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Los Angeles Times

Wednesday March 07, 2012

L.A. Tenants Battle Landlord's Online-Only Rent Payment Rule
Elderly renters in the Woodlake Manor Apartment building in South L.A. sue landlord Jones & Jones, alleging that its requirement could leave them vulnerable to eviction.

By Alejandro Lazo, Los Angeles Times
"I am 86 years old and I am computer illiterate," said Margaret Beavers, a resident in the apartments since 1963 and a plaintiff in the suit (Al Seib, Los Angeles Times / March 6, 2012)

Tenants and a state senator are battling a requirement by a Los Angeles landlord that residents pay their rent online, alleging that a "green" initiative introduced by the company is actually a pretense to evict low-income, elderly renters benefiting from rent-stabilization provisions.

Elderly renters living in the Woodlake Manor Apartment building in South Los Angeles have sued their landlord, Jones & Jones Management Group Inc., alleging that their digital shortcomings could leave them vulnerable to eviction under the Woodland Hills company's new requirement that they make all their payments online.

The dispute has caught the attention of state Sen. Ted Lieu (D-Torrance), who last month introduced a bill that would ban the practice of online-only rent payments in California. That legislation is pending.

Jones & Jones issued a statement Tuesday through an attorney saying it regretted that the online payments were being "negatively received." Los Angeles attorney Ellen Wolf said claims by the residents that the company would seek to evict them for not paying online were "outlandish" and "completely unfounded."

Earlier Tuesday, residents carrying colorful signs in English and Spanish that read "Justice for Tenants" held a news conference with their attorney in front of Woodlake Manor, announcing the lawsuit filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court on Monday.

Forcing residents to pay rent online was an unfair and illegal practice, residents said, because many of them don't operate or own computers or other digital devices, and because they are concerned about using public computers — as suggested by Jones & Jones, which allegedly provided the tenants with lists of nearby Internet cafes. The company would accept residents' rent checks only after they signed an agreement exempting them from the rule, residents told news reporters.

"I am 86 years old and I am computer illiterate," said Margaret Beavers, a resident in the apartments since 1963 and a plaintiff in the suit against the landlord. "I'd have to buy a computer and learn how to use it; at 86 I want to travel and do other things."

Dedon Kamathi, a 12-year resident of Woodlake Manor and an organizer with the Woodlake Manor Tenants Assn., said the move by Jones & Jones was as an attempt to exploit a "digital divide" between the lower-income, largely African American long-term residents in the building and the higher-income renters that the company is actively courting.

The new rule requiring online payments was aimed at getting these residents — many of whom benefit from the city's rent-control policies — out of the building so that the management company could offer the units at market rate, he said.

"They want more USC types — USC students, middle-class tenants," Kamathi said. "The bottom line is the more turnaround, the more you can make money."

The company in its statement denied that the refusal by residents to pay online would be used as grounds for eviction proceedings and said the purpose of the policy was to save paper. The company expressed confidence that the situation would get "worked out."

"The objective was to 'go green' and make it easier for residents to pay rents by having an online method," the company said in its statement. "Indeed, the majority of their residents are not unhappy using the online process."

Larry Gross, executive director of the tenants rights group Coalition for Economic Survival, which helped organize the Woodlake Manor tenants, said he was concerned that more Jones & Jones buildings are subject to the online-only rent payment rule. Jones & Jones owns and operates 38 buildings with more than 2,900 units throughout Los Angeles and Ventura counties, according to the company's website.

The company did not accept the payments of residents until Gross' group organized a demonstration in which residents presented their checks en masse to the rental office, he said. The waivers that residents signed could be revoked at any time, Gross said.

The lawsuit, filed on behalf of four residents of Woodlake Manor all over 62, alleges that the new rule was a violation of the city's Rent Stabilization Ordinance because it unilaterally changed the terms of rental agreements. The tenants were represented by Bet Tzedek Legal Services.

Sen. Lieu said he shared the tenants' concerns that mandating online payments could be used as a way to find renters in violation of their contracts.

"Not everyone has a computer nor do they have Internet access, and even if they have that there are certain people who don't want to pay online for privacy reasons," he said. But "state law was silent on this issue."

Dennis P. Block, an attorney who represents landlords and specializes in evictions, said he believed that the online payment requirement was legal under the Los Angeles ordinance, given that a landlord could not use the change in a tenant's contract to evict that person.

Block added that the state has no business banning the use of online-only rent payment requirements.

"The state is considering making a bill which would deny the landlord the right to require payments online. However, the same state requires me to pay my estimated taxes online or I get fined," Block said. "I don't see the consistency."

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