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Kirkland Helps Displaced Los Angeles Tenants Find Justice

Dec. 26, 2018, 6:49 PM; Updated: Jan. 3, 2019, 10:45 PM

Kirkland & Ellis and the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles helped ink a $1.025 million settlement for a group of displaced residents and homeless in a lawsuit challenging an effort to convert their rent-controlled apartments to hotel units.

The firm and legal aid attorneys filed suit last March against a Los Angeles landlord couple who told residents of the former Royal Park Motel, in the city’s Westlake area, that they needed to make repairs and renovations following a 2014 Christmas Eve fire that caused damage. The January 2016 notification to tenants described the move as temporary.

Shut Out

Renter Peter James, 62, a Los Angeles area maintenance worker, told Bloomberg Law that he was advised he could return after a few months. He was unable to find an alternative place to live in the city’s limited affordable housing market so he and his service dog wound up sleeping in his van for a time.

“I had put all my stuff in temporary storage, then when I showed up to move back in, my side of the building had not been touched,” he said.

James reached out to legal aid lawyers to challenge the renovations as stealth unit conversions aimed at evading rent control regulations. Previously, rent for units in the two-story building had ranged from $600 to $1,000 per month.

During the renovations, the landlords had removed kitchens, replaced locks with card readers and advertised the 137-unit building online as the Center Lake Hotel, a $100 per day tourist lodging.

“The way they tried to displace these people was particularly callous especially because there was no alternative housing,” Tanya Greene, a litigation partner at Kirkland’s Los Angeles office who pressed the case, told Bloomberg Law.

About 100 people, including elderly and some disabled people, lost their housing, according to the suit filed by Kirkland and the legal aid attorneys in Los Angeles Superior Court. Aside from Greene, associate Edward Hillenbrand is also listed as working on the case from Kirkland.

The suit was filed on behalf of nine low-income renters, including James, and the tenant rights organization, Inquilinos Unidos. The lawsuit said the conversions violated city and state laws on rent control and eviction, including a law barring the demolition or conversion of residential hotel units.

The plight of those displaced was made worse, said Paul Estuar, an attorney with the Los Angeles Legal Aid Foundation, “because there is a severe housing shortage in Los Angeles and a rising number of homeless in the city and few affordable housing units,” said Paul Estuar, an attorney with the Los Angeles Legal Aid Foundation. “And it’s getting worse.”

‘A Way to Get Around Rules’

Some of those displaced from the Royal Park tried to move back in but were told they would have to pay the $100 per night rate, said Estuar.

“This was a way to get around rules for dislodging tenants,” said Greene. The lawsuit asked the judge for an injunction requiring the landlords to maintain the units as residential spaces and a jury trial to determine damages.

Kirkland and the legal aid lawyers came to a settlement in early December that provides the $1 million-plus settlement, to be divided among the nine plaintiffs and the tenant organization, as well as cover attorney fees and costs.

A separate $200,000 fund was also set up for other displaced tenants to pursue relocation assistance. That fund must be replenished for two years to allow tenants to decide whether to relocate or to return to their prior apartments.

“This is a truly a Christmas surprise,” said James, who plans to look for a permanent apartment with a patio for his dog. “It’s inconvenient and it’s scary not to have a home.”

(Updated to correct the dollar amount of the settlement. The settlement was for $1.025 million, not $1.25 million.)

To contact the reporter on this story: Elizabeth Olson in Washington at egolson1@gmail.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Rebekah Mintzer at rmintzer@bloomberglaw.com

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