are entitled to apply for relocation assistance if they have to move out due to a no-fault eviction or if the tenant has to move due to a large rent increase on their non-rent-controlled property. The new ordinance adds five additional grounds for relocation assistance, including if a tenant has to move due to an excessive rental increase that exceeds the allowable limits set forth by state law. The tenant will also be covered if the property is deemed uninhabitable.

Finally, to add an additional layer of protection for tenants who may be at-risk of eviction due to threatening, discriminatory, or harassing behavior, “Ordinance No. 2776” puts forth a number of provisions to outlaw such acts. Under the law, which amends the city’s anti-discrimination housing codes, landlords and property owners are prohibited from refusing to make basic repairs to a dwelling. The law also clarifies what types of actions constitute harassment, including if a landlord (1) changes the locks of a unit to evict a tenant; (2) refuses to accept a tenant’s rental payments; (3) retaliates against a tenant for reporting a housing code violation; and (4) imposes excessive rental increases. For landlords and property owners who engage in such behavior, the maximum penalty set forth by the new law ranges from $10,000 to $20,000.

Speaking about the passage of Santa Monica’s new protections, including advocacy in securing these renter protection wins, Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights (SMRR) Steering Committee member Jennifer Kennedy said that “for Santa Monica, a city that is 70% renters, the newly enacted package of renter protections will have a substantial impact. The new laws give renters more power to protect their tenancies, their finances, and their futures. By extending these safeguards to both non rent controlled and rent controlled tenants, the package will enhance housing security for an even larger portion of our renter community. We worked to bring the package to the attention of renters throughout Santa Monica prior to its adoption and its passage underscores the commitment of our organization, and of our community, to ensuring that all tenants feel secure in their homes.” 

More information on Santa Monica’s new law can be found here.