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Facing eviction, tenant seeks historic status for building

Steve Luftman (l.) hugs his partner Karen Smalley (middle) and Andrew Lavick (r.)
Josie Huang/KPCC
Steve Luftman (l.) hugs his partner Karen Smalley (middle) and Andrew Lavick (r.)

In the last year, Los Angeles has seen a growing number of landlords invoke the state's Ellis Act. That lets them evict tenants from rent-controlled apartments so they can get out of the rental business, and put up condominiums or hotels instead.

Most tenants go quietly. Not Steve Luftman.

The freelance advertising art director has devoted all his time to staying in his Beverly Grove apartment since his landlord sent out eviction notices to the complex’s 17 tenants in February.

“I cried every day for a week, and looked at the walls of our building and said, ‘This is our home and I love it,” Luftman said.

Luftman helped lead a protest. When everybody moved out, Luftman and his partner Karen Smalley stayed. He took the landlord to court for giving the tenants 117 days to vacate, instead of the mandated 120 days.

He was trying everything, and on Thursday something stuck.

The city’s Cultural Heritage Commission agreed unanimously with Luftman that the apartment complex should be designated a historic monument. The commission cited the complex's architectural contribution to the city, and its design by Mendel Meyer, one of the masterminds behind Grauman’s Chinese Theater, who also lived there.

The City Council still has to vote on the commission’s recommendation. And monument status does not give a building blanket protection from demolition. 

Also, it doesn’t mean Luftman gets to stay in the apartment.  Under the Ellis Act, the landlord can still evict all his tenants as long as he doesn’t do anything with the building for five years.

But Luftman, who testified before the commissioners along with nearly 30 other supporters, said it would be good enough just saving the building from the wrecking ball.

“I’m amazingly happy," he said. "I don’t know if it feels real yet." 

The landlord, Matthew Jacobs, who was present at the hearing, declined to comment for this story. Jacobs' decision to evict his tenants from rent-controlled units generated anger among tenants' rights advocates because of his position as chair of the California Housing Finance Agency which works on affordable housing issues. Jacobs decided to leave the board when his term expires this month.

Luftman is not the first tenant facing eviction to seek historic monument status for his apartment complex, said Ken Bernstein, manager of the city's Office of Historic Resources. He said tenants being evicted from the Chase Knolls apartments in Sherman Oaks and Lincoln Place in Venice also successfully sought historic status protections for their buildings. 

"The owners did a 180 turnaround and agreed to rehabilitate those complexes," Bernstein said. "Ultimately, there was a happy ending for tenants in both of those cases."