Allegedly fraudulent and malicious conduct has prompted the City of Santa Monica to file a lawsuit against local landlords who are accused of violating the City’s Tenant Harassment Ordinance and eviction moratorium.
The complaint filed last week states Youseph and Hanokh Golshirazian, and SoCal Investment Company, LLC, have allegedly attempted to drive rent-controlled tenants out of their homes since they first purchased their 30-unit residential property located at 153 San Vicente Boulevard in 2017.
SoCal Investment Company did not return a request for interview as of Thursday. However, twenty-three of its thirty units at the San Vicente property were vacant as of last week, according to Santa Monica Rent Control Board records, and the City alleges the defendants have used fraud, intimidation and other unlawful behavior in an attempt to evict five of the last-remaining tenants without justification.
Four months after the City expanded eviction protections in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, at least one long-term tenant received a letter from Hanokh Golshirazian falsely asserting that plans for “major repairs” had been approved by the City and the only remaining step was for Rent Control to approve temporary relocation plans for the tenants, the lawsuit states.
Tenants received another letter a month later that said the repair work would render the building uninhabitable. Resident Laura Kowalski Linden was in the midst of a battle COVID-19, which she caught in early February, just prior to losing a business, housemate and father.
Kowalski Linden remembers the property owners pushing for unity amongst the group while they tried to persuade her and the four other tenants who are named in the lawsuit to move their belongings while the repair work was completed.
“The owner said, ‘We need to really pull together and make this happen. We’re just going to move you out for a little bit,’ but I thought that just didn’t sound right, so I called the Rent Control; I called whoever I could and I said, ‘I’m willing to do this if this is protocol but this doesn’t sound like protocol,’ and they all said, ‘No, this is not protocol!’” Kowalski Linden said.
Stephen Lewis, then General Counsel for the Santa Monica Rent Control Board, attempted to clarify Golshirazian’s “false and misleading statements” in ensuing letters, according to the complaint. But after driving East with her dog to put her dad in hospice care, Kowalski Linden said she returned home in mid-October and was soon served with her first notice to vacate.
However, because the tenants have not committed any nuisance, have not endangered or impaired the health and safety of tenants or other persons, and have not caused or threatened to cause substantial damage to the premises, the complaint states, service of the notice dated October 26, 2020 constitutes an unlawful endeavor to evict in violation of sections 4 and 5(a) of the Eviction Moratorium.
Kowalski Linden didn’t know this at the time, she said, “But, of course, with the eviction moratorium, I continued to stay in touch with the City. I also started reaching out to the neighbors saying, ‘I’m not advising anybody on what to do but I’m not moving and here’s the information I have.’”
By the end of October, she remembers most of the complex’s longtime families had begun moving out since they were scared by the landlord’s letter.
Having lived at San Vicente Boulevard with his wife and children since 2005, resident Philip de Blasi said he wasn’t leaving without a fight.
“Little by little, this building’s community has been destroyed by turning units into short-term rentals,” de Blasi said, “so when we got to the point where we were waiting for those permits to get approved, we knew we better make sure this was legitimate and not another way to get us out.”
According to information submitted to the Santa Monica Rent Control Board, between March 1, 2018 and January 15, 2020, twenty-two of the San Vincente units were rented at various times for monthly rents between $4,950 and $11,071. Eight units rented for more than $10,000 per month whereas Tenants’ rents range from $2,526 to $3,676, the lawsuit states.
Both de Blasi and Kowalski Linden said they were offered an opportunity to put their stuff in storage while the rehabilitation work was done, but neither of them felt as though they would be allowed to return if they left the unit.
“That didn’t sound right, and I talked to friends who are contractors who said the same; One family said they had their (roof) reworked and they begged to be moved but the owners wouldn’t,” Kowalski Linden said.
“And this is all happening during the pandemic, so we were not going to move our families under those conditions, especially since the city didn’t sign off on these renovations,” de Blasi said. “This is home and when someone’s trying to take that away, it’s primal. When someone’s trying to take your safety and the roof over your head unlawfully, you just think about your kids, your family… and I couldn’t go down without a fight.”
Romy Ganschow, an attorney with the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, said the San Vincente property is a classic example of landlords trying to empty a long-term rent control building because they can either sell it for a significantly greater value if the units are empty, charge higher rents or demolish it to build something else.
Ganschow noted there is a patchwork of regulations and ordinances throughout Los Angeles County and Santa Monica that look to prevent evictions during COVID. But one of the exemptions from the protections is if a landlord alleges a tenant is becoming a nuisance.
“So, that can be a basis to evict a tenant even during COVID, or it’s at least a way to get an eviction case started,” Ganschow said. “And I can tell you, anecdotally, it feels like we’re seeing more cases of landlords alleging that tenants are engaging in nuisance… and that’s harmful because sometimes all it takes is filing a case and intimidating tenants so they become overwhelmed with a fear of losing their home during COVID, which forces them into a position where they feel like they need to make a deal to move out.”
There’s a false belief that landlords aren’t filing cases or the courts aren’t open to hear cases, Ganschow added. “But people are getting evicted. And because these laws that are meant to protect tenants aren’t perfect, it really takes vigilance to defend them and residents.”
Having been through the ordeal personally, di Blasi agreed that it’s more important than ever for others to look out for one another.
“Especially at this time, in this pandemic,” he said. “Our neighbors are our family, so we should stick together and make sure everyone stays safe; and really try to not give into intimidation because that’s what it’s all about — when those legal letters start pouring in it’s just about getting people to get spooked, so then they just give up.”
Kowalski Linden said it’s been helpful to have the city’s aid in the fight but she also encouraged tenants to be persistent.
“I had to keep calling and calling and calling,” Kowalski Linden said. “It’s been a part-time job dealing with all of this stuff.”
But it’s worth it because of stories like her neighbors.
“They’re a really old and sweet couple who was terrified to move. They’re in their seventies and they said, ‘We don’t want to move because our grandchildren are nearby… and this works for us but (the notice to vacate) says we have to leave,’” Kowalski Linden said. “I told them they don’t have to; you can but you don’t have to. So, they would send me a little note every couple of weeks asking if they had to move now? And I kept telling them no.”
This is why it’s important to stick together, Kowalski Linden added, and make a call if you think something isn’t right.
“That was the thing; I thought, ‘I’m just going to call. If we have to move, then we have to move but I’m just going to call,’ Kowalski Linden said. “And I know the City is a little overwhelmed right now but if you follow up on your phone calls and your emails, it’s worth it.”
Ganschow said StayHousedLA.org is also a great place for resources if residents have issues with their landlords or rental situation.