L.A.’s evic­tion game

Los Angeles Times - - OPINION - By Larry Gross Larry Gross is ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor of the Los An­ge­les-based Coali­tion For Eco­nomic Sur­vival, which ad­vo­cates for renters’ rights.

Prop­erty own­ers in Los An­ge­les evicted ten­ants from 725 units un­der the state El­lis Act in 2014, up from 308 the pre­vi­ous year. This, in a city where the rental mar­ket is among the tight­est and the most ex­pen­sive in the na­tion, and it’s get­ting worse.

Most ten­ants’ rights and af­ford­able-hous­ing ad­vo­cates be­lieve that the 1986 El­lis Act is one of the ma­jor ob­sta­cles to pre­serv­ing and se­cur­ing ad­e­quate af­ford­able hous­ing in L.A. The city can­not truly ad­dress its af­ford­able-hous­ing cri­sis with­out elim­i­nat­ing or sig­nif­i­cantly amend­ing the law, which al­lows land­lords to evict ten­ants from rent-con­trolled apart­ments if the own­ers raze their build­ings, con­vert them to con­do­mini­ums, change the use from res­i­den­tial rental prop­erty or let them sit va­cant for at least five years.

To land­lords and de­vel­op­ers, the El­lis Act has be­come the Holy Grail. But it has re­sulted in mas­sive ten­ant dis­place­ment and even home­less­ness.

Sam Fuller got his evic­tion no­tice three days be­fore Christ­mas. The 83-year-old ho­tel worker had lived at Hol­ly­wood’s Villa Car­lotta apart­ments for 40 years. Mark Simon, a re­tired book buyer who has lived at his Los Feliz apart­ment for 23 years, got his no­tice in Jan­uary. Free­lance ad­ver­tis­ing art direc­tor Steven Luft­man was served an evic­tion no­tice at his Bev­erly Grove home of 18 years in Fe­bru­ary.

Th­ese are just three re­cent ex­am­ples. Since 2001, prop­erty own­ers have taken nearly 19,000 rent­con­trolled units across the city off the mar­ket us­ing the El­lis Act, ac­cord­ing to the Los An­ge­les Hous­ing and Com­mu­nity In­vest­ment Depart­ment.

The goal of the hous­ing and in­vest­ment agency is to pro­mote, de­velop and pre­serve “de­cent, safe, af­ford­able hous­ing.” Yet it has been able to fi­nance the con­struc­tion of fewer than 10,000 af­ford­able units through bonds and the city’s Af­ford­able Hous­ing Trust Fund since 2001. It’s clear that build­ing our way out of the af­ford­able­hous­ing cri­sis is not a vi­able op­tion. We must place the same pri­or­ity on pre­serv­ing ex­ist­ing af­ford­able hous­ing that we do on pro­duc­ing new ones.

The El­lis Act was a re­sponse to a state Supreme Court rul­ing that re­jected a land­lord’s claim that prop­erty own­ers have a con­sti­tu­tional right to evict ten­ants and exit the rental hous­ing busi­ness. The El­lis Act en­sured land­lords that right.

Orig­i­nally seen as pro­tec­tion for small mom-and-pop land­lords who were un­able to main­tain their prop­erty, the El­lis Act is now fre­quently abused by spec­u­la­tors and de­vel­op­ers whose main pur­pose is to ac­quire prop­erty, evict the ten­ants, de­mol­ish the rent­con­trolled units and re­place them with high-priced luxury hous­ing.

The re­cent evic­tion of 17 house­holds at two prop­er­ties in the Bev­erly Grove and Fair­fax neigh­bor­hoods is one of the most egre­gious ex­am­ples of this prob­lem. The land­lord of the prop­er­ties is de­vel­oper Matthew Ja­cobs, who is also chair­man of the Cal­i­for­nia Hous­ing Fi­nance Agency. What many find out­ra­geous is that Ja­cobs heads the board of this state agency whose stated mission is to pro­vide fi­nanc­ing and pro­grams that “cre­ate safe, de­cent and af­ford­able-hous­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties for low to mod­er­ate in­come Cal­i­for­ni­ans.”

As is the case with Ja­cobs, nu­mer­ous analy­ses have found that most of the El­lis evic­tions come from land­lords who have owned the prop­erty for less than a year.

The Los An­ge­les Times re­ported in 2014 that, “of the Los An­ge­les prop­er­ties where own­ers filed to re­move rent-con­trolled units un­der El­lis in 2013, at least 51% had been pur­chased within the pre­vi­ous year, ac­cord­ing to an anal­y­sis of city data and prop­erty records tracked by real es­tate firm DataQuick.”

And though the El­lis Act has stripped lo­cal gov­ern­ments’ power to pro­hibit evic­tions, the statute clearly states that the Leg­is­la­ture’s in­tent was not to “in­ter­fere with lo­cal gov­ern­men­tal author­ity over land use, in­clud­ing reg­u­la­tions on the con­ver­sion of ex­ist­ing hous­ing to con­do­mini­ums … or the de­mo­li­tion and re­de­vel­op­ment of res­i­den­tial prop­erty.”

The mayor and City Coun­cil could en­act an or­di­nance that mon­i­tors ex­ist­ing af­ford­able hous­ing and sets an an­nual limit on the num­ber of de­mo­li­tions of rent­con­trolled units. The city could re­quire new con­struc­tion plans for rent-con­trolled prop­er­ties to be ap­proved be­fore de­mo­li­tion per­mits are is­sued.

The city could also ex­pand on AB 2222, the 2014 law that re­quires projects that get a “den­sity bonus” to re­place pre­ex­ist­ing af­ford­able units one-for-one. (Th­ese are projects in which a de­vel­oper agrees to build a cer­tain num­ber of low-cost hous­ing units in ex­change for the op­por­tu­nity to build more units than would oth­er­wise be al­lowed.) The city could en­act a reg­u­la­tion that ap­plies this con­cept to projects seek­ing zone changes, re­moval of rent­con­trolled units or that re­ceive gov­ern­ment sub­si­dies.

Ul­ti­mately, chang­ing the El­lis Act has to hap­pen at the state level and cover all cities, but it won’t be easy. State Sen. Mark Leno (DSan Fran­cisco) has tried over the last two years to modestly amend the El­lis Act. His bills would have re­quired new prop­erty own­ers to wait five years be­fore they could in­voke the El­lis Act, and they could only do it once. Th­ese rea­son­able re­forms would have ap­plied only to San Fran­cisco, and they still lost. And, while his 2015 bill, SB 364, could be re­con­sid­ered in Jan­uary, the prospects of it pass­ing ap­pear slim.

Our po­lit­i­cal lead­er­ship must de­velop some back­bone and take on the pow­er­ful real es­tate/land­lord lobby to stop the abuse of the El­lis Act. We are los­ing too much af­ford­able hous­ing, and too many ten­ants are los­ing their homes.

Los An­ge­les Times

SAM FULLER, 83, got an El­lis Act evic­tion no­tice at Christ­mas. The law adds to L.A.’s af­ford­able-hous­ing woes.

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