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Last Call in Venice

INSIDE TENT CITY, behind a Lincoln Boulevard shopping center in Venice, where some of Lincoln Place’s dispossessed have been living for months, 99-cent store candles flicker in the fading daylight. A larger-than-life wooden cutout of Frankenstein is propped against an elm tree, the words “Rocky slum-lord suck-up” spray-painted across it in an unflattering reference to City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo’s refusal to halt the evictions. Some 20 elderly tenants of Lincoln Place apartments stand nervously. “I’m sad to say these words,” says 82-year-old Freida Marlin, “but I’m ashamed of my country.” Marlin shakes her head. “My husband fought in World War II. We fought for things we believed in, a better life for everyone who came after us. Now kids these days, all they care about is money.” Another tenant, oxygen tank in hand, yells out, “They’ll have to drag me out with my tank. I ain’t leavin’!”

Last Friday, AIMCO, the nation’s largest apartment-holding company, began taping the final batch of eviction notices to the doors of the remaining 40 units, the last holdouts since the evictions began nearly a year ago. AIMCO bought the 795-unit World War II–era housing complex in 2002, and plans to convert it to luxury condos.

Under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), the condo project had been approved with certain conditions, including a provision that barred the company from evicting anyone from the 38-acre property. But last year, AIMCO filed eviction notices inspired by the Ellis Act, a 1986 state law that allows landlords going out of the rental business to kick out tenants.

The final contingent of tenants have refused to leave, citing the CEQA conditions that guaranteed them the right to either stay on the property or be relocated within Venice. Earlier this year, land-use attorney John Murdock agreed to represent Lincoln Place tenants in their suit against the city of Los Angeles and AIMCO. The lawsuit seeks to reconcile the rights of tenants with those of landlords, to see if the Ellis Act trumps CEQA, or vice versa. The tenants lost the latest round in L.A. Superior Court last month, and appealed the ruling. “The city is the culprit here,” says Murdock. “AIMCO is a corporation who is out to make a profit, that’s the way life is, but it’s the city’s job to protect its tenants and enforce its laws. And really, it’s the City Attorney’s Office who are the real culprits; they are taking an extreme position saying they’re not allowed to interfere with the Ellis Act. Well, the Ellis Act is not the supreme law of the land.” He goes on to give examples of other cities not bowing down to the Ellis Act. “In San Francisco,” Murdock says, “local government passed a law saying Ellis does not preempt CEQA. It shouldn’t preempt local land use.” He says that the Ellis Act “couldn’t be any clearer.”

Tenants worry that if they are evicted before the case is heard by the Court of Appeals in November, they will have sought to enforce the conditions for nothing. However, if they win, and the court insists on the conditions set by CEQA, the city will have gained a powerful tool in shaping land use, by making developers stick to approved conditions. “We were waiting on pins and needles for the court to issue the stay of eviction,” says Laura Burns, a former tenant evicted last December. Now they’re banking on the Court of Appeals. Once again, the tenants have to wait. While the land-use battle rages on, will CEQA have the edge over Ellis? “One thing’s for certain,” says tenants association president Sheila Bernard, “they’re going to have to get me out with a crowbar. I’m not leaving.”

AIMCO’s Patti Shwayder, who is senior vice president, government relations and communications, just wants to get on with the project. “The court made the right decision in dismissing the case. We’ve won every single case in court. This was the seventh or eighth suit. Our shareholders are upset that we haven’t been able to develop the property. We’ve done everything we could do to relocate these people, and many have moved except for a small band of extremists who have made this a cause célèbre for the last 20 years.”


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