Friday, September 21, 2007
C.A. Says Evictions Cannot Proceed at Aging Venice Housing Complex
Div. Seven Rules Ellis Act Does Not Trump Relocation Plan Required Under CEQA
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
A developer seeking to evict the last 13 tenants from a six-decades-old Venice apartment complex in order to build condominiums on the property cannot proceed until it meets conditions imposed by the city as part of the environmental review process, the Court of Appeal for this district has ruled.
Div. Seven Wednesday said Los Angeles Superior Court Judge David Yaffe erred last year when he denied the Lincoln Place Tenants Association’s petition for a writ of mandate stopping the evictions.
The occupants of 56 apartments at the complex were forcibly removed by sheriff’s deputies in December 2005 after the landlord brought unlawful detainer proceedings, but the appellate court said Yaffe erred in ruling that tenants had to litigate their claims as defenses in those proceedings.
The panel also sided with the tenants on the primary substantive issue in the case, holding that the Ellis Act—a state law permitting landlords to evict tenants in order to remove their properties from the rental market, and overriding local ordinances to the contrary—cannot be used to avoid compliance with mitigation measures required by the California Environmental Quality Act.
“Our position has been vindicated,” LPTA official Laura Burns—one of the evictees—told the MetNews. “There will be justice for all the tenants. What the mechanism for that will be I can’t say just yet.”
Tenants, preservationists, and area politicians have been fighting AIMCO Venezia, a subsidiary of Denver-based Apartment Investment and Management Company, over its plans for the complex. Lincoln Place, which was built between 1949 and 1951, originally consisted of 795 units in 52 buildings spread out over 33 acres of garden apartments.
The project, which AIMCO took over from another developer, was proposed in 1991. Opponents say it will eliminate affordable rental housing from an area that needs it and destroy a historic example of the garden style of apartment construction.
Despite those objections, the city Planning Commission approved the project in 1995 on the basis of an environmental impact report concluding that the buildings’ historical value was limited.
The “less than significant” historical and cultural impact of demolition, the report said, could be mitigated by documenting the buildings’ architecture through photographs and giving would-be preservationists the opportunity to purchase and move the structures.
The approval of the project touched off seven years of litigation over whether it would violate laws governing removal of affordable housing from the market. In 2002, however, the city agreed to grant conditional subdivision approval if AIMCO would undertake mitigation measures, including compliance with a relocation plan.
Under the plan, AIMCO would relocate each of the tenants to an existing unit on the Lincoln Place premises at no increase in rent; pay the tenant a sum of money to relocate; place the tenant in one of the new units at no increase in rent; or sell the tenant one of 52 moderate income townhomes planned for the seat.
AIMCO subsequently relocated some 250 tenants, but others refused relocation assistance, and the developer began eviction proceedings. Some of the remaining tenants contended that AIMCO was violating the relocation plan, because it would not give them the option of relocating within Lincoln Place.
AIMCO responded that it had no obligation to relocate tenants within the complex because it had the right to, and intended to, tear down the entire complex under the Ellis Act in order to replace it with housing for sale.
AIMCO also applied for demolition permits. The city granted the permits, but Div. Seven, in a 2005 ruling, said the permits were illegally issued because AIMCO had not complied with other required mitigation measures, including that the buildings be photographed and that would-be preservationists be given the opportunity to purchase the structures and move them.
The court, however, sided with the city and lower courts in concluding that the buildings lacked sufficient historical value to require that they be preserved onsite.
Following the evictions, the LPTA and others sought a writ of mandate seeking to block further removals and to compel compliance with the mitigation measures.
In concluding that the writ should have been granted, Zelon Wednesday cited a 1999 amendment to the Ellis Act that expressly permits local governments to enforce “local or municipal environmental regulations, procedures, or controls that govern the demolition and redevelopment of residential property.”
The amendment, the justice explained, was a response to court decisions that the Legislature felt “undermine the compromise reached in Ellis between the rights of a property owner to remove rental units from the market and the ability of a local government to mitigate the effects of tenant displacement and to regulate the subsequent use of the property,” according to a state Senate analysis.
The conditions imposed by the city, Zelon went on to say, fit within the amendment’s exemption of local land use controls from Ellis Act preemption and do not unreasonably burden AIMCO’s right to take Lincoln Place off the rental market.
As for AIMCO’s contention that the tenants could have obtained relief in the unlawful detainer proceedings, Zelon noted that the city was not a party to those proceedings, so that the CEQA issues could not be litigated.
Justices Earl Johnson Jr. and Fred Woods joined in the opinion.
The plaintiffs were represented by John B. Murdock and Howard Posner. AIMCO was represented by attorneys at Nemecek & Cole, who did not return a MetNews phone call yesterday.
An amicus brief supporting the tenants was filed by San Francisco’s Tenderloin Housing Clinic and other housing advocates.
The case is Lincoln Place Tenants Association v. City of Los Angeles, 07 S.O.S. 5809.
Copyright 2007, Metropolitan News Company