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CES In The News

Los Angeles Daily News
Sunday April 30, 2006
Condo projects ousting renters
Longtime tenants facing eviction

The eviction notice served in February shattered John A. Mozzer's fragile sense of stability.

His home for the past 14 years, the 1940s-era courtyard apartment in Valley Village would be demolished and new, pricey condominiums built in its place.

Now Mozzer, who has been on disability and unable to work because of clinical depression, must find a new home in Los Angeles' most expensive real estate and rental market ever.

"This is my Katrina," said Mozzer, 50, comparing his personal devastation to the damage caused by the massive Gulf Coast hurricane last year. "I thought I had security. I thought I had a secure place to live for the rest of my life."

Across Los Angeles, apartment owners have evicted tenants like Mozzer from more than 9,240 rent-controlled units in the past five years to convert rental buildings to condominiums or demolish older apartment buildings to build new condos.

Nearly 5,000 rent-control evictions were ordered in the past year alone, and that does not include evictions from non-rent-controlled units, which are not tracked by the city.

It's another reaction to the high-priced Southern California real estate market, where the median price for a house in Los Angeles County hit a new high of $506,000 last month and many potential house-hunters turn to condos as a more affordable way to buy.

Some communities will have blocks of apartments buildings emptied to make way for new condo construction. In Valley Village, some 150 units in six buildings are slated for evictions.

Renters who have paid $600, $800 or $900 a month now have to find a new home in a market where the average rent tops $1,350 a month.

But a growing number of evicted tenants and affordable-housing advocates are calling for immediate action to stop - or least strongly discourage - developers from buying rent-controlled buildings for demolition and condo construction.

This Picture Did Not Appear In the Original Version of This Article
"This is changing the face of Los Angeles. We're seeing this hit the middle class and it's forcing people out of Los Angeles," said Larry Gross, executive director of the Coalition for Economic Survival.

"We have to preserve the existing affordable housing because it will never be rebuilt."

L.A. leaders are listening. But some are wary of slowing down the hot real estate market or crossing strict state laws that protect landlords and private-property rights.

Last week, Councilwoman Wendy Greuel was met with picket signs and pleas at a town-hall meeting in Valley Village, and Greuel pledged to help slow the pace of evictions while still allowing new home construction.

"We're trying to balance the need to keep affordable rental housing with the need for homeownership," Greuel said. "There isn't a solution everyone can agree upon yet."

Next month, Councilmen Herb Wesson and Ed Reyes will hold three committee hearings on the impacts of evictions and condo conversions, including a May 31 meeting at Valley College.

And a new city ordinance that adds some protections for tenants is being hurried through City Council committees.

Wesson, who heads the city's Housing, Community and Economic Development Committee, said he has heard a lot of concern from his constituents about evictions, which number about two to three units a day in his district.

However, he doesn't want the City Council's solution to cause more problems than it solves.

"We want to be careful in the way we approach this issue. It could have an adverse affect - would it slow down the housing market? Would it have an adverse affect on the city financially? Will it affect small landlords?" asked Wesson.

Landlords, too, are concerned the city will put tenants' rights ahead of theirs.

"I don't think it's criminal when an apartment owner wants to sell and make a profit for the highest and best use of the property," said Dan Faller, founder and president of the Apartment Owners Association of California. "Before you make apartment owners responsible for other people's housing, you have to ask who's responsible for providing (a person's) housing?"

Property owners are protected by a state law called the Ellis Act that gives landlords the right to evict residents if they plan to get out of the rental business. Landlords have increasingly used the Ellis Act to evict residents before developing units into condos.

The city cannot stop landlords from getting out of the rental business, but it can add rules to ensure landlords aren't evicting rent-control tenants to replace them with higher-paying renters.

Other cities, such as San Francisco and San Diego, have set limits on the number of apartments that can be removed from the rental market for condominiums or proposed requiring developers to include affordable housing in their new condo projects.

The City Attorney's Office has written an ordinance that would allow tenants and the city to sue landlords who remove a rent-controlled unit from the market and re-rent it within two years.

And if an owner demolishes a rent-controlled building and builds a new apartment building, the new building will also be subject to rent-control law.

The City Council is now considering those changes.

But activists believe the city can do more.

Attorney Noel Weiss is advising residents in Valley Village and at Lincoln Place in Venice, where 795 rent-controlled units are being emptied by eviction to make way for market-rate housing. He believes developers will think twice about demolishing rent-controlled buildings if the City Council makes it harder and more expensive.

Weiss wants Greuel to introduce a temporary city order that refuses demolition and construction permits to developers unless they offer a 10 percent discount and financing to help tenants buy into the new condo building and pay tenants $13,500 each for relocation.

"These people who have been protected by rent control need to be helped to transition to the real-world market now," Weiss said. "Developers are profiting mightily. We want you to share the profits with the people who are impacted by your business."

Currently, landlords are required to pay $3,300 per unit for relocation, or $8,200 if the tenant is over 62 years old or disabled.

The Valley Village Homeowners Residents Association is also calling for a temporary stop to all evictions until the city attorney can close loopholes that allow landlords to evict residents before getting city approval to demolish and develop new condos. That effort was stalled at the Neighborhood Council of Valley Village last week, after developer Gary Schaffel warned that he and other property owners could lose millions of dollars if demolitions and condo projects are halted.

But tenants in a building owned by Schaffel are worried about their own future.

Herb Malina, a 71-year-old renter in Valley Village, said $8,200 in relocation money is barely enough to cover the deposit for a new apartment and moving costs. His is one of 149 units in Valley Village being demolished to make way for condos. Malina received an eviction notice for his $633-a-month apartment the same day he went to the Veterans Administration hospital for surgery.

He lives on $935 a month from Social Security and the little money he gets from appearing as an extra in movies.

"I like where I live because it's economical," Malina said. "There's a senior building and when I asked about possible vacancy for my income bracket, it was a three- to five-year wait."

"I don't know what I'm going to do."

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