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LA Tenants Union Calls Out Housing Department For Allowing Illegal Ellis Act Evictions

Activists had a simple message for the city agency charged with protecting tenants: “stop siding with landlords, and do your job.”

On Wednesday afternoon, a crowd of roughly 50 people attended a rally organized by the LA Tenants Union (LATU) outside of the LA Housing and Community Investment Department (HCID), the public agency charged with overseeing housing services and protecting renters across the city.

Though tenants and organizers throughout LA have a long list of grievances regarding the agency’s practices — from inspectors and administrators that allow landlords to get away with slum conditions, to pathetically weak policy recommendations in response to a historic housing crisis — this demonstration was focused in particular on how HCID deals with relocation payments owed to tenants being evicted by the Ellis Act.

Specifically, organizers are demanding that HCIDLA enforce the city law that requires landlords carrying out Ellis Act evictions to pay relocation fees to the tenant within 15 days of the initial notice. Organizers say they’ve seen several cases where HCID has allowed these evictions to go through despite clear and uncontested violations of this requirement.

“It is an outrage that while the city claims to be addressing our skyrocketing homeless population, they are putting families on the street by approving illegal evictions and helping developers and landlords break the law,” said Susan Hunter, a LATU solidarity caseworker.

Ellis — developers’ favorite law

The Ellis Act is a statewide law, passed in 1985, that allows owners to evict tenants from rent-controlled units even if the tenant has done nothing wrong (a “no-fault” eviction). Tenants with rent control generally have pretty good eviction protections, so the Ellis Act has become the primary tool for landlords to clear out long-term tenants that pay low rents.

Since 2001, the Ellis Act has been responsible for over 25,000 evictions from rent-controlled apartments in LA alone — and probably thousands more have been coerced into leaving through threats of an Ellis. That means likely hundreds of thousands of people have been uprooted from their homes in LA because of this law.

And its use only seems to be increasing as developers and investors spread the word about how profitable its use can be for them — the annual number of Ellis evictions in Los Angeles doubled between 2013 and 2016.

According to its proponents, the Ellis Act exists so that “mom and pop” landlords can exit the market. That is, we don’t want to force anyone to be a landlord, so they should be able to evict tenants in order to use their property for another purpose. (Nevermind the people living in those homes who deserve the basic right to shelter and to stay in place.)

The reality is that the Ellis Act is used for rampant real estate speculation. An analysis by the LA Times found that at least 51% of LA properties taken off the market by the Ellis Act “had been purchased within the previous year.”

As Erin McElroy of the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project (AEMP) puts it: “In other words, Ellis Act evictions are overwhelmingly a real estate speculation tool used by investors rather than the last resort of longtime small landlords.”

Who does HCID serve?

Now, as if the Ellis Act weren’t bad enough on its own, the very agency in charge of protecting tenants is allowing landlords to get around the law. LA’s regulations on this are crystal clear: if landlords want to evict someone using the Ellis Act, they have to provide a certain amount of relocation money, determined by a variety of factors, within 15 days of serving the tenant the notice to move out.

But it’s not being enforced. According to Susan Hunter, one HCID employee, Barbara Brascia, even told a tenant directly that “it doesn’t matter” that the landlord didn’t have the relocation money in time.

And even when a landlord does appear to have put money into a relocation account for a tenant, it can be exceedingly difficult for them to access, and comes with time-consuming, paternalistic, and invasive requirements.

For example, Patricia Sanchez — a monolingual Spanish-speaker being evicted by the notorious Wurstkuche restaurant owners Tyler Wilson and Joseph Pitruzelli — only received one document from HCID about her relocation money, which was in English, had no specific instructions, and was filled with complex legal language. (I’m a law student and could barely understand what it was saying.)

Plus, before she can actually access the money she’s legally entitled to, she must provide detailed information and proof to HCID about the next place she’s moving, the security deposit and first month’s rent, and the moving costs she’s incurring. Just to get the money, she has to make a formal request that runs through the attorney who’s representing the landlords who are evicting her.

LATU presented four demands to HCID at the protest:

  1. Retract all no-fault evictions where the tenant didn’t receive relocation money in time;
  2. Stop granting Ellis Act approval to slumlords that break the law and fail to maintain their buildings;
  3. Fire the private contractor, CPSI, that the city pays to oversee this process;
  4. Overhaul the rent-stabilization division and fire the upper management team that has consistently failed to protect tenants in these and other situations.

HCID and all its staff have been put on notice that the bureaucrats aren’t safe from the increasingly militant tenants movement in Los Angeles.

With other decisions related to tenant organizing currently under the aegis of HCID — for example, City Council just recently directed HCID to immediately come up with policy recommendations to preserve the 11,000+ units of “affordable housing” in LA that are set to expire within the next 5 years — it will be interesting to see if LATU targets HCID again soon.