Last November, the tenants of the Madison Hotel, a 220-room residential hotel in downtown Los Angeles, sued the property owners for conditions they described as "untenantable." Among the complaints listed: Trash wasn't being collected within the building, leading to a cockroach infestation; the elevator frequently broke and wasn't fixed; the communal TV room and lobby were stripped of furniture; mold grew up the walls; there was a bedbug infestation; and the landlord allegedly threatened to forcibly remove certain tenants, some of whom said they were harassed about their sexual orientation or their disabilities.
The tenants who sued—there were 15, most of them elderly, disabled, or military veterans—hoped that a lawsuit would make the Madison Hotel, which has some of the last affordable housing units in downtown LA, habitable again. But so far, it hasn't.
"Essentially, for the last month and a half, the owners have ignored that there's a lawsuit," said Jeanne Nishimoto, attorney at the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles. "They weren't even turning on the heat in the building when it was very cold. And it's an all-concrete building—you can guess how cold it gets in there." (William Holdings, LLC, one of the defendants in the law suit, declined to comment for this story.)
Eventually, the tenants filed a court order to ensure the building was kept at a temperature of 70 degrees during the day and 65 degrees at night. But not much else has changed, and it's unlikely to, as long as the low-income residents of the Madison Hotel occupy potentially profitable real estate. According to the people familiar with the situation, landlords using underhanded tactics to evict tenants in Los Angeles goes much further than just the Madison Hotel.
"We definitely [have seen] an increase in harassment and intimidation throughout the city of Los Angeles," said Larry Gross, executive director of the Coalition for Economic Survival, and one of the loudest voices for tenants' rights in the city. Those most vulnerable to harassment are the poor, the elderly, and immigrants who don't speak English, he said. "They get papers telling them to get out, and in most cases they do. They don't know they have an opportunity to fight it."
Figures from the Housing Rights Center (HRC) show that official harassment complaints have more than doubled within two years: There were 251 complaints in fiscal year 2012–2013; by 2014–2015, there were 524. Chancela Al-Mansour, executive director of the HRC, said that the numbers don't differentiate between tenants complaining of harassment from landlords or other tenants. "Although, in Los Angeles, the large majority of harassment complaints are made by a tenant against the landlord," she wrote in an email.
The city of Los Angeles doesn't have a specific anti-tenant harassment ordinance, but the city of Santa Monica—a neighborhood on LA's west side, and technically a separate city—does keep track of tenant harassment. Complaints there by renters have similarly spiked in recent years: 38 complaints in 2012–2013 versus 81 complaints in 2014–2015. To date, there have already been 55 in this fiscal year.
"We are aware that tenant harassment continues to be a problem," said Adam Radinsky, chief of Santa Monica's Consumer Protection Division. "But I'm cautious about drawing conclusions." He explained that this might be the result of tenants in Santa Monica getting smarter about their rights. "It could also be that buildings are being bought by new owners, or even by banks after foreclosure who are trying to evict tenants without being fully aware of the law."
Others agree that the numbers don't tell the whole story. One reason for the increase could be due to cash-strapped tenants filing harassment complaints to give them extra time to muster-up the rent, said Melissa Marsh, an LA-based attorney who represents both tenants and landlords. "We've had a lot of job losses in the last couple of months, despite what you're hearing in the media."
Los Angeles is the least affordable rental market in the US, according to a study by UCLA. Of those at the bottom 20 percent of the income ladder, nearly 78 percent pay half or more of their income on housing (the gold-standard is considered 30 percent of income spent on rent). Seven out of the ten most overcrowded zip-codes in the country are in LA, and the city has the largest number of chronically homeless people in the nation.
LA's poorest are being squeezed to the fringes of the city or out onto the streets by the lack of affordable housing. Since 2001, nearly 19,000 rental units in LA have disappeared through the Ellis Act (a law that allows property owners to evict a tenant in order to remove the unit from the rental market, as long as they don't re-rent within a certain period). As of 2014, there was a deficit of 376,735 affordable homes needed for extremely low-income renters—at the same time, residential development in LA is booming and rental costs are steadily increasing.
The latest housing bubble inflating property prices in the city almost certainly drives tenant harassment complaints, said Dianne Prado, a senior staff attorney at the Inner City Law Center. "Share holders who own these LLC's, they come in, they don't do their due diligence or actually care what condition these buildings are in. All they're doing is coming in to purchase these buildings to flip it to see how much more money they can make."
Marsh is keen to distinguish between official types of harassment (landlords making threats or illegally entering apartments, for example) and building and safety code violations (like allowing a building to deteriorate). But Steve Diaz, community organizer at the Community Action Network, said it's not always that simple. "Landlords use a wide range of ways to get what they want."
A few years ago, the owner of another residential hotel in downtown LA began construction on a building, with the intent to push the tenants out, according to Diaz. "And then the next thing, these tenants got a knock on the door, 'Hey, I'm the new manager, would you like to move for $500?' That's some of the worst kind of harassment, right there."
The city is paying attention to the problem—on the surface at least. Three city council motions to address things like the affordable housing crisis and the Rent Stabilization Act are pending. But Gross isn't convinced this is a sign that things are about to change. "I think this is a test to see how serious the city is in wanting to address the crisis we're facing. When you try to address unbridled development in the city, you're talking about a very powerful force that has tremendous resources, and which provides a lot of campaign contributions."
In the meantime, Marsh says renters should "smarten-up" about their rights, like taking the time to read through a lease before signing it. "Everyone has a duty and obligation to educate themselves about their responsibilities and rights."
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