By Mike Bonin

As rising eviction rates cause fear of yet another spike in homelessness and housing insecurity, hundreds of renters in West L.A. are about to be thrown out of their homes in the largest mass eviction in Los Angeles in decades. It would set a dangerous precedent – and it is based on lies and fraud.

Corporate real estate giant Douglas Emmett Inc. is pushing to evict every tenant from the 712 rent-regulated units of Barrington Plaza. These are middle- and working-class families, seniors, and young professionals getting a start in life. They include rideshare drivers, retail employees, nurses, social workers, and school teachers. Some have lived there for decades.

The three high-rise towers at Barrington Plaza are unsafe and sorely need fire sprinklers. Everyone agrees on that. After a fatal fire there in 2020, I proposed that the city mandate sprinklers in 55 Los Angeles high rises that lack them because they were built before the city required sprinklers in new buildings. But now Douglas Emmett says installing the sprinklers will cost them $300 million. The corporation contends that a state law called the Ellis Act allows them to evict everyone to do so.

Let’s deconstruct their claims:

First, Douglas Emmett Inc. is abusing the Ellis Act.

The state law allows property owners to get out of the rental business under certain circumstances. Douglas Emmett Inc. has not decided to get out of the rental business. In fact, one company representative said they intend to re-rent the apartments following the installation of sprinklers. (Conveniently, they would then be able to reset the rents at substantially higher market rates.)

The Los Angeles Housing Department and City Attorney Hydee Feldstein-Soto claim that the city has no authority to stop these evictions. They are dead wrong.

First, the Ellis Act does not override local “procedural protections designed to prevent abuse of the right to evict tenants.” Second, the City’s own Rent Stabilization Ordinance requires that Ellis Act evictions be used “in good faith” to demolish or permanently remove units from rental housing use.

Installing sprinklers with an intent to re-rent units upon completion does not necessitate permanent removal.  In fact, the city’s Tenant Habitability Program was created specifically for cases like this – to mitigate disruption and displacement caused by large-scale renovation work by providing temporary housing, financial assistance, and procedures that allow tenants to remain in their units.

The Housing Department should have insisted that Douglas Emmett Inc. install fire sprinklers in a way that does not lead to the permanent eviction of tenants. It can and should still do so.

The Ellis Act, which the real estate industry got the legislature to adopt in 1985, was meant to allow “mom & pop” landlords to get out of the rental business. It is not an escape hatch for billion-dollar corporations like Douglas Emmett Inc. (The company owns 68 office buildings and 10 apartment buildings with over 2,600 apartments in L.A.  It has $9.7 billion in assets and last year had total revenues of $993 million. Its CEO, Jordan Kaplan, earns about $9 million a year. The company is a major political donor, supporting pro-landlord candidates, and funding the campaign opposing Measure ULA, which 58% of voters approved to fund affordable housing and support for vulnerable renters facing unfair evictions.

Second, Douglas Emmett Inc is using bogus numbers.

Experts in installing fire sprinklers say the company’s estimated cost is wildly exaggerated, and that there is no need to evict tenants. Todd W. Golden, business manager of Sprinkler Fitters Local Union 709 – who has 34 years of experience installing sprinklers – recently visited Barrington Plaza at the request of the tenants and said the towers could be retrofitted with sprinklers without displacing tenants. “The price [of installing fire sprinklers] would be closer to $30 million than $300 million,” he noted.  In a letter to city officials, Randy D. Roxson, the executive director of the Sprinkler Fitters Association of California, made a similar assessment, noting that the Bunker Hill Towers Apartments “were recently retrofitted with fire sprinklers at a total cost of about $7.5 million. And no tenants were displaced during the retrofit project.” He said other high-rise apartments had the same experience.

Third, this is a dangerous precedent and a citywide problem.

While tenants at Barrington Plaza are challenging the mass eviction in court, this is a city-wide problem that threatens to dramatically destabilize our rental housing stock across Los Angeles.  If city officials allow Douglas Emmett Inc. to get away with this scam, the landlords of many of the other 54 residential high-rises without sprinklers – comprising more than 10,000 units located in seven different City Council districts — could follow suit, and use the installation of fire sprinklers as an excuse to permanently evict the tenants, undertake the installation, and then recruit more affluent tenants who can pay higher rents.

If you don’t think there’s a huge risk of more evictions to follow, keep this in mind: Douglas Emmett Inc. owns several of these other buildings, as does Donald Sterling, the Prime Group (owner of Park La Brea), and other notorious corporate landlords.  Evictions from these buildings would create a great deal of human suffering, reduce the supply of affordable apartments, and make it harder to reduce homelessness.

The City is sitting by while this ticking time bomb is set to explode. It can and must act to stop these evictions and protect these tenants. There are specific, concrete actions the City can take:

  • The Mayor or City Council can direct the Housing Department to investigate Douglas Emmett Inc’s violation of the “good faith” requirement and take enforcement actions to prevent any illegal eviction at Barrington Plaza.
  • The City Council can request the City Attorney investigate Douglas Emmett Inc’s potential misconduct with regard to Ellis Act evictions and direct the City Attorney to file affirmative litigation seeking all available relief to redress these violations and prevent future misconduct.
  • The City Council can investigate the potential for similar abuse of no-fault evictions citywide, and identify options to strengthen local implementation and enforcement of the Ellis Act and the Tenant Habitability Program to stop bad-faith evictions and prevent mass evictions.
  • The City can conduct an analysis of the cost of installing sprinklers in the 55 high-rise apartment buildings lacking sprinklers and require these corporate landlords to install sprinklers without evicting the tenants.

Douglas Emmett Inc. has deep pockets and will fight any City action to support the tenants. But this is a fight Los Angeles needs to wage. Rents in L.A. are soaring much faster than wages are rising. While we work to produce more much-needed affordable housing, we must also preserve the affordable housing we already have, and protect tenants from unfair rent increases and evictions.

Mike Bonin represented the 11th Council District on the Los Angeles City Council from 2013 to 2022.

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