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Family Fights to Stay Off Streets, as Relocation Costs Soar

By Olin Ericksen
Staff Writer

April 4 -- Sitting on the edge of a motel room bed, hands folded, Celia Jones had just returned from the bank where she deposited spare change into her withering checking account.

Since being forced out of three, $278-a-month rent-controlled units in September, her family of six has paid more than $20,000 in rent at the Travel Lodge on Pico Boulevard.

And that’s on top of the $25,000 picked up by the City and landlord, resulting in an average rent of some $7,500 a month.

Now, as the City disputes how much the landlord must pay in relocation costs, money is running out.

"As of today, we're scraping up all our loose change," said the 41-year-old Jones, an assistant teacher at Santa Monica High School. "We just took a bag of pennies to the bank."

Helen Mayberry, Gloria Davis, Kenneth and Celia Jones and their two children are living in two rooms at the Travel Lodge.(Photos by Olin Ericksen)

Her meager deposit, amounting to a few dollars, will maybe go towards one meal for her family, including two young children, who have crammed their lives into two rented motel rooms, where they pay nearly $1,278 a week, Jones said.

"We don't know what to do," she said, looking around at boxes lining the walls and a baggage carrier used as a makeshift closet permanently parked at the foot of the bed. "At this point, we're just trying to stay off the streets."

Nearly six months after County health inspectors and the City declared the single-room bungalows in the Pico Neighborhood the family had rented for nearly 40 years uninhabitable, the Joneses are living on the edge of homelessness.

Three months after the family moved out, the Rent Control Board decided in December to allow the landlord and owner, Ricco Ross, to take the bungalows off the market because repairing the units would be prohibitively expensive, effectively slamming the door shut on any chance of the family moving back.

The board’s December decision sent the Joneses scrambling for a new home and opened the door to a maze of questions about how much temporary financial assistance and long-term compensation the family is entitled to from their landlord under a local law.

"This is a very unusual situation," said Deputy City Attorney Adam Radinsky, who is handling the case. "We have been working for quite some time on a resolution for fair compensation for the family, the City and Mr. Ross."

Radinsky said the City believes Ross -- who has been "cooperating extensively" -- should reimburse taxpayers for the $11,000 in rental assistance given to the family during October to November, as well as pay what is known as a permanent relocation fee, which is estimated to be around $8,500.

"Ross owes the tenants money for permanent relocation fees and has an obligation for temporary relocation fees as well," said Radinsky. "When Ross was granted a petition to remove the property from rent control in December, the permanent relocation obligation kicked in."

Under Santa Monica law, the permanent relocation fee applies in cases where a tenant is removed from a building under the State Ellis Act, which allows landlords to go out of the rental business. The fee also applies when a property can no longer be used (as the result of a fire, for instance), or, in this case, is declared uninhabitable.

Ross' attorney, Rosario Perry, said that his client has already substantially paid for the Jones' temporary relocation, estimating that he has spent between $12,000 and $15,000 on rent and food for the family during September and October.

"He's paid more than his share to help this family," Perry said. "I think that they think as long as they live in that hotel, which they think is very nice and don't want to leave, they are going to be reimbursed for everything."

While Ross and the City paid for the motel during the first three months, the family was living in three rooms, compared to the two they live in now. At $695 per week, the total for three rooms for one month amounts to $8,340, according to the motels' pricing structure.

The fact that the family was still living at the same motel came as a surprise to Radinsky, who said he knows of no guidelines -- such as an acceptable price range -- dictating where a tenant can live while they are being temporarily housed.

In addition to disputing the temporary relocation fees, Perry is disputing whether Ross owes $8,500 in permanent relocation fees.

"There's another issue whether Ricco should have paid anything at all," said Perry. "In a situation where a property is going to be demolished, a landlord is obligated to pay until the tenancy is terminated.

“The tenancy was terminated when the City condemned the place,” Perry said. “Ricco paid in excess of $8,500, and our argument is that he shouldn't owe anything."

Radinsky said it is a technical, and important point, that the City did not condemn the bungalows, but rather declared them uninhabitable, because of problems with the plumbing and wiring, as well as termite and mold infestations.

The onus, Radinsky said, falls upon Ross to obtain a demolition permit, the status of which Radinsky did not know.

While the City and Ross have been talking, the family has paid all of the bills since mid-December and has been looking for a place to live in Santa Monica, close to work and the children’s school.

The financial burden has taken its toll: The Jones have borrowed from friends and family, blown through $6,000 in savings and run up thousands on two credit cards, according to records kept by the family.

Furthermore, the stress of living with such uncertainty is wearing thin on the family, which spans four generations, including Celia Jones' 49-year-old mother, Gloria Davis, and her 80-year-old grandmother, Helen Mayberry.

"This whole thing is wearing on our marriage and family," said Celia’s husband, Kenneth Jones, who works as a part-time janitor. "The kids can't sleep, they want their own room.

“We are worried we're gonna get to the point where we start feeding on ourselves," he said.

While Ross' attorney maintains the family has not been actively looking for a new residence during the ordeal, the Joneses counter that they have tried every conceivable way to stay in the City.

"We've been looking the whole time for something, and we can't find anything in Santa Monica," said Jones, who said she has been turned down for government subsidized housing and placed on a lengthy list for Community Corporation housing.

While the family, at first glance, appears to qualify for emergency housing with Community Corporation -- the nonprofit that provides the lion's share of low income housing in Santa Monica -- the family was turned away for reasons not specified by the local non-profit because of confidentiality.

"All I can say is our policy is that an applicant must meet the income requirements for that unit," said Community Corporations' Executive Director, Joan Ling.

"What a lot of people don't realize is that we still require a rent payment,” Ling said. “We don't want to burden people with $500 dollars a month in rent, who have an income of $600 dollars a month."

With their rent at the Travel Lodge due April 4, and the family meeting Tuesday with representative from St. Joseph's -- which provides services and job training for the homeless -- the Joneses say they are running out of time.

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