This is the first article in our series offering advice to tenants dealing with shady landlords. Find the full series here.
Los Angeles and its neighboring cities are cities of renters — more than half of us live in a home owned by someone else. If you’ve been a tenant for any amount of time, you’ve probably had to deal with an unscrupulous landlord at some point.
And the same holds true if you’re a reporter covering housing. When journalists encounter a landlord trying to take advantage of tenants, we use a bunch of different tools to dig into the landlord’s identity, history, property records, and other public information.
But those tools aren’t reserved for reporters. Anyone can use them, including you!
This is a guide designed to help you research your home and your landlord like a reporter would. The more you know, the better you can fight back. For the most part, all you need is a computer or cell phone, and a couple hours of free time.
That said, the information below is no substitute for legal advice. We’re not lawyers, just reporters who spend a lot of time wading through public records and databases.
Before getting into the research, there are two laws to know about: a California state law called AB-1482, and the Rent Stabilization Ordinance (RSO) of the City of Los Angeles. If you live outside the city of L.A., it’s worth checking if your city has its own rent stabilization ordinance. Some do, including West Hollywood, Beverly Hills, Thousand Oaks, Inglewood, Bell Gardens, Pomona, Santa Monica, and Pasadena.
In the city of L.A., RSO rules apply to nearly all multi-unit residential buildings built before October 1, 1978. If your building was built before that date, and was not exempted, there are strict limitations on your landlord designed to keep you in your home as long as you keep paying your rent and don’t violate your lease. Among them is a cap on annual rent increases.
AB-1482 provides statewide protection to certain renters who are not already covered by a stricter law like L.A. City’s RSO. It places some restrictions on evictions, and has its own cap on allowable rent increases. But, like municipal rules, AB-1482 doesn’t apply to all tenants, and whether you’re protected can depend on who owns the building you live in.
But how do you know if you’re protected by either of these laws? That’s where the research comes in.
If you live in the city of Los Angeles, the best way to find out if you’re protected by the RSO or AB-1482 is an online tool called the “Zone Information and Map Access System”, or ZIMAS for short. Follow the instructions to enter your address, and scroll down to the “Housing” drop down header. It should say “yes” or “no” for both AB-1482 and the RSO.
You can also find lots of other information about your building on ZIMAS, like how old it is, whether it has been seismically retrofitted, and any building permit applications with the city.
WHO IS YOUR LANDLORD?
If you’re not in the city of L.A., and you want to figure out if a law like AB-1482 applies to you, a good first step is figuring out who your landlord is. In fact, that’s a good first step if you’re gearing up for any kind of confrontation with your landlord.
If you already know your landlord’s name and/or address, you can skip ahead. If you don’t, check your lease agreement or any other official communication or agreement you have with your landlord.
Often landlords will insulate themselves from the risks of ownership through address-specific LLCs (limited liability companies) and use property management companies rather than communicating with tenants directly.
If your landlord works through an LLC, input the company name into the California Secretary of State’s business database to see any documents that they’ve filed with the state. Often these documents will include an actual human name, assuming the LLC isn’t owned by a larger corporation or a real-estate investment trust.
If their name is still nowhere to be found, do you have a phone number or address for your landlord? If you pay your rent by check, what address do you send the checks to? If you send rent through a service like Zelle or Venmo, what’s the phone number associated with their account?
If you can find a phone number or address, whitepages.com has a “reverse address” and “reverse phone number” search option. It’s not always accurate, but it can give you a good starting point. If that doesn’t work, you can try searching that address or phone number along with any other information about your landlord (i.e. company name, first name, your own address) to see if it pops up anywhere.
If none of that works, you may have to dig a little deeper into public records. You can plug your address into the County Assessor’s database, and then email [email protected] to get the name of the property owner. Include the address and AIN (Assessor’s ID number) listed at the top of the “parcel detail” report.
Another good place to try might be your local city planning department. You might have to dig around, but building permits are public records, and often require an owner’s name and contact information.
For Los Angeles City, you can find those records through ZIMAS under the “Case Numbers” tab, which should have a list of any zoning or planning changes relevant to the property, along with links to the relevant planning or zoning documents. Trawl through those documents to see if you can find any clues.
YOUR LANDLORD’S OTHER PROPERTIES
Once you know your landlord’s name, try searching for their other properties. This can help you find your landlord’s other tenants who may be dealing with similar issues at other properties.
To find the other properties, you can try searching through this database of the Los Angeles Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk. You have to pay to see the records in full on that website, but you can often scrape together enough information from the preview to get a sense of what other properties your landlord owns.
Or, you can go to the registrar’s office in Norwalk to view the records in person. Make an appointment, and learn more about the process, on the registrar’s website.
YOUR LANDLORD IN COURT
Once you have the name of your landlord or their company, you can search court records to see what cases they’ve been involved in, either as a plaintiff or a defendant.
For example, you should be able to see if your landlord has ever evicted anyone — although those records stay sealed for the first 60 days. You’ll also be able to see if they’ve been sued. If property records didn’t help you find any of your landlord’s other properties, court records could be a way to find those properties or tenants who might be fighting their own legal battle with your landlord.
HOUSING AND SAFETY
A last good resource to check are the local housing agencies that are supposed to make sure the property’s living conditions are safe and up to code. For the city of LA, that’s the Housing Department and the Department of Building and Safety (LADBS).
Both have databases where you can plug in the address and check whether any complaints have been filed. For example, the LADBS has a useful permit check tool, which often includes information for any particular address in the City of L.A.
If those are short on information, you can file a public records request for any documentation they have regarding the property. “Filing a public records request” basically means sending an email to the department’s custodian of records asking for the files you want, and a date range. 1
Hopefully, some of that worked, and you were able to find out more about your landlord than you did before. If you’ve got tips we haven’t included here, email us! We’d love to add them (and give you credit of course).