Nearly 200 residents of a Westwood senior housing complex are facing eviction. The building’s new owners say they want to renovate, and are giving the residents up to a year to get out.
“I feel we came here to live, not to leave,” said Ruth Frank, 94. “We’ve enjoyed and we want to continue enjoying living here. It’s our home and we made friends that are now our family. And it’s very important that we be together and enjoy each other’s company.”
“There are about 150 to 200 people living here,” said Isaac Benjamin, 95. “All senior citizens. All in various stages of disrepair. Some in a state of dementia. Many using walkers to navigate. A lot of them use canes. And probably the average age here is 85 to 100. And this is the population that’s being evicted. And this is something that’s indecent that’s happening. It’s indecent and it’s immoral.”
Both are residents of Vintage Westwood Horizons, an independent living facility for seniors in Westwood Village. The pink and gray, 14-story tower with a high-ceilinged lobby and generous dining room had a past life as a UCLA student dormitory. Since then it has had multiple owners. The last one, Vintage, drew up plans for improving the facility with renters in place.
Then it was bought by Tucson-based Watermark Retirement Communities, and it was renamed Watermark at Westwood Village. That wasn’t the only change.
“The company, Watermark, had a meeting that was billed as, meet our new Watermark family,” explained Ruth Frank’s daughter, Jeannine Frank. “So people came to the meeting to meet the new executives and they talked about investing $50 million and making this building state of the art. Some of the residents, their mouths were watering about how gorgeous and what they were going to do. And then they said, now there is a little issue, is that everyone will have to vacate the building probably for up to two years. And you have 120 days. I thought people were just going to have a heart attack and die when they heard that. I almost did. I was there. The truth is if you’re over 62 you have a year, but they didn’t say that in the meeting. It was horrible.”
“They are in it obviously for profit. And I think they deserve a profit but not at an inhuman kind of a way,” said Florence “Flossy” Liebman, 95.
At this point the new owners Watermark learned that they were messing with the wrong people. Vintage describes its community as “successful, creative and well-educated seniors.” These residents have successful and well-educated and loving children, with connections.
“We have a lot of people here that have participated in civic life. They know people, their kids know people. We’re in public life we’re in entertainment business, we’re in academic life. We have a lot of connections obviously,” said Jeannine Frank.
These kids jumped into action, reaching out to local politicians and media and packed what was intended to be a private meeting between owner and residents.
Delores Benjamin, wife of Isaac and resident at Westwood Horizons, recalls the meeting that took place last Thursday.
“It was fantastic because there were many children in there. It was a very good meeting, but there wasn’t enough room. Half the people were standing because there were so many children. It was wonderful from that standpoint,” she said.
TV news crews were there. However, they weren’t allowed into the meeting itself. But Eitan Arom, staff writer for the Jewish Journal, did get in.
“It was pretty wild. I would say the room was somewhere between two to three hundred people,” Arom said. “It was standing room only. And that meant anyone that was not a senior citizen was on their feet. And you could tell people were not happy in that crowd when the lawyer for Watermark came on and started speaking, he got booed. And I can say that I’ve never heard a crowd of senior citizens boo anybody. It was quite something. Paul Koretz, the city council member, came out. He made a little pun and called it a ‘low watermark’ of the company’s history. Representatives from Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, Assemblymember Sebastian Ridley-Thomas, representatives from the mayor were there, all of them offered their support and said that they would be looking into it. But the consensus did seem to be that the eviction was legal. And so it looks like it’s going to proceed.”
In Tuesday’s LA City Council meeting, Councilman Koretz asked a number of city offices to look at possible ways to stop the evictions. He also began what he calls a “pressure campaign” against Watermark.
Bet Tzedek is a nonprofit providing legal services to low-income groups and others in need. They are offering free legal assistance to some Westwood Horizons residents. Jessie Kornberg is the CEO and President. DnA asked her if she believes the owners are meeting the provisions of the Ellis Act — which allows landlords to evict tenants for the purpose of going out of business.
“In its most basic form, the Ellis Act provides some landlord and some residents protections when a residential building changes its use and becomes a different kind of commercial property. In this case there is a question as to whether or not that’s what’s actually happening. The plan is for these residents to leave this building, for them to perform some renovation, and then for residents very much like those already in the building to come back in and be housed in a facility that provides very similar services to the ones already in place. And so we do have some questions about whether or not the Ellis Act applies for this building,” Kornberg said.
Many renters in LA right now fear an eviction notice. According to an LA Times report in April more than 1,000 rent-controlled apartments were taken off the market last year. That’s a nearly threefold increase since 2013. For seniors the threat is even more acute.
“For our senior clients, the threat of eviction is not just destabilizing, but life-threatening. Many of the clients we serve throughout the city and in this building in particular are bed bound, are suffering from late-stage Alzheimer’s, are totally incapable of navigating the process of transitioning to new housing. That’s assuming that new housing were even available,” Kornberg said.
Watermark, the new owner of Vintage Westwood Horizons, wants to transform the center from an independent senior living center to a licensed assisted living facility.
DnA wanted to ask Watermark why residents need to be moved out to make these changes.
At the building, the executive director, Allison Marty, declined an interview and instead sent us a statement from Watermark, which reads in part that they plan an extensive overhaul and that “to remain during construction and renovation would be too great a risk to resident and associate safety.”
Critics, like Flossy Liebman’s daughter Jane Blumenfeld, who’s also a former planner for the City of Los Angeles, says this is about getting out from under rent control and being able to charge more for services the center already unofficially provides, just without a license.
“They bought it obviously with this business plan in mind. You know, Remodel it, get rid of these low rents and have a high end facility in the middle of Westwood Village, which, by the way, has a specific plan that would never allow a high rise building ever again if anybody took it down. So it would be literally the only high rise you know structure there with units whether they’re assisted living or apartments or whatever they are,” Blumenfeld said.
In the face of the negative publicity it’s received, will Watermark soften their position?
“Money talks a lot louder than any reaction that people are going to have,” said Jack Goldfarb, an LA resident whose 99-year old father Joe Goldfarb lives at Vintage. “I mean this is a $50 million renovation they’re planning, supposedly. You’re talking about huge dollars here. So I don’t think they care about the bad press. They knew they were going to get bad press and they really don’t care. They’re just forging ahead with their plan. And their plan is to make a lot of money when they’re done with this place because they will have a premier facility and location more importantly.
So what do the residents do now?
Some are taking a wait-and-see approach. After all, says Jane Blumenfeld, the owners still have to get approvals and permits for a project to secure an Ellis Act eviction.
“They also need to follow a lot of other rules about what they’re allowed to do in Westwood. And it’s clear to me at least that there’s many ways to remodel this building and upgrade it that doesn’t necessarily have to involve throwing out 200 seniors to the streets where there are no places for them to go to.”
Others have rushed to find new accommodations — and found options are limited. Sherilynn Lopez had flown from Austin to celebrate her mother’s 95 birthday and said that to get her mother into a different housing complex, “somebody has to pass, which is really sad. You’re on a waiting list waiting for somebody to pass on. That’s like someone waiting for my mom to pass to get her room. It’s not right. But you know, business is business. I guess that’s what it is. Big business. Elderly people.”