By Melody Hanatani
CITY HALL — One by one they alleged unsatisfactory living conditions, with some claiming mold contamination in their units, others retaliation and discrimination by the management company.
All spoke with slight hesitance.
Almost nine months after a group of working poor and Section 8 residents addressed the City Council about problems at The Plaza at the Arboretum, City Hall has released a report outlining the results of an investigation into the apartment complex, finding violations involving unqualified tenants living in low-income designated units.
City Hall issued a corrective action plan to the Arboretum, outlining several steps that need to be taken before another audit is conducted in about six months, including moving the current tenants who exceed the income qualification to moderate and market rate units and providing the missing documents.
The tenants spoke of a number of issues during the council meeting in late April of 2008, complaining about everything from mold to unattended broken utilities, some alluding to feeling threatened by the management company. A few tenants also claimed that several of the units that were designated for low-to-moderate income residents were occupied by those with higher earning levels.
“The tenants do still have problems regarding the management, how they treat the low and moderate income tenants and some of the business practices they have been engaging there that I don’t think have changed significantly,” Denise McGranahan, an attorney with the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, said.
The nonprofit organization and Bet Tzedek, which works with low-income seniors, have been assisting the Arboretum tenants in their claims against the company, Riverstone Property Management.
The Arboretum, which opened in 2001 at 2200 Colorado Ave., has 350 total units, approximately 97 of which are deed-restricted for low-to-moderate income residents. About 51 of the units are designated for Section 8 tenants, who receive subsidies from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
City Hall requested documentation for tenants of all deed-restricted units, asking for information related to their income eligibility, move-in date, and initial and current rent. City staff then thoroughly audited 15 of the non-Section 8 units, finding that while nine of the households met the income requirement, two went over the threshold and another four lacked sufficient documents. The audit also revealed that three leasing agents employed by Riverstone Property Management, which has been overseeing the complex since November, were sharing one of the designated low-income apartments and exceeded the income requirement. Metric Properties was the previous management company.
The investigation also found that only eight of the 15 sampled tenants received preference for living or working in Santa Monica while only one was found to be selected from City Hall’s affordable housing waiting list. There was no documentation as to whether the tenants from the other units came from the waiting list or if the management company found them on their own.
“It’s not clear how they came to arrive at the Arboretum,” Barbara Collins, the housing manager for City Hall, said.
All Section 8 tenants were appropriately selected from the Housing Authority’s wait list, the report stated.
Inspectors also interviewed 13 tenants about the company’s customer service, all of whom reported that they had no issues and found the manager to be responsive to their requests for maintenance. City Hall also found no health or safety code violations.
Some residents have complained that their units are located in less desirable locations because they are low-income. The report stated that the placement of deed restricted units was determined during the planning approval process, allowing the developer to place the market-rate apartments in more scenic locations.
The staff report also addressed discrimination complaints that were filed by 14 disabled tenants against the Arboretum, finding that only one case actually dealt with discrimination. The remaining complaints pertained to requests denied for reasonable accommodations.
Following a meeting with the City Attorneys’ Office, Riverstone agreed to fulfill nearly all of the requests.
City Hall plans to conduct a follow-up investigation later this year and could pursue enforcement with the City Attorney’s Office if no corrective action is taken.
“We are working with the appropriate agencies to resolve any issues,” Valerie Covarrubias, the spokeswoman for Riverstone, said.
Covarrubias said the company had no further comment.
The Legal Aid Foundation and Bet Tzedek continue to receive cases from residents though Collins said City Hall does not have any outstanding complaints.
McGranahan said tenants are concerned that the property management company will not change unless they are forced by City Hall.
“We are hopeful that whatever remedial plan they came up with will be effective and benefit the tenants who badly need affordable housing in the city,” McGranahan said.