Los Angeles City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo has issued a stern warning to 20 owners of downtown residential hotels: Stop forcing residents to vacate their rooms every 28 days or face serious legal consequences.
The warning letter, sent out last week, is a significant step for residents of downtown's single-room-occupancy hotels and advocates who have long pressed for action against an illegal practice known as the "28-day shuffle."
Under California law, a person who remains in place for 30 days becomes a tenant and has certain protections. Forcing residents to check out and re-rent rooms every 28 days prevents them from winning those protections.
In addition to being unlawful, the practice "causes great hardship to many low-income residents and their families, for whom the residential hotels are housing of last resort," Delgadillo wrote.
Forcing out stable, long-term tenants who can "hold landlords accountable" for the upkeep of the hotels adversely affects "the overall health, safety and welfare of all persons frequenting or residing in these residential hotels," he said.
Several hotel owners reached by The Times declined to discuss the letter or the practice.
The practice apparently began as an effort to address the difficulties associated with evicting problem tenants under current laws, said Rob Frontiera, an owner and manager of two downtown hotels, the Frontier and the Rosslyn, which say they do not practice the 28-day shuffle. The eviction process is lengthy and costly, he said.
"Landlords were just looking for a way to protect themselves," Frontiera said.
Hotel owners shoulder the responsibilities of a landlord, but lack the protections most landlords have in place to weed out scofflaw tenants, such as security deposits and credit checks.
"It's a different animal," Frontiera said. "The majority of tenants are really good people. It's just some people who abuse the system."
(In an unrelated action, Frontier owners paid $250,000 to settle a lawsuit in which the city had accused the owners of failing to stop drug dealing at the building.)
Residents complain that the "28-day shuffle" undermines their stability, health and efforts to improve their lives. Residents are forced to spend one to three nights in shelters or on the streets while waiting to return to their rooms, which can cost between $600 and $800 a month to rent. The hotel rooms serve as long-term housing for residents, including a growing number of women and children.
"The 28-day shuffle doesn't mean just people moving out of their rooms," said Pete White, executive director of the advocacy group Los Angeles Community Action Network. "It really takes away folks' rights.... It puts all the individuals in these hotels at risk of being homeless. Now, with the new emerging population of women and children, it puts more children on the street almost immediately."
As developers purchase downtown hotels and convert them to lofts and other uses, current residents may find themselves forced to leave without assistance, such as relocation fees, which are available to tenants. New owners "can come and empty out the building without recourse because residents, technically, are not tenants," White said.
The Los Angeles Community Action Network, with the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, has waged a campaign to educate hotel residents about the practice and to force officials to take action against it. Since beginning the effort, residents have sent about 300 complaints to the Los Angeles Housing Department about the 28-day shuffle, White said.
Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa, whose district includes several hotels, welcomed Delgadillo's letter and said the City Council would soon consider other actions to improve the lives of hotel dwellers.
Four months ago, Villaraigosa toured the hotels with members of the action network. What he saw at the hotels that day, including a woman suffering from a rat bite, angered him. Later he wrote a letter to Delgadillo, urging action.
"We've been talking to the city attorney continually and really pushing them to do something about this," Villaraigosa said.
Eric Moses, a spokesman for the city attorney's office, said the office had worked with the Los Angeles Community Action Network and the Legal Aid Foundation in crafting the warning letter. "If it is proven the hotels are requiring their residents to check out before the 30-day period kicks in ... they would face unlawful-business practice charges that could lead to serious civil penalties."
Owners who violate the law may one day face more than a civil lawsuit.
"We are exploring legislative changes that would criminalize this conduct," said Luis Li, chief of the criminal division in the city attorney's office.
"The 28-day shuffle is particularly important to us because it hampers triggering the tenant protections" of the Rent Stabilization Ordinance, Li said.