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Wed, Apr

Turning 70, a Los Angeles Renter Prepares to Fight for His Home in Court

LOS ANGELES

This article was produced by the nonprofit journalism publication Capital & Main. It is co-published here with permission.

EVICTION - Mike Balog says his landlord is wearing him down — and may soon force him out of the apartment in Hollywood where he has lived for 29 years. 

Balog has fought off multiple eviction efforts for nearly a decade; his diligence in those legal battles has kept him in his rent-controlled one-bedroom unit through numerous other hardships. But consulting with lawyers, gathering receipts, filling out documents and facing off in court have added up to the “ultimate stress cocktail,” he said. 

“I wasn’t worn down before, but now I’m getting there.”

This year, Balog will turn 70, and he is no longer the vibrant man he used to be. His body has endured major surgeries on his knees and hip, and he has undergone treatment for an unsteady heartbeat amid congenital heart failure scares that landed him in the emergency room. Amid such challenges, he said he suffers from insomnia, anxiety and depression.

He is one of millions of people who have been evicted or face its threat, often after falling behind on their rent because of declining income during the COVID-19 pandemic. A 2022 Preventive Medicine Reports study found that “vulnerable tenants living with the threat of eviction are facing an additional burden of mental health deterioration.”

Balog has only recently come to grips with the real possibility that he may need to gather up a lifetime of worldly possessions from his crowded apartment and leave — even if he doesn’t know where else he can afford to live in his hometown of Los Angeles. Neighborhood apartments similar to Balog’s cost about 2 1/2 times the roughly $1,300 per month he pays, or tries to.

He once thrived in various careers and entrepreneurial efforts. But in recent years he has been reduced to taking part-time work as a night security guard at a private school for $20 per hour. That pay — plus Social Security and disability payments — might sustain a decent life in low-cost parts of the country. But in L.A.’s Hollywood neighborhood, it has at worst, made it impossible for him to pay his bills.

After getting knocked off his feet during the pandemic, Balog joined the 627,000 households in California to fall behind on his rent, according to the National Equity Atlas research group. He twice jumped through bureaucratic hoops to secure pandemic rental assistance. The second time, Balog said his landlord refused to sign off on the third-party payment that would cover his back rent, preventing the funds from going through.  

In an eviction trial scheduled to begin in March, Balog knows that a judge could require him to pay tens of thousands of dollars in back rent — of which he said he has only a fraction — or move out.

Balog hopes the judge will instead require his landlord, who owns the 47-unit building worth an estimated $22 million, to accept Balog’s second round of pandemic rental relief. He also wants the landlord to accept money in back rent that Balog set aside once his landlord stopped accepting his checks in spring 2023. Lastly, he would like an agreement on a long-term payment plan to make up the remaining back rent.

Such concerns keep him up at night. He obsessively dusted and oiled his wood furniture last August before a reporter visited. “Depression is very powerful,” he said. “And it’s a beast you have to fight off.”

Memories

On a blistering summer afternoon after that August visit, Balog unlocked the door of his 18-year-old Jeep Grand Cherokee to let me into the passenger seat. As he pulled out of the parking lot of his apartment building, he said he had even more pressing concerns on his mind than housing. 

It was 3:30 in the afternoon, but Balog had awakened only a half hour earlier after spending all night with his ailing 88-year-old mother in Calabasas in northwestern Los Angeles County. When he did, he discovered phone notifications from his sister saying that their mother might not live through the day. 

Panicked that he wouldn’t be with her if she died, Balog sped out of his apartment complex without fastening his seatbelt. A safety warning chimed over and over. During the 22-mile drive, he revved, braked and sped past cars and even passed a slow-moving tour bus on a narrow canyon road.

Holding his cell phone close to his ear with the volume up so high it may as well have been on speaker, he listened as his sister said a priest was in his mother’s room. “I’m on my way,” Balog said. He hung up and tossed the phone on the dash of the car. “Everybody’s in shock,” he said, tears forming in his eyes. “This could be the last time I’m riding here to see her.”

Balog said there was nothing simple about having a mother suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and going back and forth from Hollywood to Calabasas to tell her he loved her. On that August day, he feared that his mother, Rosalie Davis-Cavanaugh, might leave the world without him in the room, though parts of her had been gone for a while. In recent years, she often forgot his name or failed even to recognize him as family. 

Balog came up with a ritual to help ease the pain of being forgotten. When he walked into her room at the assisted-care living facility over the last five years, he would warmly greet her by saying, “Hey, mom, it’s your sonny boy!”

“That’s how she remembered me,” he said in the car, tearing up again. 

It was the first time he spoke about her in the past tense. “I don’t know what I’m going to do if she leaves. A big part of my life has been there, with her.” 

But even as he raced up the 101 Freeway through the San Fernando Valley, Balog became fidgety and distracted as the eviction battle intruded into his mind — even in the last painful moments of his mother’s life. 

“I should be focused on spending time with my mother,” he reminded himself. 

Moments later, he pulled up to the beige Belmont Village Senior Living building, his body visibly tensing up. Inside, a kind employee recognized Balog as a frequent visitor and told him, “Go see your mom.” In the hallway, tears welled up in his weary brown eyes as he turned toward the room where his mother lay, and he walked away.

His mother did not die that day, or the next. 

During eviction battles, tenants’ lives continue. People try to simultaneously navigate the legal issues amid the challenges of parenting, starting or losing jobs, ending relationships or enduring health crises. 

For overmatched and often isolated older people — especially those worn down by long-standing court battles that require meticulous attention to complicated documents and complex laws — the overall effect is often more intense, eviction experts said.

For Balog, things played out in recent years as he returned from visits to his mother, whose mental decline left her struggling with the most basic physical tasks, such as getting dressed. Back home, he said, he would pick up the struggle to fend off his landlord again and again, even when his health was too bad to allow him to work.

Carrots and Sticks

The seeds of the first eviction effort against him were planted in 2015 in an email from QuantumPrime Realty, the management company for the building’s owner, Hillside Courtyard LLC. The message included both a carrot and a stick. The carrot was an offer to pay Balog an unspecified amount to voluntarily move out; he refused. 

The stick was a tacit threat a few sentences later that the landlord would get “long-standing” tenants out one way or another. The message from QuantumPrime said that “there are several areas in the lease where the tenant may have been in violation or where the owner will find something to use to evict or turnover a specific unit.” 

Many landlords have room to pressure tenants over unpaid rent, given the nearly 4.9 million households behind on their rent, according to National Equity Atlas research group calculations. Like Balog, 76% are low-income households. The research group also found that 45% of renter households said they faced significant pressure from landlords to move out.

The Eviction Lab at Princeton University has tracked eviction filings since March 2020 in cities across the U.S to monitor the effect of COVID-19 policies. In the 34 cities in 10 states that researchers observed, landlords filed more than a million evictions in the previous year, including 24,500 in Columbus, 84,196 in Houston and 124,057 in New York City. 

Legal experts in housing said that landlords are often willing to forego the rent that current tenants owe if they believe they can recoup it elsewhere in a fast-rising rental market.

“In many markets we are seeing landlords trying to get rid of tenants who have been there for a long time, and [they] see the potential for more rent with a new tenant, especially in markets like Los Angeles,” said John Pollock, coordinator for the National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel. “As a tenant you’re vulnerable.”

Pollock said renters like Balog who live in rent-stabilized housing should feel protected, but in reality, they aren’t. He said that the housing crisis in costly cities such as Los Angeles is partly due to laws that prevent cities from implementing rent control. “All of this makes for an unstable housing situation,” he added. 

That is very much the case for Balog, whose life — and perhaps health —seem likely to endure continued destabilization.

The duration and intensity of some landlords’ efforts to oust older tenants from rent-controlled units are a strategic choice, according to Randy Shaw, a housing rights activist and tenant’s rights attorney in San Francisco. 

Shaw has seen such circumstances many times before, from Los Angeles to the Bay Area, as well as in other cities nationwide. “What often happens is that seniors have stressors in their lives, health issues, and now you’re adding a major stress factor,” said Shaw, who works to help renters understand and use their legal rights to remain in their homes. 

Even when people have a good chance of winning an eviction case, the stress of fighting it in court can be so harmful to their health that it can be less onerous for them to give up and move out, Shaw added. “They are so vulnerable. I’ve seen people deteriorate dramatically,” he said. “They can’t take the stress.”

It is unclear how many of Balog’s neighbors in the building, some of whom are also older, have accepted cash-for-keys payouts to leave since the landlord’s representatives first queried him about the possibility in 2015.

Charlie Stein, an attorney and partner with Davidovich Stein Law Group, who represents Hillside Courtyard, offered general responses about housing and eviction law in a phone interview. But he declined to discuss specific details of Balog’s situation, Hillside’s most recent eviction efforts or other actions that took place before he began representing the landlord. 

Balog said that he was only one of many people in his apartment building who have received an offer to leave. Some of Balog’s long-term neighbors have also opted to stay. Several tenants declined Capital & Main’s request to be interviewed for this story. 

As for Balog, he believed he lasted this long in his home because of his diligence. Among other things, he enlisted the help of Cherilyn Davis, a housing investigator with the Los Angeles Housing Department, who sent a letter to the management company and Stein on Jan. 4 to remind the landlord about anti-harassment rules that protect renters. Prohibited activities include attempts to coerce a tenant to move out with offers of payment, lying or intimidating a tenant to drive them out, threatening or serving eviction notices based on false pretenses, and intentionally disturbing a tenant’s peace and quiet. The list also includes an action that stood out to Balog: refusing to accept legal payment f

‘This Is Where I Lick My Wounds.’

Balog lives on a fixed income, has no pension and earns far less than he did when he provided security on film productions. He now plans on asking his current employer if he can get full-time hours at the private school, and he expects to pick up a couple weeks of extra security shifts working at the Oscars ceremony in March at $25 per hour. 

But that money won’t materially improve his financial situation. He fears that despite working as much as he can, he could wind up as another drop in a sea of urban homelessness.

Such a thing was once unimaginable, Balog said. But he now understands that a person like himself can lose his home. Unable to pay, he could be forced out and have to give most of his possessions away and throw out the rest. If that happened, he said, “Where do I go now? I’m homeless.”

For the time being, Balog still has the home he has found comfort in for nearly three decades. 

When he has been hurting in recent years, he said, “This is where I lick my wounds.” 

On Aug. 31 — three days after the harried drive to visit his mother — he stayed up all night as she squeezed his hand over and over.

Finally, in the morning, he departed for his apartment, and then his mother died. “It happened 15 minutes after I left,” he said. “My sister waited a half hour to call me because I was driving home, and she didn’t want to shake me up.” 

“My sister said she thinks [our mother] waited until I left.” 

A week later, Balog received a court summons in the mail, which required another visit to the courthouse. Toward the end of the following month, he discovered the latest eviction summons hanging from the knob of his front door. Even as he grieved his mother, it felt like the outside world was closing in on him. 

His place to heal could soon disappear, and he feels as fragile as ever, he said. “This case goes to show you how they can wear people out over a long period of time.”

 

(Ethan Ward is a journalist, speaker, and podcaster whose mission is to inspire people to see the beauty in themselves, in others, and the world we share. www.iamethanward.com.)