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Getting the Boot

“It’s like you‘re stuck in the ocean on a raft with no oars and you can’t see land,” Klickovich said. “It‘s the worst feeling I’ve had in my life. All you can do is hope and hope.” She has lived in the same $560-a-month, two-bedroom Santa Monica rent-controlled apartment for 24 years. “I raised my son here. I have no place to go.”

Her eviction notice was part of the biggest flurry of eviction notices to hit Santa Monica in the past decade. In the last four months of 1999, notices were sent to tenants in 211 units -- 124 units in December alone -- as landlords raced to get out of the rental business before January 1. That‘s when an amendment to the Ellis Act kicked in, requiring a longer eviction process and stiffer penalties for landlords removing their units from the rental market under the 1985 state law.

The surge in evictions -- by comparison, there were 131 units withdrawn from the market between May 1998 and June 1999 -- comes at a time when rents in Santa Monica are skyrocketing under another state law, which allows landlords to charge what the market will bear for vacated rent-controlled units. So far, 3,192 vacated units have hit the market since the law went into effect a year ago, with some apartments fetching more than double their previous, rent-controlled rates.

“It’s really a crisis,” said Sally Molloy, directing attorney for the Santa Monica office of the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, which offers free legal services to low-income clients. “Even people who have good jobs and good incomes are finding it hard to readjust to higher rents all around.

”It‘s heartbreaking,“ Molloy said. ”It’s a very enormous problem. There‘s a sudden flood of people looking for affordable housing.“

For Santa Monica landlords, the new amendment provided an incentive to hurry out of what many consider a losing business proposition, with some tenants paying as little as $300 a month for a rent-controlled unit that could command more than $1,500 in the city’s booming rental market.

”It doesn‘t make sense to put a roof over everyone’s head if they‘re paying $300 a month in rent,“ said Gordon P. Gitlen, a Santa Monica attorney who represents two clients who made last-minute filings to withdraw their buildings from the rental market.

Landlords who waited until January 1 are required to extend the length of an eviction notice from 30 days to 120 days, and a full year for senior citizens and people with disabilities. The new amendment also mandates that landlords wait two years -- instead of one -- before renting again. If a landlord returns to the rental business during the two-year waiting period, former tenants can sue for limited actual and specified punitive damages, and the rent board can sue for statutory exemplary damages.

”It’s a nutty, stupid, ridiculous amendment,“ said attorney Rosario Perry, who represented landlords who ”Ellised“ their buildings. ”It‘s an attempt to cut into landlords’ rights under Ellis. What happened is, they amended Ellis and everybody freaked out,“ Perry said. ”It was an ultimatum to them, and they opted to Ellis under the old law. They didn‘t know what would happen in the new year. This disaster that [tenant advocates] are talking about is a self-inflicted wound.“

Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights (SMRR), the city‘s powerful tenants group, contends that the longer eviction notice reduces tenant angst and that the tougher penalties will make landlords less inclined to ”Ellis“ a building in a heated rental market. (They note that there have been no Ellis filings in Santa Monica so far this year.) The recent spate of evictions, tenant leaders contend, is inspired by greed.

Tenant leaders compare the current crisis to the dramatic race to evict tenants and demolish buildings that preceded Santa Monica’s voter-approved rent-control law in 1979. ”There were mass evictions and a demolition derby, and a lot of people were out on the streets,“ said Michael Tarbet, SMRR‘s organizer and an attorney familiar with housing law. ”This is massive. All we can do is direct tenants in the right direction.“

Tenant advocates worry that the recent evictions will take a particularly heavy toll on seniors who have lived in their units for decades. In the largest building removed from the market, six of the 45 tenants are seniors on fixed incomes.

”It came as a shock to everybody,“ said Mark Bitler, 46, who has lived 22 years in the 39-unit building a block from the beach. ”Some of our seniors are exceptionally frail. One is a senior who has been listed as terminal. He’s going to have to go someplace else to die. Another has cancer.

“It‘s not a bunch of yuppies,” said Bitler, who pays $512 a month in rent for his one-bedroom apartment. “Who knows where they are going to have to live? Certainly not Santa Monica. They’re going to have to live in a closet somewhere.”

Landlords counter that their rush to get out of the business is not inspired by greed. They say that the new amendment to the law -- which they contend is flawed -- represents yet another attack on their rights.

“For 20 years, the city fathers have confiscated our property, and all of a sudden a guy decides he wants to protect his private-property rights, and they are irate,” said Herb Balter, president of ACTION Apartment Association, a grassroots landlord group. “When their policies make landlords indentured servants, that‘s okay,” Balter said. “But when a landlord wants to protect their property rights and get out of the rental business, that is a catastrophe.”

Several of the landlords who opted to shut down their buildings said staying in business no longer made economic sense. One property owner -- who asked that his name not be used -- said his tenants were filing petitions to have the Rent Control Board decrease their rents, complaining that their units, which averaged $500 a month in rent, were not properly maintained.

“Each tenant started threatening me if I didn’t do things,” said the landlord, who fears the rent board will retaliate if he reveals his identity. “I figured how much money I had to spend in legal fees and contractors, and it was almost equal to the rents. The rent board makes you keep the rents cheap, but you have to keep the place up. You got to understand the economics.”

SMRR leaders contend that landlord attorneys urged their clients to act before the January 1 deadline so they could go back into the rental market with new market-rate tenants -- or condominium owners -- and minimal penalties. (According to the rent board, 15 of the “Ellised” properties will be converted to condominiums, while another five are scheduled to undergo remodeling.)

“Condos have always been quite a lure in Santa Monica,” said SMRR co-chair Dennis Zane, a former mayor. “People have always been willing to throw others on the street to make a buck. The Ellis Act is indifferent to those consequences, such as the community loss. We have an affordable-housing loss. The Ellis Act evictions are simply the most dramatic effect. I think there will now be a lot less of this.”

The drop in Ellis evictions, however, may be of little comfort to tenants who recently lost, or are soon to lose, their units. With rents skyrocketing, there are few safety nets in place to protect evicted tenants, tenant advocates say. Low- and very-low-income tenants are entitled to relocation money from their landlord or the landlord‘s attorney. Those residents can also apply for housing through Community Corp., and new, enhanced Section 8 housing vouchers are automatically available from the Santa Monica Housing Authority for very-low-income Ellis evictees. New permanent housing for very-low-income senior citizens, who will be chosen by lottery, also is available.

Landlord attorneys agree that Ellis Act notices will probably decrease in the long run, but they note that even with the looming deadline, it was a difficult decision for many landlords to make. “When I recommend Ellis to a landlord, it’s because it‘s a solution,” Perry said. “No landlord wants to evict people. When you Ellis, it means you failed in your ability to be a landlord. When they Ellis, they know it’s bad. It‘s like going on a year’s fast.”


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