By Michael Gougis
Saturday, March 1, 2003
Weak enforcement of eviction protections and loopholes in Los Angeles rent control law have led to a surge in abuses by landlords and a nearly 50 percent increase in the cost of apartmental rentals since 1995, according to tenant advocates and city officials.
While rent control became a major issue in the recent San Fernando Valley secession debate, gaps in the existing laws designed to protect the interests of apartment dwellers have been exposed as landlords cash in on soaring property values, they said.
Los Angeles adopted rent control in 1979 but it only applies to the 550,000 rental units in 68,000 buildings that existed then. Rent increases in these older units are limited to a maximum of 3 percent per year for existing tenants, but landlords can charge new tenants whatever the market will bear.
Tenant advocates said some of the surge in rents is due to increasing abuse of the law by landlords who are evicting and finding other ways to drive out tenants so they can get market rates for units.
"More and more, evictions are being aimed at the long-term, low-income tenants who receive the greatest benefit from rent stabilization," said Larry Gross, executive director for the Coalition for Economic Survival, a tenants rights organization.
"These tenants, essentially, have a bull's-eye target on their backs."
Until last summer, landlords also were allowed to raise rents in rent-controlled apartments to market rates after making more than $10,000 in improvements in a unit. And in the roughly 253,000 units not covered by rent control -- typically newer, more modern units at the high end of the rental market -- there are no restrictions on what landlords can charge.
Including the rent increases allowed under the law, rent increases after evictions and tenant turnovers, and increases in the non-restricted units, the average apartment rent in Los Angeles increased 47 percent from 1995 to 2002, according to RealFacts, a Novato-based real estate data service, while the inflation rate was just under 20 percent.
The average apartment rented for $865 a month in 1995. If it was rent-controlled and the tenant didn't move, the maximum that unit could rent for at the end of 2002 was $1,063. But the average unit was renting for $1,274 at the end of 2002, RealFacts reported.
The City Council's Housing and Community Development Committee last week approved a plan designed to crack down on landlords using onerous and invasive new leases to try to drive tenants out of rent-controlled units.
With some rent-controlled units going for less than half of what other apartments in the same building rent for, the economic rewards for evicting long-term tenants are higher than they've ever been -- in some cases, hundreds of dollars a month per unit.
"This may be a radical concept, but apartment owners are in business to make money," said Dennis P. Block, an attorney who has made a career from evictions.
In the last quarter-century, Block has done more than 100,000 evictions, and he calls forcing landlords to rent for less-than-market rates "housing theft."
According to Los Angeles housing officials, evictions and attempted evictions from rent controlled units for "owner occupancy" -- the landlord or a relative needs the apartment -- and trivial violations of new, restrictive leases have jumped in the past several months across the city and in the Valley.
"We are seeing more of those types of cases," said Ruth Zacarias, staff attorney with Neighborhood Legal Services of Los Angeles County, headquartered in Pacoima.
Two potentially illegal eviction types have come to the city's attention after Los Angeles Superior Court cases ended in victories for tenants in disputes with landlords.
Under an "owner occupancy" eviction, a landlord claims to need to evict a long-term tenant, usually one paying far less than other renters in the building, because the landlord's mother, father or child needs the unit.
Since last summer, when the city halted rent increases for major renovations, applications for "owner occupancy" evictions had jumped nearly 22 percent, said James Hildebrandt, assistant director for rent stabilization with the Los Angeles Housing Department.
Superior Court Commissioner William Dodson -- who oversees one of the busiest downtown courtrooms, evictions court -- has ruled against the landlord in some of these cases. In one, Dodson ruled that a "trust" doesn't have children or parents and therefore can't evict a tenant to make room for a relative.
"There is an alarming number of owner occupancy evictions," said T. Matthew Phillips, the attorney who represented the tenant in that case. "And the tenants almost always give in. They get this notice on their door with a document with the city's seal on it, and they figure if it's illegal, the city would have prevented it."
Phillips is fighting another case in which he's accusing a Sherman Oaks-based landlord of bad faith in trying to evict a tenant from a Silver Lake apartment. The landlord tried to evict the tenant once, but dropped the eviction when the tenant complained to the city.
Two months later, the landlord served the tenant with another eviction notice, claiming that her daughter needed to move from a 2,700-square-foot, $800,000 home in the Bel-Air area to the 700-square-foot apartment in Silver Lake.
Housing officials are asking for more money in the next city budget to pay for more investigators, but that won't prevent all bad-faith evictions, Hildebrandt said.
"The only way to know it is after the fact," he said.
There are at least 70 "lease term violation" eviction cases before the courts now.
In these, tenants have complained that their landlords have unilaterally imposed new leases on them, with extensive, restrictive and sometimes illegal demands. Then, when the tenant refuses to comply, they get hit with an eviction lawsuit.
Some of the terms included in the new leases, according to city officials, prohibit washing your car or changing your oil in your own parking space, hanging signs in your window without written permission, flushing your toilet too frequently or owning a pet fish without written permission from the manager.
"When we hear that (rental) contracts are being amended to prevent renters from changing curtains or limiting the number of times they can flush a toilet, well, we find that a little bit problematic," said Councilwoman Wendy Greuel, co-author of the proposal that cleared the Housing Committee last week.
The new lease terms also require tenants who have lived in units for years to provide personal and financial information including copies of their Social Security numbers, pet licenses, car registrations, auto insurance, bank account numbers and driver's license numbers.
Attorney Peter Ramirez with the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles argued in court that a landlord can't do anything legal with the personal information. The only two legitimate uses for Social Security numbers and driver's license numbers, he argued in a recent court case, are for criminal background and credit checks -- and even if the tenant was a paroled murderer with lousy credit, neither gave a landlord legal grounds to evict.
Ramirez won his case, with Dodson throwing out the eviction of Ramirez' client. The judge said the new lease was nothing more than an excuse to boot a tenant out of a rent-controlled apartment.
"The new rules and the information request were unduly invasive of (the renter's) right to privacy," Dodson ruled. "The sweeping inquisition ... goes far beyond reasonable. They appear to be nothing more than the erection of a hurdle for the tenant which was so high that it was very unlikely that the tenant could leap over it.
"The true purpose of the new rules was to create a purported new breach in a new lease," Dodson concluded.
"That is pure garbage," said attorney Block, who wrote the lease in question -- a standardized form he calls "The Landlord Solution."
"A landlord has a right to know who is living in his unit, for economic and security reasons," Block said. "A landlord can impose reasonable rules for the benefit of all tenants. How much more legislation is necessary to tie the hands of a landlord?"
The most sweeping proposal has come from Councilman Eric Garcetti. His proposal, now under review by the City Attorney's Office, would allow a tenant living in a rent-controlled apartment to challenge any attempt to evict them if they believed the landlord simply wanted to hike the rent higher than the law allowed.
"We have slumlords who try to use technicalities to get rid of their tenants simply so they can jack up the prices to market rate," Garcetti said. "They're just excuses to evict."