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Owners Offer Vacant Units as Shelter for the Homeless

February 05, 1989|TRACY WILKINSON | Times Staff Writer

Owners of an apartment complex in Santa Monica who recently evicted their tenants under a controversial state law are now offering the empty building to the city as temporary housing for the homeless.

Santa Monica officials say they are studying the offer, first made nearly a month ago, but they point to numerous legal and practical problems that complicate the proposal.

At least one city councilman, however, is angry that there should be any hesitancy in accepting the offer.

Councilman Herb Katz urged the city staff to accept the shelter immediately and complained that city officials were allowing themselves to be tied up in technicalities while wasting a valuable opportunity to help the homeless.

"The bottom line is . . . we are wallowing in damned bureaucracy, and I'm very upset," Katz said. "I hear all this rhetoric (from officials) on caring about the homeless, and then they go and wrap themselves in paper work."

The building is the 18-unit Rivington Place Apartments at 701 Ocean Ave. Taico Properties, after a long battle with the tenants, recently used the Ellis Act to empty the complex.

The Ellis Act, which is being contested by Santa Monica, is a 2-year-old state law that allows landlords to go out of the rental business by evicting tenants and removing their apartments from the market.

Taico plans to demolish Rivington Place and build luxury condominiums on the site. But the building will sit vacant for some time while numerous permits are being sought, so the owners decided to offer it as a temporary shelter for the homeless.

"Inasmuch as the property is vacant . . . we offered it to the city," said Richard Lichtenstein, a consultant for Taico. "We have had some contacts with the city but haven't heard back yet as to whether they want to take us up."

Lichtenstein said the offer was for the city to pay the owners $1 a month to use the apartments for the homeless. Both sides would have to agree on a set period of time, probably several months or at least while the weather is cool, he said.

The building faces Santa Monica's Palisades Park, a gathering point for scores of homeless.

City Hall staff members said the idea is appealing, but numerous legal and technical matters have to be resolved.

"It sounds like an easy idea; it sounds like a reasonable proposal. But these things are often more complicated than they appear on the surface," said Peggy Curran, director of the city's Community and Economic Development Department.

"If there's a way, we certainly have a will," she said.

Curran said issues that have to be resolved include liability, who would manage the shelter and how to pay for operation, utilities and furniture.

Also, the Ocean Avenue site is in a heavily residential area and sheltering homeless there might spark protests from the neighbors.

Right of First Refusal

Furthermore, the law that enabled the building's owners to evict the tenants may end up keeping the homeless out.

One provision of the Ellis Act is that in many cases when an emptied building is to be used as a residence again, evicted tenants must be given right of first refusal.

Curran said the city's rent control agency would have to decide whether this or other provisions of the law prevent use of the property as a shelter.

Mary Ann Yurkonis, administrator of the rent control agency, on Thursday said she was preparing an opinion on whether this use of the building conflicts with any of the former tenants' rights.

At least one official suggested Rivington Place's owners were making the offer more to obtain favorable publicity than out of sincere good will.

"It's nice that they are offering (the property) for homeless people; that's quite lovely," said Rent Control Board Chairwoman Susan Davis. "But it is a bit suspect, to say the least."

The rent board under Davis denied two requests by Taico to remove the property from the rental market before Taico finally invoked the Ellis Act last year.

Tenants continued to fight their eviction, persuading the city's Landmarks Commission to designate Rivington Place, which was built in 1932, as a landmark that has to be preserved.

Rivington is a rare example of residential architecture by Donald Parkinson, an architect better known for civic structures, such as the city halls of Los Angeles and Santa Monica.

The Landmarks Commission gave the building landmark status, but the decision was overturned by the City Council last November.

One of the evicted tenants, for his part, reacted sardonically to news that Taico would offer Rivington Place as a homeless shelter.

"I think it's hilarious. It's ironic as hell," said Carl Byron, living with friends since his eviction Dec. 18. "Well, I'm homeless now, thanks to them, so I would like to be eligible for the shelter."

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