Last week another innocent tenant fell through the cracks of Los Angeles' rent- control law. But for emergency legal aid, Jessie Davis, a 73-year-old single woman disabled by arthritis, would have lost her apartment. As it was, Davis suffered the terror and indignity of having all her belongings hauled away against her will--without notice, let alone the opportunity to be heard in court.
The worst of it is, what happened to Davis may not have been illegal under either the Los Angeles rent-control law or state landlord-tenant statutes. This loophole and others must be plugged if we are to prevent other blameless tenants from facing similar predicaments.
Davis rented her apartment in 1985 from a company claiming to be her landlord. She signed a rental agreement and never missed a payment. What she didn't know was that a court battle over ownership of her apartment was raging. Last month it was settled in favor of the other company, retroactive to 1980. That company immediately demanded that Davis pay rent to it. Confused, Davis approached the original landlord, who instructed her to pay no one until she received further instructions. The next thing Davis knew, the locks had been changed on her apartment door.
The new landlord justified its action on the technical legal ground that the court order giving it ownership effectively eradicated Davis' rights as a tenant: that is, if the original owner did not properly own Davis' apartment when she signed a rental agreement, that agreement was worthless now.
It can be argued that Los Angeles' rent-control law and the state landlord/tenant statutes permit such an eviction without adequate warning. Incredibly, because Davis did not fit neatly within the definition of "tenant" under rent control or state statutes, her landlord claimed that she was not entitled to the typical eviction notices, let alone a hearing.
Eviction from one's home without notice or an opportunity for hearing defies common sense, fairness and our Constitution. Even in circumstances less peculiar than Davis', a tenant in most circumstances is entitled to only a 30-day warning of a pending eviction and only five days, including weekends, to respond to an eviction lawsuit.
Davis' case fell through but one loophole in rent control law. An even larger loophole--the most abused provision in Los Angeles' rent-control ordinance--permits landlords to increase rents on most vacated apartments. This provision, called vacancy decontrol, presents an often irresistible financial temptation. Thus, a small minority of landlords seeking to re-rent their units at much higher profit intimidate tenants or attempt to evict them.
Our society has for centuries placed high value on property ownership. Tenants, too, however, enjoy an interest in their apartments that amounts to a property right. And just as consumer safety laws and antitrust regulations limit absolute property rights to protect consumers in the marketplace, our laws governing the relations between landlords and tenants should adequately reflect the interests of both parties.
Vacancy decontrol is one glaring loophole that flouts this vital principle. Along with other rent-control loopholes, vacancy decontrol worsens our already unconscionable homeless crisis. With tens of thousands of Californians lost on our streets, unable to afford even a roof over theirheads, it has become more important than ever to protect tenants' property rights and their apartments.
Fortunately for Davis, her case had a happy ending. Her attorneys negotiated an amicable settlement with her landlord and she is back home. Had she not had access to free legal aid, however, she would have had to begin the daunting search for new, affordable housing. Difficult enough for a young, able-bodied person, this search can prove impossible for a disabled senior citizen like Davis.
Few would oppose closing loopholes in landlord/tenant laws such as the one that nearly resulted in Davis being forced from her home. The state Legislature should clarify the law to ensure that every tenant who takes lawful possession of his or her apartment is entitled to notice and a hearing before they can be evicted.
Beyond that, however, Davis' case accentuates the need generally to strengthen tenants' property rights. Efforts to do so will be difficult in Sacramento, where powerful lobbyists for apartment owners overwhelm dedicated but outnumbered and outgunned advocates for the dispossessed.
For the foreseeable future, tenant representatives may be relegated to maintaining a vigilant defense against further erosion in rent-control and landlord/tenant statutes. But as the public becomes increasingly aware of the inequities that remain in these laws, the odds improve that the cause of tenants' rights will be bolstered.