February 25, 2020

Westwood seniors get reprieve from orders of eviction

decision by the Los Angeles Housing and Community Investment Department will halt the eviction of dozens of seniors from a Westwood retirement facility — but it may have come too late to save the building’s community of elders.

In December, the new owners of the Vintage Westwood Horizons moved to evict the 117 seniors living there, most of them Jewish, intending to conduct extensive renovations. While the city decision stays the evictions, many onetime residents already have moved out, leaving fewer than 50 still in residence.

“There’s not enough for a minyan,” said resident Emiel Meisel, 92, referring to a Jewish prayer quorum, traditionally of 10 men. “That ought to give you a clue.”

In a June 13 letter, the Housing Department informed the building’s new owners, Tucson, Ariz.-based Watermark Retirement Communities, that the city considers the building to be a residential hotel. Los Angeles Municipal Code defines a residential hotel as any building with six or more guest rooms serving as the tenants’ primary residence, often occupied by elderly or low-income tenants.

The classification blocks Watermark’s intended eviction.

“Those eviction notices are no longer in effect, and so the threat of displacement has been removed. That brings peace of mind and stability to a vulnerable population,” said Jessie Kornberg, president and CEO of Bet Tzedek Legal Services, a legal aid clinic that represented a group of tenants fighting eviction.

The determination comes after a February resolution from the Los Angeles City Council, asking the Housing Department to consider the facility for protected status. The resolution was introduced by City Councilman Paul Koretz, who represents Westwood.

Kornberg said the designation prevents Watermark from using a California statute to convert the use of the building from an unofficial senior home to a state-licensed Residential Care Facility for the Elderly that would provide services such as care for the memory-impaired, as the company had intended.

“While we are disappointed by this determination, we remain committed to our plan to make much-needed repairs and improvements to the Westwood Horizons building,” Watermark President David Barnes said in a statement responding to the decision.

Watermark maintains the building is in dire need of repairs that would require residents to temporarily relocate. The building began life as a UCLA dorm in the 1960s.

“Its mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems are so old that they are vulnerable to outages, leading to potentially unsafe conditions in the future,” Barnes said in the statement.

A Watermark representative said in an email that the company would appeal the city’s decision, but Bet Tzedek’s Kornberg said an appeal is unlikely to succeed.

Kornberg said under the building’s new status, Watermark would be required to pay the cost of temporary relocation should it become necessary during renovations.

She sees the city’s move as a victory that will lead to a restoration of the building’s former vibrancy.

“I would love to see people who relocated based on those invalid eviction notices be able to return to the building and be able to rebuild the community that was there before,” she said. “I’m hopeful that it’s possible.”

Jeannine Frank, who advocated against the evictions and whose mother is a resident, said she shares that hope.

Frank said she disapproves of the way the eviction was handled and that damage was done when Watermark posted eviction notices in December, saying the residents had 120 days to vacate their units.

“The community was really torn apart by fear and uncertainty,” Frank said.

The 120-day deadline turned out to be misleading, failing to account for exemptions that give seniors and those with disabilities more time to comply with an eviction order.

The notices nonetheless sparked an exodus of dozens of tenants.

“They kind of jumped the gun, and they left early when they didn’t have to,” said resident Flossy Liebman, 96.

She said those who left are having trouble finding a place on par with the Westwood location.

“It’s a delightful, wonderful place,” she said of her current home. “It’s friendly, and that’s the one complaint that we’re hearing from people who leave: It’s not friendly anyplace.”

Meisel said he is not planning to move unless absolutely necessary.

“They’re going to have to blast me out of here,” he said.

But he may be an exception. He said he and his wife, Harriet, soon will be the last married couple in the building. Meal service is down to four or five dining tables, from about 40, he said. Of the three residents who had survived concentration camps during the Holocaust, two are planning to leave, according to Meisel.

“One of the ladies lost her Rummikub [tile game] partner,” Meisel said, “and that was like taking her husband away from her.”