West LA Barrington Plaza residents win fight against eviction

Tenants of the Barrington Plaza apartments who have been fighting their evictions from the West Los Angeles complex won a major victory Thursday when a judge issued a tentative ruling finding the building's owners improperly ordered tenants to vacate while never intending to "permanently" remove the units from the rental market.

The rent-controlled three-tower complex is owned by Douglas Emmett Inc. and Barrington Pacific LLC, which maintained the evictions are necessary to install fire sprinklers and other fire-safety infrastructure in a complex with a history of dangerous fires. But tenants facing eviction sued last year, saying the owners were unlawfully using the 1985 Ellis Act to evict all residents, and that the legislation actually was created to allow mom-and-pop landlords to leave the rental business and take the units off the rental market.

In a 19-page tentative ruling, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Jay Ford III found that building owners Barrington Pacific and Douglas Emmett Inc. violated the requirements of the Ellis Act and the city's Rent Stabilization Ordinance because they always envisioned returning the units to the rental market after the renovations were completed, even if those renovations took years to complete.

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"Based on the preponderance of the evidence, the court finds on May 8, 2023, when Barrington Pacific filed its Notice of Intent to Withdraw Units from Rental Housing Use with the city and served its notice of termination on its tenants, Barrington Pacific did not intend to permanently remove those apartments from the rental market under the RSO or otherwise intend "to go out of business" as contemplated under the Ellis Act, Ford wrote. "But rather, Barrington Pacific had the intent to `temporarily' withdraw the apartments in Barrington Plaza from rental use with the specific intent to relet those apartments as soon as it completed its planned renovations to all the apartments including installing fire and safety improvements, fire sprinklers, and other modernization upgrades, all which Barrington Pacific planned for and expected would take three to five years to complete."

The ruling, once finalized, will halt the evictions of the remaining tenants. There are believed to be about 100 units still being rented at the complex. When the renovation project and evictions were announced last year, there were 577 occupied units.

"We have been fighting these bogus evictions for over a year now," Barrington Plaza tenant Monique Gomez said in a statement released by the Coalition for Economic Survival, which has been assisting the tenants in the fight. "Tenants here have faced harassment, intimidation and uncertainty without little to no help from the city. It shows when we stick together we can win. I am overjoyed."

Tenant attorney Fran Campbell argued during the trial that a landlord "who is evicting its tenants under the Ellis Act to make repairs is not `going out of business.' It is improving its property so it can increase its rents in the future, which is part of the business of landlording."

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 100-150 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.

Located at the corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Barrington Avenue in West Los Angeles, eight floors in one of the complex's three towers have been red-tagged and out of service since that 2020 fire. According to the building owners, renovation plans were submitted to the city later that year, but the city's approval was conditioned on installation of sprinklers and other "life- safety equipment" throughout all three towers.

Building owners said last year the renovations were expected to cost more than $300 million. Attorneys for the owners argued during the trial that the renovations would likely mean extensive rebuilding of the buildings' interiors and the apartments, meaning the existing units will essentially be demolished.

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