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Council Halts Evictions, Will Tighten Law

Housing: Officials say landlords are using a rehabilitation provision to oust tenants and raise rent. Apartment owners say moratorium will prevent improvements.

July 17, 2002|JOCELYN Y. STEWART | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a major victory for tenants rights groups, the Los Angeles City Council approved a six-month moratorium Tuesday on evictions by landlords who are rehabilitating their apartments.

City officials said they are moving to prevent such evictions because some landlords have used rehabilitation work as a pretext for evicting tenants and raising rents.

The council said it would use the six months to close a loophole in the Rent Stabilization Ordinance that allowed such evictions.

"It's not just one or two cases, it's evident, throughout the city," said Councilman Ed Reyes, who proposed the change.

"We need to be able to conduct a study in order to ... identify what is rehabilitation as opposed to a cosmetic fix," Reyes said.

The moratorium was opposed by the Apartment Assn. of Greater Los Angeles and by the owners of the 795-unit Lincoln Place Apartments in Venice, which is undergoing rehabilitation.

Property owners objected that they will be blocked from making legitimate improvements as long as the rule is in effect.

But city officials said they need the time to study a provision of the rent stabilization ordinance that allows landlords to evict tenants when an apartment is undergoing a major rehabilitation.

The provision allows landlords to evict when three criteria are met:

* The work costs $10,000 per unit or more.

* The work requires that the unit be vacant for at least 45 days.

* At least $9,000 of the work requires city permits.

But critics said the $10,000 figure was set in the late 1980s and does not reflect the true cost of major rehabilitation in today's market.

They say that means that tenants can be forced to leave their homes for minor repairs.

Landlords have taken advantage of the law, said Larry Gross, executive director of the Coalition for Economic Survival.

"This is not about making repairs to substandard or slum housing," said Gross, a key backer of the moratorium.

"It's about landlords and developers gentrifying affordable housing and getting higher rents."

Last year, the Los Angeles Housing Department received 111 landlord declarations of intent to evict for purposes of major rehabilitation, more than 12 times the number received in 1992.

Many more tenants lose their apartments because they do not know their rights and are intimidated into leaving, said Elena Popp, directing attorney with the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles.

Discussion of the moratorium has also shed light on the city's failure to enforce certain provisions of the ordinance.

Under the rent stabilization ordinance, landlords who evict tenants for the purpose of major rehabilitation must offer 25% of the renovated units to previous tenants, at the previous rent.

The rule applies when four or more units are renovated.

When an owner has stated his intent to evict for the purpose of major rehabilitation, the city issues re-rental certificates, a process designed to ensure that renovated units are being offered to previous tenants.

But between 2000 and 2002 the city received 22 re-rental applications and processed six.

Garry Pinney, general manager of the city's Housing Department, said the department has insufficient staff to deal with a growing number of complaints and other issues requiring investigation.

Over the last two years the workload has increased by 150%, he said.

"We are responding to this skyrocketing workload demand with request for additional staff to meet that," Pinney said.

The department was recently authorized to hire an additional person to work on issues that arise from major apartment rehabilitations.

While the moratorium won wide praise from tenant groups, whose members filled the City Council chambers Tuesday, landlords argued that the moratorium will discourage landlords and cause the deterioration of the city's housing stock.

"For the City Council to adopt a program that says, 'We don't want buildings upgraded' is short-sighted and foolish," said Charles Isham of the Apartment Assn. of Greater Los Angeles.

Allan J. Abshez, an attorney for Lincoln Place Apartments in Venice, charged that the moratorium is a response to a long-running dispute over the fate of the 795-unit complex.

Owners wanted to demolish the housing units, but were prohibited by the city from doing so, Abshez said.

"Now the city is saying you can't rehabilitate them. What is the owner supposed to do?"

The owners are in litigation with the city over Lincoln Place.

But council members said their action was designed to block unfair evictions citywide.

The Lincoln Place Tenants Assn., along with residents of Magnolia Park Apartments in Sherman Oaks and others, appeared at several hearings on the moratorium.

"We felt in order to protect our tenancy, we needed to have this moratorium," said Sheila Bernard, the president of the tenants association at the Venice complex.

"For this discussion to be at all fair and balanced we can't be at threat of losing our homes," Bernard said.

Judi Mesisca became an advocate for tenants and the moratorium when she learned that the new owners of her building in Sherman Oaks planned to evict tenants, including many elderly residents, under the major rehabilitation provision.

"What do you tell somebody who's lived here 27 years?" Mesisca said.

"We like the people and they need help."

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