Tenants Feel Threatened by Rule Changes

Times Staff Writer

After years, sometimes decades, of living in the same apartments, some tenants in Los Angeles are finding that the rules allowing them to live there have changed.

Under threat of eviction, long-term tenants are being told they must supply extensive personal information: copies of Social Security cards and car registrations, and photos of everyone living in each unit.

Along with the requests for information, tenants receive an 18-point list of regulations governing everything in the building from window coverings to alcohol consumption.

These changes are sometimes referred to, by both landlords and tenants, as "the landlord's solution." Tenants attorneys say the trend is fast becoming a major problem for tenants, and the Los Angeles City Council will consider a measure today to discourage it.

"It's a complete invasion of privacy, and the terms are unconscionable, unreasonable and unnecessary," said Christian Abasto of the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, which has fought such cases in court. "Our position is that these covenants are created to make hurdles to try and evict people."

Dennis P. Block, a lawyer specializing in evictions, counters that the changes resolve common problems that property owners face and that some judges have ruled in their favor.

"I think a landlord has a right to make reasonable rules for the efficient operation of his building and also for the safety and comfort of other tenants who are in the building," Block said.

Requesting personal information from those seeking apartments is a common practice, as is requiring that tenants abide by regulations.

But when changes are imposed on tenants already living in a building, they lose all bargaining power, Abasto said. They must comply or face the loss of their homes, and often of affordable rents.

Since last year, attorneys have faced off in court over such lease changes. Now three major legal organizations -- Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, Bet Tzedek and the Los Angeles Housing Law Project -- are representing tenants of one building on Kingsley Drive in Koreatown in which at least 30 eviction notices were handed out under such changes in lease terms.

The measure the City Council is expected to consider today would amend the Rent Stabilization Ordinance and prohibit landlords from evicting tenants who fail to comply with new lease terms, unless a tenant has agreed in writing to each change. A landlord would not need a tenant's written approval if the change is authorized by the Rent Stabilization Ordinance or if the change is required under federal, state or local laws.

The motion for the amendment, by council members Eric Garcetti and Wendy Greuel, referred to the trend of changing terms as an "alarming new strategy for circumventing the Rent Stabilization Ordinance."

The measure sailed through a council committee. The Apartment Assn. of Greater Los Angeles opposes it because it "takes away our civil rights," said Charles Isham, executive vice president of the association.

In most cases, tenants served with such changes are under rent control and thus pay rents below market, tenants attorneys said. Under rent control, tenants can be evicted only for certain reasons. Tenants advocates say the rule changes essentially create new ways to evict tenants.

Some tenants who attempt to comply with the requests for personal information still face eviction because owners contend that they have filled out the forms wrong, Abasto said. Others worry about identity theft and privacy, so they do not comply and face eviction.

"They're asking for all the information consumer affairs people tell us not to give out," said Rod Field of the Housing Law Project.

Residents of the Kingsley building, who had received help from ACORN, an advocacy group for tenants, in filling out the information forms, still received eviction notices. In some cases, the owners alleged that tenants had supplied fake Social Security numbers or numbers that had a "high probability" of being fraudulent.

The case of Eugene Knox illustrates the problems of tenants presented with new lease terms. Knox, 78, has lived in his rent-controlled unit in Mid-Wilshire for 25 years. But under the new rules, he was threatened with eviction for parking his car where he has always parked.

"I've been going through stress that I can't take," Knox said. "I shouldn't have to, after 25 years, worry ... whether I'm gong to be evicted from my apartment."

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