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Apartment Rent Rises Investigated : Robbins Part-Owner of N. Hollywood Units Slated for Condo Conversion

Times Staff Writer

A North Hollywood apartment development, owned in part by state Sen. Alan Robbins (D-Van Nuys), is the focus of a challenge to a type of rent increase that an attorney for the owners says is common practice among city landlords.

Barbara Zeidman, director of the city’s Rent Stabilization Division, said her staff is investigating complaints by former tenants of the 204-unit Club California at 5633 Colfax Ave. that they were forced to move under the pretext that their units would be converted to condominiums. But instead, according to the complaints, the units were rented to new tenants at higher prices.

The city’s rent control law allows landlords to raise rents to any amount once a unit is voluntarily vacated. Besides, landlords can legally evict tenants, Zeidman said, if they make a “good faith” effort to “remove the unit permanently from rental housing,” as in converting apartments to condominiums.

Application Filed in ’79

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Club California submitted an application to the city in October, 1979 to convert its units to condominiums, city records show. But the building’s owners have yet to file the required papers to complete the conversion, Zeidman said.

If a landlord evicts a tenant and wants to rent a unit to a new tenant while waiting for approval of the conversion or for a buyer, he or she must charge the same rent as was charged the former tenant, Zeidman said.

“If that was true,” said Roger Howard, an attorney for Club California, “there must be 20,000 units in West Los Angeles that couldn’t be rented at higher amounts” because the condominium owners can’t sell the units. Howard said the building’s owners have done nothing illegal or unfair and that such practices occur throughout Los Angeles.

Robbins said that, although he owns a “substantial” interest in Club California, he relinquished all control of its operations to a property management firm a few years ago. The financial disclosure he filed under the law reveals only that his investment is more than the $100,000 floor for disclosures. Robbins said he was unaware of the city inquiry.

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“Whatever anybody’s beef is, it certainly isn’t with me,” he said.

Howard said that he and Zeidman disagree on which city law is applicable in the case. Zeidman is relying on the city’s rent control law. Howard said he is following another city law governing condominium conversions. He said that law allows owners of buildings being converted to condominiums to evict one group of tenants and rent to another group at higher prices pending sale of the units.

“It’s only logical,” Howard said. “If a guy spends a fortune to convert you’ve got to let him recover his costs.” He said Club California has spent about $500,000 on renovations in preparation for the conversion to condominiums.

Zeidman, however, said the city’s rent control law allows landlords to raise rents to recoup the costs of their improvements. But, she said, Club California has not applied for the rent adjustments, which require city approval.

Zeidman responded to Howard’s claims that Club California is doing nothing out of the ordinary by saying, “It may be happening in other places, but we caught you.”

Hard to Track Rents

She said it is often difficult to find out whether tenants are paying illegally high rents because they usually have no way of knowing what the previous tenant paid.

In Club California’s case, authorities learned about the rent increases when a former tenant complained last month to the county Department of Consumer Affairs. The complaint was referred to the city’s rent control office.

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David Aaron said in his complaint that he received a letter last April from Club California informing him that he would have to move because his unit was being converted to a condominium.

“Within the next few weeks, we will be starting the renovation of our complex that will be part of the conversion of Club California from apartments to condominiums,” said a copy of the letter attached to Aaron’s complaint.

“Our plan is to start all of the work on your building by June 1, 1985, and the purpose of this letter is to tell you, as nicely as possible, that you will have to vacate your unit by that date,” the letter says.

Aaron said in his complaint that he left the unit on May 1, 1985.

“On July 22, I went back to the building to check for mail that I had not received and discovered another name on the mailbox,” he said in his complaint. “Upon talking with the new tenant, I found out that he was renting the unit and had not bought it as a condo. In addition, the rent, which had been $615, was elevated to $775.

“Apparently the whole thing was a ruse to force out tenants in order to illegally increase the rents,” Aaron said in his complaint.

Zeidman said she expects to complete the investigation with a recommendation to the city attorney’s office later this month.

A violation of the city’s rent control law is a misdemeanor, punishable by a maximum $1,000 fine and six months in jail. Zeidman said the city frequently seeks also to force landlords to reimburse tenants in cases of illegal rent increases.

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