L.A. Tenants Also Face ‘Construction as Harassment’

Los Angeles has an image as a collection of sprawling suburbs, but it’s actually a city of tenants: It’s second only to New York City in the percentage of housing units that are apartments, and about 62 percent of its nearly 4 million residents rent their homes, according to City-Data.com. And as in New York (69 percent renters), the old-style slumlords who made more money by being too cheap to make repairs have largely been supplanted by landlords whose main desire is to raise rents as high as they can by any means necessary.   

“To say ‘slumlords’ isn’t right anymore,” Daniel Gomez, director of code enforcement at the city’s Housing and Community Investment Department, told the L.A. edition of Curbed. “Bad operators today are those that look only at the potential of the property, not the property itself.” He said most of the city’s landlords are good, but estimated that about 5 percent are “bad actors.”

That means rent-regulated tenants face harassment tactics strikingly similar to the ones used against them in New York. More than 600,000 apartments in Los Angeles, an estimated 80 percent of its multifamily buildings, are covered by the city’s 1978 Rent Stabilization Ordinance. But California law prohibits local governments from limiting increases on vacant apartments, so landlords can raise rent dramatically by forcing tenants out.

Longtime housing lawyer Elena Popp, executive director of the nonprofit Eviction Defense Network, told Curbed that tens of thousands of tenants citywide are being pushed out by “small continuous harassments” and exploiting legal loopholes. Construction as harassment is one tactic. 

“They’re trying to force people out. That’s why they make so much noise,” Don, a tenant who did not want to give his last name, told Curbed. “There’s a lot of new tenants, and they’re just running over the old tenants. The workers are almost provoking stuff to happen. A worker slammed a door in my face once, like he wanted to fight. They had a fire alarm that was beeping 24/7. I called in and said I’m gonna pull it out of the wall. They said if you do that, you have to pay for it.” Don’s landlord, Rodney Goldberg, has received 185 rent-violation complaints for one 64-unit building he owns near downtown.

A key legal loophole is the Ellis Act, a state law that lets owners evict rent-controlled tenants if they’re taking the building out of the rental market. A map released in May by the Coalition for Economic Survival and the San Francisco-based Anti-Eviction Mapping Project found that Los Angeles had lost more than 21,000 rent-controlled units to Ellis Act evictions from 2001 through 2016, with landlords and developers filing nearly 300 more eviction applications in the first three months of this year.

The map shows three main clusters of evictions. The largest includes downtown, the gentrifying neighborhoods of Echo Park and Silverlake, and Hollywood, stretching east to mostly Latino East Los Angeles and several miles south into the Afro-American neighborhoods along the Harbor Freeway. A second is on the city’s West Side, including Venice Beach and the more upscale area near the University of California at Los Angeles campus—where there were 227 evictions last November in one building at 947 S. Tiverton Ave. The third is in North Hollywood and the San Fernando Valley.

The city Board of Supervisors voted unanimously in April to require landlords who demolish rent-controlled apartments and build new rental units on the property within five years to include an equal or greater number of rent-controlled or affordable apartments.

Steven Taylor of Ness Properties, who Larry Gross of the tenants’ rights group Coalition for Economic Survival calls “the poster child for bad landlords in Los Angeles,” uses the Ellis Act, intimidation, and construction as harassment. In one building, Gross told Curbed, Ness Properties “illegally told people they had to move out in 90 days because they were converting the building into condominiums. There’s no way you can do that without proper noticing and moving fees. Then they started doing illegal repairs and construction without permits. They kept playing games like they were doing work on the garage, etc., little harassment-type things. They learned that that worked from experience, and now they’ve applied it to a number of their other buildings.”

Taylor’s building at 2041 Commonwealth Ave in Los Feliz, which he bought in 2015, has more complaints than any other building in the city, with 397 for rent violations and 27 for code violations.

The Ellis Act is widely abused. Last June, the L.A. city attorney’s office filed misdemeanor charges against Carol J. Alsman, alleging that after she used the law to evict tenants from a four-unit building in the Fairfax neighborhood, she rented the vacant apartments on Airbnb for more than $550 a night. The L.A. Tenants Union says that Michael Cohanzad, whose company Wiseman has evicted at least 237 rent-controlled tenants under the law, “is known for abuse of Ellis Act re rentals via Airbnb, harassment of tenants through systematic removal of services, entering units without permission, and leaving empty units open and unlocked. He also has filed SLAPP lawsuits on tenants.” 

 But while the city has developed procedure to deal with owners who don’t keep their buildings habitable, it has had a much harder time fighting the new breed of noxious landlords. “There is no administrative enforcement mechanism for illegal evictions,” Elena Popp told Curbed. “They can send a letter asking the landlord to retract the notice and, theoretically, if the landlord doesn’t comply they can go to the city attorney’s office to prosecute the case. But in 35 years, I have never seen that happen. So the tenant has to go find a lawyer in L.A. Superior Court.”

“If I drive with a broken taillight, a cop is going to stop me,” L.A. Tenants Union spokesperson Leonardo Vilchis said. “Not so of slums. Landlords are going after the weakest victims, yet they’re the least protected.”