The owners of a posh West Hollywood hotel are under attack by a handful of tenants who are being evicted after they were told they could live there indefinitely.
A lawsuit has been filed by one of the 11 low-to-moderate-income tenants at Le Mondrian hotel on Sunset Boulevard who received eviction notices in October from the building's owner, Ashkenazy Enterprises, which is headed by Severyn Ashkenazy.
The suit alleges fraud and requests $500,000 in punitive damages. It accuses Ashkenazy Enterprises, which operates the L'Ermitage Hotel Group, of unfair business practices and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
"We were stunned," said tenant Candy Ward, 35. "When I got that eviction notice it was like a knife in my heart. If someone tells you you can live there as long as you want, you're going to believe them."
"We're outraged at the way this company is acting," said attorney Tami Smason of Weissburg and Aronson, who filed a lawsuit on behalf of tenant Maxine Harris. "They just figured enough time had passed and they could evict them."
In August, 1983, when Ashkenazy applied for a conditional-use permit requesting the apartment building's conversion to a hotel, the company told West Hollywood officials at a public hearing that it would allow some of the residents to stay on as tenants, said Ruth Williams, former rent stabilization commissioner.
After the permit was granted, Ashkenazy representatives sent a letter to tenants on Sept. 9, 1983, telling them that they could stay for as long as they wished.
"Your rent for the remodeled unit will be the same as your present rent, and your tenancy will be on the same terms and conditions as your existing lease. You will be welcome to remain in your remodeled unit as long as you wish," the letter read.
The 16-story building contains 188 apartment suites and many of the tenants had lived there for more than 10 years. Several of them said they intend to file lawsuits to block the evictions.
Smason said she is seeking an injunction to allow Harris, who is disabled, to remain in the two-bedroom suite she shares with her 26-year-old mentally retarded daughter, Michele.
"I just want to live here in a peaceful fashion. I don't want to go live in some ghetto. I never have in my life and I'm too old to start now," said Harris, 53.
Harris, whose monthly income is $1,299, has been offered $3,000 in relocation assistance by Ashkenazy Enterprises, but she said that is not enough to find a place for herself and her daughter in West Hollywood, an area she has called home for 10 years.
"I cannot take my daughter to a crime-infested neighborhood and I cannot afford to go out and pay $800 to $1,000 rent each month for a two-bedroom apartment in the same neighborhood," she said. Her rent is now $452.86.
The eviction notices said the tenants' units would be withdrawn from the rental market on Dec. 31, 1986, under the Ellis Act. Tenants said their rent checks for January and February have been returned.
The Ellis Act, which went into effect July 1, 1986, allows owners to evict tenants and go out of business. However, the city of West Hollywood passed an emergency ordinance in January preventing landlords from using the Ellis Act until their buildings have been cleared by the city's Rent Stabilization Commission.
Smason maintains that using the Ellis Act in this case would be improper.
"We don't think that he (Severyn Ashkenazy) has a right under the Ellis Act to convert it," Smason said, adding that West Hollywood rent control laws stipulate that the Ellis Act cannot be used to convert an apartment into a hotel or condominium. Also, under Ellis, all units must be removed from the rental market, and Smason said several of the corporate suites at Le Mondrian will remain on the market.
Repeated attempts to reach officials of Ashkenazy Enterprises for comment were unsuccessful.
Tenants said the company has offered them the relocation fees required by the city--$2,500 for a two-bedroom suite and $1,750 for one-bedroom apartments. Harris is eligible for more because she is disabled.
Some of the tenants said the company had planned from the outset to evict them because their apartments could be rented as hotel suites at much higher rates.
One-bedroom suites at Le Mondrian rent for $165 to $245 a night, and two-bedroom suites cost $250 to $325 a night. The low-income apartments range from $247 to $485 a month.
Other tenants maintain, however, that they received the eviction notices as a result of one tenant's request last September for laundry facilities.
That tenant, Gina Rae, said a former vice president with the company had promised to install a laundry facility in 1984. "Here we have a woman who's disabled with a crippled child who gets on the bus with her laundry every three days," said Rae, 48. "It's an inconvenience when there's plenty of space and the rental company can put the machine in at their own cost. If the landlord retaliated because of that request, that's wrong."
Smason said the tenants were moved out of their building and housed at another one of the Ashkenazy hotels during the remodeling period so that they would not protest the renovation at public hearings.
The letter promising the tenants that they could stay "seemed almost too good to be true," Harris said. "But I took him (Severyn Ashkenazy) at face value."
"He made a promise and used us to get what he needed and now he no longer needs us," Rae said.