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Decade-Old Law Could Protect San Diego Tenants — Or Not

Buildings at 26th Street and Logan Avenue in Barrio Logan are pictured, Aug. 16, 2016.
Kris Arciaga
Buildings at 26th Street and Logan Avenue in Barrio Logan are pictured, Aug. 16, 2016.

Decade-Old Law Could Protect San Diego Tenants — Or Not
Fixing bad housing often means displacing tenants. There's an ordinance on the books that could protect such renters — if the legal community can decide what it means.
Decade-Old Law Could Protect San Diego Tenants — Or Not
Decade-Old Law Could Protect San Diego Tenants — Or Not GUEST:Megan Burks, reporter, KPBS News

Yesterday we revisited an apartment building in barrio Logan which was owned by Ben King shot. We uncovered dangerous code violations and in order to fix those violations many of his tenants have been displaced. Today Megan Birks looks at an ordinance that might have detected them. The apartment at 2605 Logan Avenue used to be home to low income families, disabled individuals, and people trying to take addictions. The place had bold and cockroaches but was affordable. The property was purchased and remodeled last year. The new owners LWP Group gave nearly all of the previous tenants notice to vacate said they could overhaul the building. Today young tenants lock their skippered specially designed to bracts on the front stoop and check the mail underneath neon murals. Rent has gone from $650 from $650-$950 per month. I don't think they have the right to do that. Attendance rate attorney met with some of the tenants and others facing similar situations. He believes a 2004 city ordinance should have protected them from being pushed out under new ownership the ordinance says landlords have to tell tenants of two years or more why they are being evicted. It says only specific scenarios are cause for eviction. Things like not pay main of rent and illegal activity. The ordinance refers to necessary repairs and the question is what is necessary. It's an apartment babysitters with 1980s appliances -- may be suited with 1980s appliances but it works why is it necessary for the landlord to say not to update it and we needed to leave. To be clear the repairs made were not only cosmetic. The new owners said the conditions were so bad it would of been irresponsible to keep tenants in place during the renovations. A former tenant told us that she -- her son developed severe asthma after crews try to remove mold from her apartment. They argue that in general landlords haven't -- have a legal obligation to keep tenants in place whenever possible. Donna Frye draft the ordinance and degrees. If you own a property and want to make major repairs of course you can tell people you have to move out. The good landlords can say you can move out for a month or two and I will help with accommodations. It was part of a package of reforms meant to help residents struggling in the tight housing market. It was never meant to protect -- prevent property owners from updating their units and making money. They specifically said that landlords can convict -- evict tenants to make repairs for economic gain. The difference between the grass -- drafts are curious so we asked for an interpretation. Except for attorneys and judges to figure it out in court. I'm not aware of a ruling on the right to know ordinance. That probably won't happen anytime soon because these cases rarely make it to court. Data from the San Diego Superior Court show more than 98% tenants in eviction court settle before they go to trial. It's a big risk for tenant. If they end up losing and unlawful detainer in court. Tenants settle because having an eviction on the record would likely keep them from finding housing elsewhere. Until the legal community makes meaning of the ordinance there's another solution. Effective code enforcement. The landlord can allow property to get to the point where it is falling into a state of disrepair and then turn around and sell it to somebody else and kick everybody out that does not seem their. Since our investigation out at of code enforcement officers and work to be more proactive combating safe housing. The recently the got another building that passed on it because it would've needed a complete that job. We are now joined by Megan who reported the story. For those that did not hear the first story what did you hear about the properties and how they were affecting tenants. I looked at these properties in 2014 they had complaints on his record all but one of the tenants had to leave. The building -- and then effort to solve one problem created another problem which is the displacement of tenants. Some people cannot afford a. Other people were still paying 950 back in 2014 it may just be that they left and found another place.'s Who are the folks that within this kind of housing? Do they qualify for section 8? There's a subsection of San Diego renters that are low income that do not qualify for section it because they are either undocumented or maybe the to qualify but they are on a waiting list so you have a lot of people who really need the low rent in the have some health and safety issues. One of your sources told you that housing that would normally age and become more affordable is getting remodeled into better housing because we are not building enough to housing. You might come through and see residents 1960s apartment building that used to look crummy another have trendy address letters on them and new word and that's because there's not enough of new building going on. Used to be affordable. It sounds like you are telling a story of gentrification. We're talking about parts of town that some may say are built out. Is the room to build more housing? It depends on the community and their plan and its along the transit corridors so that something that affordable housing is considering. Hire and denser -- These buildings were improved which is great but then the former residents evicted kicked out or cannot afford to rent there anymore. What is the solution to this seeming Catch-22. It's a problem that will always be there. Some of my sources have talked about improving code enforcement. There's no reason that a building should get in such bad shape. Maybe it should be in a situation where the building is in decent shape and they can renovate unit by unit getting a package of $4 million from the state to sort of ease development of housing throughout the state and addressing the high fees that developers say it's in a multi-facilitated fashion. Some people are in favor of rent control. Is there any possibility that might happen in San Diego? I did not talk to supporters of rent control for this story They say that in areas like Los Angeles the selected the landlord can increase rent. Mentally is less incentive to go in and ticks problems that might create an issue I housing is getting a bad shape and that's the issue with -- that we are seeing now. RA Megan Burke's is a reporter with us and she just finished the two-part series on housing in San Diego.

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The apartments at 2605 Logan Ave. used to be home to low-income families, disabled individuals and people trying to kick drug and alcohol addictions. The place had mold and cockroaches, but it was affordable.

Today, young tenants lock their skateboards to specially designed racks on the front stoop. They check their mail beneath neon murals and flyers for art shows.

The property was purchased and remodeled last year. The new owners, LWP Group, gave nearly all of the previous tenants notice to vacate so they could overhaul the building. Rent has gone from as little as $650 a month to about $950.

RELATED: Former Tenants Of Derelict Landlord Tossed Into Punishing Rental Market

It's a common tale across San Diego's low-income communities as demand for housing increases. But there's a city ordinance that could disrupt that tale.

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"In my opinion, a landlord cannot come in and throw out long-term tenants after buying a property just to renovate it and increase the rent," said Dan Lickel, a tenants' rights attorney. "I don't think they have the right to do that under the San Diego Tenants Right to Know Ordinance."

Dan Lickel is pictured in his Barrio Logan office, Aug. 19, 2016.
Kris Arciaga
Dan Lickel is pictured in his Barrio Logan office, Aug. 19, 2016.

The ordinance is an eviction control measure the city of San Diego adopted in 2004. It says landlords have to tell tenants of two years or more why they're being evicted. And it says only specific scenarios are cause for an eviction — things like nonpayment of rent or illegal activity on the premises.

One such scenario is the need to go in and make repairs.

"The ordinance refers to necessary modifications, necessary repairs and construction. The question is, 'What is necessary?'" Lickel said. "If the apartment is suited with 1980s vintage cabinets and counters and appliances but it works, why is it necessary for the landlord to come in and say, 'Well we want to update it to the 2010s and in order to do that, we need you to leave?'"

To be clear, the repairs made at 2605 Logan were not only cosmetic. The new owners said the conditions were so bad it would have been irresponsible to keep tenants in place during the renovations.

Indeed, a former tenant said in a KPBS and Voice of San Diego investigation into the building's previous owner that her son developed severe asthma after crews tried to remove mold in her apartment. The investigation also found evidence of plumbing leaks and cockroach infestations.

But Lickel argues that, in general, landlords have a legal obligation to keep tenants in place whenever possible.

Former City Councilwoman Donna Frye drafted the ordinance and disagrees.

"If you own a property and you want to make major repairs to it, of course you can tell people that you're going to make repairs and they have to move out," Frye said. "Now, the good landlords and the people that want to keep their tenants who have been there and have been good tenants will say you can move out for a month or two and they'll help with accommodations."

The ordinance was part of a package of reforms meant to help tenants struggling in San Diego's tight housing market. But Frye says it was never meant to prevent property owners from updating their units and making money. The first draft reflects that.

A tenant who has resided in the same dwelling unit for at least two years may only be evicted for good cause, including … a business or economic reason for termination of the tenancy such as sale of the property or renovation of the unit.

But the final version refers only to necessary repairs that fix code violations.

A residential tenancy of more than two years duration shall not be terminated, nor shall its renewal be refused, except for one or more of the following reasons …

Correction of Violations. The landlord, after having obtained all necessary permits from the City of San Diego, seeks to recover possession of the rental unit for necessary repair or construction when removal of the tenant is reasonably necessary to accomplish the repair or construction work.
The differences between the drafts are curious, so we asked the City Attorney's Office for an interpretation.

"It is in the hands of judges," spokesman Gerry Braun said in an email, meaning it’s the court's job to interpret the law.

"I'm not aware of any judge ruling on the Right to Know Ordinance, and I know there's no published appellate decisions on the subject," said Lickel, the tenants' rights attorney.

And there probably won't be one anytime soon. Such cases rarely make it to court. Data from the San Diego Superior Court show more than 98 percent of tenants in eviction court settle before they go to trial.

"It's a pretty big risk for tenants if they end up losing an unlawful detainer in court," Lickel said.

Tenants often settle because having an eviction judgment on their record would likely keep them from finding housing elsewhere.

Lickel said that until the legal community makes meaning of the ordinance, there’s another solution: effective code enforcement.

"If a landlord can allow a property to get to a point where it's fallen into a state of disrepair and turn around sell it to somebody else who can come in and renovate and kick everybody out while they're doing it, that doesn't seem fair to tenants," Lickel said. "The Right to Know Ordinance was intended to protect tenants, especially when there was a shortage of low-income housing, and that's not happening when the properties that are available to low-income people are the least kept up."

Greg Strangman, founder and lead principal for LWP Group, is pictured in his Barrio Logan office, Sept. 19, 2016.
Guillermo Sevilla
Greg Strangman, founder and lead principal for LWP Group, is pictured in his Barrio Logan office, Sept. 19, 2016.

Since the 2015 investigation by KPBS and Voice of San Diego, the city has added code enforcement officers and worked to be more proactive in combating unsafe housing. But there’s still work to be done.

The new owner at 2605 Logan Ave. said he recently looked at another building for sale in Barrio Logan but passed.

"Guess what? There was like a telephone book full of code compliance issues. It was thick," said Greg Strangman, founder and lead principal for LWP Group. "I just looked at my partner and said, 'I'm not going to fight this fight.'"

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