A woman with short blonde hair, wearing a black shirt and orange sunglasses, stands in front of a high rise apartment building.
Pischy Izady is a tenant at Barrington Plaza in West Los Angeles. While the eviction case directly affects her, she says the fight is about all tenants in California. (Elizabeth Chou)

The stakes are high on Los Angeles’s westside, where a group of tenants living in rent-stabilized units have taken on one of the region’s biggest corporate landlords in a court case where the judge is set to make a ruling soon. 

Those more than 100 tenants are facing immediate eviction, many of them senior citizens. Tenant advocates and others warn that if the judge sides with their landlord, Douglas Emmett Inc., other landlords of rent-stabilized buildings could be inspired to use the Ellis Act to exit the rental business and boot out tenants under the premise that renovation work is needed. 

“What comes out of this [case] is going to determine whether every rent-control tenant in the state has a target on their back, that they can be evicted,” said Larry Gross, executive director of Coalition for Economic Survival, a group that advocates for tenant protections.

Gross was speaking to dozens of Barrington Plaza tenants gathered outside the Santa Monica Courthouse a few weeks ago on Monday, May 20. His group has been organizing with the tenants who are among the remaining 100 or so at the apartment complex, and have stood their ground. Last year, they sued their landlord, which had cited a need to install a fire sprinkler system when they issued eviction notices to the hundreds of tenants at Barrington Plaza on May 8, 2023, more than a year ago. 

‘We are fighting in the name of all renters’

Gross’s group holds a weekly tenants clinic. They track evictions from rent-controlled units when landlords use the Ellis Act to “get out of the business” of renting apartments. In Los Angeles, landlords have used the law more than 30,000 times since 2001, according to figures released by the group. 

“When you’re 100% sure of what’s happening, you are going to 100% go that extra mile,” said Monique Gomez, one of the lead tenants organizing with the Coalition for Economic Survival. She said that working together with others to fight the eviction, and knowing the law is on their side, has allowed her and others to keep going.

Another member, Pischy Izady, is facing an eviction case of her own. The outcome of that case depends on how the judge decides in the tenant-association’s lawsuit.

Izady is a German citizen with family in the Los Angeles area who are long-time residents and citizens. She said her status has made her feel vulnerable about remaining at the apartment, and she initially wanted to move out when she got the notice. At the time, American citizens who were her neighbors moved out, and had advised her to also do so.

But Izady ended up sticking it out, after meeting Gomez and others who are part of the tenant-association. She saw that it was a matter of “life and death” for other tenants, she said.

“This court case became something very emotional, because in the process of being involved in the tenant-association meetings, I found out there are so many people, so many neighbors that indeed could not afford to go and get another place,” Izady said.

“This case will set the precedent for the city of Los Angeles – so Barrington Plaza however it goes, the decision, is not anymore Barrington Plaza,” Izady said. “I really learned from the testimony, [that] we are fighting in the name of all renters in this case … to defend the rights of all renters.”

The tenants sued last year to challenge their landlord’s use of the Ellis Act to evict them from their units at the Barrington Plaza, a three-building apartment complex built in 1961 on Wilshire Boulevard. 

The Barrington Plaza apartment complex cuts an imposing presence on the westside’s landscape. Two of its buildings rise 16 stories, and the third goes up 25 floors, all of which offer expansive views of the Los Angeles landscape, including some that reach out to the Pacific Ocean. 

The landlord’s effort to evict the building’s tenants, has also commanded similarly expansive attention due to its scale. On May 8, 2023, the building had 712 rent-stabilized units – 577 of which were occupied – when tenants were issued notices that the landlord was withdrawing those units from the rental market under the Ellis Act. The tenants had 120 days to vacate, with the exception that those who are elderly or disabled could extend that period to one year. 

The tenants’ lawsuit challenging the basis of Douglas Emmett’s Ellis Act application is tied to dozens of eviction cases their direct landlord, Barrington Pacific, LLC, has filed in court to evict tenants whose clock ran out last year, as well as those who got extensions that ran out this past May 8.

“A choking note” – tenants call landlord’s concern over two major fires an act

The mass-eviction came after a fire at one of Barrington Plaza’s towers that led to one person dying, and several others injured, including a baby. The 2020 fire involved a dramatic rescue from the sixth floor of the building, around where the fire took place. It highlighted how the apartment complex was among dozens of large residential buildings in the city that have been exempt from requirements to have a fire sprinkler system installed. Following the fire, the Los Angeles City Council began exploring a law to require those buildings be retrofitted to include fire sprinkler systems, but the issue is still pending. The last action on the council file was a report submitted in October of 2022 by the Los Angeles Fire and Building and Safety departments.

A high rise apartment building with palm trees at its base.
Barrington Plaza is a high rise apartment building on Wilshire Boulevard in Brentwood. (Elizabeth Chou)

Mark Wood has been a resident of Barrington Plaza for nearly 20 years, living through an earlier fire in 2013 that occurred on the floor below his own unit. He said he had “always wanted to live at Barrington Plaza, since they advertised on the radio back in the 1960s … A guy with a British accent would say, ‘It’s an elegant place to live.’”

But the landlord, Wood said, has not struck him as caring very much for the tenants’ safety. Wood said that care did not seem evident in the latest fire, nor in the 2013 fire, when 150 people were displaced. “It was by luck that nobody was killed,” Wood said of the earlier fire.   

Wood said he thought the statements by the landlord’s attorneys at the hearing, expressing concern for their tenants, fell flat. 

“I even heard a certain choking note in the voice of Douglas Emmett’s counsel today in the argument about the [2020] fire,” he said. “You know, very theatrical, Actor Studio West.”

“Maybe Mr. Kaplan (Douglas Emmett, Inc.’s CEO) really does feel for the tenants,” he said. “Well of course, I never was aware of any of that sentiment during the first fire.”

Wood also pointed out that the tenants’ lawsuit is not about the need for a fire sprinkler system. “It’s just not relevant, even if it is heartfelt,” he said. What is relevant in the case, he said, is whether Douglas Emmett Inc. has properly used the Ellis Act to evict tenants. 

He, like other tenants who support the lawsuit that Barrington Plaza tenants filed last June, say their landlord is misusing the law, and has reinterpreted it in a way that is different from what is in the language of the law. 

Gomez, one of the lead organizers with the tenant’s group suing Douglas Emmett, says that she did not know what the Ellis Act was when she received the eviction notice. But when she read its language, she said she “got mad.”

Gomez had moved in after the 2020 fire, and pays $1,800 rent each month. She works in the area, and says it is rare to get a “million dollar view,” such as the one she has, for that amount, in Los Angeles. The amount she pays is less than the $2,300 monthly fee paid by another tenant who moved in before the recent fire. Gomez said she suspects that if she moves out and the landlord re-rents the units after renovations, they would charge $3,000 to $5,000.

Douglas Emmett’s reading of the law, if supported by the judge, could be “against the spirit of what the Ellis Act is supposed to allow landlords to do, particularly when you put it into the context of rent-stabilization,” according to Michael Lens, a UCLA professor who researches evictions.

He said that there is often a tendency by a landlord of a rent-controlled unit to “remove the tenant or influence the tenant to leave, so that the unit can go back to market-rate, with the introduction of a new tenant.”

In Los Angeles, when a tenant leaves a rent-stabilized unit, the landlord is able to reset the rent to the market rate. “The incentives would be obvious to a lot of people, depending on the difference between the tenant’s rent-stabilized rent and the market rate they could get,” Lens said. 

A “terrible, dangerous precedent” 

When the eviction notices were issued last May, it became a “mobilizing force” for several groups around the city who advocate on affordable housing issues. One of them was Strategic Actions for a Just Economy (SAJE), which pushes for environmental measures, such as reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, that are equitable to low-income communities.

Chelsea Kirk, a policy director for SAJE, wrote an op-ed a couple weeks after the Ellis Act notices went out at Barrington Plaza, about the implications such a move by Douglas Emmett has for the decarbonization efforts that their group is working to support. She said that the city actually has a tenant habitability plan the landlord could be using when making renovations, that allows for relocating tenants temporarily instead of evicting them.

The Los Angeles City Council in 2022 approved a motion to create a plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from buildings. Now there is worry that such an effort to mandate upgrades at buildings could be used by landlords as a premise for evicting tenants, especially in a context in which renters’ rights are vulnerable, she said.

Kirk said the Ellis Act is a law that has “historically posed a significant crisis to renters because the law allows landlords to evict tenants who have been good tenants, who consistently pay rent on time. It’s basically allowing for no-fault evictions.” 

“If the judge favors Douglas Emmett’s argument, that would set a terrible, dangerous precedent for tenants in Los Angeles,” she said.

What’s next? A consequential decision

Deciding how to interpret this consequential state law — an interpretation that tenant advocates say could open the floodgates for more evictions through major renovations — is now a job for the Los Angeles County Superior Court judge assigned to the case, H. Jay Ford. 

In the final hearing on May 20, Ford said: “I’ve got my work cut out for me.” 

The question in the case is based on an interpretation by the landlord, Douglas Emmett, a real estate investment firm, that going out of business should not be considered a declaration of permanency. They argue that the landlord can also temporarily go out of business — basically intend to come back into business even as they shutter for some amount of time — under the Ellis Act.

While the landlord’s attorneys argued that the legislature did not set any timing provisions into their law, the tenants’ attorney, Frances Campbell, argued a more plainspoken reading of the law. Campbell argued that when a “regular person” drives down a street and sees a “going out of business” sign, with other signage that says, “everything half off,” the natural reading of that is one of finality.

The Ellis Act is a law that has been seen for years as allowing landlords to evict tenants when they want to leave the rental business. The landlords usually are expected to demolish or convert their units, often into condominiums, and in other ways that are considered permanent, even though the law does allow for landlords to return to the rental business later. 

Meanwhile, the landlord, Douglas Emmett, Inc. and Barrington Pacific, LLC, has argued in court documents that “the Ellis Act does not require an intent to remove property from the rental market forever – rather, it prohibits an owner from displacing existing tenants and then promptly re-renting the property.” A representative and the attorney for the landlord both declined to comment for this story. 

Tenant advocates have long been critical of the Ellis Act, arguing that it is often used in a “bad-faith” way, or as a cover for landlords — especially corporate landlords — who use the law to remove rent-control regulations from the units, and then re-rent their units back later at market-rate rents. The tenants of Barrington Plaza believe this is what is also happening to them. 

Douglas Emmett is arguing they are indeed “going out of business” temporarily and with the intent to return – but they are being explicit about it because that is what the Ellis Act’s language allows them to do. They say their reason for leaving the rental market temporarily is to install the fire sprinkler system.

Barrington Plaza tenants including Michelle Kunzelmann who packed the Santa Monica courtroom Monday knew that not only did it have implications for themselves, it could potentially give landlords even greater leeway to evict people from rent-controlled units. Kunzelmann said she wanted to be there that day to get a feel for which way the judge might lean.

Some tenants gasped and muttered under their breath as they listened to the back and forth between the two sides’ attorneys. Some pumped their fists when the judge said something encouraging for their lawsuit.

“I believe he [the judge] knows this case will be cited going forward with other Ellis evictions in California,” Kunzelmann says. “This is the biggest mass eviction in Los Angeles in 40 years, and whatever is decided will have a far-reaching impact.”

Before entering the courtroom, Kunzelmann and other tenants chatted with each other. Some shared stories from other tenants who have fought their landlord on their evictions, and won.

“You gotta stay persistent, knowing you’re doing the right thing,” was the advice one tenant said they got.

Kunzelmann, who attended six of the seven days of the trial hearings that mostly took place over the course of two weeks in April, said she is feeling heartened by how their case has been going. “I feel confident and ready to get our answer,” she told an LA Public Press reporter as she filed into the courtroom. 

Elizabeth has been on the local government beat since 2006, and likes making her friends take public transportation for her birthday.

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