California Outlaws Online-Only Rent Payments

California has enacted a law prohibiting landlords from requiring tenants to pay rent online.

The State Senate and the Assembly passed the measure unanimously in August, and Gov. Jerry Brown signed it on Sept. 7.

 “This is a victory for everyone who wants the option of paying rent in ways other than online, such as check or money order,” State Senator Ted Lieu (D-Torrance), the bill’s sponsor, said in a statement. 

Lieu said the bill was a response to complaints from tenants in the Los Angeles area whose landlords had begun accepting only online rent payments, and refusing checks or money orders. Joyce Higgins, 87, of Torrance, wrote to him saying her bank had advised her not to pay rent online because she’d been a victim of identity theft. Her landlord served her with a 60-day eviction notice for not paying online. 

The Coalition for Economic Survival, a Los Angeles-based community organization, began pushing for the legislation while trying to organize tenants in 34 apartment complexes owned by Jones & Jones Management Group. Last fall, the company notified tenants that as of Dec. 1, 2011, it would accept only rent paid online.

“Jones & Jones is proud to announce that we are going GREEN,” the notice said. It claimed the policy would “help our planet” by “eliminating the need for unnecessary and excessive paperwork.” But in a CES statement, director Larry Gross charged that Jones and Jones was “going for more green dollar bills,” by raising rents after evicting people “who are unable to deal with the new online technology.”

Many elderly tenants, CES said, do not own computers or are not computer-literate, and are paying low rents.

“I am 86 years old and I am computer-illiterate,” said Margaret Beavers, a CES member who has lived in a Jones and Jones apartment in the Crenshaw neighborhood since 1963. “I’d have to buy a computer and learn how to use it. At 86, I want to travel and do other things.”

Another large Los Angeles landlord, AIMCO, has demanded that tenants give it their personal bank information so their rent can automatically be debited from their accounts each month, CES said.

The California Apartment Association, a landlord group, also endorsed the bill. “Although we recognize that there are tenants who might want to pay their rent electronically, we also recognize that not all renters have the means to do so,” Eric Wiegers, a senior vice president of the association, told the Argonaut, a Los Angeles neighborhood weekly.

The bill was one of four pro-tenant measures that arrived on Gov. Brown’s desk last month. The other three would protect tenants in foreclosed buildings.