Picture, if you will, the largest privately developed apartment complex west of Chicago.
Three towers housing 712 units stand tall above a desirable West LA neighborhood. At the time of its construction, the complex won an award from the National Association of Home Builders.
The complex is close to mass transit, the 405, schools, a top university, businesses, and hospitals. While it isn't especially close to any public parks, the complex made up for that with its own gardens and a nine-hole putting green.
It sounds like an urbanist's dream. But it was, and still is, missing something that was incredibly unwise to omit in Southern California: fire sprinklers.
Less than a decade after the first residents moved in, Barrington Plaza had the first of several fires on New Year's Day, 1971, when a Christmas tree caught on fire. The building had to be evacuated, and elevators were shut down for several days. (As with the modern-day case of Cathay Manor in Chinatown, this would have been an especially serious problem for any residents using mobility devices.)
Douglas Emmett Inc. bought Barrington Plaza in 1998. I can't say how aware of the fire hazards the company may have been at the time.
The second major fire tore through the 11th floor of one tower on October 18, 2013. Eight people were hurt, and tenants accused Douglas Emmett Inc. of negligence. Several dozen tenants were displaced, although at least in this case the displacement was temporary.
The third major fire broke out January 29, 2020. Eleven people, including three firefighters and a three-month-old baby, were hurt, and French exchange student Jeremy Bru died from his injuries. Eight floors were red-tagged, rendering 135 apartments uninhabitable and displacing their residents. Those apartments have been empty ever since.
To make matters worse, Barrington Plaza was (is?) the site of illegal short-term rentals. According to a tenant who escaped the 2020 fire and was interviewed by KTLA, a unit neighboring his was being used as an Airbnb. He suspected it was where the fire broke out, although LAFD believed it began one floor below.
Landlords of questionable morals know, and sometimes use, the fact that the more short-term rentals a building has, the fewer protected RSO tenants there are to deal with when they want to empty the building.
The original developer should have had the foresight to include fire sprinklers, but they didn't. Douglas Emmett Inc. could have taken steps to add them sometime during the past 25 years, but for whatever reason, they didn't until now.
Instead, Barrington Plaza is facing a mass eviction that will force nearly 600 people to find other housing in a rental market that is already dealing with a crisis.
What is particularly troubling is Douglas Emmett Inc.'s invocation of the Ellis Act. The Ellis Act was designed to let property owners get out of the rental market; it was not meant to be used to clear three towers filled with hundreds of renters.
Douglas Emmett Inc. has alternately stated that the apartments will or will not be returned to the rental market after the sprinklers are added and other upgrades completed.
While I agree that fire sprinklers are indeed badly needed (and should have been added long ago), this appears to be improper use of the Ellis Act, on top of the ethical issue of taking 577 apartments off the market at once.
Legally, landlords invoking the Ellis Act must be making a good-faith attempt to permanently remove rental units from the rental market. (Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer, but I am a former property manager.) Douglas Emmett Inc. has stated they have no plans to convert the complex to condos, which begs the question of whether they do intend to eventually return the units to the rental market. If they do, the Ellis Act invocation is illegal. If they don't, then why would three empty towers need sprinklers (and why would Douglas Emmett Inc. retain ownership of a large complex that isn't producing rental income)?
There are financial penalties for re-renting an Ellis Acted unit within a certain time frame. We won't know how long it will take to add a sprinkler system and complete other planned work (and pass inspections), but for that time, plus any additional time within the penalty period, those three towers will be empty, and almost 600 extra people will be competing for an already insufficient number of available apartments.
Because Barrington Plaza is subject to the rent stabilization ordinance, the tenants who are paying below market rate for Sawtelle most likely will not be able to stay in their longtime neighborhood. That is especially concerning for tenants who rely on neighborhood resources, such as mass transit or the nearby hospitals.
Fire safety is of the utmost importance - but the stability of a place to call home is important too.
The owner claims the renovations can't be done with tenants in place due to the towers sharing systems and structural upgrades being needed. I'm not a structural engineer, plumber, or electrician, so I can't be sure if that is true or not.
In any case, there are already eight long-empty floors in one tower, the whole complex is going to be empty for an indeterminate period (unless the tenants successfully fight the mass eviction), and this could not have happened at a worse time.
(11740 Wilshire Boulevard, Sawtelle)