Ellis Act Faces Reform - After 25,000 Evictions Created Renter Refugees

DEEGAN ON LA-Too late to help the thousands of Los Angeles renters that have been thrown out of their apartments, and not soon enough for the developers that used the Act to leverage rent-controlled housing into market rate bonanzas, the Ellis Act is finally facing reform. 

Politicos are now attacking the onerous Ellis Act, saying in a Tenant Relocation Assistance Motion that, “In recent years, the Act has been misused to: 

  • Clear the way for the eviction of long-term tenants 
  • Issue the demolition of units subject to the Rent Stabilization Ordinance (“RSO”) 
  • Create development of new market rate units 
  • See the gradual reintroduction of units at market rates 
  • Continue the construction of housing that fails to meet the City’s affordable housing needs.” 

“Since 2001,” says the motion, “according to the Los Angeles Housing and Community Investment Department, nearly 25,000 RSO rental units were taken off the rental market using the Ellis Act.” 

Leading the reform movement are three Los Angeles City Councilmembers (Bonin, Ryu and Cedillo) who have entered the motion to reform what has become a destructive license to kill peaceful households. 

Reform will provide no succor for the Ellis victims, but may prevent a repeat of that tragedy that has helped turn Los Angeles into a Third World-like city with renter refugees sleeping on sidewalks. Part of our regrettable spike in homelessness is due to evicted tenants. 

What is the Ellis Act and how has it been abused? What is the plan for reform? These questions are important for anyone who suspects foul play in the way that the law has been used. It was originally enacted, as stated in the motion, to “provide small-scale property owners with an orderly way to remove their buildings from the rental market” -- a scrupulous measure misused by unscrupulous developers to feed their greed. These developers cloaked their behavior in a city mandate to “create more affordable housing” and/or to “help house the homeless.” But instead of creating housing, the abusive use of the Ellis Act destroyed it. 

The “good-bye-good-luck” model that developers use, even when greased with a ”cash for keys” exit, leaves evicted tenants stranded to find comparable housing tied to their level of income. Unfortunately for many, market rate housing in the neighborhood where they may have lived for a long time in RSO (rent-controlled) housing, is now out of reach. This results in relocation away from their neighborhoods into ones that are more affordable, distancing themselves from their communities and workplaces. 

This is how renter refugees are born, and why the homeless ranks now include people who are not necessarily mentally ill, drug and alcohol dependent, suddenly or chronically unemployed, or the asphalt cowboys who prefer living without accountability. These “refugees” are everyday people who just lost what was for them their affordable housing. 

Some of the language of the new motion drives home what thousands already know: 

  • Over the last year, the City of Los Angeles has seen a 16 percent increase in homelessness. 
  • According to the California Housing Partnership, since 2000, the median rent in Los Angeles County has increased 32 percent while the median renter’s income has fallen 3 percent. 
  • Evictions, foreclosures, corporate conversions and rent hikes are driving people out of their homes and onto the streets. 
  • The City must do more to ensure that people who are experiencing financial hardship are not unfairly or arbitrarily pushed out of their homes. 

What do Councilmembers Bonin, Ryu and Cedillo, and hopefully, a majority of their council colleagues, want in their motion? A few big things, including more generous tenant relocation assistance and “allowing tenants who are displaced as a result of demolition to be provided the right of first refusal to move into the new building, and have the right of first refusal to rent the new below-market rate units designated to replace the units that were demolished, at the rent that would have applied if they had remained in place, as long as their tenancy continues.” 

For tenants, waiting to return to the same address and resume an affordable lifestyle at a fair rent could be a manageable time out. But they will need patience and fortitude to accept this type of offer. And for developers, having to return former tenants, by right of return, at a fair rent -- it’s about time they will be burdened.


(Tim Deegan is a civic activist whose DEEGAN ON LA weekly column about city planning, new urbanism, the environment, and the homeless appear in CityWatch. Tim can be reached at timdeegan2015@gmail.com.) Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.