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The Berkeley Daily Planet

Friday March 30, 2012

SENIOR POWER: Getting Online

By Helen Rippier Wheeler

How many senior citizens does it take to fight their landlord in a light bulb?

A group of tenants is fighting their landlord’s online-only rent payment rule. Elderly renters in south Los Angeles’ Woodlake Manor apartment building are suing landlord Jones & Jones. They allege that its requirement could leave them vulnerable to eviction under the Woodland Hills company’s new requirement that they make all their payments online and that a "green" initiative introduced by the company is actually a pretense to evict low-income, elderly renters benefiting from rent-stabilization provisions.

(Alejandro Lazo in March 7, 2012 Los Angeles Times.)

State Senator Ted Lieu (D-Torrance) has introduced a bill that would ban the practice of online-only rent payments in California. He shares 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.

How many senior citizens of your acquaintance have computers or even access to a PC? How many are able to walk to the nearest public library, senior center, or internet café?


Jones & Jones Management Group, Inc. describes itself as "Family-owned and operated since 1971… Our professional on-site management will meet your needs in a friendly and efficient manner. … Woodlake Manor Apartments is ideally located within minutes of the 10 freeway, Crenshaw Plaza Shopping Center/Wal-Mart, restaurants, entertainment, and schools.” But not, apparently, within minutes of public libraries and senior centers. Public library branches located in the Woodland Hills area provide free computer access, but they are not “within minutes.”

Woodlake Manor residents told reporters that the company would accept their rent checks only after they signed an agreement exempting them from the rule. The company did not accept the payments of residents until a group organized a demonstration in which residents presented their checks en masse to the rental office. Even so, waivers that residents signed might be revoked at any time.

"I am 86 years old and I am computer illiterate," said Margaret Beavers, a Woodlake Manor resident since 1963 and a plaintiff in the suit against the landlord. "I'd have to buy a computer and learn how to use it… ." Dedon Kamathi, a 12-year resident and an organizer with the Woodlake Manor Tenants Association, said the move by Jones & Jones was “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… They want more USC types — USC students, middle-class tenants… The bottom line is the more turnaround, the more you can make money."

I know from experience the verity of this contention. While I was a tenant in a rent-controlled, Berkeley south campus apartment, I learned that there is little or nothing one person can do or expect of local government when new management decides to dump rent-paying old-timers.

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 may be subject to the online-only rent payment rule. Jones & Jones owns and operates 38 buildings with 2,900+ units throughout Los Angeles and Ventura counties.

The lawsuit, filed on behalf of four residents of Woodlake Manor, all over age 62, alleges that the new rule violates the city's Rent Stabilization Ordinance because it unilaterally changed the terms of rental agreements. Tenants were represented by Bet Tzedek Legal Services, founded in 1974 by a small group of lawyers, rabbis, and community activists who sought to act upon a central tenet of Jewish law and tradition, doctrine establishing an obligation to advocate the just causes of the poor and helpless.

Jones & Jones has issued a statement through an attorney regretting that the online payments were being "negatively received." The old blaming-the-victim ploy.

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