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Three Santa Monica Council Members Back Moratorium on Ellis Act Evictions

Santa Monica Real Estate Company, Roque and Mark

Pacific Park, Santa Monica Pier

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Kutcher & Kozal, LLP


Convention and Visitors Bureau Santa Monica

By Hector Gonzalez
Special to The Lookout

August 24, 2015 -- Three Santa Monica City Council members are asking their colleagues to support a resolution calling on state lawmakers to freeze Ellis Act evictions, which critics charge are undermining cities' efforts to keep rents affordable.

In the resolution up for a vote at Tuesday's meeting, Santa Monica Mayor Kevin McKeown and Council members Tony Vazquez and Ted Winterer want the full Council to support a state moratorium on the 1986 act that lets landlords who want out of the rental business sell their buildings.

Local lawmakers also want the state to enact a freeze on the 1999 Costa-Hawkins Rental Housing Act allowing owners to raise rents of rent-controlled units when tenants relocate or are evicted for non-payment, the resolution says.

If approved as worded, it directs staff and the City's lobbyists in Sacramento to “convey the City's position to the state Legislature and the governor.”

Previous efforts to put a moratorium on the acts have failed both in Sacramento and at the local level, including a bill introduced last year by state Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, which would have required buyers to own a building for at least five years before they evict tenants using the Ellis Act.

Leno's bill, which failed in the Senate by a close 18-19 vote, was crafted by local officials in San Francisco and would have applied only to landlords in that city.

But in their resolution, McKeown, Vazquez and Winterer are supporting a new push for a moratorium being urged by two California Democratic congresswomen, U.S. Reps. Maxine Waters and Karen Bass.

They recently wrote to Senate President Pro Temp Kevin de Leon and the Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins, urging them to pass a moratorium on the Ellis Act, “a California law that is increasingly being abused to evict hundreds of veterans, elderly persons, and families,” the two said in a statement.

Named after its author, former Republican Sen. Jim Ellis of San Diego, the act was originally passed to protect small-time landlords who had been in the rental housing business for several years and who sought to retire, the congresswomen said.

But speculators in high-rent cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco are increasingly “abusing” the law by buying up rentals and converting units into condominiums and townhouses, “resulting in massive tenant displacement that is exacerbating the severe rental housing crisis in California,” said Waters and Bass in their August 5 letter to state legislators.

According to the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project created by the Pico Neighborhood Association in partnership with the Rent Control Board of Santa Monica, Ellis Act evictions have displaced 2,172 rent-control units since the law was enacted.

Citing figures from the National Low Income Housing Coalition, Bass and Water said more than 21 percent of families in Los Angeles spend more than half of their income on rent, but the poorest households spend up to 80 percent of their earnings paying the rent.

“Yet, in the midst of this crisis, a dated law, the Ellis Act, is being used to further deplete availability of affordable rental housing in Los Angeles,” the congresswomen said.

Many seniors have been evicted as a result of the practice, which circumvents local rent control laws and puts older and other low-income tenants who can't afford higher rents at risk of becoming homeless, they said.

“This, in turn, adds pressure on the federal housing programs, which are already struggling to meet the existing need,” they said.

“This depletion of affordable rental housing and tenant displacement is simply unacceptable,” the congresswomen wrote. “We are advocating for a moratorium on the Ellis Act, and we ask that you join our efforts by sponsoring legislation to that effect.”

Aonya McCruiston, Bass' spokeswoman, said the next moves are up to the politicians in Sacramento.

“Since this is a state issue, the next steps need to come from the state Legislature in order to make meaningful progress,” said McCruiston, adding that Bass and Waters intend to keep speaking out on the issue at “any other appropriate opportunities.”

According to the Apartment Association of Southern California, two bills pending in the state Assembly would make changes to the Costa-Hawkins Act.

AB 1229 by Assemblywoman Nora  Campos, D-San Jose, would bar landlords from increasing rent on elderly tenants in certain rent control districts, unless the landlord agrees to collect the rent increase from the government through a tax credit.

If passed, the law would only apply in Alameda, San Francisco, Santa Clara and Ventura counties, said Ron Kingston, the association's lobbyist, on the group's website said.

A second bill, AB 697 by Assemblyman Kansen Chu, D-Milpitas, provides a tax credit to qualifying elderly tenants equal to the amount of any increase in rent, but that bill also only covers renters in the counties of Alameda, San Francisco, Ventura and Santa Clara.

Kingston said his association supports AB 697, but opposes Campos' proposal.

“In no other industry is earned income paid through a tax credit,” he said. “It defies reason that in order to receive part of his or her earned income, a landlord must apply for a tax credit.”

Beyond laws that apply only to certain counties, McCruiston said California needs a statewide ban,  even a temporary one, on Ellis Act evictions.

“As the congresswomen explained in the letter, in these times of austerity, when there is little hope for a substantial increase in federal funding towards affordable housing, the least we can do is preserve the units of affordable rental housing that are currently available,” said McCruiston.

“We don’t need more luxury condominiums in Los Angeles; we need more affordable rental housing, especially for our poorest families.”


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