This article was produced by the nonprofit journalism publication Capital & Main. It is co-published here with permission.
Mike Balog has called his memento-filled one-bedroom apartment in Hollywood home for nearly 30 years.
For most of the 69-year-old man’s adult life, it has been his base where he has socialized, loved, ailed, healed and, with the recent death of his mother, mourned. It is the place where he now struggles.
The property’s owners want him to move out, and they’ve been going to great lengths to convince him to leave for nearly a decade.
Balog’s fight began with an eviction attempt as Los Angeles real estate prices climbed in the years following the great recession of 2008. Landlords were increasingly able to collect higher rents from new tenants. Tenants who deferred paying during the COVID-19 pandemic built up large backlogs of past due rent. The back rent became due when pandemic protections expired in the midst of the ongoing housing affordability crisis in Los Angeles and many large cities.
His first warning came in May 2015, when he received an email from QuantumPrime Realty, which manages the apartment building, on behalf of Hillside Courtyard LLC, the building’s owner. The property management company told Balog that the new proprietor of the building was looking for a “certain return on their investment.” The building’s value today is an estimated $22 million, according to Realtor.com.
Charlie Stein, an attorney representing Hillside Courtyard, said in a phone interview that he could not comment because he was not the lawyer during the 2015 eviction case.
Balog’s flat is just one of 47 units in the building where comparable apartments rent for more than 50% over what he pays. The reason? Balog’s apartment is one of approximately 650,000 rent-stabilized units in the city of Los Angeles, according to the Los Angeles Housing Department.
Landlords of housing regulated under the Rent Stabilization Ordinance face strict limits on how much they can raise the rent each year. So the longer a tenant remains in a unit, the more the rent falls short of market rates, especially in areas where rent is rising rapidly. Balog has lived in his apartment since 1994.
The email from QuantumPrime to Balog broached the idea of paying him to move out.
“The owners have instructed me to see if we could come to an agreement where you would be provided a mutually agreeable compensation in exchange to move out of the apartment voluntarily,” QuantumPrime said in its email. No amount was specified.
Randy Shaw, a San Francisco-based tenant’s rights attorney who specializes in countering eviction proceedings, said buyouts for older renters rarely make sense on financial or social grounds. “Most seniors we deal with are connected to their neighborhood and they don’t want to move somewhere else,” he said. “They know the people at the corner store, have a community, and they don’t want to be bought out.”
And, he added, “They have nowhere to go.”
After taking into account how much more he would have to pay to rent a similar home in his neighborhood, Balog declined the offer. “I can’t afford to move out,” he said. “The rents everywhere else are sky high.”
Balog’s math was simple: The landlords’ offer wouldn’t allow him to rent a comparable home anywhere near his current one. The typical monthly cost of a similar apartment in Hollywood is $3,140; Balog said his rent is roughly $1,300.
On a practical level, Shaw said, such buyouts “don’t really work for seniors,” partly because it might allow them to pay a higher rent for some years, but then the funds run out.
Since Balog first received that email, he has steadfastly refused to leave the unrenovated secluded courtyard apartment at the foot of Runyon Canyon. On Sept. 2, 2015, he received a notice to pay his rent or vacate his apartment.
The warning was left on his door while he was in a medical rehabilitation facility recovering from a hip replacement, according to Balog’s medical documentation.
He reached out to the nonprofit Housing Rights Center, a civil rights organization based in Los Angeles, for help to stay in his home. According to the Center, the landlord claimed he was $1,772.08 behind on his rent and gave him three days to pay or move out.
Balog said he had a disability and that there were discrepancies in how much QuantumPrime said he owed. The Center concluded that Balog had actually underpaid his rent by 2 cents per month over five months — and that he owed his landlord just 10 cents. By contrast, in the two months before that, Balog overpaid a total of $34.02, according to documentation collected by the Housing Rights Center.
Balog also reached out to the Eviction Defense Network, a Los Angeles nonprofit group that offers legal help to tenants. It represented him in L.A. County Superior Court where the case was dismissed on Oct. 26, 2015, according to court documents.
After winning the case, the Network wrote Balog a message. “Remember, the new owner [is] looking for any excuse to evict you again,” it warned. “Make sure you pay your rent on time and that each payment is documented.”
But QuantumPrime’s legal efforts led to notices calling on Balog to appear at a Santa Monica courthouse that handles many eviction cases in L.A. County. His next court appearance is scheduled for Jan. 31. The parties could reach a settlement or the case could go to trial.
Balog suggested that his success in fending off his landlord’s eviction efforts for more than eight years led him to develop something of a David-versus-Goliath-like confidence that he could continue to do so.
In some ways, it is partly an outgrowth of a resourceful professional life that saw him pivot repeatedly among varied entrepreneurial efforts and professions. He was a chef for more than a decade and founded a successful marketing company. Photos in Balog’s apartment show him hobnobbing in the 1980s and ‘90s with John Travolta, Sylvester Stallone, Muhammed Ali, Mick Jagger and Will Smith.
During the good times, Balog said, “You don’t really pay attention to the future, or preparing yourself, like there’s going to be an end [to it]. You always think there’s not.”
This year, Balog will turn 70. He is coming to understand that his ability to pivot to seize opportunities or dodge trouble may no longer be enough to keep him in his home. His landlord has made clear that they have more energy, money, resources and time. Balog is increasingly fragile, and never expected this legal fight in his golden years.
Like many members of his generation, he faced a series of economic shocks in the latter portion of his professional life — from the Great Recession that began in 2008 to the COVID-19 pandemic of recent years — which sharply reduced his work and financial prospects.
As some of Balog’s contemporaries retired and as his own body increasingly failed him, he found himself working since last summer as a part-time security guard for $20 per hour, watching over a private school in the San Fernando Valley on graveyard shifts.
For several years before the pandemic, Balog worked 30 hours a week as a minimum-wage parking lot security guard, watching over people who slept in their vehicles. He never dreamed then that in his late 60s he would be at risk of joining those people without homes, he said.
But in 2020, he had a heart operation and a second knee replacement, for which he had to take time off work. In August 2022, a car ran over his foot, leaving him disabled for three months. He had to take more time off. Such hardships coincided with others — he has been in and out of medical care for congestive heart failure scares and spine-related back pain.
His much older mother, meanwhile, was showing early signs of Alheizmer’s dementia, so he needed to help care for her. He returned to his parking lot job in January 2023, but his employer’s contract ended two months later.
That led to his current part-time gig working a few nights a week at the private school.
The Roots of a Battle
Like many people around the country, Balog found that pandemic shutdowns made it impossible to afford even his low rent. When lockdowns hit California in March 2020, many tenants saw their incomes shrivel or disappear altogether. In aggregate, about 627,000 California households fell behind in rent payments, incurring $1.9 billion in rent debt, according to the National Equity Atlas research group. In the Los Angeles metro area, 288,000 households built up nearly $900 million in rent debt owed to landlords. Nationally there is more than $10 billion of debt owed by nearly five million households.
Balog said he calculated that as of September 2020, he could afford a monthly rent payment of only $325, or one-quarter of his current rent. He paid that amount for the next year. He counted on the CA COVID-19 Rent Relief program to make him whole with his landlords.
Authorities in Los Angeles sought to head off a surge of evictions due to economic destabilization caused by the pandemic, which might have driven even more people from their homes and onto the streets where tens of thousands of people already lived.
In September 2021, the CA COVID-19 Rent Relief program paid $20,744.08 on Balog’s behalf, which covered the equivalent of about 16 months of rent.
He was relieved to be caught up on his rent temporarily. The problem was that Balog’s income had dropped. He said he could afford to pay only 25% of his rent each month, which he did through 2022. “I worked just enough to survive to pay that little amount,” he said.
Between unemployment, Social Security and disability payments, as well as his work at parking lots when he could, his financial situation solidified enough that he was able to pay his rent in full for the first four months of 2023, even after his parking lot job ended in March.
His landlord suddenly stopped cashing his checks in May 2023, he said. Balog couldn’t figure out why.
The landlord’s attorney declined to speak about the specific details of Balog’s case, citing privacy constraints.
But Balog concluded at the time that it might be part of a new effort to evict him. On legal advice, he began to place his money into a savings account that he would be ready to give to his landlords as soon as they agreed to accept it, he said.
At that point, he was behind on his rent for the last quarter of 2021 and all of 2022. Balog — like many other renters — thought he would benefit from additional pandemic protection against evictions. He was right, up to a point.
Over the three-year period beginning at the start of the pandemic, COVID-19 tenant protections prohibited numerous evictions and reduced the overall number in the city and county of Los Angeles, according to a 2023 report from Strategic Actions for a Just Economy, a nonprofit Los Angeles tenants rights advocacy group.
But pandemic eviction protections for renters expired on March 31, 2023, just before Balog’s landlords stopped cashing his checks.
Between February and November 2023, landlords filed 71,429 eviction notices with the Los Angeles Housing Department. Many of the targeted tenants, like Balog, were unable to pay their rent in full during the pandemic.
The Stain of Eviction
When a person is evicted, the impact often endures long after they move out, according to tenants rights advocates. For someone like Balog, an eviction can make it far more difficult to secure another apartment. Landlords tend to prefer new tenants who they think present less risk. Balog’s health problems could be another obstacle in the eyes of landlords looking to rent, as they could make it difficult for him to pay almost any market-rate rent in Los Angeles on a regular basis.
Also, while there is no evidence Balog’s landlords targeted him because of his age, older people are more likely to live in rent-controlled units for the longest period of time, making them prime eviction targets, according to Saba Mwine-Chang, managing director of the Homelessness Policy Research Institute at the University of Southern California’s Sol Price School of Public Policy. If they are kicked out, they become vulnerable to the streets because “high rents are a major driver of homelessness in our region.”
There was a silver lining for Balog. Court dates were pushed back from September to Jan. 31, 2024, giving him more time to prepare to fight his eviction.
But Los Angeles’ tenant protection rules said Balog had to pay all of his unpaid rent from October 2021 to January 2023 by Feb. 1, 2024. Balog said that his attorney, Hanna Burt from the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, hopes to strike a deal with the landlord to keep him in his home. She declined to comment on an ongoing case.
The landlord’s attorney said that some of his clients do accept a payment plan allowing a tenant to gradually pay back their debt on top of their monthly rent, but “telling a landlord you will pay off rent over the next decade is generally not reasonable.”
“They want the cash flow,” Stein said, “but they cannot wait forever to get paid.”
Balog insisted that he will keep fighting, as he has for nearly nine years, against the people who refuse to accept his rent checks. But he knows that the future is uncertain.
“Imagine living in a comfort zone you created as a space for creativity, and some landlord comes along and forces you to move after 30 years,” said Balog. He said he doesn’t want to consider the prospect of being put out on the street or, worse, living on it.
With chronic pain, inability to sleep, anxiety and depression, Balog described his home sanctuary in Runyon Canyon as being under siege.
“It’s like the landlord is putting a nail in the coffin,” he said.
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