The American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California today filed a federal lawsuit Jose Sanchez vs Frank J. De Santis, Jr. [98-0768 DT (CWx)] on behalf of tenants of a HUD-subsidized housing unit in the Pico Union area challenging the actions of a landlord who had two tenant organizers arrested who were invited by residents to a meeting held at the apartment complex.

Los Angeles Gardens Apartments residents charge in the lawsuit that their free speech, associational and privacy rights, as guaranteed under both federal and state constitutions and federal housing statutes, were violated and that the landlord unlawfully retaliated in violation of state law.

Defendant Frank De Santis is president of Community Partnership Development Corporation and its subsidiary Los Angeles Gardens Community Association, a non-profit entity that owns subsidized housing complexes in the Los Angeles area.

In late November, plaintiffs invited organizers from the Coalition for Economic Survival to a tenant's apartment to assist in conducting a meeting to discuss tenant concerns. During that meeting, De Santis called the LAPD's Rampart Division claiming that the organizers were trespassing. The two CES tenant organizers were arrested although the residents had invited them to conduct tenant outreach, training and organizing activities, all actions approved and funded by HUD. On several other occasions, agents of the owner have threatened to call the police to have organizers arrested for trespassing, although they had always been invited by residents.

The ACLU is charging that a pattern of retaliation from De Santis followed efforts by tenants to play an active role in the development's management and to improve conditions at the facility. The lawsuit claims that because the tenant plaintiffs formed a tenants' association and recommended a community based nonprofit group which sought to purchase the property under the federal Low Income Housing Preservation and Resident Home Ownership Act of 1990, De Santis, is striking back. Although the tenant association failed to obtain the property, it continues to monitor conditions and governance including the enforcement of HUD regulations.

The ACLU charges in the lawsuit that defendant De Santis has refused to accept the tenant association, even after a 1996 City of Los Angeles Housing Department-monitored election confirmed the group, and that he later undermined its efforts by rigging a 1997 tenant association election in which only 11 out of a possible 101 ballots were cast, in part because tenants were not told of the balloting.

ACLU attorneys charge in the lawsuit that the climate of fear created by the landlord's intimidation and harassment became so extreme that they could not even deliver documents to one of their clients who was too ill to leave her apartment. The ACLU says the landlord's actions violate basic civil liberties and federal housing regulations.

In a related action, the ACLU of Southern California is representing one of the arrested tenant organizers and two non-profit tenant-rights' organizations, the Coalition for Economic Survival and the Los Angeles Center for Affordable Housing, in a state lawsuit filed by DeSantis. The ACLU claims that the landlord's lawsuit is nothing but a "Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation (SLAPP)" suit, a frivolous lawsuit filed to punish civil rights activists.

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