The West Hollywood City Council has passed an emergency ordinance that attempts to prevent landlords from using the state's Ellis Act to evict tenants until their buildings have obtained clearance from the city's Rent Stabilization Commission.
Approved unanimously Monday night by four council members (the fifth member was not present), the new ordinance was devised to counter recent attempts by West Hollywood apartment owners to evict renters under the Ellis Act, a state law passed last year that allows landlords to force tenants from apartments for the purpose of going out of business.
"I think it's clear that the city has an overwhelming need to protect its housing stock," Mayor Stephen Schulte said Tuesday.
A landlord leader who argued against the ordinance at the Monday council session said he expects it to be contested in court. "I don't know who will challenge it or when it will happen, but I think it's a certainty," Grafton Tanquary said.
Tanquary said the law will not stop West Hollywood landlords from evicting tenants under the Ellis Act because the state law still allows them to go out of business. "It's a delaying tactic, that's all," Tanquary said. "The city is throwing banana peels. They're making us go through a longer obstacle course."
The new law requires landlords who want to evict renters to inform the city's Rent Stabilization Commission of their plans for the buildings. If the commission refuses to approve a landlord's proposal, the city will block any attempts to alter the building's use.
For example, a landlord who plans to convert an apartment to a condominium would not be able to proceed without approval from the rent commission. City officials concede that eventually, under the terms of the Ellis Act, the landlord could still evict tenants and go out of business. But officials say that the landlord would be left with an empty apartment that could not be converted to a condominium.
"We realize that this is a holding action against evictions," said Dan Cohen, the city's housing manager. "We're hoping that the prospect of ending up with a vacant building will dissuade landlords from going ahead with wholesale evictions."
Since the Legislature passed the Ellis Act last July, West Hollywood landlords have filed applications to evict tenants from more than 250 units.
Last month, the city filed suit against nearly 30 landlords in an attempt to stop them from converting more than 640 rental units into condominiums. But Superior Court Judge Warren H. Deering rejected the city's request for a temporary restraining order, agreeing with the landlords' position that they had already received permission from the county and the state to convert the units to condominiums.
Although the city still plans to seek a preliminary injunction against the landlords later this month, officials decided that passage of the ordinance would create an impediment against evictions.
West Hollywood City Atty. Michael Jenkins said the city's ordinance is legally sound because the Ellis Act contains no strictures about prior city approvals. "Ellis is silent on the timing" of city requirements, Jenkins said.
While agreeing that the Ellis Act is vague on prior city approvals, Tanquary insisted that landlords will not be deterred from using the state law to proceed with evictions.
"The city may think this (law) will maintain housing stock, but it does just the opposite," Tanquary said. "It will only encourage us to sell. It increases the incentive for landlords to get out of the rental business."