The Los Angeles City Council gave tentative approval Wednesday to a new eviction tool for landlords that it said would benefit tenants as well--a law that seeks to rid apartment buildings of drug dealers.
Living conditions would improve, Councilwoman Ruth Galanter explained, "for the tenant next door and the tenants down the hall."
The ordinance expands the city's now vaguely worded "nuisance eviction" ordinance to include "any documented activity commonly associated with illegal drug dealing." The council also recommended that the police establish a formal procedure for landlords to have easier access to public documents including police reports, arrest and conviction records, thus helping them build cases against suspect tenants.
Landlords already have the right to evict tenants convicted of illegal activities, said Barbara Zeidman, the city's rent stabilization director. The new ordinance, she said, is intended to broaden landlord powers to allow eviction of tenants suspected of drug dealing on the grounds that they are creating a nuisance. Conviction of a crime would not be necessary.
The nuisance law is so vaguely worded now that "a nuisance may mean everything from flushing baby diapers down the toilet to dealing coke at your front door," Zeidman said.
Under the proposed ordinance, the additional definition for nuisance "includes, but is not limited to, any documented activity commonly associated with illegal drug dealing such as complaints of noise, steady traffic day and night to a particular unit, barricaded units or sighting of weapons."
The ordinance requires a second vote next week and the signature of the mayor before it becomes law.
An attorney for the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles voiced fears that the ordinance could be abused by landlords. "We feel evictions should be based on convictions, not just suspicion," said Mary Lou Villar of the Legal Aid Foundation.
Det. Bill Margolis of the Police Department's administrative vice unit said many landlords facing orders to curb illegal activities on their property complain frequently of the difficulty in evicting suspected drug dealers. "The main problem found in dealing with landlords is their frustration in evicting drug dealers in a timely fashion," Margolis said.
In another tenant matter, the council gave final approval to an ordinance allowing tenants to reduce rent payments when landlords have allowed buildings to deteriorate to the legal definition of "untenantable" due to repeated building and health code violations.
Zeidman portrayed the law as a first step toward application of the controversial Rent Escrow Account Program to become law March 9. This program will allow tenants in poorly maintained buildings to pay rent into an escrow account controlled by the city rather than to the landlord pending the completion of repairs.