Worried that their new landlord was trying to turn their Venice apartment building into a kind of illegal hotel, Phyllis Murphy and her neighbors wrote a letter to city officials.
The residents complained that some of the units were being rented out to tourists for short stays, bringing a revolving door of strangers into the complex on a tranquil stretch of Third Avenue. Murphy said her landlord once asked her, not-so-subtly, what it would take to get her out of the building.
The landlord denies saying that. He also said that a tenant, not he, was responsible for the rentals. But the city housing department nonetheless ordered him to make sure they came to a halt.
So it was a shock when Murphy — a plucky 67-year-old with reddish hair and an easy laugh — abruptly found herself facing eviction.
City inspectors said they spotted the rentals that bothered Murphy. But they also concluded that only four of the eight units in the building had been legally permitted, according to city documents.
Elena Popp, executive director of the Eviction Defense Network, a nonprofit law firm that assists tenants, says it is a scenario she has seen before in a city rife with illegal housing: A renter has a complaint. She goes to the city for help. But when city inspectors come calling, they find that the apartment itself is illegal. And that ultimately means tenants can be booted out.
More than 1,700 such "bootlegged" apartments have been shut down in the wake of city inspections since 2010, according to the housing department. Many are discovered through routine inspections of rental housing, but they can also be detected when city inspectors react to complaints about an apartment being used for an illegal purpose, like the one that Murphy and her neighbors lodged with the city.
In a bid to save some of those units, Councilman Felipe Fuentes has proposed an amnesty for illegal units that meet safety standards, one that would relax other city requirements that often block legalization in exchange for creating affordable housing. That idea has united both tenant and landlord groups, but the proposal still must be vetted by city lawmakers.
In the meantime, city officials say landlords can either try to legalize bootlegged units or simply shutter them and evict tenants.
Murphy said she first realized what was happening when paperwork from the city housing department arrived in the mail, offering her help with her upcoming move.
"The housing department is supposed to be maintaining affordable housing," Murphy said one Sunday afternoon at her apartment, just a few days before her scheduled eviction date. "And instead, they're making four less apartments here — and they're allowing Airbnb."
Murphy has been living in her apartment for a quarter of a century, on a serene street where beachgoers stroll past in flip-flops and sarongs. When she moved to Los Angeles from the West Village in New York City, a friend told her the only place she could possibly live was Venice. She instantly loved its eclectic vibe.
Here, Murphy has penned scripts for crime dramas and a Nickelodeon comedy and co-wrote an episode of "L.A. Law" called "Whose San Andreas Fault Is It, Anyway?" Thanks to rent control, her monthly payments came to $1,280 for a one-bedroom apartment, well under the market rate for a trendy stretch of the coast now speckled with tech startups.
Ten years ago, Windy Buhler moved into one of the smaller units upstairs and the two soon became friends.
Buhler, a freelance writer and producer, would cat sit for Murphy. Murphy — nicknamed 'Murph' — made her chicken soup when she was sick. Buhler said she felt so at ease in her apartment that sometimes she would leave her main door open so the sea breezes could reach her through the screen. Then Buhler said the short-term rentals began and tourists started rapping on her door at night, trying to find their rooms.
Before the tenants asked the city for help, inspectors had never spotted any problem with extra units in their apartment building.
Housing officials say that the building had been inspected before, but they don't check a building's original paperwork during those routine inspections unless something makes them suspicious. After the residents raised concerns about illegal rentals, the department took a look at its files. City inspectors say four apartments at the Venice building were converted into eight by walling off bedrooms.
At a city hearing in October, attorney Harold Greenberg, who represents building owner Richard Ringer, contested the idea that the units were illegal. He pointed to an old document from the county assessor to argue that the Venice building had eight units as early as 1956. Greenberg said Ringer had sought to evict tenants to comply with the city order, but nonetheless wanted to legitimize all the apartments.
"We're not talking about a slum. We're not talking about anything that looks bad," Greenberg said.
In reaction, attorney Amanda Seward — who represents Murphy and Buhler — countered that the landlord should have made that argument before the tenants were told to clear out.
Buhler, who lived in one of the smaller units that city inspectors believe were once carved off from the legal ones, moved out at the end of September. In the days before she left, she often grew teary, overwhelmed by the stresses of relocating after a decade. Under city rules, she had been granted $10,300 in relocation aid — paid for by the owner — but the cost of a new, temporary place to stay, plus storage for her belongings, was $500 a month more than what she had been paying in rent.
Murphy decided to stay and fight. Her unit was not one of the ones that were specifically deemed illegal by the city. Seward, her attorney, eventually persuaded the housing department to rescind its approval for two of the evictions, including the one facing Murphy. But by then, Seward and Murphy said, the other tenants whose eviction had been rescinded had already moved out.
In November, the housing department also rejected the argument by the landlord that all of the units in the building were legal, referring the matter on to the city attorney for possible prosecution.
Housing department code enforcement director Jeff Paxton also said that last year housing officials found that the building owner was "not in compliance" with their order to stop night-to-night rentals.
But so far, those inspectors haven't gotten enough proof for the city attorney to pursue a case, he said. Greenberg, the attorney representing Ringer, said a former tenant leasing multiple units was to blame for those illegal rentals and that they had since stopped.
Now Murphy is the only tenant remaining at the apartment building. She was grateful that her attorney had helped her stay in her beloved bit of Venice, but frustrated that her call to the city had ended up putting her through a legal odyssey and "an emotional roller coaster." Seward said it was "shocking" that the city hadn't cracked down on night-to-night rentals, yet insisted on enforcing the rules on illegal yet habitable units.
"It's a cautionary tale," Seward said. "Now when people call me and ask, 'Should I report this to the city?' I hesitate. I have to wonder how much help they're going to get."