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Living in Limbo in a Hollywood High-Rise Where All the Tenants Might Have to Move Out

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Last October, a judge declared that the permits for Hollywood's Sunset Gordon apartment tower—which was already occupied by a few dozen tenants—were retroactively invalid, and it threw the building's tenants into murky territory: would they have to move out? Today, as a city-mandated deadline to vacate looms just a few days away, the answers are less clear than ever. Angry, freaked-out tenants aren't sure if they'll be able to stay put in their homes or have to move in a few days, and it's totally unclear whether they'll be compensated if they have to leave.

The lawsuit that threw everything into turmoil was brought by the La Mirada Avenue Neighborhood Association with the help of their lawyer, Robert Silverstein, who together have brought some of the most significant anti-development cases in LA, and especially Hollywood (they stopped the Hollywood Target in its tracks, for instance); the judge in the case found that developer CIM Group had inappropriately demolished the previous building's historic facade after pledging to maintain it, and that therefore the city's demolition and construction permits for the building were all invalid.

More than a month before that ruling came down last fall, though, CIM acquired a Temporary Certificate of Occupancy for the 23-story Sunset Gordon, which meant that, for a time, people could legally live in and move into the building. That certificate expired on March 11, though, and was not renewed or made permanent. So on March 19, the LA Department of Building and Safety issued an Order to Vacate, and informing CIM that the building would have to be empty by April 19.

But CIM's filed an appeal of the La Mirada ruling, and until that's settled, the LADBS says it won't enforce the Order to Vacate—the usual practice for when a case is being appealed, says department rep Luke Zamperini. Zamperini says this is the first time he knows of that a building's been hit with an Order to Vacate for "a technicality in the entitlement process"; normally the order is for buildings that are structurally unsafe, but this one's definitely solid in that respect.

Considering that this is brand new territory for everyone involved, including CIM, perhaps it should be expected that the situation has turned into a nightmare for the tenants who still live in the building.

It's unclear exactly how many residents are living at Sunset Gordon right now (tenants say there are about 50; CIM's court papers say there are 149), but about 30 of them held a meeting last weekend to discuss what's going on at the tower and tell journalists their story. According to tenants at the meeting, Sunset Gordon saw its first move-ins in September 2014, before the lawsuit ruling came down in October and after the TCO was issued on September 12. The September arrivals who were present at the meeting say that they were not told of the ongoing litigation concerning the building when they signed their leases. Some of the tenants who moved in more recently (January) say that their leases included a short clause that stipulated that, if they were forced out, they'd be given 60 days before they had to move, but having no idea about the legal backstory, they didn't know why the clause was important. Almost all of the tenants in attendance at the meeting claim they only heard about what the lawsuit might mean for them when their friends emailed them an article or shared it on Facebook, asking, "Hey, isn't this your building?"

Only one tenant at the tenant meeting says he actually had a discussion about the litigation with a leasing agent. That tenant was lucky enough to have heard about the lawsuit, but when he broached the subject, he claims the agent downplayed the situation, telling him about the certificate of occupancy without mentioning that it was only temporary.

Curbed has obtained three communications from Sunset Gordon's management to its tenants regarding the lawsuit and potential fallout. All use uncertain language and include such un-reassuring statements as "we continue to believe that existing tenants will be allowed to remain in the building during the appeal process" and "we do not believe the order will be enforced while the appeal is pending." While those things are all true, there's got to be a better, more reassuring way to communicate with tenants who are stuck in the middle of a situation that might get them kicked out of their homes through no fault of their own.

Things got scarier on April 10, just last week, when tenants awoke to copies of the Order to Vacate that had been slid under their doors. LADBS says it's standard procedure to thoroughly post the notice so that everyone knows what's going on, but in this case it made many tenants think they had zero idea what was going on. Besides trying to figure out if and when they were going to be kicked out of their homes, many tenants were also upset that five floors of the apartment tower were being used as a hotel—something they'd never signed up for. (The hotel was also operating without permits.) Several people went down to the management office to ask questions and, in response, the management called the cops on the assembly. The police report sums up the scene as an "advanced civil dispute with building and city" and notes that the tenants were not committing any crime in asking management for an explanation.

The most recent communication from the management that Curbed's obtained is dated that same day, April 10. It does not explicitly address the seemingly contradictory information coming from the city and from management—a point of intense confusion and stress for residents. It does not explicitly say that LADBS's practice during appeals is to hold off on enforcement, something that might have offered a little comfort to residents who interpreted the repeated notice as a sign that the Order to Vacate was going to be enforced. When an OtV is served, the onus is on the building owner to clarify for residents what will and will not happen to them, says Zamperini. Residents say CIM is making a bad situation even worse by failing to ensure that the residents understand what's happening.

Plenty of residents are very actively looking to move out, but they only understood about a month ago that this might become a "move out or get kicked out" situation. LA's not the easiest place to find an apartment anyway, as the region is in a major an intense housing shortage right now. The residents here are not low-income—rents of tenants Curbed talked to range from $2,195 to $2,700 a month—and that's going to make finding a new place easier, for sure. But many residents will probably end up having to move twice: once into an apartment that's just a stopping point, and again into a more permanent home (whose name and developer have been entered into many Google searches followed by "litigation" and "lawsuit," just to be sure).

Meanwhile, the tenants who gathered at last weekend's meeting are all under the impression that they will not be getting any relocation money from CIM, even if they have to leave because CIM loses the appeal and the city forces them out. About half claim they have been told exactly that by CIM or one of its representatives. About half also say they have been told by management that they'll have to move out by April 19 if they'd even like to get their security deposit back; after that, they claim, leaving would constitute breaking their lease in management's eyes. CIM declined to comment for this story.

The lawsuit ruling that started this whole disaster-ball rolling noted that that CIM's continued construction during the lawsuit was a "calculated business decision" and that the developer built the tower at "its own peril." Now it sounds like they aren't even going to have to give any money to the people who are being pushed out of their homes as a result of their dicey call.
· Hollywood's Unpermitted Sunset Gordon Apartments Also Acting as Unpermitted Hotel [Curbed LA]
· Anti-Density Lawyer May Have Just Forced 40 People Out of Their New Homes in Hollywood's Sunset/Gordon [Curbed LA]
· Everyone Living in Hollywood's Sunset and Gordon Tower Has to Move Out [Curbed LA]