Judge sides with L.A.'s subsidized tenants

Times Staff Writer

Poor tenants relying on federally subsidized housing in Los Angeles are protected from eviction by the city’s rent control laws, a federal judge said in a tentative ruling Monday.

U.S. District Court Judge Audrey B. Collins’ ruling came in response to a lawsuit by 22 tenants of a hillside apartment building in Echo Park against owners including a UCLA real estate professor. But it has implications for about 26,000 people who live in rent-controlled buildings and receive federal subsidies.

Collins said the city’s rules apply even though federal rules allow landlords to opt out of the so-called Section 8 program if they want to charge more money for their apartments.


“We’re hoping this will serve as a precedent for protecting tenants throughout the city,” said Larry Gross, the executive director of the Coalition for Economic Survival, which helped organize the plaintiffs. The suit was brought by the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles.

The ruling is expected to be finalized later this week.

Advocates on both sides predicted that Collins’ decision almost certainly would be appealed to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals and to the U.S. Supreme Court.

This round in the city’s landlord-tenant wars, however, has gone to the renters.

The Morton Garden apartments, a 66-unit building that is in the hills near Dodger Stadium and from which there are glimpses of the Pacific, are partly owned by Eric Sussman, who teaches real estate at UCLA’s business school.

Sussman’s tenants, outraged by eviction notices, earlier this spring invited the news media to come along as they rode a yellow school bus to UCLA to disrupt his class. They held signs, chanted and then presented Sussman with a ceramic piggy bank.

Sussman argued that he had a right to get out of the Section 8 program and charge more for his units -- especially because the government’s idea of fair-market rent is hundreds, and in some cases more than $1,000, less than what the apartments would fetch on the open market. He declined to comment on the decision Monday, except to say he expected to appeal.

Tenants and housing advocates were jubilant.

“We can stay in our apartments!” said Debora Barrientos, 44, a nursing assistant from El Salvador who has lived in the building for a decade with her daughter.

Some advocates also expressed relief, noting that if the decision had gone the other way, mass evictions might have been enforced against some of the city’s poorest and most vulnerable residents.

In fact, hundreds of families already have been evicted by landlords making the same argument as Sussman, according to court papers filed by the city.

Without the legal help available to the tenants in Morton Gardens, many just moved.

Rudolf Montiel, the executive director of the city’s housing authority, said perhaps community groups could reach out to some of those families and find a way to get them back into their apartments.

But he also said he could understand the viewpoint of landlords who don’t think they should have to put up with lower rents from tenants who are already receiving a subsidy from the federal government.

“We need a creative solution . . . to ensure we have an adequate supply of affordable housing in the nation’s second-largest city,” Montiel said.