A shot of the apartment complex where the notices to vacate were issued after routine mold inspections. Photo by Jason Ruiz.
The properties lining the northern border of Ocean Boulevard in Belmont Shore sit on some of the most prime real estate in Long Beach. The panoramic views of the shore and access to one of the busiest corridors in town make it a fortunate place to call home for those who can afford the rents that easily reach thousands of dollars a month.
Last week, multiple tenants who were living this beachfront dream were rudely awakened by a three-day notice to vacate their units by their property management company, Entourage Property Management LLC.
But they’re not ready to go quietly.
The eviction notices came shortly after one unit in the building, located at the corner of 54th Place and Ocean, requested an examination of what they believed to be black mold, which originated from a leak. After the unit was tested and confirmed to be contaminated, word spread among the tight-knit group of neighbors, who were advised that they too should request an inspection.
Tully Mills and Melissa Rodarte have lived at the property for 11 months and were among those who requested and received an inspection. The couple said they had to inquire about their results nearly a week after the test was performed and were advised by an Entourage employee that despite a leak, one that would not require them to move out of the unit, their unit tested negative for any trace of mold.
Then a notice was posted on their door.
“They say in their last letter to us that there ‘may or may not be a health problem,’ but that’s it. It’s my understanding that you can’t give someone a three-day notice because there may or may not be a health concern,” Mills said. “And if it is that pressing, then why aren’t they giving us more information about what the health problem is?”
According to the California Department of Consumer Affairs, a landlord can terminate a rental contract with a three-day notice, but it would require substantial violations of the rental agreement like failure to pay rent, using the property for illegal activities or materially damaging the property.
Tenants can legally be asked to leave for any reason, with those living in the units less than a year requiring a 30-day notice and those living there for over a year requiring a 60-day notice. Entourage could legally issue these and Mills and Rodarte said they would reluctantly comply, although it would still place them in a bind to find a residence in the city they’ve grown to love.
“All we wanted was time,” Rodarte said. “Our place isn’t destroyed. There’s no reason to have to leave in such a way. I don’t even think the students are gone yet; there’s just nothing out there.”
An email correspondence from Entourage obtained by the Post states the property management’s assessment of the issuing of the notices, noting that health concerns “may or may not exist,” which “may or may not” require construction efforts to eliminate them. The email said the property owner was acting out of an abundance of caution in issuing the notices to vacate.
The clause cited in the notices, however, states that the rental agreement clause pertaining to destruction of the premises was breached. According to those living in the building, only one unit that received an inspection had holes cut into the walls to assess damage, rendering it uninhabitable; the rest had air-tests conducted, which yielded negative results.
That tenant whose unit is under construction declined to go on record, due to potential future litigation that could be filed against Entourage. A representative from Entourage was reached early Friday afternoon and also declined to make a statement on the record.
Faced with the prospects of being homeless and thrust into apartment search mode, the residents spent last Friday night huddled around pizza boxes in their courtyard as members from Housing Long Beach discussed with them their legal options and possible routes of recourse. The non-profit group has been pushing for legislative changes in the city to help bolster the options available to renters in this city, when unlawful evictions and uninhabitable living conditions infringe on their day-to-day lives.
Josh Butler, the group’s executive director, said that the tenants stand a very good chance of winning a challenge against Entourage because of the boldness of the eviction notices, namely that the only tenants to receive a notice were those who requested an inspection. Butler said this was a clear case of retaliation on the part of Entourage, and that HLB would stand by the tenants for as long as they’re willing to fight.
“This is perhaps the most extreme case that I’ve seen and I’ve been doing this kind of work for many years and there’s a lot of gall to give only some of these tenants notices to vacate,” Butler said. “And to give the tenants that asked for inspections notices to vacate in three days claiming that ‘you’re doing so for their benefit.’ It’s a real tough one to swallow.”
The idea that the notices were a response to the requests is hard to verify, but also hard to discount when the Friday-night meeting confirmed those who did not request an inspection had also not received a notice to vacate.
HLB’s push for expanded protections from landlord retaliation in the city has made incremental progress with lawmakers, but still falls short of what the organization strives to achieve. However, the fact that tenants are still routinely evicted without cause or after requests for routine maintenance highlights the gaps that still exist in the city’s ability to protect its renters.
Retaliation by landlords is illegal under state law, but Long Beach maintains it lacks a legal apparatus to uphold those laws. This often leaves tenants at the mercy of a judge, if they choose to take their cases to court—a huge gamble when then burden of proof is placed on the tenant, and an eviction notice that can stay on a renters’ record for 10 years hangs in the balance.
Butler said this particular case, with its combination of a small complex, people who are affluent and know their rights, and neighbors who know each other closely could make it easier to organize a response to what he calls a blatant case of retaliation by the landlord.
“There’s strength in numbers,” Mills said. “We don’t want to be the only ones, but on the flip side of that we don’t want someone else to be the only one.”
One resident who asked to be identified as “Jordan” to protect their identity for fear of future retaliation said he initially received his notice to vacate verbally after calling for a confirmation of his results. An email from the company that inspected Jordan’s unit said “nothing alarming” existed in the dwelling.
“Nothing to be alarmed about is a far cry from a three-day vacate notice,” Jordan said.
After the three-day notice lapsed over the weekend, Jordan reported that Entourage was attempting to decline payment of at least one tenant. After failing to find an Entourage office at the addresses listed on the notice the tenant deposited their rent into a PO box for Entourage with an employee from the post office there to document it in writing. He said the tenant later received another notice, one dotted with inaccuracies, along with a note that the payment would be returned.
Jordan said the reluctance to address issues in the building was consistent with the vibe established when Entourage assumed control of the premises a few years ago.
Jordan said that instead of a friendly greeting, the tenants were met with a barrage of paperwork that made it it clear that complaints about the property were not welcome. He said his request for the mold inspection garnered a comment from the property owner that he was “inconveniencing him” with the test request.
He said that despite sounding cliché, the 10 units were a lot like a family, given that most of them had lived there for so long. But since the notices had been handed down—one tenant has subsequently began the moving process—the once-lively web of neighbors has been reduced to a ghost town.
Despite that, Jordan and the rest of those who were dealt the unexpected blow of an eviction notice are intent on staying. For Jordan, this has been home for nearly a decade, and with the impacted rental market in Southern California—one that has a vacancy rate of less than five percent—there are few rental options out there.
“This is a do-or-die situation,” Jordan said. “I don’t know what the outcome is going to be and that uncertainty is brutal.”