The federal agency charged with putting low-income people into decent, affordable housing is itself trying to evict dozens of poor and elderly Los Angeles residents from homes they have rented for years but which are now in foreclosure.
Legal aid attorneys say the Department of Housing and Urban Development's local office is taking advantage of a loophole in the city's rent stabilization ordinance to try to force people out of their units and do it, in many cases, without paying the relocation funds that private landlords normally would provide.
The attorneys, who are fighting the evictions in court, say that scores of residents may be affected in rental properties where the former owner defaulted on HUD-backed loans and HUD has assumed the title. The agency is trying to resell many of the properties, which range in size from one to four rental units.
An official in HUD's Los Angeles office conceded that the actions might seem harsh, but he said that the agency is within its rights to evict residents at foreclosed properties. An empty dwelling, said area official Nelson Hernandez, is far easier to sell than an occupied one, and part of HUD's mission is to promote home ownership. By maximizing the sales proceeds, HUD says it then can finance more mortgages for working families.
Alex Sachs, a regional HUD spokesman in San Diego, said the agency has been working on a case-by-case basis with tenants to offer them rental assistance and more time to move.
"Some of these cases have been settled without having to use the full extent of the law to evict people," he said.
But Sachs did not have information on how many such cases have been settled or how much assistance the tenants were offered. City officials said such offers have been made only since they began protesting HUD's actions in recent weeks.
Legal aid attorneys contend that most of their clients have either not been offered assistance or been offered deals that are far below what a private landlord would be required to pay. One attorney said a client who should qualify for $5,000 was offered $500 by HUD's attorney.
Traditionally, HUD had shied away from taking over occupied buildings, leaving the unpleasant matter of evictions for banks to handle, said city and federal officials. Local HUD officials could not explain why that had changed.
Those affected include 70-year-old Evelyn Eberhardt, who has rented an apartment on 99th Street in South-Central Los Angeles for 10 years. Eberhardt was in the hospital after undergoing two major cancer surgeries last summer when she was told she had 30 days to move out of her two-bedroom, rent-stabilized unit. Since then, she said, no one has picked up the trash, mowed the lawns or provided any other maintenance for her $318-a-month apartment.
"When you're dealing with things like death and surgery, your mind doesn't want to think about things like moving. It's just too much mental stress and strain," she said.
In one case, said legal aid attorney A. Christian Abasto, one woman has been without heat for six weeks, and other tenants are without water service.
Protests From Lawmakers
The prospect of poor tenants being evicted has drawn protests from city lawmakers and U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles). Council members Mike Hernandez and Jackie Goldberg are drafting an amendment to the Los Angeles rent ordinance that would require that HUD provide up to $5,000 in relocation assistance to renters who must move.
Local HUD officials said they are willing to meet with city officials to discuss the matter, but they stressed that HUD is not in the rental business.
"We have a fiduciary responsibility to the taxpayers," said HUD's Hernandez.
But critics of the agency say the evictions contradict its responsibility to guard the well-being of the nation's poorest residents and to strengthen communities.
Angelina Estrada, 68, has rented a three-bedroom house on 23rd Street south of downtown Los Angeles for 23 years, raising four children.
She says she considers herself a pillar in her neighborhood of modest homes.
"For a person living here so long it's just demanding too much," she said, holding the 30-day eviction notice telling her she must get out by Monday. "It's an injustice because I have no money to look for another place; it's not enough time."
To add insult to injury, she said, officials have known for six weeks that she has had a broken heater but have failed to send someone to fix the problem.
Hernandez said his agency was unaware of any residents without heat and would look into Estrada's complaint.
Tenants who live in privately owned, rent-stabilized housing generally enjoy broad protections against being evicted, even when a property changes hands.
In cases where a property is removed from the rental market or must undergo extensive remodeling, families with children under the age of 18, those who are disabled or are over the age of 62 qualify for $5,000 in rental assistance. Others receive $2,000.
Rent Control Ordinances