The city of Santa Monica and the Santa Monica Rent Control Board have filed the first lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the Ellis Act, a state law that went into effect July 1 and prohibits municipalities from forcing landlords to stay in the residential rental business.
The suit was filed Wednesday in Santa Monica Superior Court. Although the Ellis Act allows landlords to withdraw from the rental business, there are differences of opinion as to whether they can evict tenants to do so. The suit challenges the legality of such evictions.
And the suit states that if the act does permit evictions that would not otherwise be allowed under city law, then the state law is unconstitutional because it violates the provision in the state Constitution that gives legislative and police powers to cities, said Deputy City Atty. Barry Rosenbaum.
"With respect to municipal affairs, the state Constitution delegates to cities the power to legislate without interference," City Atty. Robert Myers said.
Santa Monica's tough rent control law allows evictions only for what is called "good cause," such as failure to pay rent or violation of a lease.
The city has challenged the Ellis Act by suing Henry Yarmark, a landlord who is trying to use the state law to evict about 35 tenants in five buildings.
The city also is seeking a preliminary injunction to prevent Yarmark from evicting his tenants.
All the Ellis Act does is allow landlords to go out of business, Myers said.
Landlords can go out of business "by declining to rent units that are vacant or by selling the property," he said.
But Gordon P. Gitlen, Yarmark's attorney, said that by giving landlords the right to go out of business, the Ellis Act also gives landlords the right to evict their tenants.
"The city is flat wrong," he said. "The Ellis law says an owner has the right to go out of business and that means now, not in 50 years or when his tenants die."
Gitlen also said the Ellis Act overrules city eviction laws. "The Ellis law is here and I personally believe that state legislation has supremacy over local law."
As of Sept. 19, owners of 17 buildings containing 131 units have filed with the city for withdrawal from the rental market under the Ellis Act, according to Susan Casmier, a spokeswoman for the Santa Monica Rent Control Board. Only 78 of the units to be withdrawn are occupied, she said. There are about 32,000 rental housing units in Santa Monica.
Superior Court Judge David M. Rothman is scheduled to hear the city's lawsuit on Oct. 14. In the meantime, "tenants have to make a choice between moving or staying and fighting," Gitlen said.
Yarmark must pay evicted tenants $2,000 to $4,000 in relocation benefits, according to a city ordinance. The size of the payment varies with the size of the apartment and whether tenants are senior citizens or disabled or have children.
Gitlen said on Thursday that Yarmark has paid $6,500 in relocation benefits to tenants who have chosen to move.
Will Stay and Fight
But John Emanuello, one of Yarmark's tenants, said he and his fellow tenants are going to stay and fight.
"Nobody is going to give up; they are going to wait until the last gun is fired," he said. "We are just praying we are going to be able to stay."
Yarmark's buildings that are listed in the city's lawsuit are the 18-unit Tour Inn motel, 1719 Wilshire Blvd.; a five-unit building at 1142 18th St.; three units at 1412-1416 7th St.; one unit at 1408 7th St., and a 29-unit building at 626 1/2 Santa Monica Blvd.