As Gentrification Closes In, Immigrants in Lincoln Heights Find Their American Dream Slipping Away

Tuesday, April 3, 2018
Brittny Mejia, Joe Mozingo and Andrea Castillo
Los Angeles Times

Fidela Villasano’s entire world was upending.

In August, her landlord sold the tiny clapboard bungalow where she had lived for 55 years, and the new owner notified her that he wanted her out in the next few months.

Like so many in Lincoln Heights, this tiny, rawboned 89-year-old woman had lived through a time of gang violence, high crime and police oppression. She never expected to be forced out by real estate values.

But, with just $900 a month from Social Security, where in Lincoln Heights could she afford to live? Where in Los Angeles?

Villasano’s ouster had been 30 years in the making, since moneyed interests began combing through the hills of Silver Lake, Echo Park and Hollywood looking for fixer-uppers. They quickly turned scruffy neighborhoods into well-appointed, artsy enclaves for professionals with Audis and six-figure incomes.

In the last decade, gentrification grew closer to Lincoln Heights, transforming downtown L.A. and Chinatown on one side, and Eagle Rock and Highland Park on another. To the people getting squeezed out, the white hipster became the avatar for the invasion. Now he was knocking on the door of Villasano’s 103-year-old home.

The Times spent months exploring one of Los Angeles’ oldest neighborhoods and immigrant strongholds at a time of heightened anxiety over the Trump administration’s threats to deport immigrants in the country illegally. Among the 74% of residents who rent in Lincoln Heights, the fear of eviction was just as consuming.

The gentrification in and around central Los Angeles has made Lincoln Heights a prime target for investors. It sits just a mile and a half from downtown and has its own walkable commercial district on Broadway. The views from its hillsides at night rival much wealthier perches in the Hollywood Hills or Mount Washington. And its streets are lined with apartments ready for renovation and sought-after “character homes,” to use real estate parlance — old Victorians and Craftsman bungalows.

When the Eastlake Avenue bungalows’ new owner first started coming around last year with contracts to vacate voluntarily, Villasano and others in the four courtyard units consulted one another on whether they would sign. Israel Jinez hadn’t planned to sign, but he eventually did when a neighbor did. The new owner, a Brentwood man, offered them $20,000 to vacate so he could renovate the four bungalows with no one in them.

Jinez, who had lived there for seven years, asked to have until Jan. 1 so he could try to find a new place for him, his wife and their 2-year-old daughter.

He searched throughout Lincoln Heights and Echo Park, where he’d once lived, hoping to stay close to his job as a bartender and cashier in Hollywood. A year earlier, though, his employer cut his hours back to 60 a month, so he was bringing in just $600.

He couldn’t find a rental below $1,500 for a single, nearly double the rent on Eastlake Avenue. The $20,000 would cover that difference for two and a half years.

“We’re not going to find anything cheap anywhere here,” Jinez said.

Villasano lived with her disabled son. When she first moved there in 1962, she paid $40 a month, and last year she paid $640 a month. She worked for 35 years in Mexican restaurants and puts the money from Social Security toward rent and bills.

After more than half a century, her routines were etched into this neighborhood: the daily walk to McDonald’s for morning coffee, afternoon chats with a friend in the courtyard, tending the grapevine she planted decades ago, her Sunday trek to Sacred Heart Church.

“I don’t have anywhere to go,” she said. “I want to stay where I am.”

She didn’t fully understand why she had to go. Her son signed the agreement. She had no choice.

In January, she and her family moved into a two-bedroom house in Boyle Heights for $2,000. But she must climb stairs and has no bedroom. At night she lies on a couch, disoriented and unable to sleep. For weeks, she returned to her old house in Lincoln Heights every morning.

She would stop at the McDonald’s for her coffee. Then, she would walk over to the courtyard of her bungalow and sit in her plastic chair, talking to her neighbor and waiting for her dog, which escaped before she moved. On a recent day, she watched workers pull out a bathroom sink and drawers from her longtime home, tossing them in a trash pile.

Chris Vielma, 36, gets about 20 calls and several letters a month with offers to buy the green bungalow that his father, an immigrant from Mexico, bought from an Italian family in 1967.

One wanted the 89-year-old home next to the 5 Freeway as a starter house for his daughter and asked Vielma to name a price. Others have offered as much as $600,000.

Vielma doesn’t plan to go. There are too many memories here — his dad planted the mango tree and rosebushes in front. Also, he loves the neighborhood and its history. He just hopes it doesn’t change too much. Many of the residents around him, even in the single-family homes, are renters who would have no choice if a buyer came along and wanted to move in themselves.

“I’m all for improvements, but how are they making it better by getting rid of some of the people who enjoy being in this area?” he said. “For those who have heart in it, they really work hard to live where they’re at.”

Others say the change is inevitable. Steve Kasten, a commercial real estate agent who opened his office on North Broadway 35 years ago, said it’s natural that Lincoln Heights is the “new phenomenon” as people are squeezed out of the neighborhoods to the north and west.

“If it changes the makeup of the community … should you stop it? How can you?” he said. “That’s free enterprise, and the marketplace dictates what people want.”

The housing crunch is fueled by a national population bulge, with the millennial generation entering the housing and rental market on the heels of the much smaller Generation X. At the same time, the previous big generation, the baby boomers, are staying in their homes longer. All of this is causing a housing shortage — an acute one in Los Angeles, where rent eats up 37% of average household income, compared with 27% nationwide.

While longtime homeowners have benefited from the rise in property values, renters — many in the neighborhood for decades — are being displaced.

Some have moved inland to San Bernardino, Hemet and Victorville, the last stock of relatively affordable housing in the region, or even farther, to Las Vegas and Phoenix.

Some move to South L.A., where prices have not risen as dramatically as they have on the Eastside.

Others pack more people into smaller apartments. A number have moved back to Mexico.

In Boyle Heights, activists have protested new art galleries and coffee shops.

But in Lincoln Heights, the trend has met little resistance. When the Heights Deli & Bottle Shop replaced a popular meat market on Broadway, offering more than 350 top-rated wines and craft beers, the complaints stayed within social media and neighborhood chatter.

Dave Mull, 29, was one of the young newcomers — a skateboarder from Vermont who works at Trader Joe’s and films skating videos. In 2015, he moved into a house off Moonstone Drive, splitting the $2,400 monthly rent with his two brothers and another roommate.

In the year after he moved in, his landlord raised the rent a couple hundred dollars, but compared with other parts of the city, it was still a deal. When Mull wasn’t working, he was filming around the neighborhood with his friends or hanging out at the Heights deli.

“I feel like a lot of people are moving over this way,” Mull said. A friend found a studio apartment, and his girlfriend’s co-worker found a place off Daly Street. “It seems like people are kind of scooting over from Silver Lake and down from Highland Park, because that’s being gentrified now.”

Like other newcomers, he felt conflicted over the question of whether he played some small role in pushing people out just by moving here.

Although Mull moved in with his girlfriend in Los Feliz in January, his brothers still live in the house in Lincoln Heights.

“It’s definitely ideal for skateboarders to be kind of low key and manage to be so close to downtown and pay so little,” he said.

But “so little” is a relative term when people of so many different means are colliding in one neighborhood.

Yang Ya, 87, would be out on the streets if she had to pay what Mull paid — and she almost was last year.

She lives in a single-room unit, 8 feet by 15 feet, with communal bathrooms and a kitchen down the hall. Her rent is $362. The widow, whose husband was killed in an American bombing in Vietnam, survives on $900 she gets monthly from Social Security.

When Yang, who is Vietnamese Chinese, arrived in California from Vietnam, she worked in Lincoln Heights garment factories, trimming loose thread for $15 a day.

When she moved into her building on Main Street 17 years ago, her rent was $170 a month. The bottom floor was a garment factory, with eight single-room occupancies above, rented by five other Cantonese speakers, one Korean and one Spanish speaker. She relished being independent from her son and daughter-in-law, with whom she had been living. And she could take the bus to Chinatown to shop, see the dentist and doctor, and visit friends.

Yang retired at 80. In such a small room, her life outside the building became more important — her interactions with the grocery clerk, cooking for the needy at the Buddhist temple on Broadway, her morning walk with friends around the lake in Lincoln Park.

A little over a year ago, she read an eviction notice on her front door.

The owner wanted to modernize the apartments and get higher-paying tenants.

Panic hit. Most of the residents were in their 80s and 90s, and didn’t know how to look for new housing. One of the younger tenants, in his 60s, searched for apartments and reported back that the cheapest rent was $600 to $800.

“I couldn’t sleep at night,” Yang said. “I thought about it all day, every day.”

Her son and his wife lived with their grown children in an already overcrowded apartment in Monterey Park. She would have no bedroom if she moved in with him. She dreaded the idea of losing her independence.

Fortunately, one of her neighbors learned that a group, Chinatown Community for Equitable Development, was helping renters in the area challenge evictions. With its guidance, the residents banded together and met with the owner.

After months of negotiations, the landlord backed off, allowing them to stay with a small increase in rent and a new rule that the tenants had to clean the communal areas themselves.

The battle over gentrification has been waged mostly in the dim corridors of rent-controlled apartment buildings like Yang’s. Nearly 80% of apartments in the ZIP Code that includes much of Lincoln Heights are rent controlled, meaning landlords can only raise the rent about 3% every year on current tenants. The law places restrictions on landlords seeking to evict tenants in order to charge even more.

The average amount paid by renters in Lincoln Heights is $1,024 a month, according to census data. But the average rental on the market is $2,439, up almost $800 in the last four years, according to research conducted by Zillow.

Among the legal options available to landlords is converting rentals to condos, in which case they can legally evict tenants but must offer relocation assistance. Landlords also can try to persuade tenants to leave voluntarily, often with cash buyouts. Another option is to claim the tenant violated terms of the lease.

Small violations overlooked during weak rental markets often become an easy means to an eviction.

In February, 10 months after a Calabasas real estate firm bought her building on Sichel Street for $1.8 million, tenant Santa Moreno got a notice to “pay rent or quit,” claiming she was late.

Moreno, 51, shared the one-bedroom apartment with her husband, her pregnant daughter and her daughter’s boyfriend. They paid $1,030 a month, plus utilities. They had low-paying jobs — she was a housekeeper, her husband sold tacos from a cart — and her daughter received disability payments for a hearing impairment. They struggled to get by but said they paid their rent on time every month.

She said she sent the company, Elite Holdings, copies of the MoneyGram receipts showing the payment was made on time. Nevertheless, the new landlord filed an “unlawful detainer,” which is a legal way to evict someone who hasn’t paid rent.

Moreno and her family went to court June 9 to fight the claim.

At the courthouse downtown, Judge Lisa K. Sepe-Wiesenfeld addressed the Morenos and nearly 80 others who had come to contest eviction notices.

“We are going to urge you to consider settlement seriously,” she said. “You can see how full the courtroom is here. Some people come three or four times just to be assigned a trial. You’ve spent all day here. That means you’ve missed time from work, school, family.”

Her message to landlords: If you don’t settle, you could be stuck with a troublesome tenant for years. And she told tenants that if they lose their case, their wages could be garnished and they would be stuck for 10 years on an “evicted” list visible to future landlords.

Moreno’s name was called, and she and her family moved to the cafeteria to negotiate with the landlord’s two attorneys.

“Are you going to move or are you going to stay?” one of the attorneys asked.

“We want to stay,” Moreno said.

“They don’t want you to stay, no matter what,” the attorney countered.

Both sides returned to court to say they could not reach an agreement. Moreno tried to show her paperwork to the judge, who told her she’d have to wait for a trial.

Moreno decided not to fight, and she promised to be out by the end of August in exchange for a free month’s rent and $2,000.

Dr. Bob Baravarian, a foot and ankle surgeon and a founder of the Westwood real estate development firm Neilson Hammer, was looking for “new, up-and-coming neighborhoods.” He found one in Lincoln Heights.

In Broadway’s vintage storefronts, he saw the potential for new cafes, bars and boutiques. The mile-long strip was still mostly filled with bargain stores, money transfer businesses, hairstylists, florists, shoe repair shops, old bars, Mexican and Chinese cafes, fast-food restaurants and chain pharmacies. But investors were slowly making inroads. The Heights bottle shop came first, followed by the B Twentyfour coffee shop and then a gastropub, Lincoln Kitchen & Tap.

In August 2016, Neilson Hammer purchased a 20-unit brick apartment building on Broadway for $2.05 million, twice the property’s assessed value.

Baravarian said the 90-year-old building had “good bones” but was a “disaster inside.” He said that the wiring and plumbing were ancient and corroded, and that the building should have been gutted 20 years ago.

That’s what he planned to do, in order to rebuild midrange apartments. “There’s a need for buildings in all levels, and our goal is to supply the mid-level to upper mid-level building,” he said.

Baravarian conceded higher rent was the “double-edged sword of renovation” and “has gotten a bad name in the community, because quote ‘you’re kicking the poor tenants out.’ ” He said his firm tries to help displaced renters find new places and gives them time.

“We do it on a very friendly basis; we don’t force anybody out,” he said. “Sometimes it takes months, sometimes it takes three years to … give them the time and effort they need to move.”

The tenants pushed out of the building, though, describe a far different experience.

Martha Ponce, 66, was paying $842 for her one-bedroom apartment she had shared with her husband for nine years.

Two months after Baravarian’s firm bought the building, they received a “cash for keys” contract to vacate the building in 45 days for $1,250.

Ponce said she wanted to stay in the area — her 63-year-old husband worked as a cook nearby at USC’s Keck School of Medicine. But they could find nothing in their price range.

The owner had hired a property manager, NBK Realty Management of Sherman Oaks, to get the tenants out. Lena Salameh, property supervisor, led the effort, with a young man translating for the Spanish speakers, Ponce said.

“In the beginning, she was so nice, saying, ‘You should get out because these owners are offering you $1,250, and if you don’t take it, you’re not going to get anything,’ ” Ponce said.

Many felt they had no choice but to vacate. Fifteen of the 20 families took the $1,250 and left before the deadline.

Ponce signed the contract but realized she could not find a place in time. She contacted the same group Yang had, Chinatown Community for Equitable Development, which set her up with a legal aid attorney to advise her of her rights and negotiate with the landlord.

NBK started posting notices on her door that the sheriff would come to evict her.

Jose “Pepito” Viramontes Ruiz, 79, and his wife, Maria Elena Bobadilla Aguilar, 84, had lived together in their apartment for 36 years. Bobadilla used a walker, and Viramontes was blind. He was a locally famous Mexican ballad crooner, known as “Señor Pepe,” who sang at swap meets and El Amigo Cafe.

“Maria and Pepito signed the papers without knowing what it said,” Ponce said.

The couple joined Ponce, Consuelo Olvera and two other tenants to fight for more time and money. They posted notes on their doors asking not to be bothered by NBK and to contact their lawyer with questions. Olvera had signed the document to move out but hadn’t known what it was, she said. It was her son who later told her what she had signed.

“It bothered me to know that he made an idiot out of me,” Olvera said of the NBK representative, “signing a paper that I shouldn’t have signed.”

When Neilson Hammer offered $5,000 to leave, she agreed with her son to take it.

The others also worked out better deals. Viramontes and Bobadilla received around $20,000, including several months of free rent. Ponce got $15,000 and stayed until April.

Ponce found a much smaller studio apartment nearby that, with utilities, costs her about $500 more per month than she paid before. She had to leave furniture behind — a glass table with chairs, a dresser, a kitchen island — because none of it would fit. She and her husband quarrel in the small quarters. She put up a divider so she doesn’t have to look at the kitchen from her bed.

“Here I feel like I’m in a cell,” she said. “I take the dog walking. I never walked the dog so much, because I need to get out.”

Viramontes, meanwhile, no longer sings his ballads at El Amigo. Failing to find anything affordable in the area, he and his wife, Bobadilla, now live in Tijuana with her son, hoping they can move back home one day soon.

Neilson Hammer never renovated the property. On Oct. 11, the firm sold it for $3.5 million — a $1.5-million profit — to a group of investors.

The main reason, Baravarian said, is that “Lincoln Heights hasn’t really developed the way we thought it was going to develop.

“Lincoln Heights hasn’t had that pop yet.”

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