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CES In The News
Daily News
Thursday April 5, 2007
Council hikes eviction help
Renters booted in favor of condos would get thousands more in aid
LA Daily News

This Picture Did Not Appear In the Original Version of This Article
Under increasing pressure to slow the loss of affordable rentals, the Los Angeles City Council on Wednesday tentatively approved sharply higher relocation assistance for renters evicted to make way for condos.

After six hours of debate on the city's housing and rental problems, the council voted 9-5 to raise the fees as part of a new program that also helps evicted tenants find new homes.

All tenants would get several thousand dollars more than they receive now, and low-income and long-term tenants would get an additional $2,200 above that.

The new regulations would add thousands of dollars to the cost of converting an apartment unit to a condominium, potentially discouraging some developers who would find it more expensive to evict tenants.

"I think this is fair. This is just," Councilwoman Janice Hahn said. "If we want to stand up for 70 percent of Angelenos, those are the renters. That's the majority. They are the ones who should give us the mandate on this policy."

Condo conversions have become popular in L.A. in response to the hot real-estate market, where landlords could get out of the rental business and sell their units for a huge profit. Priced out of single-family homes, middle-income and first-time homebuyers have snatched up the new condos.

But while council members unanimously agreed it was time to increase relocation fees, they were split on how high the fees should be.

City housing and planning directors recommended a simple fee structure, but the council narrowly supported a two-tier system that Councilman Herb Wesson proposed.

That plan provides more money for low-income tenants and those who have lived in a building for more than three years.

"I don't think it's fair that people who make $80,000 a year get the same relocation assistance as people sitting here," Wesson said, pointing to rows of low-income renters who testified in support of higher relocation payments.

"If this does not work, then I will quickly bring this back and ask that it be eliminated."

Council members Hahn, Wendy Greuel, Tom LaBonge, Bill Rosendahl and Eric Garcetti voted against the plan. They wanted all tenants to get the higher fees.

Split on protection

Landlords and developers had pushed for the two-tier system as a way to cut some of the expense while still protecting the most vulnerable tenants.

But tenant advocates and Housing Department General Manager Mercedes Marquez warned it also could discourage landlords from renting to low-income tenants.

"The biggest concern is that discrimination could happen at the time of the rental. It starts to put an extra burden on people who are already burdened," Marquez said.

To ease fears, the two-tier payment will expire in a year unless the council re-approves it.

Under the new program, low-income tenants and those who had lived in a unit at least three years would receive the highest fees: $9,040 for most tenants and $17,080 for qualified tenants, including the disabled, elderly or parents of young children.

Tenants who have lived in the unit for less than three years would receive $6,810, with qualified tenants receiving $14,850.

The current relocation fees are $8,550 for qualified tenants and $3,450 for all others.

The new fees would take effect for new projects about a month after the mayor signs off and the ordinance is finalized.

Condo conversions

The decision Wednesday caps nearly a year of debate about how to protect tenants in a real-estate market where property owners want to evict renters and sell the units as condos.

Tenants have been evicted from more than 12,000 units during the past five years to make way for condos, and they've been forced to find comparable housing in one of the most expensive areas in the nation. But the relocation package was a bittersweet victory for renters who pushed for the increase more than a year ago and are now facing eviction.

Valley Village resident Brian Zolin is one of dozens of renters whose 1950s-style apartments are being demolished to make way for condos. He said the new rules won't help him now.

"If I move and get evicted again in two years from now, it'll help," he said. "Pray that I'll still be able to afford to live in California."

Throughout the debate Wednesday, most sides agreed the condo conversion issue is simply a symptom of a lack of affordable rentals and for-sale housing in Los Angeles. The median-priced home recently topped $600,000, rents continue to climb and just 3percent of apartments are vacant.

"We know in Los Angeles, the way to have more affordable housing is to create more housing, both in apartments and in home ownership, and we can't forget that," Greuel said.

But landlords and developers have argued that efforts to limit conversions or make it more expensive to develop condos slow the market and exacerbate the lack of affordable housing.

"You need to encourage the appropriate replacement of obsolete housing stock, and today's high-end apartments will be tomorrow's affordable housing," said Carl Lambert with the California Apartment Association.

However, tenant advocates, who have pushed for a moratorium on conversions, said the city will continue to lose the most affordable rentals while the market only creates luxury condos and apartments.

"Yes we need more housing to be produced, but unless we preserve existing affordable housing, we're spinning our wheels," said Larry Gross, executive director of the
Coalition for Economic Survival.

Rent control debated

In a separate action, the council asked for an ordinance to deal with what happens when rent-controlled units are taken off the market and demolished.

State law allows a landlord to go out of the rental business, but there is debate about what happens if the tenants are evicted, the building demolished, a new one constructed and the landlord rents the new units. Under the proposed ordinance, if the owner builds new apartments and rents them within five years, the new units would be covered by rent control.

Councilman Eric Garcetti proposed a second option for landlords. If they want to rent the new units within five years, they can designate 20 percent as permanently affordable and rent the rest at market rate.

The low-income units would be affordable for people making 80 percent of the median income, which is roughly $59,000 for a family of four.

The council will vote on that ordinance in 30 days.

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