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Contra Costa Times

Saturday August 25, 2012

California Bill Would Ban Online-Only Rent Payment Requirement

By Karen Robes Meeks, Staff Writer

For three years, Joyce Higgins paid rent on her former Torrance apartment with a check.

But when her former landlord began requiring tenants to pay rent online, the 87-year-old refused, saying that she had been a victim of identity theft and was advised by her bank not to pay rent this way.

She soon was served with a 60-day eviction notice.

"I have never been even one day late paying my rent, my apartment is spotless and I am a good neighbor to all of the seniors around me," she wrote in a letter to state Sen. Ted Lieu, D-Redondo Beach.

Constituents such as Higgins were the reason that Lieu authored Senate Bill 1055, which forbids landlords from requiring online rental payments.

Last week the state Senate passed the bill, which had already passed the Assembly. Gov. Jerry Brown has until the end of September to sign or veto it.

Lieu, whose Senate District 28 encompasses much of the South Bay as well as portions of the Harbor Area, first learned about the issue in 2011 after a property-management group told residents of a 300-unit complex that they could only pay their rent online.

"I wanted to stop this practice immediately before other landlords could copy it," he said.

More and more property management companies have been using online payment systems to save time and money on the rental payment process and to ensure on-time payment.

But the practice creates a hardship for many renters, especially those in low-income areas, Lieu said.

"That struck me as unfair because it had a disparate impact on those who didn't have an Internet connection or didn't have a computer or didn't want to pay online because of their own view of privacy," he said Thursday. "It also has a disparate impact on the poor and those who are not familiar with Internet payment structures."

The bill has received not only bipartisan support, but also support from several advocacy groups.

"We applaud Sen. Ted Lieu for introducing this important tenants'-rights legislation to protect renters," Larry Gross, executive director of the Los Angeles-based Coalition for Economic Survival, said in a written statement.

"We believe this rent-online scheme is just another way to increase rent-controlled rents by evicting long-term, low-rent tenants who just happen to be, for the most part, seniors and the disabled. In other words, this affects those who likely are least able to pay online."

The Apartment Association, California Southern Cities, a Long Beach-based nonprofit trade association committed to rental housing issues, not only supported Lieu's bill, but also was involved in helping the senator author it, said Executive Director Nancy Ahlswede.

"We believe that the instruments used to pay rent should be specified in tenants' contracts and that property managers can't require only one form of payment," she said.

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