Fighting for a Place to Call Home : Housing: A 71-year-old apartment tenant is leading a battle against a planned conversion to condominiums. But not everyone approves of her mission.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A day shy of her 72nd birthday, with a thick shock of white hair framing a set of bright blue eyes, Molly Adams claims she is anything but a rabble-rouser.

But as the self-appointed watchdog for the elderly tenants in her Hancock Park apartment complex, she certainly seems to be doing a good job of it--to the delight of some tenants, and the dismay of others.

Adams, whose serene and matronly manner belies a steely determination and feistiness, has thrown herself headlong against the approval of a multimillion-dollar condominium conversion project under way at her building. In the process, she has fanned the flames of what has become a raging controversy, with potentially citywide repercussions.

The controversy centers on Country Club Manor at 316 N. Rossmore Ave., where the owner, Haseko-Tekno Development Partners of Japan and Beverly Hills, plans to spend $2.5 million to turn the aging building into a luxury condominium complex.

To some in the building, Adams is a heroine who has saved other tenants too old or infirm to fight for themselves from being displaced into unfamiliar surroundings at a time when the city already is reeling from an affordable rental-housing crisis. Adams and some of her allies maintain that management has intentionally driven out more than a dozen tenants in the last year--many of them elderly widows--to make room for pro-condo tenants, paving the way for windfall profits at the expense of some of society's most helpless.

But the majority of residents, more than the 51% needed for city approval, say they favor the conversion. Many say they resent efforts by Adams and others to thwart approval by the city.

"She's a troublemaker," said tenant Paul Ring, who favors condo conversion. Another tenant--clinical psychologist Mimi Greenberg--in a letter to City Council President John Ferraro, says she favors conversion and offers her "professional opinion" in assessing Adams' motives: "Fighting against the inevitable conversion of this building provides her with lots of busy work, intrigue and attention. She is an unhappy and sadly misguided old lady who apparently finds delight in malicious activities."

Adams, a widow, has lived in the towering French Norman-style structure for more than 20 years and doesn't like what the new owners are doing to it and its tenants.

"As God is my witness, I am anything but a hell-raiser," Adams said last week. "But the little people have got to be heard, otherwise we fall through the cracks of justice. God has given me good health, and I am not about to run up the white flag."

City officials said late last week that they are listening. In fact, they say, Adams has presented them with a case so compelling that they may seek to revamp the city's 8-year-old condo-conversion ordinance so it better protects elderly tenants.

Barbara Zeidman, director of the city Rent Stabilization Division, has taken a personal interest in the Rossmore conversion. After years of virtually no condo conversions, she said, "we are now in an upswing, and perhaps there is a need to look at a more equitable sharing of the profit involved and the grief that it causes."

The controversy began in May, 1988, when Haseko-Tekno bought the 48-unit building and began a complete renovation of its facade. Since then, according to Adams and other tenants, intimidation by management and constant disruptions by workers have forced out most renters opposed to the conversion.

"This building is a particularly brutal microcosm of the situation involving all condo conversions in the city involving senior citizens," said tenant Jo de Winter. "They have put these people through sheer hell."

De Winter opposes the conversion and is incensed that major renovations under way for months have disrupted daily life at the complex before the conversion has been approved. But many other tenants say it is unfair to hold up the project just because a few tenants oppose it.

Frank Niezgoda, a stockbroker, has lived in the building for nine years and praises the new owners for spending the money to resurrect a building suffering from decades of neglect. He wants to buy his apartment, to build up equity, gain tax breaks and own a piece of what is widely considered a landmark building. Besides, he said, the only other options are to pay much higher rents or lose the building, built in 1929, to the wrecker's ball.

"I am being hurt by these delays, and there are others being hurt as well," said Niezgoda. He added that tenants opposed to the conversion all are wealthy people who "have bargains and just don't want to let go of it."

Although the condo conversion proposal has slowly made its way through the city bureaucracy, it has grown uglier at each step, as social issues like the rights of the elderly to dignity and affordable housing have been interjected.

"If we can help other senior citizens in the city, it will be worth all the hell we've gone through," Adams said. "New York and Boston have protections for elderly renters when buildings go condo. Why should Los Angeles have any less?"

Two city planning agencies have approved the condo-conversion plan, and Adams appealed both of those decisions. In early February, she filed another appeal with the City Council, which is now pending.

Adams acknowledges she may have to leave the building. But she says she is concerned mostly that a handful of elderly tenants--including a disabled 79-year-old widow and a sick 94-year-old man and his wife--would have to spend their twilight years searching out new bus routes, new friends and new doctors and grocery stores.

"Please God, I can paddle my own canoe," she said. "But what about them? We're a generation who want to be self-sufficient."

Under city law, seniors older than 62 years old, the handicapped and families with children are entitled to a $5,000 displacement fee if a new, "comparable replacement" apartment is found.

Adams says such compensation would be little consolation for tenants like Grace Burner.

Burner, 79, overcame polio and now walks infrequently and with a cane. For 30 years, she has lived in the building, alone since her husband and three children died. A painfully shy woman, she says she dreads having to move because she relies on friends in the building and on a routine she has become accustomed to over the years.

"I have nightmares," Burner says.

"I am always looking, in my dreams, for a new place, and I always come to a place that looks like this," she said, drawing her hands together into the shape of a corner. Asked what she thinks the dreams mean, she said: "It means I am at a dead end. I just hate those dreams."

The developers say they have been very sensitive to the tenants' concerns, and letters from some tenants agree. For instance, Daniel Boulange, president of Tekno, says that his firm has offered Burner a handicapped accessible apartment in the building for life.

Dale Goldsmith, a lawyer for Haseko-Tekno, says the tenants "can stay until they agree another apartment is suitable." He says the management has spent up to $12,000 apiece to find new apartments for 11 people, all of whom are very satisfied.

Boulange promises to do more than is legally required for Adams and others who would not want to purchase their apartments, such as provide them with moving fees and rent subsidies--if they can show that they are low-income.

In the case of Adams and others who don't want to leave, Boulange said: "There's a lot of things we don't like in life, but in most things it is a question of fairness and democracy. Is it fair to prevent 40 others from buying their own homes so a few can rent? It is a matter of selfishness versus fairness."

Some in City Hall are beginning to question the fairness of the whole process.

Protests led by Adams have halted the approval process, and have won her and her allies a hearing before a City Council committee. And last week, she also gained the personal intervention of Ferraro and Zeidman.

Like Zeidman, Ferraro said he plans to take a look at the city's condo-conversion ordinances, to see if more can be done to protect the elderly. In the meantime, Ferraro, the local councilman for Adams, has stepped in to mediate the dispute and says he is sympathetic to the elderly tenants.

"I don't think I'd want to move if I were 94 years old," Ferraro said. "If the owner wants to convert that (building) to condos, he has got to make some concessions to those elderly and disabled people."

Zeidman also plans to get involved and is launching an investigation into alleged harassment of the tenants. She is particularly interested because the same owners "have done another troubled condo conversion on the Westside with the same problems--elderly tenants being intimidated, and (the owners) creating an unlivable environment, particularly for elderly people, who get disgusted and leave."

In the current case, she said: "It begins to look like a clear campaign to empty the building in the expectation of reaping a great windfall when turning it into condominiums."

Zeidman and Ferraro also said they plan to seek rebates for tenants because of the months of renovation that have forced residents to endure numerous inconveniences, that have included no windows or security locks, lack of promised parking spots and noise and pollution.

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