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Drafting Landlords in the War on Drugs

June 04, 1989|BETTINA BOXALL | Times Staff Writer

LONG BEACH — If Councilman Clarence Smith gets a call from one of his constituents in the crime-ridden 6th District at the edge of downtown, he can usually predict the topic before he even picks up the phone.

"About 70% of the calls I receive are drug-related complaints that center on a house or an apartment where drug traffic is taking place," said Smith, who says that landlords might be better than police at driving out drug peddlers.

Taking a cue from other cities that have begun pressuring landlords to stop the drug traffic that can turn an apartment building into a 24-hour armed drug store, Smith is proposing an ordinance that would force landlords to take action against drug-peddling tenants, including eviction.

No New Powers Endowed

The ordinance, now being drafted for consideration by the City Council, would not endow the city with any new powers. State law gives municipalities the authority to go to civil court to eliminate a public nuisance, which could include drug trafficking in someone's home. Another state law, specifically aimed at drug dealing and increasingly used by Los Angeles authorities, allows police and city prosecutors to file a narcotics-abatement lawsuit against building owners. Judges have ordered landlords to hire security guards or install lighting to discourage drug dealing, and in some cases, have approved the eviction of drug-trafficking tenants.

Long Beach authorities have yet to resort to such tactics, however.

Smith's proposal would take a slightly different approach, and would be patterned after a four-year-old Compton ordinance that officials there say has helped clean up some drug houses.

If police records or neighborhood complaints indicated an apartment or rental house was being used for drug dealing, the evidence would be presented to the City Council, which would hold a public hearing. If the council concluded there was a drug problem, it could order the landlord to take steps against the tenant.

"We're saying to the landlord, 'Get them out,' " said Councilman Evan Anderson Braude, who sits on a council subcommittee that approved the proposal.

Reduced Drug Traffic

In Compton, Ron Hawkins of the city's code enforcement office said the City Council has held about 100 drug hearings since adopting its anti-drug ordinance in 1985. "It's ceased a lot of drug traffic at those locations," said Hawkins, who had no figures of how many tenants have been evicted by landlords a result of the hearings. He added that the city itself has never gone to court to evict a drug dealer.

"If the people move out, the problem stops. Sometimes it (the hearings) works, sometimes it doesn't," Compton Police Sgt. Willie Mosely said.

Long Beach officials say they would hope a public airing of drug complaints would be enough of a prod to stop apartment drug activity without having to take city action to kick the tenants out.

"We hope the City Council hearing will encourage a tenant to realize his days are numbered and get out," said Asst. City Atty. Robert E. Shannon.

If a building owner did move to evict a tenant for drug use, Shannon said only a 30-day notice would be necessary, since that is all local law mandates. Unlike cities with rent-control ordinances, Long Beach does not require a landlord to have a specific reason for eviction.

Nonetheless, the president of one of California's largest apartment owner associations questions the propriety of throwing out a tenant for drug trafficking if he has not been convicted of a narcotics sales offense.

"If we go in and evict them on the basis of using drugs they go to (eviction) court and say I haven't been convicted," argued Dan Faller, president of the Apartment Owners Assn. of Southern California, which represents about 10,000 apartment owners. "I'm afraid they're playing with the justice system."

Still, Faller says that if an apartment owner was notified by a City Council that a tenant had set up a drug operation in his building, "you'd better believe 99% of owners would evict them."

While Los Angeles, Compton, Gardena and Los Angeles County all have a narcotics abatement law, in some cases just recently adopted, Faller says he has not received any complaints from his members.

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