Hundreds of West Hollywood condominium owners trapped in a legal battle between the city and developers accused of illegally converting apartments to condominiums have won two victories that may spring them free.
City officials announced Tuesday that they would issue substitute permits that would legally designate units as condominiums if they were bought between Dec. 17, 1986, and July 13, 1989, from developers who made illegal conversions. The permits would allow owners to sell units that have been immobilized.
"For all intents and purposes, we are allowing these units to be considered as condominiums," said City Atty. Michael Jenkins. "We are doing this because we think it is the right thing to do."
"It sounds like this should take care of the problem," said condominium owner Steve Sapunor. "But they have yet to write the ordinance, the actual language on permits."
The city's announcement is the latest action on the West Hollywood law preventing the conversion of apartment buildings to condominiums without city approval. The state Supreme Court last Thursday agreed to review a July appeals court decision upholding the law.
The ban on condominium conversions has been a legal bouncing ball since West Hollywood, upon its cityhood in 1984, placed a moratorium on the conversions.
In 1986, the city strengthened the ban, adopting an ordinance prohibiting the conversion of rental units without obtaining city permits.
Building owners went ahead with conversions, citing permission granted by Los Angeles County before West Hollywood's incorporation, and the city went to court to attempt to halt the sale of former apartment units as condominiums. Los Angeles Superior Court judges ruled against the city on three occasions.
The city was victorious in the most recent round, when a state Court of Appeal in July directed a lower court to issue a restraining order barring future conversions.
City officials interpreted the July decision as giving them complete control over what will happen to 26 buildings with nearly 600 units, at least 300 of which were sold to individuals whose property rights were called into question.
Residents who had bought the units between the 1986 ordinance and the July decision suddenly found their ownership of the units called into question. Because they were unable to obtain the proper city permits designating the units as condominiums, many owners who wished to sell were unable to do so. In addition, realty agents had been steering potential buyers away from the units while they floated in legal limbo.
Mayor Abbe Land said the city had been negotiating a solution to the problem long before last week's announcement by the state Supreme Court.
"We found . . . that some people were kind of stuck," Land said. "It has never been our intention to hold people from doing what they want."
Under the city's plan, expected to be formalized at the Nov. 6 City Council meeting, qualified owners will be able to fill out simple forms allowing them to have their property legally declared condominiums.
Permits will be automatically granted to those who show they bought their disputed units within the specified time period. Those buying condominiums after July 13 would be subject to individual scrutiny, Jenkins said.
Land said there would be no fees for the permits.
Condominium owners took cautious heart in the city's announcement, but some are still skeptical.
"I only doubt it from past experience. They have made promises before," said owner Eric Pearl. Pearl became embroiled in a heated exchange with Jenkins on Tuesday when he questioned the sincerity of the deal. "It is also three or four months too late. Property values have dropped; it's now a buyer's market. And people are still afraid to come look at the buildings."