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He shows renters the door

L.A. lawyer Dennis Block boasts of having handled more evictions than anyone else. He's a hero to landlords and a pariah to tenants.

March 14, 2007|Jessica Garrison | Times Staff Writer

Dennis Block seemed glued to his black leather chair, his coffee untouched, apparently impervious to physical needs such as the bathroom or food, taking one landlord's phone call after another.

Almost all the callers wanted the same thing: to evict their tenants.

In a DVD he gives to landlords, Block describes himself this way: "A man who has evicted more tenants than any other human being on the planet Earth."

He has never been busier.

Zooming property values have sent rents skyrocketing more than 25% in four years citywide and even higher in rapidly gentrifying areas. But hundreds of thousands of tenants are protected by rent-stabilization laws, which limit rent increases to 4% a year. When the tenant moves, market rates can take effect -- but tenants can be evicted only with good cause.

That's where Block comes in. He has dedicated his considerable creativity and intelligence to helping landlords evict tenants from rent-stabilized buildings. He boasts that his firm has filed more than 130,000 cases since 1980, a year after rent stabilization went into effect. He helps landlords identify minor violations -- a pet fish in an aquarium, a brightly painted bathroom, an extra occupant -- to toss out long-term tenants who are paying below market for their homes.

Tenant advocates tend to turn red with rage at the mention of Block's name. They say that in a city with a shortage of affordable housing, Block's efforts leave people with nowhere to go and in danger of becoming homeless. Worse, his example is followed by many other lawyers and landlords. "He puts people on the street totally turns communities upside down.... I think it's contemptible," said Brett Terrell, the director of advocacy for the Inner City Law Center, a nonprofit that works with tenants being evicted.

Block, 55, greets such criticism with indignation.

"I think my position is righteous," he said. "The average landlord is not a rich individual.... Under rent control, unlike any other business on planet Earth, a landlord is being ordered to support other individuals totally at his own costs. This is not fair."

Evicting rent-stabilized tenants, he says, is his "patriotic duty."

Even his critics agree that no one does it better than Block. A legal aid lawyer once joked that if a building had rats, Block could find a way to evict the tenants on the grounds that the vermin were pets.

"Line," he yelled one recent morning in his office, a sign to his staff that he was ready to take a call.

"This is ... " he paused for effect, making his listener wait "Dennis Block."

Sometimes, the landlords don't believe they are actually talking to Dennis Block, and Block has to convince them. Sometimes, they aren't sure he exists, such is his Oz-like stature as Los Angeles' wizard of evictions.

But this caller, the irate owner of a five-unit building in West Los Angeles, launched right into his troubles. One of his tenants was in a rent-controlled unit, and he wanted to "serve her with a 60-day notice to get the [expletive] out."

Block nodded, as if he understood the impulse. But, unfortunately, he told the landlord, "that is not a proper notice" under the city's rent control laws.

The landlord paused, then offered up a litany of complaints about the tenant in hopes Block could find grounds for eviction. She'd refused to sign a new rental agreement. Block shrugged. "She doesn't have to," he said.

How about the fact that she had asked for interest on her security deposit? Block made a sardonic face. "She's got a good point there."

The landlord tried again: She'd scraped off the textured paint on her ceiling. Could she be evicted for that?

Block, whose bright blue eyes animate his thin face, leaned forward, interested. But when he learned it had happened months earlier, he sighed. "Talk to me about something recent."

The landlord thought for a second, then said he had noticed the tenant had taken out her smoke alarms.

"The smoke detectors is a good one," Block said, promising to send out a notice immediately. If the tenant didn't fix the problem in three days, she could be out.

MORE than two-thirds of the city's 750,000 apartments are covered under rent stabilization. Most people who get evicted leave quietly -- they've paid their rent late or violated their lease in some other way, so when served with a notice, they pack up. Legal aid lawyers can help only a small fraction of the more than 50,000 tenants evicted each year in Los Angeles County, and they choose their cases carefully, usually taking on only the fights they think they can win.

On this morning, over the next 90 minutes, Block took nearly two dozen calls.

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