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Supreme Court Clears Way for Demolition:

A legal battle over a Sunset Park residence that began in August 1989 was finally resolved two weeks ago on May 19, when the California Supreme Court ruled in favor of the City of Santa Monica, affirming earlier court decisions and clearing the way for the demolition of the structure.

Zina Josephs, president of the Friends of Sunset Park, said that she is “relieved that the situation is finally going to be resolved.”

The property, owned by Guillermo Gonzalez at 2438 Ocean Park Boulevard, was described by the Supreme Court as “a two-story house and garage that has been converted into a separate dwelling unit. Gonzalez lives with his family on the first floor of the house, and he rents to tenants who occupy the garage and to various others who pay to use bunk beds on the house’s second floor. The area under the staircase landing also is rented out as a separate living space.”

“In August 1989, [the City] filed a civil nuisance lawsuit against Gonzalez,” the Court said, “alleging violations of the uniform building, fire, mechanical, plumbing, and electrical codes.” Thus began a series of legal battles resulting in orders and judgments against Gonzalez, including “a total of 280 days in jail for refusing to correct the code violations on his property.”

In December 2004, the Consumer Protection Unit of the Santa Monica City Attorney’s Office filed the civil lawsuit that resulted in the May 19 Supreme Court decision on behalf of the City, finally seeking the extreme remedy of the appointment of a receiver to take over the property from its owner as a last resort to assure that the property be made safe and legal.

In January 2005, Judge Lisa Hart Cole of the Los Angeles Superior Court appointed a receiver to take control of the property, finding that the property was in a chronic state of severe disrepair and had become a dangerous blight to the community. The Health and Safety Code violations at the property included:

• The exterior was overrun with garbage, flammable materials, and junk.

• In a single bedroom on the second floor there were seven bunk beds being individually rented out by the week.

• Due to the filthy and littered condition of the kitchen and dining area of the main unit, the front yard had been converted to a makeshift dining area with a refrigerator, microwave, TV, and the storage of food.

• The property lacked heating in any of its units.

• Temporary extension cords were used in place of proper electrical wiring throughout the building.

• The property had been the site of chronic criminal activity for many years.

The court appointed Century City-based attorney David Pasternak as receiver, and in May 2005 he requested the court’s permission to demolish the building in light of the fact that it was not financially feasible to rehabilitate the property due to the longstanding and extensive nature of the Code violations. The court granted his request.

Gonzalez appealed from the appointment of the receiver as well as the order allowing the demolition. He argued to the Court of Appeal that the City had not complied with certain technical requirements of the receivership law and that demolition would be unfair since he wished to remain living in the building and preferred to pay the cost of repairs instead.

In June 2006 the Court of Appeal ruled that the receivership was proper. It held that any technical deviations from the statute by the City did not prejudice Gonzalez since he had ample notice of the violations. The court also held that it was reasonable to allow the demolition of the building since rehabilitation was not economically feasible.

The California Supreme Court granted Gonzalez’s petition for review from that decision to hear the case. Deputy City Attorney Adam Radinsky argued the appeal on behalf of the City in San Francisco on March 6, 2008.

The Supreme Court’s 34-page May 19 decision upheld the Court of Appeal’s ruling in every respect. The court noted that judges have broad discretion in appointing receivers – and in overseeing their actions and recommendations for problem properties.

“We are glad that the court preserved the flexibility of this important remedy for cities and for tenants,” said Radinsky. “Apartment owners need to know that they must correct Code violations within a reasonable time. Receivership is drastic medicine, but we won’t hesitate to use it in proper cases to protect the well-being of the community.”

The City’s position in the appeal was supported by many “friends of the court,” filing as Amici Curiae, including the Inner City Law Center, Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, and Neighborhood Legal Services of Los Angeles County.

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