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Court victory for tenants in a long battle

The few remaining residents can stay in their rent-controlled units at a Venice complex a firm is seeking to redevelop.

September 21, 2007|Jessica Garrison | Times Staff Writer

In the latest twist in one of Los Angeles' longest-running battles over gentrification, a state appellate court has ruled that tenants of an apartment complex slated for redevelopment can stay in their rent-controlled units.

A three-judge panel of the 2nd District Court of Appeal also chastised the city for failing to intervene in the fight over the Lincoln Place apartments in Venice.

The decision was cheered by tenant advocates across the city. Over the last two decades, the fate of the complex's residents has become, for many, symbolic of people with lesser means trying to stay in rent-stabilized apartments in rapidly gentrifying areas.

"I'm ecstatic," said Laura Burns, a 59-year-old filmmaker who was removed from her Lincoln Place apartment by sheriff's deputies two years ago. "We have said since the very beginning that these evictions were not legal and that the city had the duty to enforce these conditions, and nobody would listen to us."

It was unclear whether the city and the developer, AIMCO-Venezia LLC, would appeal. Attorneys for the company did not return phone calls. A spokesman for City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo said lawyers were "still studying the ruling."

Completed in 1951, the 795 garden units a mile from the beach were hailed as a stylish example of post-World War II affordable housing. Only 13 apartments remain occupied in the complex.

The battle over the apartments began in 1991, when a new owner applied for permission to demolish the buildings and replace them with condominiums.

Los Angeles officials initially denied permission to demolish. But in 2002, after the city lost a court battle, officials approved the project.

As part of the approval, the owners of Lincoln Place agreed to a redevelopment plan that gave the tenants the option to move to other units within the complex if their apartments were demolished.

But when AIMCO-Venezia bought the 38-acre property outright in 2003, the company said it did not have to comply with those conditions and started razing buildings. Preservationists who considered the complex of historical importance -- it was one of the rare projects for that era designed by a black architect -- filed suit.

In 2006, Councilman Bill Rosendahl, whose district includes the complex, proposed having the city enforce the agreement signed by the previous owner.

The city attorney told the council, before it rejected Rosendahl's proposal, that it would not be enforceable and would expose the city to liability.

Rebuffed by that decision, the tenants sued.

A trial judge ruled in the city's favor, but the Court of Appeal took a different view.

The city's arguments "find no support in this record or in the law," the justices wrote.

That caused Rosendahl to question the legal advice that the council had received.

"I look forward to the city attorney's office's explanation," he said in an interview Thursday. "And frankly, I wouldn't mind an apology."

The ruling left a variety of questions unanswered, among them what will happen to the tenants who have already been evicted.

John Murdock, the tenants' attorney, said people who were evicted could seek their apartments back -- along with money for emotional distress.

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jessica.garrison@latimes.com

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