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Hotel Tenants Find That It's Home Sweet Home Again : After years of legal battles, an agreement between a landlord and his elderly residents has everyone smiling.

October 22, 1987|MATHIS CHAZANOV | Times Staff Writer

For decades, Ben Gross treated the elderly tenants of his beachfront hotel like family. Free rides to the doctor, an occasional bag of fresh fish in the refrigerator, card parties on Saturday nights and low rents that never went up.

Then he died, and the Cadillac hotel in Venice soon passed into new hands.

Shortly after taking ownership in 1983, Werner Scharff posted signs telling residents to move to make way for renovation. But the tenants filed suit to block their eviction, and the cramped apartments and single rooms of the run-down building remained a refuge for their dwindling numbers.

The notices and the beginning of repair work were part of "a campaign of intimidation, innuendo and coercion designed to induce plaintiffs to leave their homes," the tenants said in their lawsuit.

Only eight of the original 44 tenants are left; the others have died or moved to nursing homes. But those who remain have only praise for Scharff, who signed an agreement this week that guarantees their apartments for life with no increase in their rents, which run as high as $125 a month.

It also opens the way for Scharff to renovate the building, which is now largely deserted. Until earlier this year it was also used as an unofficial youth hostel that cost $10 a night.

"We had a great humanitarian before, and we have a great humanitarian now," said Jennie Swerdlow, 81, a 15-year resident of the building. "Aren't we fortunate?

"It's hard to find words to express what it means to have a place for you to live in as long as you live, especially right here by the beach you love so much," she said.

The agreement calls for complete renovation of the building, a settlement of $1,000 each to the remaining tenants and a guarantee of shelter in another building nearby if the repair work is too noisy or otherwise disruptive. Included in their rent are all utilities and maid service twice a month.

Tenants who moved will get a $3,250 settlement, and the estates of those who died will be paid $2,000 each.

"Mr. Scharff was as compassionate as a man could be," said Eddie Steinberg, 81, a seven-year resident of the Cadillac. "The man reminded me of my younger days, when I was sitting on Santa Claus' knee in the department store. Everything we asked for, he said, 'Yeah, yeah, you'll get it.' "

Scharff said he was ready to make a similar deal in 1983. "They were upset and they thought I wanted to do something to hurt them, which I didn't want to do," he said.

"This way it took four years, and the tenants and I are very happy we concluded this deal. It was good for them financially and good for me financially."

Scharff, a clothing magnate who is one of the biggest landlords in the Venice area, said he expects to put between $500,000 and $750,000 worth of repairs into the 46-unit hotel, which was built in 1906. Similar apartments in neighboring buildings are renting for $800 a month and more.

Although lawsuits had been pending since 1983, the case began moving toward a resolution when Scharff reported to city authorities last year that the unreinforced brick building was not earthquake-proof.

The city then issued an order to vacate the premises, but a City Council moratorium on evictions for earthquake repairs blocked that action, said Michael Feuer of the Bet Tzedek legal services agency, which has been representing the tenants since 1983.

"At that point, we reevaluated the status of the case and really turned up the heat on the litigation side," Feuer said. "We were moving forward, anticipating the case going to trial if it did not come to a resolution out of court."

Staff lawyers from Bet Tzedek and volunteers from a private law firm put in more than 200 hours, taking depositions and negotiating for months before reaching the agreement that was signed this week.

"We're quite pleased with the agreement, and we certainly thank Mr. Scharff for being cooperative, which is not to say there was not a lot of give-and-take during the negotiations," said Michael R. Leslie, an attorney with the firm O'Donnell & Gordon who worked with Bet Tzedek.

"Both of us got sort of worn out and tired from the lawsuits," Scharff said after one last meeting with the tenants and their attorneys Monday morning. "The inhabitants decreased quite considerably because of their old age, and the lawyers were worn out because nothing happened, and I was worn out because I couldn't do anything. Now everybody is happy and it was a very friendly meeting."

Although they now speak highly of Scharff, residents of the Cadillac have reserved an extra measure of warmth for Gross, who lived with them for decades. Gross, who owned the hotel for 33 years, died in 1981.

"This was his life," Swerdlow said. "He never went on trips. He enjoyed being with us."

"He was one man that I can't tell you enough about," she said. "He was more like a father to us, or a brother, than a landlord."

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