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Los Angeles Wave

Thursday August 15, 2013

BOTTOM LINE - Fighting The Fight For Tenants' Rights

Coalition for Economic Survival launches largest tenant-organizing campaign ever.

By Betty Pleasant, Contributing Editor

The current uptick in the Southern California economy is wreaking havoc among low-income and elderly inhabitants of rental properties throughout the region, causing the Coalition for Economic Survival to launch its largest tenant-organizing campaign in its 40-year history.

CES' campaign to ensure tenants' rights to affordable, habitable, safe housing, free of landlord/management harassment, began in July and has already spread to neighborhoods in East Adams, West Adams, Pico Union, University Park, Koreatown and Studio City. And it all has to do with money: the landlords' refusal to spend money on keeping their rental properties in decent condition, their targeting of elderly long-time tenants for removal so their units can be rented at much higher rates to younger people, and their resurrection of that old bugaboo of converting apartments into condominiums and forcing tenants to either purchase their rentals or move out.

"A lot of this mistreatment of tenants is going on because the county is closing 21 of its 26 courthouses," said Larry Gross, executive director of CES. "That leaves only five courthouses throughout the whole county in which tenants can defend themselves and landlords know their tenants won't be able to make it to these far-flung places to fight their evictions."

Low-income tenants in rent-controlled and HUD-subsidized housing are especially vulnerable to the pressure to vacate being exerted by their landlords. "We have the largest number of at-risk HUD subsidized affordable housing in the country that's being threatened by landlords who are trying to get out of the program and terminate their HUD subsidy," Gross said.

Then there is the issue of longevity. Elderly tenants pay the lowest rents.

"They have a bullseye target on their backs and are given illegal eviction notices which, given the sparcity of tenants' courts, they are unable to fight," Gross said.

As an example, he related the situation in which a 73-year-old mother was being evicted from her apartment because of some kind of unpaid $23 bill. One of Gross' CES staffers interceded.

The owner of the woman's apartment building admitted he was using the "unpaid $23 bill" as a means to evict her so he could get more money for her apartment. After all, she had lived there for 40 years and was only paying $259 a month in rent. The landlord felt she was robbing him every month.

Gross said that when landlords are not concocting financial schemes to get the elderly out of their properties (such as the illegal attempt last year by Jones and Jones Management Co. to force tenants of their numerous buildings to pay their rent only online — knowing full well that elderly people can't do that), they try to "jackhammer" them out.

"They threaten them, harass them, and scare them," Gross said. "They'd do anything to jack up their rents, if you let them."

Just the other day tenants in South L.A.'s East Adams area had to organize and confront their management company about its on-site manager's harassment, intimidation and aggressive behavior toward the residents. He is a lot nicer now.

Back at the turn of the 21st century, the conversion of rented apartments into purchased condominiums — condos, for short — was all the rage in Los Angeles until the Great Recession hit around 2007-08. An apartment complex in Studio City is bringing them back and the owners of same are reportedly proposing that lease holders of 1,900-square-foot, two-bedroom apartments buy those apartments cum condos for a million dollars.

I vividly recall that during the era of condo madness, low- and middle-income renters had to organize and fight like crazy to retain their rentals rather than be forced out of them because they were being converted to condos, which they could not afford.

I am certain CES was in the forefront of those fights, since fighting is what CES does.

"We fight to attain victories; we fight to protect the victories we've won and we fight to expand those protections to meet new challenges to tenants that arise," Gross said. "I have a paid staff of less than 10 organizers, but CES has more than 5,000 members, so our strength is in our numbers."

It should be noted that CES was instrumental in forcing the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department to cease its pattern of harassment against Black and Latino Section 8 tenants in Lancaster and Palmdale. CES had been reporting, protesting and complaining about the Sheriff's Department's mistreatment of minorities in those Antelope Valley cities for years. And Gross even engaged Lancaster Mayor Rex Parris in a televised debate on the issue last year that seemed to have gotten everyone's attention — everyone including the U.S. Department of Justice, the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the NAACP.

But Gross and his gang of 5,000 cannot afford to rest on their laurels; they must behave like USC Trojans and "fight on" and organize and educate and demonstrate.

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