WOODLAND HILLS — After his wife of 47 years died, Lester Gilbert spent more time among his fellow seniors at "the clubhouse," an affectionate name for the recreation center at their apartment complex. It's where he met his second wife.
For more than 30 years, the clubhouse at the Tennis Club Apartments in was the hub of social activity for hundreds of retired people who lived there.
They played games, wrote newsletters, threw parties, held fund-raisers and kibitzed over coffee and Danish pastries, Gilbert, 87, said.
Then two years ago, new management made several changes to the property near Topanga Canyon Boulevard, including renaming it Renaissance Apartment Homes.
But what hit the seniors hardest was the conversion of the 2,500-square-foot clubhouse into a leasing office. The recreation center was relocated to a vacant 800-square-foot one-bedroom apartment.
Alleging emotional distress and financial loss, more than 200 seniors filed a lawsuit in Los Angeles County Superior Court on Jan. 5 against both the property owner, Tennis Club Apartments LLC, and the manager, the William Lyon Property Management Co. They are demanding at least a deduction in their rent, if not restoration of their clubhouse.
"They took away a substantial part of what these people were leasing," said plaintiffs' attorney Michael Rubin. "If they changed the doorknobs or lighting fixture, that's trivial. But they've taken away a huge meeting place crucial to the seniors' social lives."
Owners Say Change Is Business Decision
The owners are just trying to keep up with the competition, said defense attorney Doug Alani.
"Have you seen the other projects' leasing offices near there?" he asked. "They're very nice. When you go in to rent a place, the first thing you see is the leasing office."
The management is not contractually obligated to leave the recreational facilities open, Alani said.
But most of the current senior residents said they moved into the complex and stayed--some as many as 35 years--because of the clubhouse. When Gilbert moved in, he was told that more than 400 apartments--about 90% of the 477-unit complex--were occupied by seniors.
The senior population has since dwindled to about 40%, Gilbert said.
"You see, this was our life," he said. "We'd get up in the morning and go down to the clubhouse. During the day, there was always a crowd around, and at night, people stood around and talked by the pool."
Many of the seniors have complaints about the new, smaller recreation center.
"They don't even give us an emergency phone," said 24-year resident Florence Mahl, 89. "We're all old. What if something happened to us?"
She surveyed the crowded room through watery eyes.
"This is what they give us," Mahl said. "Did you see what we had before? What do they need all that space for? At least decrease our rent. It's very unfair."
A feeble voice coming from a corner of the room seemed to sum it up: "They're trying to get rid of the seniors."
Most of the seniors believe the conversion of the clubhouse is meant to discourage tenants from staying in their rent-stabilized apartments, giving landlords a chance to re-lease them at higher rates. Under the city's rent-control law, landlords can freely raise rents only when tenants move and new ones replace them.
Gilbert, a 29-year resident, has paid less than $800 a month for his one-bedroom apartment.
Tenants also once had lockers in the laundry rooms, Gilbert said. They were one of the first things to go when Lyon Property Management Co. took over. Now older residents must carry heavy bottles of detergent up and down several flights of stairs, he said.
The management denies any intention of ousting seniors, Alani said.
"We are not trying to kick the seniors out," he said. "Look, I'm not saying this case is frivolous or without merit, but it is a novel issue. . . . I don't even believe this complaint is founded in California law."
Rubin disagreed. He asserted that the seniors not only rented their apartments but also the amenities of the complex.
Alani said it is the owners' prerogative to make any changes they deem necessary.
"The state economy depends on the freedom of property owners to make their operations more economically viable," he said. "That's why there are no cases that really support [Rubin's] position on this."
New Recreation Room Is Cramped
Meanwhile, the seniors have altered their lifestyles, Gilbert said.
For meetings that require a venue larger than the new recreation center, Gilbert and his fellow seniors travel more than a mile to a neighboring apartment complex. The distance presents problems for those who walk with canes or don't have cars.
And when they do meet at their own complex, all is not well.
"The room they gave us is so small, everybody fights for a table," he said. "You get there early if you want one. [If] you're late, you go fly a kite."