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Fighting for a Place to Call Home : Housing: A 71-year-old apartment tenant is leading a battle against a planned conversion to condominiums. But not everyone approves of her mission.

March 04, 1990|JOSH MEYER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A day shy of her 72nd birthday, with a thick shock of white hair framing a set of bright blue eyes, Molly Adams claims she is anything but a rabble-rouser.

But as the self-appointed watchdog for the elderly tenants in her Hancock Park apartment complex, she certainly seems to be doing a good job of it--to the delight of some tenants, and the dismay of others.

Adams, whose serene and matronly manner belies a steely determination and feistiness, has thrown herself headlong against the approval of a multimillion-dollar condominium conversion project under way at her building. In the process, she has fanned the flames of what has become a raging controversy, with potentially citywide repercussions.

The controversy centers on Country Club Manor at 316 N. Rossmore Ave., where the owner, Haseko-Tekno Development Partners of Japan and Beverly Hills, plans to spend $2.5 million to turn the aging building into a luxury condominium complex.

To some in the building, Adams is a heroine who has saved other tenants too old or infirm to fight for themselves from being displaced into unfamiliar surroundings at a time when the city already is reeling from an affordable rental-housing crisis. Adams and some of her allies maintain that management has intentionally driven out more than a dozen tenants in the last year--many of them elderly widows--to make room for pro-condo tenants, paving the way for windfall profits at the expense of some of society's most helpless.

But the majority of residents, more than the 51% needed for city approval, say they favor the conversion. Many say they resent efforts by Adams and others to thwart approval by the city.

"She's a troublemaker," said tenant Paul Ring, who favors condo conversion. Another tenant--clinical psychologist Mimi Greenberg--in a letter to City Council President John Ferraro, says she favors conversion and offers her "professional opinion" in assessing Adams' motives: "Fighting against the inevitable conversion of this building provides her with lots of busy work, intrigue and attention. She is an unhappy and sadly misguided old lady who apparently finds delight in malicious activities."

Adams, a widow, has lived in the towering French Norman-style structure for more than 20 years and doesn't like what the new owners are doing to it and its tenants.

"As God is my witness, I am anything but a hell-raiser," Adams said last week. "But the little people have got to be heard, otherwise we fall through the cracks of justice. God has given me good health, and I am not about to run up the white flag."

City officials said late last week that they are listening. In fact, they say, Adams has presented them with a case so compelling that they may seek to revamp the city's 8-year-old condo-conversion ordinance so it better protects elderly tenants.

Barbara Zeidman, director of the city Rent Stabilization Division, has taken a personal interest in the Rossmore conversion. After years of virtually no condo conversions, she said, "we are now in an upswing, and perhaps there is a need to look at a more equitable sharing of the profit involved and the grief that it causes."

The controversy began in May, 1988, when Haseko-Tekno bought the 48-unit building and began a complete renovation of its facade. Since then, according to Adams and other tenants, intimidation by management and constant disruptions by workers have forced out most renters opposed to the conversion.

"This building is a particularly brutal microcosm of the situation involving all condo conversions in the city involving senior citizens," said tenant Jo de Winter. "They have put these people through sheer hell."

De Winter opposes the conversion and is incensed that major renovations under way for months have disrupted daily life at the complex before the conversion has been approved. But many other tenants say it is unfair to hold up the project just because a few tenants oppose it.

Frank Niezgoda, a stockbroker, has lived in the building for nine years and praises the new owners for spending the money to resurrect a building suffering from decades of neglect. He wants to buy his apartment, to build up equity, gain tax breaks and own a piece of what is widely considered a landmark building. Besides, he said, the only other options are to pay much higher rents or lose the building, built in 1929, to the wrecker's ball.

"I am being hurt by these delays, and there are others being hurt as well," said Niezgoda. He added that tenants opposed to the conversion all are wealthy people who "have bargains and just don't want to let go of it."

Although the condo conversion proposal has slowly made its way through the city bureaucracy, it has grown uglier at each step, as social issues like the rights of the elderly to dignity and affordable housing have been interjected.

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