The Los Angeles city attorney has forced the Southern California Gas Co. to back down from a plan the utility quietly put in place this week to stop offering rental houses to Porter Ranch families dislocated by the nearby gas leak.
The company instructed its relocation specialists on Tuesday to no longer place residents in rental houses because they are increasingly hard to find and expensive for short-term lease. The utility, noting that it expects to plug the leak in four to five weeks, told agents to put families in hotels and motels instead.
The utility reversed its decision after City Atty. Mike Feuer threatened legal action under a court order his office won last month establishing rules governing the relocations.
"It would be totally unacceptable for SoCal Gas to harm residents further by rolling back its relocation policy," said Feuer, who learned of the gas company's action from The Times. "My office spoke to SoCal Gas on Wednesday, putting it on notice that such a change would violate the court's order."
On Thursday, Stephanie Donovan, a spokeswoman for the company, said it had asked its relocation agents to "focus attention on short-term accommodations such as hotel rooms to quickly accommodate the greatest number of residents given the difficulty of finding homes available for short-term rentals."
"The city attorney did not agree with our approach and we agreed to continue to look for houses for residents who request those accommodations," Donovan said.
But some effects had already been felt. On Tuesday and Wednesday, some residents seeking relocation were told houses were no longer available. Some landlords saw the utility cancel plans to lease their residential units.
"What a pickle — for SoCal Gas, landlords, relocation agencies and residents desperate to leave town until the broken well is fixed," said Danielle Rabadi, 29, a real estate agent who is helping a rental business finalize short-term lease agreements on temporary homes for three Porter Ranch families.
Porter Ranch resident Joey Haim, 45, who was expecting the company to rent a house so his family of four could move from temporary boarding in a small, noisy Encino apartment, is not sure what to think.
"SoCal Gas knew we were looking for a house with help from one of its relocation agencies," he said. "But on Tuesday, they told my wife that we were in a safe zone and that they weren't moving people anymore."
Thousands of households have applied for relocation since the leak was reported Oct. 23 and residents began experiencing ailments including nose and throat irritation, coughing, shortness of breath, nausea, headache, dizziness and nosebleeds.
So far, the gas company has relocated 3,112 households to temporary homes and hotels outside of Porter Ranch, a community of 30,000 whose northeast border is about a mile from the leaking Aliso Canyon well. Another 2,571 households are awaiting relocation, the company said.
Most hotel and motel rooms and rental homes in the region were snapped up soon after the company launched its relocation effort in November. The resulting shortage pushed monthly rates as high as $15,000 as landlords sought compensation for short-term rental of properties they usually lease for a year or longer.
The court order negotiated last month by the city attorney and Southern California Gas Co. requires the utility to respond to relocation requests within 48 hours and to find temporary housing within 72 hours of initial contact. Delays beyond the deadline are common, however, because families object to the proposed temporary housing for a variety of reasons.
Disputes over the type or location of housing can be appealed to mediators and even taken to court if necessary.
Since the mediation program went into effect on Dec. 24, 65 people have requested mediation, and 10 cases have been resolved, said Rob Wilcox, a spokesman for the city attorney. Forty-one of those requests were submitted within the last week.
On Thursday, Travis Research Associates Inc., a marketing research firm retained by the gas company, confirmed that it was conducting focus groups of Porter Ranch residents who have been relocated. The questions included asking about their relocation experiences.
The firm declined to say how much the utility was offering residents to participate. However, a recorded telephone message indicated that the company was offering $150 as compensation for their time.
Separately, Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders on Thursday issued a statement on the gas leak, calling it "yet another example of the urgent national need to transition away from fossil fuels and toward energy efficiency and sustainable, renewable sources of power."
"It is simply unacceptable that a gas leak which began last October is still poisoning the air and that the company continues to profit from the storage facility," the statement said.
MORE ON PORTER RANCH