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City Targets ‘the Shuffle’ on Skid Row

Times Staff Writers

It’s known as the “28-day shuffle” -- the long-standing yet illegal practice by skid row hotels of forcing residents out of their rooms before the one-month point to avoid them becoming legal “tenants” and receiving certain rights under state law.

For years, homeless advocates have complained that the shuffle is a huge barrier blocking transients and poor families from establishing permanent routines and gaining even tenuous roots in the community.

But on Wednesday, for the first time, the Los Angeles city attorney filed suit against two of downtown’s biggest single-room occupancy hotels, accusing operators of regularly shuffling transients in and out of their properties to prevent them from becoming tenants.

Los Angeles City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo targeted the Frontier and Rosslyn, two landmark hotels in the heart of skid row.

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“The 28-day shuffle is illegal and immoral,” Delgadillo said in an interview. “I won’t stand by while the most vulnerable residents are being exploited.”

The lawsuits are the latest effort by city officials to improve conditions on skid row, which has the largest homeless population in the western United States and is plagued by drugs and crime.

Delgadillo’s office is also investigating hospitals that have been accused of “dumping” patients downtown after they are discharged. The Los Angeles Police Department is preparing a master plan for attacking crime in the area, and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has promised his own homeless initiative.

The city attorney’s office is taking Zuma Corp., the owner of both hotels, to court, seeking an injunction to end the practice of kicking residents out before 30 days. Prosecutors will also ask a judge to impose fines of up to $2,500 for every instance of shuffling found by authorities.

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Robert Frontiera, who along with his brother operates Zuma, denied any wrongdoing. He said that both hotels make a distinction between hotel guests and tenants.

“We have a policy: You can check in as a hotel guest, but if you want to be a monthly tenant you have to qualify,” he said. Long-term tenants and anyone wanting to become tenants can apply, but it requires security deposits and a background check.

“We don’t do a shuffle,” Frontiera said. “We ran it all past the Housing Department and the city attorney’s office.”

But in litigation filed Wednesday, the city attorney cites three cases in which residents were moved from their rooms before the 30 days.

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Officials said the practice had two goals. One was to prevent the residents from gaining “tenants” rights under state law, which would protect them from immediate eviction.

In one case, prosecutors allege that a woman in her early 60s with mental problems and living on Social Security benefits was told after spending 28 days at the Rosslyn that “she would have to vacate her room for a week, after which she could return.”

She spent three days at another hotel before moving back into her room at the Rosslyn, authorities said. When the same thing happened the next month, she complained to the Los Angeles Housing Department, records show.

Second, authorities allege that the hotels moved more than 200 occupants from rooms to make way for a massive conversion to upscale lofts. (The Frontier rehabbed portions of its upper floors for rent as lofts).

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The city alleges that hotel operators used a computer system to ensure that occupants did not exceed the four-week mark. Occupants wishing to stay a single day longer had to deposit three months’ rent, authorities allege.

Delgadillo said in 2004 that he sent warning letters to owners of single-room residential hotels warning that he would take legal action if the practice continued, and he is keeping that promise.

The “28-day shuffle” has long been a part of life on skid row. Over the years, people have complained about having to live on the streets for days at a time until they were let back into the hotels.

Homeless services advocates say the “28-day shuffle” undermines the stability of people trying to stay off the streets. Having a regular place to live is especially important for people with mental illness or drug problems. It’s all the more outrageous because people can spend between $600 and $800 a month to rent the rooms, they said.

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“The 28-day shuffle is just one example of the tenant rights violations facing low-income tenants,” said Pete White, director and CEO of Los Angeles Community Action Network.

The Rosslyn has 264 rooms in the heart of skid row. It is the fourth largest such residential hotel in the city serving the impoverished and the physically and mentally disabled. Across 5th Street to the north is the Frontier, which once had about 400 rooms but now has about 190 rooms. Several of its upper floors are undergoing conversion to lofts with market rents.

There has been concern that the gentrification occurring in and around skid row -- where numerous historic buildings have been converted to lofts and condos -- could spread to residential hotels. That would leave even fewer housing units downtown for low-income residents.

City officials said one reason for the crackdown is to prevent hotels from using the “28-day shuffle” to push out low-income tenants without providing them with relocation benefits.

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