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Senior's Eviction Triggers Suit

Man, 88, has lived in the apartment for 47 years. Dispute reflects conflicts over rent-control law.

August 09, 2003|Jocelyn Y. Stewart | Times Staff Writer

The day the Los Angeles City Council passed a resolution that allowed a landlord to evict 88-year-old Albert Dunne from his Venice apartment, the World War II veteran was not in council chambers. Nor were his attorneys or supporters.

The resolution passed with no debate -- a fact that is now the subject of a lawsuit filed by the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, which accuses the city of failing to notify Dunne of the vote and violating his rights to due process under the 14th Amendment.

The suit asks the court to void the resolution.

"If the Dunnes had known about any meeting or hearing, they would have testified and presented evidence disputing [the owner's] allegations," the lawsuit alleges.

The lawsuit is the latest chapter in a tangled and contentious debate over the property Dunne has occupied for 47 years. On one side is property owner Todd Flournoy, 33, who wants to rehabilitate the four-unit building on Rose Avenue and needs it to be empty to do so. On the other side are Dunne and his daughter Karen, who say they cannot afford to move.

The City Council sat in the middle, forced to determine the fate of the rent-controlled building and that of Flournoy and Dunne. The council sided with Flournoy, but the process has both sides crying foul.

Last month a judge issued a preliminary injunction stopping the eviction until the case has been heard, leaving one man's home and another man's business in limbo. An attorney representing the city declined to discuss the case, citing the city's policy of not commenting on pending litigation.

The case is rooted in the city's attempt to resolve a problem that had affected tenants in rent-controlled apartments citywide.

A clause of the rent stabilization ordinance allowed landlords to evict tenants whenever $10,000 worth of work requiring city permits was done, and when the work required the unit to be empty for at least 45 days. Critics said landlords used the clause as a pretext to evict low-paying tenants and raise rents.

On July 16, 2002, the City Council approved a six-month moratorium on such evictions while the council studied the issue. The measure, which was extended and remains on the books, allows the council to approve some evictions if the owner demonstrates that prohibiting evictions would cause hardship.

The then-owner of the property, SA Rose Investment, applied for the "hardship exemption," arguing that two years and $56,000 had been spent in the redesign of the building and a plan "to create an appropriate building for our community and to get rid of an eyesore."

The application was the subject of hearings by the Housing and Community Development Committee as officials attempted to mediate between the owner's needs and those of Dunne, who lives on a fixed income and pays $397 in rent. Supporters wrote on Dunne's behalf, asking that the Purple Heart recipient and longtime union member not be evicted.

Flournoy said he and his partners researched before buying the building and tried to encourage Dunne to leave by offering relocation fees greater than those mandated by law.

"We tried to understand all of the laws regarding the rent stabilization ordinance.... And we followed all of those rules to the nth degree," he said in an interview.

At one point, the Dunnes were the only tenants left in the building, he said. Unable to move forward with the plans, the owners re-rented some other units.

"It's been a very difficult process," Flournoy said in an interview. "Financial hardship has been a very large part of it." The owners are "not going to be able to recover if the project does not go forward."

Councilwoman Cindy Miscikowski, the council's housing committee and the city's Housing Department all supported Flournoy. Miscikowski did not return calls seeking comment.

In a report, the Housing Department approved the application for eviction because the plans started before the moratorium and "a delay in construction would prolong the financial burden to the owner."

On April 16, the City Council, following the housing committee's lead, approved Flournoy's application.

But Dunne's attorneys allege that the matter should never have appeared on the council agenda because the committee said Dunne should have been given two weeks to find new housing before Flournoy's request could be granted. And if Dunne didn't find housing, the matter was still supposed to return to the committee before reaching the council, the lawsuit says.

The suit also says that the council vote was based on faulty information. A housing committee report recommending approval of Flournoy's request said that Dunne had received a $900 federal housing subsidy. In fact, he had not, said Barbara Schultz, an attorney with the Legal Aid Foundation who is representing the Dunnes.

No officials spoke with her before including the information in the report, Schultz said. "If they had checked maybe they could have avoided this entire litigation," she said.

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