Evicted: How the 1985 Ellis Act can be used to kick you out of your rent controlled apartment

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Independent filmmaker Jianna Maarten pays $1,800 dollars a month for her apartment, which she shares with her elderly mother. It’s a large unit in a 1920s-era building with plenty of space and old Hollywood charm and architectural details. There’s a chandelier in the formal dining room and original oak flooring. She had assumed they would be living in the rent controlled apartment for many more years, but in March she got an eviction notice in her mailbox.

“It said, ‘you are going to evicted,'” says Maarten. “You have a 120 days or less. You have to get out.”

Jianna Maarten in her apartment building. She says she’s been a responsible tenant for years and was shocked to get an Ellis Act eviction notice. “Basically, the Ellis Act tells us that we don’t have a right to our homes,” says Maarten. “And at any moment they can come in an evict you. They have that power.” (Photo: Saul Gonzalez) (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Maarten was the recipient of an Ellis Act eviction notice. Enacted in 1985, the Ellis Act is a California law that allows landlords to evict all their tenants from rent controlled apartment buildings and then either demolish the buildings or turn them into condominiums.

The Ellis Act was intended to help small mom and pop landlords, who were tired of the pressures of owning apartment buildings, sell their properties without fear of lawsuits from tenants and earn a little profit.

However, critics of the law say in recent years developers have turned it into a real estate Frankenstein’s monster. “The law has been totally corrupted,” says LA housing advocate Larry Gross of the Coalition for Economic Survival. “It’s being used by big developers who are purchasing for the sole purpose of evicting the tenants and converting those buildings to high price housing.”

Larry Gross, a tenants’ rights advocate with the LA-based Coalition for Economic Survival says Ellis Act evictions are making the city’s affordable housing crisis worse as developers replace affordable apartments  protected by rent control with high priced units and condominiums. (Photo: Saul Gonzalez) (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

How it works

If a development company buys an apartment building, tears it down and builds a bigger one, it can charge much higher rents in the new building as long as a handful of the new apartments are set aside as affordable housing.

But critics say that the number of affordable apartments offered in a new building usually doesn’t match the number of rent controlled units lost. For Los Angeles, this results in more people struggling to find places to live.

Last year, more than 1,000 rent controlled apartments in LA were removed from the market using Ellis, a threefold increase since 2013.

According to Larry Gross, Ellis Act evictions have a particular geographic pattern in Los Angeles resembling the Nike shoe “swoosh.” Superimposed on the city the “swoosh” would start in Hollywood and Echo Park and move south and west through Koreatown and out through West Los Angeles.

“These are the hotspots,” says Gross. “Where property values are increasing and developers are drooling over the ability to cash-in and make huge profits at the expense of people who are currently living there.”

Jianna Maarten’s building was bought by Wiseman Residential, a company with a reputation for using the Ellis Act to oust tenants. “They evict rent controlled buildings like ours and they raze them to the ground,” says Maarten. “And then they build luxury housing, luxury apartments and condos. And ‘luxury ‘meaning $2,500 one bedrooms, the ones that you see popping up all over Los Angeles in the last five to eight years.”

Wiseman Residential declined repeated requests by KCRW for an interview.

Wiseman Development has garnered a particular reputation in Los Angeles for its aggressive use of the Ellis Act. Critics say it uses the law to tear down older and smaller buildings and replace them with bigger buildings where most tenants are charged much higher rents. KCRW requests for an interview were declined by the company. (Photo: Saul Gonzalez) (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Fred Sutton, government affairs manager for the Apartment Association of Greater Los Angeles, which represents LA landlords says that when you factor in the total number of renters in Los Angeles, only a small percentage of them have been affected by Ellis Act evictions. “It’s easy to point to and use as a scapegoat. But people who are using Ellis, it is very prescriptive in how it is used,” says Sutton.

Sutton also maintains that Ellis provides certain protections for tenants, like a 120 day eviction notice and a provision requiring landlords to pay for the cost of moving displaced tenants to new buildings.

Fred Sutton is with the Apartment Association of Greater Los Angeles, an industry trade group representing landlords. He says critics of the Ellis Act exaggerate the frequency of its use and that the law offers assistance to displaced tenants. (Photo: Saul Gonzalez) (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

However, tenants like Maarten face a challenging rental market. Even with financial help from her landlord, Maarten thinks it will be nearly impossible to find a comparable apartment in as good of a location for the price she’s now paying

“It’s not like they hold your hand and say ‘here’s your new place to live,’” says Maarten. “They don’t do that. They are like ‘here’s a list of apartments you can go check out.’ It’s not a good list. And there’s a ridiculously small amount of money to move.”

According to Ellis Act critics, the sharing economy has added a new dimension to the conflict over the law. Los Angeles City Attorney Mike Feuer recently filed criminal charges against some LA landlords, accusing them of misusing the Ellis Act to evict tenants so that their rent controlled apartments could be turned into AirBnB rentals.

“We tell tenants who are living in rent controlled units that they literally have a bullseye on their back, says Larry Gross of the Coaliton for Economic Survival. “Every tenant who lives in this city who lives in rent control housing is at risk.”

“It’s this kind of like this secret serpent,” says Maarten. “It strikes without you knowing, when people are comfortable living their lives. And the serpent that is the Ellis Act just strikes and it literally ruins people’s lives.”

KCRW Note: If you are a Los Angeles tenant who’s facing eviction under the Ellis Act, you can find out about your rights and the responsibilities of your landlord by visiting the website for the Los Angeles Housing & Community Development Department.