Long Beach leaders likely to impose a freeze on evictions for remodels

David Blake moved from North Carolina to California two years ago to begin work as a caretaker for a 65-year-old client who had lived in a Recreation Park apartment for almost a decade. But over the past year he’s had to balance caring for her and staving off eviction notices she’s received during the pandemic.

Blake, who lives with the elderly woman, said that his client’s rent had remained stable at about $900 per month under a previous owner but things changed when the building was sold to a large property management group.

He said the woman’s rent was almost immediately raised from $900 to almost $1,400, adding that others in the building received increases of almost $700. However, those new rents did not go into effect because of state law that prohibits rent increases over 5% annually.

That’s when the eviction notices started, Blake said.

The first came right around the start of the pandemic, which Blake understood to be illegal, so he fought it up to the day the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department was supposed to start enforcing the move-out orders. 
The sheriffs never came and the eviction notice was rescinded.

The second notice came on Christmas Day, and attached was a permit for remodel work that Blake said included installing new countertops and a new water heater, things that were not needed but he viewed as a workaround to laws protecting tenants from evictions.

The Long Beach City Council on Tuesday will vote on a moratorium that would block these kinds of evictions, which are allowed if landlords are pursuing remodels to buildings. It also calls for city workers to verify renovation plans to ensure that the work being done actually requires a tenant to vacate the property.

Property owners and tenants rights groups disagree over how broadly the ban should be applied.

Mike Murchison, a lobbyist who represents small rental property owners, said that the council shouldn’t draft a citywide policy to address a few bad actors, which typically are larger rental property operators.

“If there are a few bad landlord actors it doesn’t represent the majority of those in Long Beach, which there are roughly 7,500,” Murchison said.

The item before council on Tuesday would enact an indefinite pause on evictions for renovations while the City Council can devise a policy with input from stakeholders including Long Beach Residents Empowered, the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles and the California Apartment Association “to create a program that ensures housing units in Long Beach can be upgraded while tenants are protected from permanent displacement in such situations,” according to a press release from councilmembers Suely Saro and Cindy Allen, who proposed the item.

Murchison said he was supportive of that kind of dialogue between rental property owners and tenants groups to get a better view of what exactly is going on and developing a more precise way of addressing the problem actors rather than penalizing property owners, some of whom haven’t been able to collect rents for over a year.

Susanne Browne, a senior attorney with the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, one of the groups being asked to come to the negotiating table, said there shouldn’t be any exceptions made in the policy.

“It’s really unfortunate we’re looking at a potential policy that would leave people out that have been fighting on the front lines to get this adopted,” Browne said, recognizing the tenants that have been pleading for months for the council to address the issue.

“I’m hopeful that the council will include all tenants in the moratorium so that everyone is protected from substantial-remodel evictions,” she added.

Regardless of how broad the moratorium ends up being, Rich Anthony, a deputy city attorney for Long Beach said it’s likely that tenants won’t be able to be evicted until after September, the point when a Los Angeles County eviction moratorium is expected to be lifted.

Anthony said that as of now the city is likely to honor any permits acquired by landlords prior to the July 6 meeting.

Blake, the renter, said that the city’s substantial remodel loophole needs to be addressed but said that the council should also address tenant harassment, possibly raising fines. He hopes that the council adopts the moratorium that applies to all units, even those with permits already issued for remodel work.

“As far as I’m concerned it’s a crime against humanity,” Blake said of evictions. “When it’s the middle of a pandemic and people are willing to kick an old lady out into the street, it’s not right.”

A state law passed in 2019 that put limits on residential rent increases and set rules for when residents could be evicted for “no-fault” reasons, including a substantial remodel. But some argue this exception opened a loophole that some have exploited.

The City Council tried to address the issue in February 2020 by adopting an ordinance that requires permits to be pulled and presented to the tenant before they could be pushed out, but renters in the city allege that the law has continued to be flouted.

Tenants rights organizations say “substantial remodels” have been used as a way to evict people during the pandemic and say that closing the loophole is the right thing to do.

“There are tenants there dealing with habitably issues that are getting the follow up that was long overdue and now they’re getting evicted,” said Abraham Zavala, a tenant organizer with Long Beach Residents Empowered. “Others are getting pushed out for aesthetic reasons and then having their units raised to market value.”

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Jason Ruiz covers City Hall and politics for the Long Beach Post.
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