A bill that will outlaw forcing tenants to pay their rent online is now headed toward the desk of Gov. Jerry Brown.
The legislation, Senate Bill 1055, passed the full state Senate Aug. 21. It was one of the many pieces of legislation that made the Appropriations Committee deadline.
“A growing number of landlords are no longer accepting checks or money orders from tenants,” state Sen. Ted Lieu (D-Marina del Rey), SB 1055’s sponsor, said after the Senate vote. “Instead, they have begun to change rental agreements to require tenants – including the elderly, disabled and poor – to pay their rent online.”
SB 1055 aims to revise state law to prohibit landlords from requiring online rental payments as the only form of accepted payment.
Tenants at Casa De Marina Apartments on Braddock Drive in Del Rey were one of the many complexes in Los Angeles where management companies and property owners sought to implement an online payment policy last year.
Management at the Del Rey complex outlined its plans in a Sept. 1, 2011 memo to its tenants.
“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,” the “change of terms” letter from Jones & Jones Management Group, Inc. stated. “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, 2011, you will be required to pay your rent online.”
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.”
A group of residents at Casa De Marina formed a tenants group after the memo was sent and later sought legal representation from Bet Tzedek Legal Services, a nonprofit organization that provides free legal services to low income residents and families.
The Casa De Marina renters’ attorney, Patricia Van Dyke, 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 in a previous interview.
The California Apartment Association backs SB 1055.
“Although we recognize that there are tenants who might want to pay their rent electronically, we also recognize that not all renters have the means to do so,” said Eric Wiegers, senior vice president with the association. “There are many people who have lived in the same apartment for many years and they have become accustomed to dropping their rent at the office.”
The Coalition for Economic Survival began organizing tenants after learning that Jones & Jones requested their renters to pay their rents electronically.
“We think this is a tremendous victory in securing tenants’ rights,” Larry Gross, the coalition’s executive director, said of the bill’s approval. “We’re tremendously grateful to Sen. Lieu for responding with decisive action when he became aware of our efforts to organize tenants who were being targeted by these abusive landlords.”
Lieu said his office learned about the mandatory online payment policy after hearing complaints from constituents that certain demographic groups appeared to be unfairly affected.
“The practice of requiring tenants to make their rental payments online has a disparate impact on the elderly and on the poor, who are often not able to afford computers and might not have access to the Internet,” the senator noted.
“Many residents of the rent-controlled complexes are elderly, live on fixed incomes and have no computer,” Lieu said, adding that it was unreasonable to ask renters who may be struggling to make ends meet to purchase a computer, Internet access and related expenses in order to rent a residence.
Wiegers said for some tenants it can also be a matter of privacy. “There are people who don’t want their financial information online and they are also concerned about security breaches (when making online payments),” he said.
The Coalition for Economic Survival believes Jones & Jones’ intent was to target citizens and others on fixed incomes in order to evict them and rent to those in higher income brackets.
“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,” accused Gross.
Ellen Wolf, an attorney representing Jones & Jones, did not return calls for comment on the bill’s passing. In an earlier interview, she denied accusations that her client was attempting to force certain tenants out of their units.
“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.”
The Coalition for Economic Survival and the Western Center on Law and Poverty co-sponsored SB 1055.
Brown can now veto the bill, sign it into law or allow it to be enacted without his signature.¤