After 29 years in a rent-controlled apartment three blocks west of Sawtelle Boulevard, by no fault of her own, Renee Akana received an eviction notice.
The building’s owner was clearing all tenants from his eight-unit complex on Butler Avenue so he could retire the property from the rental market, invoking a 1986 state law called the Ellis Act that allows such evictions.
But that wasn’t really his plan. Weeks later, he sought a permit to build 15 rental units on the same lot that wouldn’t be subject to rent control.
Landlords have filed Ellis Act declarations to evict tenants from for more than 23,000 rent-stabilized housing units in the city of Los Angeles since 2001, according to the affordable housing nonprofit Coalition for Economic Survival.
“It’s just the tip of the iceberg,” fears Coalition for Economic Survival Executive Director Larry Gross. “As a result of the Ellis Act, displacement has continued and the hardships for renters have continued. You can see it in the numbers. It’s going to get a lot worse before it gets better.”
Properties subject to Ellis Act evictions must stay off the rental market for at least five years, and landlords are required to provide relocation fees for tenants. When a unit goes back on the market, landlords must offer displaced renters the first right of refusal at the prior rent-stabilized rate.
Housing advocates contend that such protections are rarely enforced. In response to complaints about abuses in his district, Assemblyman Richard Bloom (D- Santa Monica) is sponsoring legislation that would amend the Ellis Act to make landlords liable for actual and exemplary damages to any displaced tenant if the property illegally reenters the rental market. AB 2364, which was introduced Feb. 14 but has yet to get a vote, would extend required notice for Ellis Act evictions from 120 days to a full year (a protection currently granted to the elderly or physically challenged).
“Despite the historic gains made last year to build more affordable housing, we must keep our foot firmly on the pedal of progress,” reads a statement by Bloom, previously a mayor and council member in Santa Monica. “Building more housing is important, but families, seniors, disabled people and young working adults need immediate help now. We should not be pushing them out of their homes, their communities, because of legal loopholes. This is contrary to the spirit of the Ellis Act when it was passed more than 30 years ago. AB 2364 restores that spirit.”
Even Santa Monica, which has one of the nation’s strongest rent control protections and tenants’ rights organizations, has seen an uptick in Ellis Act declarations and abuses in recent years, says Stephen Lewis, general counsel of the Santa Monica Rent Control Board.
“Santa Monica has definitely seen an increase not only in Ellis Act violations, but also in violations of the spirit of Ellis,” he said.
Lewis is seeing more cases of tenants displaced by Ellis Act evictions reapplying for units in buildings from which they’d been evicted.
“Many tenants who were paying lower rents because their units were rent-controlled and they’d lived at the property for many years report landlords telling them they are not renting their former units, and then they find out they are re renting them at a higher price,” he said.
According to a 2016 report by the Santa Monica Rent Control Board, landlords have withdrawn 2,123 rent-controlled units from the market since 1986. The rate of attrition slowed as the housing market slumped and recovered from 2008 to 2013, but started surging again in 2014. In 2016, for example, 172 rent-controlled units at 23 separate properties fell out of the city’s affordable housing stock.
California Apartment Association spokeswoman Debra Carlton said the trade organization will likely take an “opposed unless amended” position on Bloom’s AB 2364, but is OK with at least one of its provisions: extending the eviction notice period to one year.
“We will ask Assemblyman Bloom to take technical amendments to ensure that the process doesn’t go beyond that one-year timeframe,” Carlton said.
California Apartment Association President Earl Vaughn further elaborated that landlords who invoke the Ellis Act often do so as a response to “extremely strict rent control,” he said. “It’s often the option of last resort.” He also said landlords who the association represents expect a “reasonable rate of return” on their investments and rarely leave the market for more lucrative opportunities.
While not every Ellis Act eviction is of evil intent, landlords who break the law sometimes face consequences.
After Akana received her layoff notice she hired Sabrina Venskus, a land use attorney and former Venice Neighborhood Council member, to take her landlord to court. Venskus settled the case for $250,000 in 2016.
Meanwhile, Venskus is suing the owner of 310 Vernon Ave. in Venice over Ellis Act evictions of five tenants. According to the lawsuit, the landlord evicted tenants in order to demolish the home, but wound up renting it to other people instead.
Gross said the Coalition for Economic Survival applauds Bloom’s legislation but would rather see the Ellis Act overturned in order to protect existing rent-controlled units.
“When those units are lost,” he said, “they will never be replaced.”