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Los Feliz Ledger

Thursday August 27, 2015

Locals Pledge to Fight Rumored Condo Conversion

By Erin Hickey, Ledger Contributing Writer

This jacuzzi at the Cove apartments was torn up in July by workers who have not returned. Photo: J.P. Lavin.

LOS FELIZ—Amid reports of Los Angeles rents at all-time highs, residents of the Cove apartment complex, a three-story, 43-unit, rent controlled property on Commonwealth Avenue, fear they may soon have to seek other housing.

Residents said a misleading notice was posted on their doors, warning them of a condo conversion set to begin in 90 days, despite the Ellis Act's mandated 120 day minimum relocation period.

Many tenants, some who have lived in the neighborhood for more than twenty years, said rising rental costs would force them to leave Los Feliz if the conversion went through.

The building, which was purchased by the downtown Los Angeles-based real estate investment firm Robhana Group in May and is being managed by Ness Property Management, was built in the 1940s. Current rents range from $1,000 to $1,900 for a one bedroom.

Some residents, who have formed a 30-member tenants' association since Ness took over the property, fear the new owners will use the Ellis Act—a 1985 California law, which was created to allow for owners of rent stabilized properties to evict tenants if they want to retire from the rental business—to convert their apartments into condos.

But according to Larry Gross of the Coalition for Economic Survival (CES), a non-profit organization that advocates for low-income and working class Angelinos, the Ellis Act is often misused. The landlords who initiate the most evictions are those who have owned their property for less than a year, said Gross. Although the Ellis Act includes a requirement that buildings be vacant for at least five years before they are put back on the rental market, there is no waiting period if the units are sold as condos.

"Quite frankly, we can't afford to lose any more affordable housing," said Gross, who hosts a biweekly, donation-based tenants' rights clinic through CES.

J.P. Lavin, a tenant in the building, said the Cove's residents began to worry August 3rd, when notices were taped to their front doors that read: "The Cove will be undergoing a condo conversion within the next 90 days…we will be vacating/relocating the entire building."

But according to a senior executive at Ness, who declined to be named, despite the notice's claim that a condo conversion is in the works, a final decision has not yet been made and no permits have been filed with the city.

"The manager put out a notice that we didn't approve and got ahead of it," the Ness senior executive said. "We had an architect go out [to look at the building] and the rumor mill began."

The notices, which were printed on plain white paper and had no letterhead or company information, encouraged residents to text the Cove's on-site property manager, Jamie Jantzen, to negotiate a relocation fee in advance of being evicted.

Calls to Jantzen were not returned on deadline.

But the notices, which Jantzen told one tenant, were just to "feel it out" and see if anyone was interested in a buyout, confused some residents.

"At first I thought it was an eviction notice," said Yuko Tomonaga, who has lived in the building for eight years.

But a small handful of tenants said they were approached by Ness before the notices went up and given tenancy termination agreements—also printed on plain paper with no letterhead—to "think about."

According to the document, by accepting a buyout and signing, a tenant would lose their rights under the Ellis Act, including the right to a six to 12 month relocation period, and a $7,700 to $19,300 relocation fee.

Diane Coleman, a senior citizen who has lived in her one-bedroom unit for 21 years, said a Ness representative offered her a $25,000 dollar buyout, but when she requested a written offer on official letterhead, she did not receive one.

Coleman, who has Native American heritage, said she initially entertained the idea of taking the money and leaving, but changed her mind when she began to draw parallels between her situation and her ancestors, who were forced out of their homes when European settlers came to America.

"Even if they offered me twice that, I'm going to stay," said Coleman. "I'm going to fight this through and not let them remove me from my home."

Moe Allag, 70, has lived in the building for 22 years. He is on a fixed Social Security income of $1,400 a month, and pays $1,100 a month in rent.

"Even if [Ness] satisfies me money-wise, where am I going to find the same deal? I looked at a studio with no dishwasher, no laundry, no parking, for $1,500," he said.

Though Allag, who is on dialysis and has a heart stint and poor vision, has tried to find part time work to supplement his income, he said his health problems make it difficult.

Meanwhile, some tenants said the new management team has been slow to make needed repairs at the property, perhaps, they said, in an attempt to incentivize tenants to leave on their own.

Residents said their requests for the repair of such things as a broken garage door remote, broken washing and drying machines, mailboxes that don't lock or close and a non-working Jacuzzi that workers tore up with jackhammers over a month ago have been ignored. Tenants, Coleman said, are still being charged a small fee monthly for the Jacuzzi even though it is unusable.

Several residents also mentioned a broken intercom system, which they say management waited for over a month to repair, in some cases preventing packages from being delivered.

"One delivery of my dialysis supplies was returned to sender," said Allag. "I had to call the shipper to resend the package then pick it up downtown."

Emma Sutton Miller, who said she moved to the Cove to be closer to her ailing father, put in a repair request for her broken air conditioning unit.

She said Ness refused to fix the unit and offered her $4,000 to move out instead, but that they relented and made the repair when she threatened to file a complaint with the city. She said she also asked that a leak in her ceiling be fixed, after rain in June seeped through and caused her carpet to become wet and moldy.

Although Ness had her carpet cleaned in July—a month after she submitted a written request with her rent check on June 1st—they did not repair the leak.

"If we get another heavy rain, we're going to have the same problem," she said.

According to Miller, that was not the only unfulfilled maintenance request she has made since Ness began managing the building.

"The sauna doesn't work, landscaping hasn't been touched, there have been sparking power lines and massive trash issues…. Yesterday there were dirty needles outside the building."

Ellis Act evictions have been a source of controversy lately. Multiple recent conversions led Congresswomen Maxine Waters and Karen Bass to write a letter to Senate President pro Tempore Kevin de Léon and Speaker of the California Assembly Toni Atkins, urging them to sponsor legislation that would put an end to Ellis Act conversions.

"We don't need more luxury condominiums; we need more affordable rental housing units," the letter read.

CES's Gross said he has seen Ellis conversions stopped in the past by tenants who know their rights and stick together. According to Gross, that Los Feliz is below a 5% vacancy rate for rental units makes the conversion easier to fight, per an Ellis Act provision.

"The tenants are very united and determined to fight back," said Gross, following a meeting with the Cove's tenants' association.

Gross also said he spoke with Los Angeles City Councilmember David Ryu's chief of staff, Sarah Dusseault, who expressed concern and agreed to help ensure tenants' rights were protected.

Ryu's office confirmed that Field Deputy Catherine Landers has been assigned to monitor the situation.

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