Iris has lived in her rent-controlled Santa Monica apartment for almost 20 years and hoped to stay there for at least 20 more. Her rent was affordable and she always paid on time, so she thought she would never have to leave. Then Iris got a notice from her landlord to move out. He said he was exercising his rights under California’s Ellis Act to remove Iris’s 12-unit apartment building from the rental market.

Iris isn’t alone. “Ellis” evictions are reportedly on the rise in Santa Monica and throughout California in cities with rent control or eviction protections. The Ellis Act is a state law that allows owners to remove residential properties from the rental market. Landlords have used it to evict tenants from an estimated 2,100 rental units in Santa Monica since the law passed in 1986.

There are rules in place to protect against sham evictions by owners who just want to clear out rent-controlled tenants so they can re-rent the units at market prices. For example, owners must keep Ellised units off the market for at least five years. The rent level stays the same during that time, and owners face penalties for re-renting without offering the units back to the original tenants. All of the units on the property must be removed at the same time.

In Santa Monica, owners who Ellis their rental properties must pay the displaced tenants a relocation fee. The amount varies depending on the size of the unit and whether residents are senior or disabled. The current base rate for a one-bedroom apartment is $13,900. Tenants typically have 120 days to leave after receiving notice of an Ellis eviction; seniors and disabled tenant have a year to move out.

Sometimes landlords offer tenants cash “buyouts” as an incentive to vacate more quickly. Santa Monica law requires landlords to make all buyout offers in writing and to give tenants a statement of their rights, regardless of whether the landlord plans to Ellis the building. (If the landlord successfully buys out all of the tenants in the building, then there is no need to invoke the Ellis Act, and the landlord can re-rent the units at market rate.)

Some unscrupulous landlords tell tenants they plan to Ellis, even though they have no intention of doing so, hoping the tenants will just move out without a relocation fee. Tenants shouldn’t make a decision to move out based solely such threats; it’s always important to know all the facts and to know your rights.

When Iris got her Ellis eviction notice, she came to the City Attorney’s Office for help. We can’t represent tenants in their cases, but we gave her information about the law so she could understand her rights.

If you live in Santa Monica and have questions about the Ellis Act or about a notice to vacate your rental unit, contact the City Attorney’s Consumer Protection Division at (310) 458-8336 or smconsumer.org.

The Consumer Protection Division of the City Attorney’s Office enforces the law and educates the public about tenants’ rights, fair housing, consumer protection, and other issues. They can be reached at (310) 458-8336 or smconsumer.org. Andrea Cavanaugh is a Consumer Specialist with the City Attorney’s office.

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