Whistleblower Call to SMRR Tenant Hotline Secures $10M Relocation Benefits for Elderly, Delivers City $428K


…well, $428,248.06 to be exact. That’s the cost for building permits, not previously obtained by management at Westminster Towers, yet required by the City’s Building and Safety Department.

The 17-story building on 7th Street is preparing to commence a major renovation affecting 286 units. Residents there are HUD/Section 8, elderly, and disabled. Most don’t speak English. All residents will be temporarily displaced for approximately three months. And management was moving quickly, intending to begin construction in April 2024.

The massive project involves new plumbing, central air, windows, kitchens, lighting, flooring, fire sprinklers, and a new laundry room. Walk-in showers with a chair will replace all bathtubs.

Property managers Falkenberg Gilliam & Associates (FGA) had their own plans which did not align with City regulations. Among them was a peculiar caveat stating residents will be able to “lease and occupy [their] present apartment or another suitable apartment…under reasonable terms and conditions”, according to a letter dated December 1, 2023.

A red flag was raised as I was listening to Alexa (a pseudonym) as the distressed resident on the other end of the phone described the extent of the project. It was December 5, when she and everyone else received the letter (read the letter, here). That day also marked the first time a whistleblower tip came in through the SMRR Tenant Hotline, where I picked up the call during my Hotliner volunteer shift.

Residents were given less than 24 hours advance notice of a meeting set to be held at 3 PM the next day on December 6 in the building’s Community Room. The meeting was conducted in three languages and later described as “chaotic”. 

Representatives from LACAL Consulting, the company hired to manage resident relocations, were standing by the elevators after the meeting to collect names and contact details. The letter stated LACAL would interview residents immediately to determine residents’ specific needs but wasted no time by making impromptu visits to resident units instead, including some made after business hours. 

Residents were instructed to sign documents, they were told, merely to indicate an interview occurred, but were not supplied with copies for their own records. One of those documents was the original letter which states, “This letter is important and should be retained”.

Counter to FGA’s claims made during the meeting, there were – in fact – no permits issued for the construction according to public records available on the city’s website. Their neglect to obtain those permits could mean they were dodging upwards of $10 Million in mandatory Relocation Benefits from being paid to residents in these circumstances. Those benefits aren’t just fiduciary, crucially, they also guarantee residents’ rights to return to their same unit

Recognizing these red flags, both from initial and ongoing discussions with Alexa, I felt it my duty to inform City representatives on behalf of our vulnerable neighbors.

As of December 26 – only 20 days after my first call with Alexa – public records reflect building permits have been obtained, and the City Attorney’s office further confirmed residents will receive Relocation Benefits.

For some folks it takes a lot to make that first call for help. Like moving mountains a lot. Some tell me they fear retaliation. Typical calls relate to individual landlord/tenant issues, primarily maintenance, for residents to receive insight, information and resources. Had it not been for Alexa calling the SMRR Hotline, it’s likely FGA’s plans would be progressing apace.

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