Barrington Plaza tenants facing eviction sue property owner

The Barrington Plaza Tenants Association Monday filed a lawsuit aimed at stopping the mass eviction of tenants at the 712-unit, rent-controlled apartment complex in West Los Angeles.

The suit follows an announcement by owners last month that the complex — which has been the scene of two fires over the past decade, including one that killed a 19-year-old foreign exchange student — will be closing to all renters and begin vacating occupied units so the buildings can be renovated with fire sprinklers and other safety upgrades.

Monday's Los Angeles Superior Court complaint focuses on a state law that allows landlords to evict if they plan to remove the units from the rental market. Passed in 1985, the Ellis Act was created to allow mom-and-pop landlords to go out of the rental business and take the units off the rental market.

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However, the suit contends the rent-controlled property owner, Douglas Emmett Inc., is in violation of the law and is improperly using it to justify evicting tenants.

Eric Rose, a spokesperson for Barrington Plaza, said in that the ownership has "received the action filed by some of our tenants and are in the process of reviewing the claims made.

"Primarily it is important to note, Barrington Plaza has and is following the rules laid out by the Ellis Act. The units are being removed from the market under the terms of the Ellis Act as well as the City's implementing ordinances. As has been stated by the City, ownership of Barrington Plaza has been and continues to be uncertain about the ultimate disposition of the units and are preparing for a host of options, inclusive of rehabilitation of the complex to comply with all current fire and life safety requirements. To the extent that the units were brought back onto the rental market, the owner would follow all obligations relative to former tenants as provided in those State and local rules."

The tenant suit maintains that the landlord can make the safety upgrades without permanently displacing them.

"They want to renovate it. And they clearly want to re-rent it, and that's not what the Ellis Act is about," said Larry Gross, executive director of the citywide tenant group Coalition for Economic Survival.

"Under the city's primary renovation ordinance, Douglas Emmett can install fire sprinklers without evicting tenants. The ordinance allows landlords doing major renovations to temporarily relocate residents to comparable units until the work is done, at which time tenants can move back to their units with a minor rent increase."

The Ellis Act has been routinely used by developers to circumvent local eviction protections in order to oust low-income and working renters to convert the property into luxury hotels and condominiums, the plaintiffs' attorneys allege — leading to what they say has been the removal of tens of thousands of rent-controlled units in Los Angeles, worsening the city's affordable housing crisis.

The relocation fees and services provided by the city do not begin to make up for the cost and catastrophic consequences of forcing tenants out of our rent-stabilized apartments, the plaintiffs' attorneys say.

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Located at the corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Barrington Avenue, eight floors in one of the complex's three towers have been red-tagged and was out of service since a fire sparked in January 2020.

Barrington Plaza was built in 1961, prior to the 1974 ordinance requiring sprinklers in new high-rise buildings.

"These fire and life safety improvements cannot be accomplished without vacating all three towers. Barrington Plaza has stopped leasing vacant units, and the fire and life safety improvement project can take several years at a cost of over $300 million," according to statement from the owners.

The complex has been plagued by fires in the past, including in 2013 and again in 2020.

In October 2013, a fire erupted on the 11th floor of one of the complex's towers, injuring two people, including a young girl, and displacing up to 150 residents. In January 2020, a fire began on the seventh floor, killing a 19-year-old exchange student from France and injuring about a dozen others, including three firefighters and a 3-month-old child.

Barrington Plaza residents have until Sept. 5 to move out and could receive more than $22,000 in relocation assistance. 

Some residents may qualify for extensions based on their length of residency, their age or if they are legally handicapped, the building owners said.

There are hundreds of tenants that are frustrated like Claudio Montanari. 

"We are for the fire sprinklers but we are against the way they are using the Ellis Act," Montanari said.

In other words, according to attorney Nima Farahani, it's when a landlord says, "'Please just leave the apartment.' I’m just done being a landlord. I’m going out of the rental business under the Ellis Act and that’s the one they’re using right now." 

But, Farahani and his law partner Frances Campbell are calling foul. 

"Douglas Emmett is a one-trick pony. All they are is landlords is not getting out of the rental business. They’re a multi-business public company and all they do is landlords. So, this idea that all these people have to lose their affordable home because Douglas Emmett is done being a landlord is like saying the Lakers are done being a basketball team," Farahani said.

They want a judge to rule on their assertion that putting in sprinklers is not the same as not wanting to be landlords anymore and tenants don’t understand why they can’t be put in vacant apartments in the building while the sprinkler work can’t be done.

"We’re just fighting to stay here. We feel that any fire sprinkler retrofit to be done can be done while were still here and an eviction is not necessary," another tenant, Robert Lawrence said.

Lawrence alleges that Emmett is misappropriating the Ellis Act to remove tenants and eliminate all rent control obligations so "...they can triple the rent and make a lot of money on the backs of people who have been living here for decades."

In a statement, the rental company pushes back saying it’s reviewing the lawsuit and its claims.  

"Barrington Plaza has and is following the rules laid out by the Ellis Act. The units are being removed from the market under the terms of the Ellis Act." 

They also say, "The ownership of Barrington Plaza has been and continues to be uncertain about the ultimate disposition of the units and are preparing for a host of options."

City News Service contributed to this report.