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Santa Monica Properties v. Santa Monica Rent Control Board

February 16, 2012

SANTA MONICA PROPERTIES, PLAINTIFF AND APPELLANT,
v.
SANTA MONICA RENT CONTROL BOARD, DEFENDANT AND RESPONDENT.



APPEAL from a judgment of the Superior Court of Los Angeles County. John H. Reid, Judge. Affirmed in part; reversed in part. (Los Angeles County Super. Ct. No. SS018348)

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Bigelow, P. J.

CERTIFIED FOR PUBLICATION

After taking more than a year to issue a final decision, the Santa Monica Rent Control Board (RCB) decreased two tenants' rent because their landlord, Santa Monica Properties (SMP), lowered the temperature on a hot tub during workday hours, heating it only during evening hours, and altered a sauna's timer knob so that the sauna heated for one-half hour at a turn instead of the previous one hour. SMP filed a petition for writ of administrative mandate challenging the rent decrease decision. In the same pleading, SMP sought a petition for writ of traditional mandate to compel RCB to adopt regulations establishing administrative remedies to be applied in the event RCB fails, as it did here, to issue a final decision in a rent adjustment proceeding within 120 days as required by the Santa Monica City Charter, article XVIII, section 1800 et seq., Rent Control Charter Amendment, hereafter the rent control law (RCL).*fn1 The trial court entered judgment for RCB. We reverse the judgment as to SMP's petition for writ of administrative mandate, and remand the cause to the trial court with directions to enter judgment in favor of SMP. We affirm the judgment as to SMP's petition for writ of traditional mandate.

FACTS

The Rent Decrease Proceeding

SMP owns a 32-unit apartment building that is subject to RCB's jurisdiction pursuant to the RCL. Under section 1805(a) and (b), RCB is empowered to make general adjustments, annually or upon a noticed public hearing, of the "rent ceiling" -- the "maximum allowable rent which a landlord may charge on any controlled rental unit." Under section 1805(c), RCB may, upon a tenant's petition, decrease the "maximum rent of individual controlled rental units."*fn2

On January 31, 2008, a tenant in SMP's apartment building, R. Liza Salvatore, filed a "Petition for Rent Decrease" with RCB. (No. D-4392.) The petition alleged that a decrease in her monthly rent (then $1,214.25 for a 2-bedroom, 2-bathroom, 1,200 square foot unit) was justified because SMP had reduced housing services by changing the hours that the property's Jacuzzi was heated, from 9:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m., down to 5:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m.; and by installing a sauna timer that "reduced greatly" the length of time that the sauna would stay heated "from 1 hr to 25 min."*fn3 On March 10, 2008, another tenant, Roberta Rosskam, also filed a "Petition for Rent Decrease." (No. D-4396.) The petition alleged that a decrease in her monthly rent (then $1,440.33 for a 2-bedroom, 2-bathroom, 1,300 square foot unit) was justified because SMP had reduced housing services by changing the hours that the property's Jacuzzi was heated, from 9:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m., down to 5:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m., and by installing a sauna timer that "reduced significantly" the length of time that the sauna would stay heated "from 1 hr to 25 min."*fn4 In late March 2008, RCB consolidated the rent decrease petitions. "[O]n several occasions" prior to the hearing on the petitions, a hearing investigator employed by RCB went to SMP to inspect the operation of the hot tub and sauna.

On July 8, 2008, and July 31, 2008, an RCB hearing examiner heard evidence on the consolidated rent decrease petitions. The following witnesses testified at the hearing: tenants Rosskam and Salvatore; SMP's manager, and the RCB hearing investigator. On October 14, 2008, the hearing examiner issued a 99-page decision ordering a decrease in rent of $48 per month to tenant Salvatore, beginning effective December 1, 2008, and measured as follows: a $3 per month decrease because SMP had removed the name of Salvatore's business from the building's directory, a $25 per month decrease related to the hot tub ("reduction of hours Jacuzzi heated"); and a $20 per month decrease related to the sauna ("defective timer/inadequate heat"). The hearing examiner granted a rent decrease of $25 per month to tenant Rosskam effective beginning December 1, 2008, related to the hot tub ("reduction in hours for heat").

The hearing examiner's rent reduction decision set forth 58 separate "Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law," including the following:

"54. [Tenants Salvatore and Rosskam] are entitled to a rent decrease based upon the landlord's failure to remedy the conditions set forth below. The landlord's failure to remedy these conditions represents a failure to provide adequate housing services which were included in the base rent The following monthly decreases are granted:

"[Tenant Salvatore]

"Condition Amount

"1. Removal of tenant's company name from Building directory $3

"2. Reduced housing services

"A. Recreational facilities

"1. Jacuzzi (reduction of hours jacuzzi heated) $25

"2. Sauna (defective timer/inadequate heat) $20

Total $48

"[Tenant Rosskam] "Condition Amount

"1. Reduced housing services

"A. Recreational facilities

"1. Jacuzzi (reduction in hours for heat) $25

"55. The amounts of $48 [as to tenant Salvatore] and $25 [as to tenant Rosskam] are reasonable decreases to accomplish the purposes of the [RCL], including providing owners no more than a fair return on their properties and providing effective remedies for violations of the [RCL] . . . ." (Italics added.)

On October 17, 2008, SMP tenant Salvatore filed an administrative appeal to RCB's Board, challenging the hearing examiner's decision not to reduce her rent further based on SMP's shut-off of gas for her decorative fireplace. (See fn. 3, ante.) On October 27, 2008, SMP filed an administrative appeal to RCB's Board, challenging the rent decreases which the hearing examiner had ordered. The appeals were eventually set on calendar for hearing at the meeting of RCB's Board scheduled for April 23, 2009. On April 9, 2009, RCB's legal department issued a "Staff Report On Appeal" to RCB's Board, recommending that the hearing examiner's ...


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