He shows renters the door

Times Staff Writer

Dennis Block seemed glued to his black leather chair, his coffee untouched, apparently impervious to physical needs such as the bathroom or food, taking one landlord's phone call after another.

Almost all the callers wanted the same thing: to evict their tenants.

In a DVD he gives to landlords, Block describes himself this way: "A man who has evicted more tenants than any other human being on the planet Earth."

He has never been busier.

Zooming property values have sent rents skyrocketing more than 25% in four years citywide and even higher in rapidly gentrifying areas. But hundreds of thousands of tenants are protected by rent-stabilization laws, which limit rent increases to 4% a year. When the tenant moves, market rates can take effect -- but tenants can be evicted only with good cause.

That's where Block comes in. He has dedicated his considerable creativity and intelligence to helping landlords evict tenants from rent-stabilized buildings. He boasts that his firm has filed more than 130,000 cases since 1980, a year after rent stabilization went into effect. He helps landlords identify minor violations -- a pet fish in an aquarium, a brightly painted bathroom, an extra occupant -- to toss out long-term tenants who are paying below market for their homes.

Tenant advocates tend to turn red with rage at the mention of Block's name. They say that in a city with a shortage of affordable housing, Block's efforts leave people with nowhere to go and in danger of becoming homeless. Worse, his example is followed by many other lawyers and landlords. "He puts people on the street totally turns communities upside down.... I think it's contemptible," said Brett Terrell, the director of advocacy for the Inner City Law Center, a nonprofit that works with tenants being evicted.

Block, 55, greets such criticism with indignation.

"I think my position is righteous," he said. "The average landlord is not a rich individual.... Under rent control, unlike any other business on planet Earth, a landlord is being ordered to support other individuals totally at his own costs. This is not fair."

Evicting rent-stabilized tenants, he says, is his "patriotic duty."

Even his critics agree that no one does it better than Block. A legal aid lawyer once joked that if a building had rats, Block could find a way to evict the tenants on the grounds that the vermin were pets.

"Line," he yelled one recent morning in his office, a sign to his staff that he was ready to take a call.

"This is ... " he paused for effect, making his listener wait "Dennis Block."

Sometimes, the landlords don't believe they are actually talking to Dennis Block, and Block has to convince them. Sometimes, they aren't sure he exists, such is his Oz-like stature as Los Angeles' wizard of evictions.

But this caller, the irate owner of a five-unit building in West Los Angeles, launched right into his troubles. One of his tenants was in a rent-controlled unit, and he wanted to "serve her with a 60-day notice to get the [expletive] out."

Block nodded, as if he understood the impulse. But, unfortunately, he told the landlord, "that is not a proper notice" under the city's rent control laws.

The landlord paused, then offered up a litany of complaints about the tenant in hopes Block could find grounds for eviction. She'd refused to sign a new rental agreement. Block shrugged. "She doesn't have to," he said.

How about the fact that she had asked for interest on her security deposit? Block made a sardonic face. "She's got a good point there."

The landlord tried again: She'd scraped off the textured paint on her ceiling. Could she be evicted for that?

Block, whose bright blue eyes animate his thin face, leaned forward, interested. But when he learned it had happened months earlier, he sighed. "Talk to me about something recent."

The landlord thought for a second, then said he had noticed the tenant had taken out her smoke alarms.

"The smoke detectors is a good one," Block said, promising to send out a notice immediately. If the tenant didn't fix the problem in three days, she could be out.

MORE than two-thirds of the city's 750,000 apartments are covered under rent stabilization. Most people who get evicted leave quietly -- they've paid their rent late or violated their lease in some other way, so when served with a notice, they pack up. Legal aid lawyers can help only a small fraction of the more than 50,000 tenants evicted each year in Los Angeles County, and they choose their cases carefully, usually taking on only the fights they think they can win.

On this morning, over the next 90 minutes, Block took nearly two dozen calls.

In most cases, they ended with Block's computer already printing out forms to start an eviction case -- but not always. To one landlord who said his tenant promised to fix up his unit in exchange for lower rent and then hadn't done any work, Block replied, "OK, you've got nothing. The next time you have a tenant proposing doing anything other than paying rent, take your head and hit it against the wall."

Other times, however, Block seemed to take pleasure in sticking it to the people who had stiffed his clients.

For a landlord who complained she had not collected back rent in a victorious eviction case against a tenant, Block pledged to file a judgment even though it was unlikely the tenant would ever pay. "At least you have the satisfaction of knowing you messed her credit up," he said.

"Good," the landlord responded. "I like your thinking, Dennis. I always have."

Block argues that the city's rent-stabilization laws keep him in business by creating conditions in which some landlords cannot make a profit, and in some cases can't even make their mortgage payments, unless they evict their tenants and replace them with people who can pay the market rate.

One tenant advocate called him "the Henry Ford of evictions" because of the breathtaking efficiency of his office in processing cases. Another, UCLA law professor Gary Blasi, said he is a "very sharp lawyer ... exceptional in terms of his creativity in finding and exploiting loopholes."

Block's office computer system has turned evictions into a high-volume business. He takes such pride in the system, which he helped design, that he pauses lovingly before the server while conducting a tour of his office. Legal notices that can culminate in an eviction are generated instantly. Landlords can track their cases on his website. Block compares it to Southwest Airlines' website. Only, he says, his is better.

Most clients don't set foot in Block's office, where the reception area is decorated with community service commendations from the City Council and county Board of Supervisors for his work with the Apartment Owners Assn. of Greater Los Angeles. At another spot hangs a photograph of someone being evicted on New York's Lower East Side at the turn of the 20th century.

There is also a sign warning clients: "Meetings with an attorney are subject to a charge of up to $150 per 30 minutes ... in addition to any charge for legal services."

A simple eviction will cost landlords about $100 plus court costs of around $400. If one of Block's attorneys has to go to court, that fee jumps to $350 in attorneys' fees, plus court costs. If a case goes to a jury trial, fees go way up. But most don't -- in part because most tenants don't have lawyers and don't fight back.

In rare cases, Block winds up in extended legal battles.

The Inner City Law Center fought his office for weeks on behalf of Nazlu Stepanian, a disabled woman who has lived in her Hollywood apartment for 26 years, now paying $469 for a one-bedroom, which is significantly below market. The building was recently sold to a new owner, a Block client, who said Stepanian hadn't paid her rent on time and served her with eviction papers. Lawyers for Stepanian said that Block and the landlord seized the pretext that Stepanian's rent was a few days late to force her from her home so they could raise the rent. "It was unjust," said Betsy Handler, litigation director for the center. A judge ruled Feb. 28 that Stepanian could stay in her apartment.

BLOCK knows Los Angeles well. He grew up in Hollywood and went to Fairfax High School. He met his wife, Ida, near there when he offered her a ride home. They've been married for 32 years. Their political views sometimes clash -- Ida worked as a schoolteacher in poor neighborhoods before quitting to stay home with their three children.

It was Ida's father who gave Block his first eviction case. While Block was still in law school, he helped his father-in-law evict some tenants from a building he owned.

When he graduated from the law school at Whittier College in 1976, he went into business with another lawyer, Michael Katz, planning to open a general practice. But then the city of Los Angeles passed its rent-stabilization law, and Block and Katz found they had more than enough work handling evictions alone. Katz left the business in 1988.

Block rises each morning at 3:35, which he says gives him enough time to drink coffee, head to the gym and be at his desk by 7. He's there until 4 or 5 p.m. He rarely takes lunch. He rarely leaves the phones for any reason.

Michael Gilbert, a real estate agent and friend for more than two decades, said he does not find Block's obsession with work particularly remarkable.

"He wants to make a lot of money, I think. He loves his job, and he has a passion for it, and he makes money," Gilbert said, noting that Block did not grow up rich. "It's just the ambition and the idea that you never want to go broke."

Aside from work and his family, Block has few passions.

He has a tennis court at his Calabasas home, and he sometimes plays with friends, although Gilbert joked that Block is too competitive and he won't play with him anymore.

Block has Lakers season tickets and seems to have near perfect recall of every game. Before heading to his seats he often has dinner at the Palm restaurant, where on a recent night he sat sipping martinis, eating steak and discussing O.J. Simpson and Anna Nicole Smith with two old friends.

But even these topics circled back to evictions.

On the subject of Anna Nicole Smith, his friend Zachary Lawrence quipped that Block "is to evictions what Anna Nicole is to large brassieres." As for Simpson, Block said, "if they couldn't convict, at least they could have evicted him."

Block said he is so dedicated to his work, he hates even the idea of vacation. This spring, he said, Ida is making him go to Cabo San Lucas, but he thinks he'll be able to bear it because he has figured out a way to bring his phone and hook up his computer system so he can work from his hotel room.

Despite his love for his job, there's one place Block seldom goes: to court. Instead, he sends one of the nine lawyers on his staff.

On any given day, courtrooms in Los Angeles County hear dozens of eviction cases, and it's not unusual for nearly a third of those to be handled by Block's firm.

A recent Friday in Department 97 in the downtown civil courthouse was no exception. Of 35 eviction cases on calendar; 11 were Block's. The seats in the courtroom were filled with families facing eviction. One worried-looking couple took turns holding a sleeping baby.

Toward noon, a commissioner sent one case to another courtroom. John Greenwood, one of Block's attorneys, got up and headed down the corridor.

He didn't get far before he was waylaid by a lawyer who represents tenants.

"Why doesn't Dennis Block ever come here?" Daniel Bramzon demanded. "I'm challenging Dennis Block to a jury trial."

Greenwood, a head taller than Bramzon, stopped and snorted. "Do you see Norman Schwarzkopf in battle? Dennis Block is the general. We are the lieutenants. We keep the system working."

"Hah," Bramzon answered. "He keeps the system working by kicking out poor Mexicans." Bramzon took a step toward Greenwood. "He's scared of me."

Greenwood snorted again. "No one's scared of you." He paused, then delivered his kicker: Dennis Block never comes to court because "he's too busy making money."

jessica.garrison@latimes.com

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