THE ARGONAUT: Lieu bill would stop landlords from requiring online rental payments

March 22, 2012

By Gary Walker

Acting on a slew of complaints from residents that some rental companies have imposed mandatory online payments, state. Sen. Ted Lieu has submitted legislation that would outlaw that practice.

Casa de Marina in Del Rey is one of several properties owned by real estate company Jones & Jones that requires its tenants to submit their rents to the leasing office via the Internet. Lieu, who represents Del Rey, introduced Senate Bill 1055 last month.

“This bill will protect tenants who are in some cases being forced to make payments online,” the senator said.

Some longtime tenants at Casa de Marina have complained that they do not have access to computers or are not computer literate and therefore this mandatory rule makes it much more difficult for them to pay their rents.

Coalition for Economic Survival Executive Director Larry Gross believes that is exactly what Jones & Jones is doing.

“It seems like it is nothing more than a scheme to target seniors and evict them in order to rent to renters of a higher income bracket,” Gross asserted in an interview with The Argonaut.

Jones & Jones attorney Ellen Wolf denied that her client has any intention of forcing out seniors or any other tenant. “The (payment) policy was not intended to disenfranchise or be unfair to anyone,” she said. “Many people pay their bills online and this was intended to be easier and more efficient.”

In a memo from Casa de Marina last November obtained by The Argonaut, management indicates that some of the reasons they have decided to take payments online are due to environmental concerns.

“Jones & Jones is proud to announce that we are going GREEN. Please help our planet by joining our effort in eliminating the need for unnecessary and excessive paperwork by paying your rent online,” a Sept. 1, 2011 “change of terms” letter to tenants from the Jones & Jones Management Group, Inc. states. “It is fast, easy and efficient and you will also be doing your part in conserving our planet and saving our trees by eliminating envelopes, and you’ll even save the cost of a stamp.

“This letter is intended as a 90 day notice for the purpose of modifying the terms of your tenancy,” the letter continues. “Effective Dec. 1, 2001, you will be required to pay your rent online.”

Lieu agrees that paying one’s bills online can be more efficient and recognizes that there is a cost-saving component to it as well. “But I don’t believe that people should be forced against their will to do that,” he added.

Gross scoffs at the notion that becoming more environmentally friendly is behind the rental payment policy.

“We think the only thing that they are interested in are ‘green’ dollars,” he said. “They are all about ‘greed,’ not ‘green.’”

Wolf said that landlords at Jones & Jones properties that are under rent control, like Casa de Marina, are accepting rent online as well as in other methods of payment.

“In the original memo the word ‘requirement’ was used,” the attorney acknowledged. “But it was never intended to be a requirement and the landlord is not going to evict people for not paying their rent online.”

Wolf also accused the coalition of “mischaracterizing” the reasons behind the online payment policy.

Pasty Van Dyke, an attorney representing residents at Casa de Marina, filed a lawsuit against Jones & Jones March 5 after receiving complaints about the management company’s electronic payment policy.

“The attempt to change the terms of the tenancy is a unilateral move that cannot be enforced,” Van Dyke asserted.

According to Section 151.09a.2(c) of the city’s Rent Stabilization Ordinance, “a landlord cannot unilaterally change terms of tenancy under the Civil Code Section 827 and then evict a tenant for the violation of the added covenant, unless the tenant agrees in writing to the additional term.”

Linda Harrell, who has lived almost three years at Casa de Marina, said some residents at her apartment complex have been given waivers from the company’s online policy. “But I hear that (the mandatory online payment system) is still going on,” said Harrell, who formed a tenants group after the policy went into effect.

Van Dyke, who is a housing and impact litigation lawyer, said the lawsuit will continue until the tenants are officially notified that they are no longer required to pay their rent electronically.

“I have yet to receive any written change to this policy,” she said.

Other residents claim the owner’s move to change or eliminate storage and parking spaces is another part of a concerted campaign to force certain tenants out of Casa de Marina.

Wolf acknowledged that parking spaces are being relocated, but only because some tenants were not parking where they were assigned in their lease agreements. “(Casa de Marina) is only trying to make parking reassignment fair and appropriate,” the Jones & Jones attorney said.

Van Dyke said switching tenants to smaller or fewer spaces or less storage space might not be legal.

“Any change that would reduce anything that a tenant is receiving is potentially illegal,” she said.

Wolf is aware of Lieu’s bill, and thinks there are other approaches that can be implemented. “I think there are less intrusive ways to accommodate tenants’ concerns with online payments as well as with having environmentally friendly methods of rental payment,” she said.

Van Dyke thinks the bill will go a long way in eliminating this practice by Jones & Jones and possibly discourage other landlords from implementing similar rules.

“We think (SB 1055) is terrific,” she said. “We’re very pleased that there has been an immediate response from our local and state legislators.”

Second District Los Angeles Councilman Paul Krekorian is considering an ordinance similar to Lieu’s. Councilman Bill Rosendahl, whose 11th District includes Del Rey, said he would back any city legislation outlawing a mandatory online payment system. “We have a significant number of seniors in Del Rey who may not be computer savvy, and they need the support of another strategy,” Rosendahl said.

Van Dyke said that until the Jones & Jones legal action, she had never seen a case like this one. “This is a perfect example of how impact legislation can work,” the attorney said. “SB 1055 could be the result of this case.”