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Tenants of Illegal Units May Receive Eviction Fee

Times Staff Writer

Property owners who illegally convert garages or other portions of their buildings into rental units would have to pay up to $5,000 to tenants who must move because of substandard conditions under an ordinance approved Wednesday by the Los Angeles City Council.

Tenants’ rights attorneys praised the measure because it would require relocation assistance for renters who are evicted from illegal dwellings as the result of Building and Safety Department inspections.

“This is literally going to help thousands of poor people who before today did not have any protection from evictions,” said Mary Lou Villar, an attorney with the East Los Angeles Legal Aid Foundation. “Up until now, if you were kicked out of a garage, you were out on the street.”

4,500 in East Valley

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East San Fernando Valley Councilman Ernani Bernardi, who co-sponsored the ordinance with Councilwoman Joan Milke Flores, estimated that there are about 4,500 illegal garage dwellings in his district. He said the number is derived from an informal survey of Department of Building and Safety complaints in his district in the last two years.

“At least now these tenants will have a little money to get a start someplace else,” Bernardi said. “Now we can penalize landlords for the benefit of those people whom they have been feeding on.”

City law requires landlords of legal dwellings to pay for tenant relocation when renters are evicted for extensive renovation or for repairs that have been ordered by the Department of Building and Safety. But a loophole in the law did not require property owners of illegal units to do the same.

“The law has to apply equally to every landlord, whether it’s an illegal unit or not,” said Flores, who introduced the measure after learning about a Wilmington apartment owner who illegally converted a three-car garage into three apartments.

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“Now greedy landlords who don’t care about humanity but only care about the almighty dollar are going to have to think twice before they rent out an illegal apartment,” Flores said.

The ordinance, passed on a 12-0 vote by the council, was sent to Mayor Tom Bradley for consideration. Bradley has not taken a position on the measure.

It would largely affect homeowners who convert back-yard garages into apartments or build illegal additions to their homes, said Barbara Zeidman, director of the city’s rent stabilization unit.

“I think this very clearly says we are not going to turn our back and look the other way when it comes to illegal dwellings,” Zeidman said.

Neighbors Make Reports

Neighbors commonly report such units to city building inspectors because the dwellings often pose sanitation and other hazards, such as poor plumbing, exposed wiring and bootlegged gas lines.

Under the ordinance, renters who are disabled, 62 or older or have children would receive $5,000. Single adults would receive $2,000.

A tenant who reports his landlord to building officials would be eligible to collect relocation assistance if inspectors ordered the tenant to vacate an illegal unit for safety reasons, according to Mel Bliss, chief of the Bureau of Community Safety.

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City officials and tenant attorneys did not express concern over this possibility.

“We have to attach a financial penalty to those who rent illegal units,” Zeidman said.

Although the number of illegal dwellings in Los Angeles is not known, a Los Angeles Times investigation in May, 1987, revealed that about 42,000 illegal garage dwellings shelter about 200,000 people throughout Los Angeles County. The garage homes, an outgrowth of the region’s lack of affordable housing, lie in a swath of mostly low-income Latino neighborhoods from Sylmar through East Los Angeles into Long Beach, The Times study showed.

Landlords usually collect between $200 and $400 a month for a garage dwelling, depending on the extent of improvements.


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