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Ventura County Star

Saturday March 10, 2012

Colleen Cason: Online-Only Rent Creates Digital Divide

By Colleen Cason

For the longest time, I have suspected I have a mutation on my empathy gene. I feel not the slightest compassion at the words, "I don't do the Internet."

I admit I still hear "you've got mail" when I open my pathetically ancient AOL email, but Internet illiteracy robs people of access to rich resources of vital information — not to mention those indispensable videos of pooches tickling the ivories.

Usually, I am party to a confession of Internet ignorance when readers request a copy of a story that ran in this newspaper. The person often is unsure of the date or unable to produce much in the way of searchable words. Eventually, though, I find it in digital form and offer to email it.

When they ask me to "just drop it in an envelope" because they don't have email, I tell them to drop their rears into a seat at any of the free or low-cost computer literacy classes offered in cities across Ventura County.

But my empathy gene kicked in last week when I heard about a Newbury Park landlord requiring tenants to pay their rent online.

Unlike banks that offer the carrot of a lower interest rate to homeowners who make automatic online payments, this measure appears to be no carrot and all stick-it-to-them.

Jones & Jones Management, which operates Casa Linda Apartments in Ventura County and dozens of properties in Los Angeles, notified tenants last September their only option is to pay their rent over the Internet. No ifs. No ands. No bucks.

The company's notice touted the convenience and green benefits of online payment.

"The green Jones & Jones is concerned with is more green dollar bills for the company," said Larry Gross, executive director of the Coalition for Economic Survival in Los Angeles.

The organization set up a news conference last week for elderly renters at a Jones & Jones complex in L.A. to announce they have filed suit against the company.

The plaintiffs allege the move is a ploy to force out residents who benefit from L.A.'s rent-control laws because they tend to be low-income elderly people and therefore less able to comply with the digital demand.

Those allegations are "completely false and baseless," Jones & Jones attorney Ellen Wolf said in a written statement and during interviews. "The online payment policy has not been used for any eviction notices or other negative action, and was never intended for that."

After push-back from tenants that the mandatory online payment violates the city's rent-control ordinance, Jones & Jones dropped the requirement in rent-controlled complexes, Wolf told me. Tenants who objected to Internet payment were allowed to sign waivers, which Gross fears could be revoked at any time.

The requirement, however, remains in effect at Casa Linda in Newbury Park. Tenant Noel Pastor told me he received a notice last September stating he was required to pay his rent online for his apartment at the tidy, two-story complex a few blocks off Highway 101. Pastor, who says he has no Internet access in his unit, tried to present his payment to the manager on Dec. 1, but was told he would have to go online. Fearing late charges, he was able to use a cousin's Internet access to make the payment.

Expect more landlords to try to push online-only payments, said Gross, noting that they profit by saving on clerical and other collection expenses.

RentPayment, which claims on its website to be the largest and one of the oldest providers of this service, touts its Santa Monica offices on "prestigious Ocean Avenue which provide a fantastic view of the Pacific." Among RentPayment's services is a marketing campaign for "maximizing adoption" and to "enable acceptance" of online rent.

State Sen. Ted Lieu is neither adopting nor accepting. The Torrance legislator wrote a bill prohibiting California landlords from accepting only online payments.

Meanwhile, Wolf said many Jones & Jones tenants are happy to pay online because it's easier, faster and green.

Pastor of Casa Linda would not be one of those.

"It wasn't hard to do, but it is an inconvenience," said Pastor, a young father of two.

As tough as I have been on Internet illiterates in the past, it seems unfair — especially in the case of existing tenants — for landlords to require online-only payments unless or until they provide every unit with Internet-connected machines.

Housing is a basic need, and an expensive one in Southern California. The biggest unit at Casa Linda goes for more than $1,800 a month. Why add stress to renters' lives by requiring people uncomfortable in cyberspace to pay online when they are willing to write a check?

The digital divide is too wide when it could separate people from the places they call home.

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