SOUTH PASADENA — Erica Rede never thought the installation of some new appliances could lead to an eviction.
Rede says she’d always paid her rent on time, and had been living in her South Pasadena apartment, with her son (a recent South Pas High grad), for seven years when her building was purchased by a new landlord. Soon after that, a vacant neighboring unit got new flooring, new heating and cooling, a washer and dryer, and a dishwasher. But rather than hope her apartment would soon gain these amenities, Rede worried.
Then, in July 2022 during the countywide Covid eviction moratorium, Rede received an eviction notice, saying “the basis for the termination is that the Premises [sic] will be substantially remodeled” — her fear was coming true.
Rede’s story is all too common across LA County: Through a loophole in the state’s Tenant Protection Act of 2019 (TPA), landlords can push tenants out to facilitate a “substantial remodel” — though what exactly constitutes “substantial” has always been fuzzy.
But next month, the South Pasadena City Council will likely consider a new ordinance to strengthen the city’s existing just cause laws, and potentially close the loophole*. South Pasadena Mayor Jon Primuth, says he’s hopeful the draft ordinance will come up for a vote in November, before the city’s six-month moratorium on all no-fault evictions ends.
This will be the second time the council considers such a law — at their June 13 meeting an ordinance to address the substantial remodel issue was considered but the council did not vote on it, instead deciding to delay and give city staff more time to work on the language of the ordinance — though some advocates feared that time would be spent watering down the language.
At the next meeting on June 28, the council put in place a six month eviction moratorium, extending their initial 45-day moratorium, put in place by an urgency ordinance on May 17. Concerns about “community outreach” were cited as a reason for punting, but tenant advocates worry that the new draft will be weaker, due to concerns for so-called “mom-and-pop landlords.” Anne Bagasao, co-founder of the South Pasadena Tenants Union said in an interview that her organization had been very happy with the initial draft.
Such local tenants groups have been arguing that cities like South Pasadena should be accessible to all. “If you ask any tenant, we love this town. Tenants belong here … Every child, every elderly person, everybody has a right to experience this, for their communities to be safe and clean and have affordable housing. I’m extremely grateful to be able to live in South Pasadena, but I don’t consider it a privilege. I consider it my right,” said Bagasao.
These fights at local city councils — between landlords insisting they need to update their buildings and tenants who see renovations as a flimsy pretense to evict them and jack up the rates — is just one more iteration of the affordable housing struggle that has preoccupied California for the past few years. In such a hot rental market, landlords are constantly employing new strategies to lease to those willing to pay the high rents, now referred to as “market-rate,” while poorer tenants are left scrounging for units, often far from their jobs, or face eviction from their former homes. And in the middle, local governments are forced to arbitrate, picking winners and losers.
As for Rede, her position remains precarious in a city that already has a bad track record with affordable housing, while her apartment crumbles around her.
Struggle at 1313 Huntington Drive
When Rede received her initial eviction notice in July 2022, at her apartment at 1313 Huntington Drive, she panicked, bought boxes, and called her boss crying, before realizing that South Pasadena — alongside the rest of LA County — was still under an eviction moratorium as part of a raft of emergency pandemic measures. Rede’s building is currently managed by Helix Real Estate Management (a SoCal property management firm), however the official owner is a mysterious LLC named just “1313 Huntington Drive LLC.”
The reason given for Rede’s eviction was the old “substantial remodel” justification, but Rede wondered if what was happening actually met the standard. Under South Pasadena law, to evict a tenant for substantial remodel, landlords must first obtain building permits and attach these permits to their eviction notices — said notices should also explain the scope of the renovation and provide reasons why tenants must vacate.
South Pasadena building permit records show that June 2022 was the earliest date on any permit applications for Rede’s building that Helix applied for. However, Rede says that renovations had begun well before that, pointing to the fact that one of her neighbors moved into a totally renovated apartment in May 2022.
So, even with the forgiving loophole in state law, the dates of the renovations and permits bring into question the legality of eviction efforts. Rede says that some tenants were offered “cash for keys” before the initial eviction notice could be contested, and also that Helix began renovations at 1313 Huntington, before the permits were granted.
And as to the upgraded neighboring unit — a one bedroom — it was listed at $2,400 a month, much higher than Rede’s $1,800 a month for a two bedroom.
Then, in March of 2023 — the day after LA County lifted its Covid moratorium — Rede and her neighbors received new notices of eviction. Rede says she has been harassed constantly by Helix since then, most recently being offered $20,000 to vacate in 30 days, as vacated units around her undergo construction.
When is a remodel “substantial?”
According to the Tenant Protection Act of 2019 (AB 1482), a “substantial remodel” is “the replacement or substantial modification of any structural, electrical, plumbing, or mechanical system that requires a permit from a governmental agency, or the abatement of hazardous materials, including lead-based paint, mold, or asbestos.” The law also requires that a tenant be paid a relocation fee of at least one month’s rent.
Lorraine Lopez, a senior staff attorney with the Western Center on Law and Poverty, an organization which provides legal representation for low-income California tenants, emphasized that since California law does not clearly define substantial remodel, the clause has become a loophole landlords frequently abuse.
South Pasadena’s current just cause ordinance is slightly stronger than state law, with its permitting requirements. However, in South Pasadena, permits are often required for fairly minor renovations, which brings into question whether permitting is actually a useful legal standard for substantial remodel. If, as in the case of South Pas, installing a dishwasher, or retrofitting a window, meets the legal threshold of substantial remodel, then just about anything a landlord feels like doing winds up being a legal pretext for eviction.
A history of unaffordability
The South Pasadena Unified School District consistently ranks as one of California’s top public school systems. Yet renting, which was once an affordable option that allowed working-class families to put their kids in rich school districts, like South Pasadena’s, is becoming less affordable.
South Pasadena has a long history of low-density zoning and repeatedly pushing back against initiatives that would increase the city’s stock of affordable housing. In October 2023, the median sold home price in South Pasadena was $1.8 million, according to Realtor.com, more than double LA County’s median home price of $860,000.
According to local community organizer and South Pasadena resident Omari Ferguson, a part of why the city is falling short on tenant protections is a lack of renters’ political representation. Only 47.6% of South Pasadena’s households own their homes, per the 2022 census, yet the city has no commission on tenants. Also, all five of the city’s current councilmembers own their homes.
Bagasao, of the Tenant’s Union, is concerned that this lack of tenants representation in South Pasadena’s city government could lead to the new draft ordinance (the one that’s hopefully going to be presented in November) being watered-down. “The fear is that they are going to try to figure out carve-outs for these so-called mom-and-pop landlords, which nobody can define and no one can tell us an exact number on,” Bagasao said.
The debate over mom-and-pop landlords
At the June 13 city council meeting, representatives of the Apartments Association of Greater Los Angeles (AAGLA) — an organization that represents landlords — argued against stronger tenant protections from the substantial remodel loophole, asserting that the proposed protections would harm mom-and-pop landlords, who they also referred to as “independent owners.”
In a press release, AAGLA expressed disdain for South Pasadena’s initial 45-day moratorium, writing that, “apparently the Council didn’t feel it was important to hear from all constituents, including small mom-and-pop property owners directly impacted by their actions,” adding that the organization had “conducted extensive outreach prior to the [May 17] meeting with individual Council Members [sic], formal written comment, and speaking publicly at the meeting itself,” and that, “as a result, the council is considering a voluntary mediation program … to address the handful of renters experiencing disagreement with their rental housing providers.”
But even after interviews with AAGLA and other landlords, the precise meaning of“independent owner” or mom-and-pop remains vague. Advocates contrast the mom-and-pop with an enormous institutional investor such as BlackRock, but in SoCal it’s not uncommon for individuals or families to own large buildings worth millions, or multiple buildings.
Lorraine Lopez, of the Western Center on Law and Poverty, says she’s often seen such tactics. “The only time that those larger organizations prop up the mom-and-pop owners is when we’re trying to do tenant protections and eviction reforms,” Lopez said. Lopez added that oftentimes landlord-interest organizations like AAGLA want to define mom-and-pop to also mean a person who has a percent share in an LLC. However, it’s common for wealthy individuals and corporations to manage different properties, and shelter their assets from taxes, precisely by hiding behind LLCs.
1313 Huntington is owned by an LLC. Earlier building permits show “Tim Trout” as the building’s landlord, however more recent permits listed an LLC called “1313 Huntington Avenue, LLC” as the owner. At this point, Rede does not even know who her landlord is, and thus cannot properly direct any complaints she has. But documents related to the LLC show Trout remains the agent for the LCC, indicating that whatever fancy ownership structure has been created, Trout is likely still in charge.
“I feel like sometimes these people are like, ‘Oh, well, if you can’t afford to live in South Pasadena then you shouldn’t be living here,’” Rede said. “But I’m not late on any bills.”
Bagasao emphasized that many tenants in South Pasadena have been in the city for decades, longer than many single-family homeowners. She and other advocates insist that the city adopt an ordinance as strong as the one originally proposed in June.
Councilmember Evelyn Zneimer said that when she moved for a continuance in June, she was looking to create a draft ordinance that was better researched with more community outreach, to really create a draft ordinance that’s “fair to both” landlords and tenants.
“I wanted to be objective, and I would like the ordinance to include mediation components,” she said, adding that she hopes the city’s tenant substantial remodel policies will emerge stronger than state law. Zneimer was the only South Pasadena councilmember who agreed to an interview for this story. LA Public Press reached out to all five councilmembers. In an email, Mayor Jon Primuth said that he was still working with staff on an ordinance. Councilmember Janet Braun said in an email that she was waiting to see a staff report and new discussion when the item returns to council, and could speak after that.
Lopez added that the state law itself needs to be stronger with regards to substantial remodel. She and the Western Center on Law and Poverty have been strong advocates for SB 567, a new law — just signed by the governor on Sept. 30 — which will provide a more comprehensive definition for substantial remodel state-wide, namely requiring permits that prove a substantial remodel will take place. SB 567 will not go into effect until Apr 1, 2024.
But in places like South Pasadena, where even minimal changes require permits, Lopez sees a need to assess whether or not a building really requires a substantial remodel or not.
“Housing is being seen as a commodity and an investment tool, rather than a necessity of life for everybody who lives in LA. Sure, people are allowed to make profit [as] we are unfortunately in a capitalist society, but not at the expense of folks you need to house,” Lopez said. “If you’re going to be renting out housing to human beings, you have to have some base level of responsibility to not be an asshole.”
*Correction: A previous version of this article said that various cities had “closed the loophole,” on further evaluation we think that phrase overstates the case, and that those cities merely strengthened certain protections.