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The Trials and Tribulations of Renting in Santa Monica, or, My Call to Action

By Nicole Phillis, SMRR Member

My first memory of Santa Monica was one of an sweet little beach city, swelling with the hopefulness of youthful opportunity. It was love at first sight. Something about Santa Monica’s casual blend of Californian history and optimistic growth resonated deeply with me as a baby lawyer. Everything was happening, and everything was at my fingertips. I loved the walkability, the sustainability, the progressiveness, and the commitment to an open culture. My sense of place was almost immediate.

And thus it happened, having made the decision to relocate to Los Angeles from Atlanta for an incredible job opportunity – there was never really a doubt that I would live in Santa Monica – it was only a matter of where. As a young professional renter, I had a fair range of flexibility in where I could afford to live in Santa Monica, but my means were far from unlimited. Because, however, I had to procure an apartment within a relatively short time frame that could accommodate a 70 pound Golden Retriever, my approach was simply to take the path of least resistance. I fell into renting a downtown 400 square foot studio from a large commercial residential leasing company because it was the fastest, easiest, pet-friendly rental that I could squeeze into my budget.

The first year was perfectly fine. Although I knew I was paying above market, I justified it because of my love of the city. I lived in relative peace, although there certainly was not a sense of community, at least from a micro perspective. However, after my first year, I decided to upgrade to a 500 square foot one bedroom, in a rent-controlled building, with the same large commercial leasing company. That is where the trouble began. 

Shortly after I moved in, and following an initial dispute with the leasing company regarding move-in documentation, the letters began. They were not related to the initial dispute, but I was wary of their seemingly specious allegations. But the letters grew into complaints, which grew into bi-weekly phone calls regarding my unit. I started having to work from home frequently due to the near-constant fear of some new allegation from my leasing company. It was abundantly clear that for whatever reason – they wanted me gone.

As a young lawyer, with relatively significant resources, you would have expected that I would have known what to do. But I did not. I knew I had rights, particularly living in a rent controlled building, but I did not know how to enforce them or what to do next. I felt totally helpless – as if I could be forced, within any three day period, to move out of my apartment. So I called SMRR.

SMRR answered my call with diligence, competence and patience. The volunteer walked through with me my options in responding to my landlord, particularly given that I was in a rent controlled unit. They followed up and checked back in with me regarding the status of my dispute. And at the end of it all, I was able to broker a settlement with my landlord that allowed me to terminate my lease early without any additional fee and ensured that I would have my entire security deposit returned. This was much due to the efforts of SMRR.

SMRR does important work. I now know this first hand. And having gone through my own ordeal, I felt compelled to join the cause because if someone in my position, who enjoys so many privileges in our community, could feel so helpless, I knew there were so many more who benefit from (and truly need) SMRR’s help. Santa Monica is an incredible place – but I have now realized that it requires a conscientious effort to make it so. In my eyes, SMRR’s work is about a love for our city – a commitment to supporting its growth without forfeiting its identity, or its ideals. I consider myself fortunate to have found folks in SMRR that exemplify this communal ethic of care, and I look to our work for Santa Monica’s future.

Published inRenters' Rights