Issue Pits Landlords Against L.B. Tenants : Just-Cause Eviction Measure Would Limit Options for Ousting Aged, Handicapped

Times Staff Writer

So there it was. He was evicted after five years in the apartment. No explanation from the landlord. No debate. Just get out by the end of the month.

Being evicted can be a traumatic experience for the most steely of renters, but it posed an even more profound problem for Richard Rose.

Rose is blind.

For him, finding an apartment and moving a household of belongings after the 1983 eviction was an unsettling and tedious task.

"It's an extremely difficult process for the disabled or elderly," said Rose, 32. "Moving is traumatic."

That episode and similar tales of woe from the disabled and elderly have prompted a push for a city law that would prohibit landlords from booting such tenants without a justified cause.

Callous Toward Tenants

Backers of the proposed just-cause eviction ordinance, which will be considered by the City Council on Tuesday, say that restrictions are vitally needed to draw rein on landlords who are callous toward aged or physically handicapped tenants.

"It's certainly needed," said Dennis Rockway, senior counsel at the Legal Aid Foundation of Long Beach. "We're just asking that the most disadvantaged segments of our society, the elderly and the disabled, be given some minimal protection."

Many landlords, however, see it differently. Such measures, they say, would unfairly penalize them, restricting their property rights and sending a ballooning number of eviction cases to court. That would only hike the cost of owning apartments, ultimately driving up rents for all tenants, they say.

"The basic problems we have is that no one has demonstrated a need for it," said Carlos Galindo, executive vice president of Apartment Assn., California Southern Cities, which represents about 4,000 landlords in southern Los Angeles County. "There's no rampant abuse of the rights of renters, particularly the elderly or handicapped. The average apartment owner is not some ogre."

Moreover, such an ordinance for the elderly and disabled may only be a precursor to a push for more restrictive legislation such as an all-encompassing just-cause eviction ordinance or--worse yet--a citywide rent-control law, Galindo said.

"It's the foot in the door," Galindo said. "This is clearly just to lay the groundwork for rent control."

Defeated by 2 to 1 Margin

Indeed, many backers of the ordinance have supported past efforts to adopt rent control in Long Beach. Among the proponents is Long Beach Area Citizens Involved, a grass-roots group that pushed for rent control in 1979 when the issue was on the ballot as an advisory measure and defeated by a 2 to 1 margin.

Sid Solomon, president of the 580-member organization, acknowledged that LBACI still favors rent control, but he stressed that the group supports the proposed just-cause eviction ordinance based solely on its own merits.

"There are a large number of renters among our senior citizens and the handicapped," Solomon said. "We want to see what we can do for them."

The ordinance would allow landlords to evict elderly or disabled tenants only for a justifiable reason such as non-payment of rent, disturbing the peace of other tenants, destruction of property or violation of lease agreements.

A landlord could issue a standard 30-day eviction notice unless the tenant is forced out because the property is taken over for the landlord's personal use or is converted to a condominium. In those cases, the renter would get 90 days to find new quarters.

If a tenant challenges in court, the burden of proving a justified cause for the eviction would fall on the landlord. If the landlord loses,

tenants would be allowed to stay in the unit and collect monetary damages.

Efforts to Oust Tenants

Finally, the ordinance would prohibit the landlord from raising rents or other charges in an effort to oust an elderly or disabled tenant.

The campaign for the ordinance, Solomon said, springs from an effort in the state Legislature to adopt similar legislation. Solomon's group decided to begin a push in Long Beach only after a bill sponsored by Assemblyman Art Agnos (D-San Francisco) was narrowly defeated in the Assembly in January.

Just-cause eviction may meet a similar fate in Long Beach. The chief council backer, Councilman Wallace Edgerton, has expressed serious doubt about the ordinance's chances, saying he "will be lucky" to get a second when he moves for approval of the legislation on Tuesday.

"I realize this is not an issue that will be won at City Hall," Edgerton said. "I'm convinced that in time the council will support these views. Right now, though, we're not sensitized to this kind of thing."

Solomon agreed. "A lot of these council members have made up their minds on all renters issues," he said, adding that he feels the council will be swayed in part by pressure from "real estate interests."

If the ordinance is defeated, Solomon said his group hopes to reintroduce the legislation in July, when a new council is seated. In fact, the issue has become a litmus test for the group's support of several candidates in the April 8 city election.

'We'll Bring It Back'

"If we don't have enough votes this time, we'll bring it back in July and, hopefully, there will be some fresh faces on the council and it will pass," he said.

That would be none too soon for people like Rose.

With recent estimates of rental vacancies in the city hovering at about 2%, Rose noted that it is difficult for a sighted person to find a new apartment. But for the blind or other disabled and elderly persons, that chore is all the more difficult, he said.

After his eviction in 1983, Rose found an apartment with the help of a real estate agent. Unfortunately, the unit was in a rough part of town and had problems that only a sighted person could immediately detect--it was plagued by roaches, mice and other vermin and the walls were a poorly patched mess.

Within months, Rose opted to move again and began the tedious process of apartment hunting on his own. Each day, he hopped a bus to Cal State Long Beach. At the university library, he put the latest newspaper classified section on a video machine that enlarges print. Rose, who can see large objects out of one eye, then slowly read the apartment listings.

After numerous phone calls, Rose was able to cull a list of apartments that met his needs--close to public transportation, stores and an open field for his guide dog. Riding the bus, Rose checked about three units a day and eventually found a suitable apartment, where he has lived since.

Enough Room for Wheelchair

"Moving is hard for me because I have to relearn a whole neighborhood," Rose said. "People in wheelchairs really have it bad. Not only do they need an acceptable location, but they have to get a place that's big enough so they can maneuver their chair."

For the elderly, being uprooted by an eviction can be just as traumatic, Edgerton said.

"When you're 65 and living alone, that small apartment is your nest, that's your psychological security," Edgerton said. "You become afraid when you're forced out."

But even if passed, the just-cause eviction ordinance would not protect the elderly from rent gouging, unless the tenant could prove in court that a hefty rent increase was ostensibly an eviction.

Take, for instance, the case of Audrey Howell. The 82-year-old widow has lived in the same one-bedroom apartment near 10th Street and Grand Avenue for 17 years. Recently, her landlord told her the rent was being raised from $300 a month to $450. Howell talked the landlord into dropping it to $425, but she still wonders how she will pay for the increase and worries she will have to move.

Landlords, meanwhile, stress that such examples skirt a key issue--there are inadequate government housing subsidies for the elderly and disabled.

"It's a societal question," Galindo said. "If society deems housing for the disabled and elderly is a problem, then society as a whole has to solve the problem. Why pick on one segment of society, the landlords, and say they have to bear the brunt of the problem?"

But budget constraints in Washington make it increasingly unlikely that housing subsidies will capture a larger slice of the government tax pie any time soon. In the meantime, something else has to be done, tenant advocates like Rockway say.

"This is a basic issue of fairness and justice," Rockway said. "The leaders of any civilized country or city have a duty to protect the weak and sick."

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