L.A. set up a system to protect renters. What happens when it’s used against them?
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Debra Stone awoke one Saturday last year and headed to the kitchen to fix herself a latte when she discovered dirty water dripping from the ceiling.
That flooded kitchen marked the beginning of a legal and bureaucratic odyssey for Stone, who has been displaced from her Beverly Grove apartment for more than a year.
Under a “tenant habitability plan” that the owner of her building submitted to the city, fixing the apartment was estimated to take a few months and be done by October. Instead, the process has dragged into this year, as Stone has couch-surfed and battled in court with her landlord, who has sought to evict her from the apartment where she has lived for more than two decades.
“I just want to go home,” she said.
Tenants’ advocates say Stone’s story represents a worrisome scenario for L.A. tenants, as the state’s housing crisis has sent prices skyward and tempted landlords to pressure longtime residents to move out so they can hike the rent.
The potential for such abuse has long been a concern under the Ellis Act, a state law that allows tenants to be booted from rent-stabilized apartments if the owner is tearing down the building or getting out of the rental business. But advocates say that building owners also are exploiting other methods to eject renters, including L.A.’s Tenant Habitability Program.
Under the rules of that program, landlords who are doing major renovations must turn in a tenant habitability plan, explaining how they will protect tenants, either while they remain in their apartment, stay at a hotel or temporarily relocate to a “comparable” unit in the same building or another building. Nearly 700 such plans have been accepted by the city in the last five years.
But tenants’ advocates say the plans, which were intended to protect people from the hazards of construction, also can be used as a tool to prod residents into abandoning their rent-stabilized units.
“They just take their time” in some cases, said Claudia Medina, a tenants’ rights attorney. “It’s hard to determine whether the landlord is in good faith asking for an extension to make more repairs, or if the landlord sees that as a way to wait the tenant out.”
Landlords and their advocates counter that, often, they cannot control construction delays.
“Nothing is hard and fast when you start doing upgrades and construction,” said Daniel Yukelson, executive director of the Apartment Assn. of Greater Los Angeles. If a landlord has to wait on city inspections or permits, “how are they supposed to force that issue?”
When L.A.’s Tenant Habitability Program was established 14 years ago through a city ordinance, it was envisioned as a way to protect tenants from “constructive eviction” — housing conditions so miserable that residents feel pressure to leave. It allowed tenants to lodge appeals over tenant habitability plans and permitted landlords to recoup costs for renovations by hiking rents more than would ordinarily be allowed under the Rent Stabilization Ordinance.
Several years ago, tenants’ advocates started to complain about problems with the program. In one case, an elderly tenant in Westlake was given an address where she was supposed to relocate temporarily, but realized it was not an apartment at all. The address was for Angelus-Rosedale Cemetery.
In the aftermath of that and other troubling cases, housing officials say they have taken steps to prevent the Tenant Habitability Program from being misused.
City staffers say they now visit the addresses where landlords plan to temporarily relocate tenants to make sure the units are truly “comparable.” They also review proposed evictions of rent stabilized tenants for alleged violations of the tenant habitability plans.
Such evictions have become extremely rare in recent years, according to the L.A. Housing and Community Investment Department. And in the last two years, most of the tenant habitability plans accepted by the city did not require tenants to leave their units.
“We tied up a lot of the loopholes,” said Tai Glenn, chief counsel for Inner City Law Center, which represents tenants and brought concerns about the process to the housing department. “But this issue of dragging it out forever still exists.”
If a landlord does not promptly finish the planned construction or upgrades, a tenant has a simple remedy: He or she can take a mandated payout of up to roughly $20,000 and leave permanently. That is little comfort to Stone, who says that is exactly what her landlord wanted her to do.
“Twenty thousand dollars would not get me the difference in rent” for long, Stone said, pointing out that rents have soared in Beverly Grove in recent years. She has been paying less than $2,400 a month for her two-bedroom apartment. Similar units in Beverly Grove can now fetch $3,500 or more, according to Zillow.
Stone has been locked in a legal battle with both 8317 Blackburn LLC, the company that owns her apartment building, and Bernard Hoffman, identified in court papers as the property manager and in state business filings as the manager of the company.
When Hoffman first filed the tenant habitability plan with the city, Stone lodged an appeal, raising concerns about the Koreatown apartment where he proposed to move her temporarily.
She ended up being sent to another apartment owned by a company linked to Hoffman, but said she felt unsafe after discovering that the locks didn’t work. Instead of living there, Stone says she has been couch surfing with friends as she sues Hoffman over alleged harassment and retaliation, accusing him of pressuring her to move and purposely evading her rent payments so he could try to evict her.
Hoffman, in turn, has filed a counter suit, saying that she violated the tenant habitability plan by entering her apartment without notice and improperly installing cameras to record him without his consent. (Stone later agreed to destroy any such recordings.) Hoffman and his attorney did not respond to messages seeking comment.
Yukelson said that, in general, delaying the repair process doesn’t make financial sense for landlords. If a longtime tenant has to be relocated to a comparable unit, the temporary home may be costlier because rental prices have gone up — and the landlord, by law, must pay the difference.
“Who’d want to sign up for that while they’re shelling out all this capital to improve their property?” Yukelson asked.
Landlords who violate tenant habitability plans can be turned down for city-approved “rent adjustments” on rent stabilized apartments — hikes meant to help cover renovation costs. Tenants also can sue their landlords for violating the relocation rules.
And if landlords knowingly make false statements on a plan, they can be found guilty of a misdemeanor. But housing officials say proving that a landlord willfully lied is challenging. No such cases have been referred to city attorneys in recent years, according to the housing department.
Councilman Paul Koretz, who represents Beverly Grove, said Stone’s situation highlights a weakness in the Tenant Habitability Program “that I’d like to try to fix.” He said housing inspectors need more tools to force landlords to follow the provisions of the plans.
“Violations may not happen often but, as this situation proves, it can be messy when they do,” Koretz said in a statement.
Stone recognizes that she has advantages many other tenants don’t: She has a flexible work schedule as a brand development manager. She has enough money to retain an attorney. When she reached out to a reporter at the Los Angeles Times, Stone said her goal was to close what she sees as a loophole for other tenants.
“I want to make sure this doesn’t happen to anyone else,” she said.
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