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Real Estate

Jun. 14, 2024

Judge rules in favor of tenants facing mass eviction

The question of whether Barrington Plaza's landlord could legally evict the tenants hinged on what constituted a property's "permanent" removal from the rental market.

A Los Angeles County judge on Thursday ruled in favor of tenants in one of the largest eviction cases in recent history, finding that landlord Douglas Emmett Inc.'s actions were inconsistent with California's Ellis Act. The decision prevents the eviction of hundreds of tenants from the Barrington Plaza complex in West Los Angeles.

Tenant advocates had feared a ruling in favor of the landlord would encourage widespread evictions in rent-controlled apartments across the state, allowing landlords to renovate units and raise rents. Superior Court Judge H. Jay Ford III determined that Barrington Plaza's landlord did not intend to exit the rental market, a requirement under the Ellis Act, but instead planned to relet the apartments after completing renovations, including fire safety updates.

During a seven-day bench trial, a critical issue was the interpretation of "permanent removal" of a unit from the rental market. Ford noted that both parties agreed that "permanent" means the opposite of "temporary." The landlord argued that "permanent" referred to an indefinite period that was neither short-term nor eternal, while tenants emphasized the landlord's intent to relet the units, which they argued was inconsistent with a permanent withdrawal.

"The court agrees with the tenants," Ford wrote, affirming that the landlord's intent to relet the units contradicted the notion of permanent removal from the rental market.

Tenants' counsel, Frances M. Campbell, celebrated the decision, stating, "This affirms what the Ellis Act is for. It's for mom-and-pop landlords who don't want to be landlords anymore and use their land for something else. The judge is basically saying, you can't use the Ellis Act to remodel and renovate for the purpose of going back into business."

"If the judge found another way, every single landlord and every place that has rent control would get those renovations ready to go and evict tenants for the purpose of updating. That would be an end-run around rent control, not just in LA but anywhere else they have rent control," Campbell continued.

The Ellis Act, enacted in 1985, allows landlords to exit the residential rental market. However, local ordinances, such as the Los Angeles Rent Stabilization Ordinance, require landlords to follow specific rules if they intend to use the Ellis Act. These rules include a restriction on reletting units for five years unless they are offered at the rent charged when they were taken off the market.

Ford's ruling maintains the status quo for Ellis Act evictions, preventing landlords from evicting tenants under the guise of renovations only to relet the units at higher rents. Campbell warned that a contrary ruling would have allowed landlords to sidestep rent control laws by evicting tenants for renovations, effectively ending rent control protections.

Douglas Emmett's vice president of investor relations, Stuart McElhinney, and the company's attorneys with DLA Piper US, did not respond to telephoned and emailed requests for comment.

David M. Almaraz of Grant Shenon APLC, who assisted a Barrington Plaza tenant in reaching a settlement with Douglas Emmett, emphasized the necessity of a Tenant Habitability Plan for renovations. Los Angeles' Tenant Habitability Plan requires landlords to temporarily relocate tenants to similar accommodations during renovations and then return them to their apartments. Almaraz questioned the feasibility of such a plan in this case, given the safety hazards and extensive renovations needed.

"I can't imagine they're going to move forward with the renovations if the tenants stay there. Are they going to live in a building that has a fire hazard? Are they going to abandon the building?" Almaraz asked.

Douglas Emmett served eviction notices to 577 units in Barrington Plaza in May 2023, citing the need to install sprinklers and other safety measures following fires in 2013 and 2020. Monique Gomez, a tenant since November 2020, helped organize the Barrington Plaza Tenant Association to represent the affected tenants. Approximately 97 units remain occupied. Campbell filed a lawsuit on behalf of the association in June 2023.

During the trial, evidence showed that Douglas Emmett planned substantial renovations to improve the main entrance, garage, balconies, and other areas of Barrington Plaza. Gomez expressed her relief and satisfaction with the ruling, saying it reflected the tenants' perseverance and dedication to protecting their rights.

"This was for all of Los Angeles, and not just for us," Gomez said. "The tenants remained steadfast in protecting our rights and fostering change in our city and state."

The case is Barrington Plaza Tenant Association v. Douglas Emmett Inc., et al., 23STCV13323 (L.A. Super. Ct., filed June 12, 2023).


Antoine Abou-Diwan

Daily Journal Staff Writer

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