The city of West Hollywood has suffered another setback in its legal campaign to prevent more than two dozen landlords from selling off their apartment units as condominiums.
A Los Angeles County Superior Court judge last week rejected a request by the city attorney's office for an immediate injunction restraining landlords from apartment sales that could eventually convert 642 rental units into condominiums.
Judge Ricardo A. Torres' decision, which was delivered Friday after a brief hearing, was the second judicial ruling against the city in less than a month. In December, Superior Court Judge Warren H. Deering also refused to grant the city's request for a temporary restraining order against the landlords.
West Hollywood city officials, citing concerns that a wave of condominium conversions could displace hundreds of apartment dwellers and reduce the availability of rental units in the city, decided Tuesday that the ruling would be appealed. The city also will seek a permanent court order against the condominium conversions.
"We're trying to protect our housing stock and the tenants who live here," said Richard Dorsey Muller, director of the city's Rent Stabilization Department.
But a lawyer for three landlords involved in the case said the city was pursuing a lost cause. "I would think this is the writing on the wall," said attorney Stephen L. Jones. "I find it difficult to believe that the law that two previous judges have ruled on would be tossed out the window."
Jones and other attorneys for the landlords have contended that the apartment owners have a legal right to sell their apartments because they were granted approval by both county and state agencies before the city of West Hollywood incorporated in November, 1984. Jones said Torres' ruling "clearly establishes that those people who have already met county and state requirements have a right to sell their units, and that right cannot be taken away by the city."
Grafton Tanquary, one of the apartment owners represented by Jones and a leader among the city's landlords, greeted the new ruling as "a slam-dunk move."
"The issue is so clear and the judgments so clean-cut, I have a hard time understanding why the city made this attempt at all," he said.
Tanquary said the city's legal moves may end up reducing rental housing instead of saving it, as city rent officials had hoped. The city's legal proceedings have prodded several landlords to sell off some rental units. "To defend our right to sell, some of us have started selling," Tanquary said. "The city has created the opposite of what it intended."
But city officials say that regardless of the eventual disposition of the suit, the landlords may end up selling rental units that the buyers cannot convert into condominiums. A new ordinance passed earlier this month requires landlords to obtain clearance from the city's Rent Stabilization Commission before they can evict tenants under the state Ellis Act.
Although the Ellis Act allows landlords to evict tenants from rental units in order to go out of business, West Hollywood officials say that the new ordinance gives the city final say over how the rental units can be used.
As a result, said rent stabilization Director Muller, landlords may have the right to sell their units as condominiums, but there is no guarantee that the city will allow new owners to convert the units to condominiums.
"The city still retains the final decision over whether a unit is allowed a new use," Muller said. "Under (the new ordinance), landlords can get a sense from the Rent Stabilization Commission of what they will be allowed to do with their units. In our view, some landlords will go ahead and evict anyway, but others will decide to maintain their buildings as apartments."