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Skid Row Hotels Stack Deck With 'Shuffle'

Law: Illegal practice of displacing residents monthly to deny them tenant status is being challenged.


Even in the surreal world of downtown's skid row, where people sleep in boxes or tents or huddled on the sidewalk, the policy made no sense to Jerome Wiggins.

Once every 28 days, at the request of hotel management, he and his girlfriend left their room in the Rosslyn Hotel and searched for another place to spend the night. The next day they trekked back to the Rosslyn--the same room, the same hotel--and resumed their lives.

Known as the "28-day shuffle," this ritual is practiced monthly by scores of people who make their homes in single-room-occupancy hotels.

In California, a person living in one place for 30 days becomes a tenant under state law and thus earns certain legal protections, such as safeguards against unreasonable evictions. Housing advocates say hotel managers and owners, by ordering residents to re-rent rooms every 28 days, deny their customers such protections.

The practice, common on skid row, is illegal.

Although some hotel owners and city housing officials say they are not aware of it, a 12-year-old state law prohibits forcing someone to move to prevent the person from becoming a tenant.

Hotel owners say the shuffle policy, or some remedy, is needed to avoid unfairly forcing them to become landlords for the city's poor. Without implementing such a policy, hotel owners would bear all the responsibilities of landlords, but without the benefit of credit checks, rental agreements and deposits.

Hotel owners fear that, like landlords, they would have to take legal action to evict problem tenants, perhaps costing them aggravation, legal fees and months of unpaid rent. In other instances, a tenant who is forced to move is entitled to relocation fees--another concern of owners.

So like participants in some sad urban dance, hotel residents end up homeless or searching for housing at least once a month. In the already frenetic and sometimes dangerous world of downtown Los Angeles, this monthly uprooting adds one more element of uncertainty to people's lives.

Wiggins, a 50-year-old former Navy man and recovering drug addict, had followed the Rosslyn Hotel's rules--until he learned that the policy violated state law. That discovery eventually meant the end of the shuffle for Wiggins' family after housing advocates took up his case. They hope to replicate that victory in similar cases now before city housing authorities.

"A lot of people really don't want this," said Wiggins of the 28-day shuffle. "But they don't know how to get out of it. They don't know what their rights are."

Residential hotels like the Rosslyn were once the haunts of businessmen, film industry types and tourists, but are like forgotten film stars: Now only glimpses of their former glory remain. Many of the aging hotels come with problems: cockroaches, brown water, broken elevators, $10 fees for anyone visiting a hotel resident.

Most hotels offer the same amenities: a bare room that usually includes a face bowl, and a bathroom shared by other guests. Wiggins, his girlfriend, Joy Pearson, and their new baby, Carolyn, live in one orderly room where life is compressed--a small brown refrigerator against a wall, a Crock-Pot on a dresser, a pink bassinet next to the bed. They pay extra for a private bathroom.

"We don't have adequate space," Wiggins said. "But we try to do the best we can."

Yet for low-wage workers or people living on general relief, welfare or Social Security, hotels such as the Rosslyn, on 5th Street near Main, often offer the only affordable housing downtown. Rooms typically cost about $105 a week.

The Frontier Hotel has a 28-day policy, because "we don't want long-term tenants," said owner Rob Frontiera, who plans to convert the Frontier's 400 rooms into 130 market-rate apartments.

"The city makes it very hard to rent to low-income [people]," Frontiera said, citing eviction laws and building and safety standards.

The Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles is suing the hotel on behalf of a long-term tenant who said he was forced to move. Frontiera denies the allegation.

For a year and a half, the Los Angeles Community Action Network has documented the stories of residents of such hotels: people required to leave their hotel for a few days, to switch rooms, or in one case, to pay no rent for a day.

"The way they implement this 28-day thing is all over the map," said Pete White, executive director of the Community Action Network. "At the end of the day, it's clearly about exploiting the fact that you're poor and don't have a voice."

There is an added indignity that cannot be measured: The same hotels that require residents to move out allow them to leave their belongings--for a fee.

And as Wiggins learned firsthand, the shuffling makes it difficult for the residents of skid row to stabilize their lives. Experts estimate that up to 11,000 people live on skid row, with about 4,000 on the streets and the rest staying in shelters or hotels.

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