Boasting three high-rise buildings and 712 residential units, the Barrington Plaza apartment complex was the largest privately built apartment complex west of Chicago when it was originally completed at 11740 Wilshire Blvd. in 1962.
Santa Monica-based firm Douglas Emmett & Co. — who is the main defendant in a lawsuit filed by the tenants at Barrington Plaza — acquired the building in 1998 for approximately $100 million. At that point, it was still the 10th largest building in Los Angeles County, and the purchase further cemented the firm as a dominant figure in the West Los Angeles commercial real estate market.
However, the flaws of the outdated building codes under which Barrington Plaza was constructed began to reveal themselves first in 2013 when a fire broke out on the 11th floor, injuring five residents — including a two-year-old girl — and three firefighters. It caught fire again in 2020, this one claiming the life of a 19-year-old living at the complex.
One of the major contributing factors to these fires was the fact that the complex does not have fire sprinklers installed. Los Angeles’ fire safety rules don’t require sprinklers for residential high-rise buildings built between 1943 and 1974 because sprinklers were not required to be installed in high-rise buildings until 1974.
Several amendments were made to the code that applied to buildings built prior to 1943 and to non-residential high-rise buildings, leaving a handful of residential high-rises that did not have sprinklers installed. This became a major point of scrutiny after the 2020 fire, so Douglas Emmett responded by serving 120-day eviction notices on May 8 this year to clear out the units in order to install the much-needed fire sprinklers.
In order to carry this mass eviction out legally, the firm is attempting to invoke the Ellis Act by taking the units off of the rental market, a move the tenants of those units feel is disingenuous to the purpose of the law, and believe that the tenants should instead be temporarily relocated.
The Ellis Act is the more common name for California Government Code Sections 7060-7060.7, a state law that was originally intended to give smaller ‘mom and pop’ landlords an easy way out of the rental market by allowing them to legally evict their entire tenant base for that purpose. It provides certain rules for providing relocation assistance to tenants through financial support and other means.
However, according to the Coalition for Economic Survival’s Larry Gross — who has worked with former 11th District councilmember Mike Bonin and the Barrington Plaza tenants on this situation — the law is now used as a loophole for firms like Douglas Emmett to remove units from the market that are below market rent. In this case, all of the units at Barrington Plaza fall under the Los Angeles Rent Stabilization Ordinance (LARSO).
“Mom and Pop landlords don’t have the ability or the capital to replace those units,” Gross told Westside Voice. “So what’s happening with the Ellis Act is all speculators and Wall Street entities.”
Under this ordinance, there are several just cause reasons for which to evict tenants, one of which relates to removing units from the market. However, it requires landlords to attempt to reclaim units in this way in order to either demolish or permanently remove the unit from the rental market.
This stipulation is more strict than the Ellis Act, which allows units to return to the rental market under two conditions: that they be returned at the rent which the evicted tenant was paying for at least five years, and the unit must be offered to its previous tenant first for at least 10 years following the eviction.
Douglas Emmett has claimed they are “undecided” on what to do with the units on official documents. In a press release sent out and submitted with the SEC the day eviction notices were served, Douglas Emmett noted it was taking the units off the market to “comply with city directives to install fire sprinklers and other life safety improvements throughout the towers.”
Additionally, the firm brought scrutiny to the most recent race for the 11th District council seat on the Los Angeles City Council — the district in which Barrington Plaza is located — by giving more than $400,000 in campaign donations to the race’s eventual winner: Traci Park.
Barrington Plaza’s current residents believe these actions demonstrate Douglas Emmett’s disingenuous intentions with the units. The Barrington Plaza Tenant Association responded by filing a lawsuit in Los Angeles Superior Court (Case #23STCV13323) on June 12, alleging that Douglas Emmett is abusing the Ellis Act by using it to evict tenants to make improvements and reintroduce those units, violating the LARSO.
“If the Landlords were planning, in good faith, to either demolish Barrington Plaza or permanently remove it from rental housing use, and they had no plans for Barrington Plaza’s future use, they would not be installing sprinklers in the three towers at a reported cost of over $300 million,” the lawsuit reads.
Park has maintained that she would not be influenced by money, but that did not quell the concerns of detractors including her opponent: Erin Darling. She introduced a motion on May 9 — the day after the eviction notices were served — that would have the Los Angeles Housing Department update residents every 30 days on relocation efforts for tenants being evicted by Douglas Emmett.
At the meeting on June 20 where that motion was approved by the L.A. City Council, Park spoke on the motion and noted that she had heard these accusations from tenants at Barrington Plaza, as well as concerns that Douglas Emmett will attempt to deduct the savings people received from lowered pandemic rates from relocation assistance.
Along with reporting on the status of tenants every 30 days, the motion also asks for a report back on the options that the city has to ensure that tenants are not permanently displaced, within which Park is expecting to have information on what the city can do to ensure the law is followed. However, the city attorney’s office declined to make comments on the topic during the open session.
This case has become a hot topic for local housing activists because of the precedent it would set should Douglas Emmett succeed. The almost 600 tenants that would be evicted from the complex would make this the largest eviction in Los Angeles in years, and Gross believes it would embolden other landlords of large complexes to conduct similar evictions to remove rent-controlled or stabilized units from the market.
“There’s a huge worry about giving them the green light,” Gross said.
According to the L.A. Superior Court website, a Case Management conference— where the judge meets with the attorneys from both parties to discuss how to handle the case — will be held on Nov. 1, notably almost a month after the eviction deadline of Sept. 5. Gross and the tenants are hoping that a judge will grant residents a temporary injunction against the evictions while the suit is proceeding, allowing them to stay in their units while the suit is underway.