The Ellis Act strikes again.
Last June Patricia Sánchez and her family received an Ellis Act Notice of Intent from Weiner King Tyler Wilson, which gave her warning that she would have one year before being evicted from her home for no cause. That news wasn’t something she would have expected, but she would soon learn that Ellis Act evictions are the secret tool of landlords wanting to empty usually stable rent-controlled apartments.
At that time, Patricia and her family had lived on Vernon Avenue for 25 years and a lot was already changing. When she moved to the neighborhood Rose Ave was lined with Latinx bakeries and shops — her neighbors were a community. Then, you could get a two-bedroom for $500 per month.
Nowadays, many of those neighbors no longer live in Venice — they have fled to relatively cheaper neighborhoods such as South Central LA or Inglewood. Their departures began around ten years ago as an influx of young white people from New York and other metropolitan areas flooded into the then-funky beach town with affordable rents. As people got evicted around her Patricia remembers thinking “we have to go.”
She had to find an apartment that would accommodate her, her husband, a three-year-old daughter and twelve-year-old son, who had been diagnosed with autism. When looking for apartments Patricia found that even in the supposedly more “affordable” areas, rents were too expensive to move.
This dilemma is increasingly becoming a problem for renters in LA, although it’s something that many have faced for decades. Even if you are lucky enough to find a rent stabilized (“RSO”) apartment, the chance of finding another one is slim. Affordable housing is disappearing in LA as affluent yuppies continue to flock to the city.
In theory, this shouldn’t be a huge problem for tenants of RSO buildings. They have protection from “no cause” evictions, meaning that their landlords can only evict them, or refuse to renew their lease, for an actual violation of the lease such as non-payment of rent.
But the 1985 Ellis Act in California changed this. The Ellis Act is a state law that allows landlords to evict tenants for no cause if the landlord intends to go out of the rental business altogether. The idea behind the law is based on the understanding of landlord as businessman, instead of provider of a human right, and the belief that the state cannot force anyone to stay in business.
Across California, however, Ellis Act evictions are repeatedly used to force tenants out of their long-term homes, only for the apartments to be re-tenanted months later. Less conspicuously, landlords will transition their units into Airbnbs, performing essentially the same services as a landlord for a much larger profit, while contributing to the city’s homelessness epidemic. In the city of Los Angeles alone, more than 60,000 residents have been displaced through official Ellis evictions since 2001, with likely many more harassed out of their homes by other means including the constant threat of having an ellis eviction filed.
Patricia’s story is one example. In April 2018 a cagey company called “Brick and Mortar LLC” bought Patricia’s building. The address of Brick and Mortar LLC belongs to a coffee shop owned by Tyler Wilson, who also runs Wurstküche, the restaurant that has sat next to Patricia’s home for the past 7 years (for a taste of some of the ongoing hatred Wilson has already garnered, check out www.wurstkuchesucks.com). By June, Wilson served Patricia’s family a Notice of Intent to perform an Ellis Act eviction. Because of her son’s disability, Patricia’s family was given a year before they had to move out, compared to the 120 days afforded most tenants. Under the Ellis Act, once that time runs out the landlord can immediately file an Unlawful Detainer and remove remaining tenants.
When Tyler Wilson bought the building, other problems began as well. Wilson removed the front gate to her yard, while also removing the security he had previously used in front of her apartment to prevent people from throwing bottles, cans, and cigarettes into her yard. This behavior had been a problem when Wurstküche first moved in, and when the security was removed all the same problems returned. Wilson also began to further violate Patricia’s family’s privacy by sending people into Patricia’s apartment without her permission.
Other strange behavior included Wilson beginning to use the other apartment in Patricia’s duplex as a place for his employees to store changes of clothes. Neighbors saw them walking back and form from Wurstküche with clothes on hangers. While it’s complex to trace the web of corporations involved with the property ownership back to Wilson, Patricia and the LA Tenants Union have seen documentation that explicitly does so.
Being subjected to this kind of harassment is exhausting and dehumanizing. The LA City Council is finally considering a tenant anti-harassment bill that, if written correctly, could potentially protect tenants from some of this behavior. But, as the law is now, the city views this kind of landlord abuse as a private issue and will do nothing about it.
Besides mistreating Patricia’s family, Tyler Wilson also apparently knows very little about the land-use laws controlling the property that he owns. Since Patricia lives in a state-defined “coastal-zone,” the Mello Act stipulates that any developer seeking to demolish affordable housing must replace it with more affordable housing. As such, it’s going to be very hard for Wilson to expand his restaurant or put a parking lot where Patricia has lived for over 20 years. Tyler has not even begun to file permits with the City Planning Department. One hope of Patricia and LATU is that Wilson will try to figure out if his project is even possible before removing a family from their home.
Patricia understands why Wilson is doing this in theory. She understands that he wants to make money, but wishes he would think about the impacts of his (selfish) actions on her family. The problem in practice for Patricia and others is, of course, that where providing housing is a business, making money will always come at the expense of people’s well-beings and ability to stay in their homes.