Monday, October 29, 2018

We thought rent control would protect us


We thought rent control and human decency would keep us in our home of 48 years. We were dead wrong

OCT 28, 2018 | 3:05 AM

A sign advertising a house for rent in Los Angeles on Feb. 27, 2015. (Richard Vogel / Associated Press)

One hot afternoon this past July, I returned to my apartment near MacArthur Park to find a three-day “pay or quit” notice posted on the front door.

I panicked. How could this possibly be? We had paid our rent on time, as we did every month, sending it in by mail. How could we be facing eviction for non-payment ?

My husband, Anthony Hernandez, had lived in this apartment since 1970. He moved in shortly after he returned from Vietnam. I joined him in 1986, the year we were married.

The rent was cheap — very cheap — and we had decided that we would try to live off our art rather than take jobs. We weren’t sure we could do it, but why not try? I had recently placed a few stories in literary magazines and was working on my first novel. Tony’s photographs were being collected by museums and exhibited in group shows. We figured if we lived simply, our plan might work, and low rent was the key.

Our lovely old Spanish-style building, dating from the early 1930s, was surrounded by an overgrown garden, perfect for Tony’s cat Ursa and my dog Dudley. Our apartment was small, just one bedroom, but large enough for the two of us. The neighborhood felt rough but that seemed to suit the novel I was working on, part of which was set in MacArthur Park. I wrote at a desk next to the bed. Tony went out to make his photographs.

We believed we were protected. By rent control. By the fact we’d lived there so long. By our age. About all this we were dead wrong.

Our landlord, a sweet man named Billy Ray Williams, lived in one of the duplexes at the back of the property. He kept the rents low. I used to say he was the worst capitalist in the world, which made him seem to me like the finest of men.

Billy Ray appeared less concerned with making money than simply having stable tenants and enjoying his modest life: He was a flâneur, walking the streets of L.A. every day. We joked that Billy Ray was our patron, enabling us to live off our work just as we’d hoped: No matter what happened, we would have an affordable place to live.

Occasionally we imagined moving to a better neighborhood. But we liked our little apartment; it continued to suit us. So instead we bought a small place in Idaho, out on a high prairie, where we could spend the summers, when it was too hot to photograph in the city.

Time passed — a lot of it — and nothing much changed. Until Billy Ray died, at the age of 96. Then our building became part of a years-long contest over his will, which was finally settled in the spring of this year. The Spanish-style building was sold in March.

By then it had begun to go downhill. The garden was neglected. Yucca, bougainvillea, lantana, even jade plants and a huge cactus had died. The bare dirt in front was the new curbside neighborhood dumping ground. The building sold for a song.

The new landlord came to collect the rent in person. He was not, as we discovered, a very nice man. Surly, coarse, as opposite from Billy Ray as a person could be.

His first demand: Our pets — cats now — would have to go. He didn’t have the right, we found out. Then he offered us money to move — the minimum amount required by law. We told him we had no interest in leaving our apartment.

We believed we were protected. By rent control. By the fact we’d lived there so long. By our age. About all this we were dead wrong.

After we received the pay or quit notice we knew he had destroyed our July rent check, and then had the court post an order demanding we pay up.

We immediately sent a cashier’s check. It was not cashed. Nor was the next month’s check, or the next. All attempts to communicate with the landlord were fruitless. He continued to claim we were not paying rent.

We hired a lawyer. We filed a complaint with the city. Nevertheless, on the morning of Sept. 25, we awoke to an eviction notice posted on our door. This one informed us we had five days to vacate the apartment or sheriff’s deputies would arrive the following Monday, Oct. 1, to lock us out. Oct. 1 is my birthday.

We could have continued fighting. Gone to court. Had a jury trial. Paid the ballooning legal fees. But there was no guarantee we’d win, and even if we did, we’d have a scummy landlord to deal with, and who knew what he’d try next? Our lawyer said that landlords all over the city were employing dirty tactics to get people out of apartments with low rents, especially before the vote on Proposition 10, which would give cities more power to regulate rental prices.

“They count on causing so much anguish they’ll simply wear you out,” the lawyer said. And that’s what happened. We got worn out.

In the end, we accepted a modest payout, not much more than he’d originally offered. We had 48 hours to pack up and vacate the apartment. Forty-eight hours for 48 years.

I don’t know how we did it, but the day the deputies were supposed to show up to lock us out, the only thing remaining in the apartment was a half-empty bottle of Jim Beam and two glasses we’d left on the kitchen counter, a toast to the apartment that had been so good to us.

Judith Freeman is the author of “The Long Embrace: Raymond Chandler and the Woman He Loved,” as well as the recent memoir, “The Latter Days.”

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