One block north of fabled Hollywood Boulevard, and a stone’s throw from the iconic Capitol Records Building, sit three rent-stabilized, two-story apartment buildings, known to residents as the Yucca-Argyle complex. One building is peach-colored, one green and the third yellow. Each is organized around a small courtyard and in back is a parking lot for tenants’ cars. Together they are home to roughly 50 families, the residents ranging in age from young children to old-timers who have lived in the complex for more than half a century.
And yet, if their landlord has his way, they will soon all be evicted, their apartments sold off and torn down by a developer whom the landlord has gone into partnership with to make way for a sky-rise that will be divided between hotel rooms, luxury apartments and retail stores. Even though 20 apartments will be set aside for “affordable housing,” many of the current lower-income residents will come nowhere close to being able to afford their new rents, since the affordable apartments will cater to those who earn half of the area’s median income, rather than the 30 percent level many older or poorer residents attain; and even for those who can afford the new rent, the developer has, to date, refused to guarantee they would have a “right of return.” He has instead told them, to their fury, that they will be given a few thousand dollars in relocation funds and will have to move “down the Red Line” — that is, to the Metro subway’s terminus in the San Fernando Valley, or elsewhere on the periphery of the sprawling city.
Capital & Main left several messages with the developer, Bob Champion, of Champion Real Estate, but he did not return the calls.
For L.A. Tenants Union organizer Dont Rhine, the unchecked development represented by projects such as Champion’s, even with the veneer of affordable housing built in, is a money grab.
“Politicians hide behind affordable housing,” Rhine says. It allows them, he adds, to claim they are protecting low-income residents while in fact, at the urging of pro-development lobbies such as the California Apartment Association and the Apartment Association of Greater Los Angeles, they provide huge giveaways to developers. (Neither association responded to repeated phone calls requesting comments for this series.) Sitting in the Caffé Etc., on nearby Selma Avenue, with photos of Jimi Hendrix, Rod Stewart and other rock legends adorning the walls, Rhine gets into his stride. “It’s like butter on their guilt. But ‘affordable housing’ [in this context] isn’t real; it’s distracting.”
“It doesn’t make sense to take away perfectly fine rent-controlled apartments to build something new,” argues Sejal Patel, 37, a six-year Yucca-Argyle resident who makes a good living working on sustainability issues for an asset management company, but who, as a single person, can’t afford market rents in Hollywood today. “If I had to pay three times as much, I don’t know if I’d be able to save anything. I definitely can’t afford to buy anything.”
Sejal’s neighbor and friend, Sasha Ali, who is exhibition manager at the Miracle Mile District’s Craft & Folk Art Museum, fears that on her salary she will be utterly priced out of Hollywood once her rent-controlled apartment disappears. Even the $10,000 in relocation money won’t help her for long. “Maybe,” she reasons, “that will take care of me for a couple months. But it’s not, ultimately, going to help.”
Similar stories are unfolding all over this sprawling city of cities, where 62 percent of all residents are renters.
Not far from Sejal and Sasha’s complex, the historic Villa Carlotta building, with stunning old apartments and such original fittings as early Frigidaire fridges and Roper heating stoves, has already largely been emptied out by a landlord-developer partnership that invoked the Ellis Act to evict 50 renters, many of whom were artists, musicians and other creative types. Inside the Carlotta’s atria sits an increasingly out-of-tune grand piano, left behind by one displaced tenant as an eerie sentinel in the mostly empty building.
As of this writing, only two tenants were still holding out, but their legal options were rapidly dwindling. “This is home,” explains one of those holdouts, Sylvie Shain, a documentary filmmaker who lives in a one-bedroom apartment with her Chihuahua named Brad Pitt, and who has spent the last year working full time on tenant advocacy issues around the city.
“A person has a right to defend their cave, their home,” she says. “When a group of people gets displaced, there’s a collateral impact.”
Down the road in Silver Lake and Echo Park, middle-class renters, priced out of their neighborhoods, look for cheaper options in Boyle Heights, an historically working-class, immigrant neighborhood. Located a few minutes east of downtown Los Angeles, Boyle Heights has been made more desirable by the arrival there of L.A.’s Metro rail system. So much so that long-time residents have either been evicted or have found that they can simply no longer afford market rents on newer properties. A two-bedroom Boyle Heights apartment now rents for about $1,900 – far more than a working-class person can afford. It is far more, too, than someone with $1,217 in Section 8 assistance can pay for a two-bedroom unit, as was the case for a person described to Capital & Main by Union de Vecinos, a group that has worked over the past couple of decades to organize traditionally disempowered tenants. The neighborhood’s original residents are increasingly moving to South L.A., Montebello, Commerce, Bell or even as far as the towns of the Inland Empire.
Cruelly, current East Los Angeles residents are double-trapped by circumstance: If they make an effort to prettify their neighborhoods – painting murals in alleyways, creating community gardens, working on anti-crime initiatives – their improved environments lure in property investors and they end up being priced out of their homes; but if they don’t make the effort, their neighborhoods remain caught in vises of violence and insecurity. Likewise, when organizers in poor, Latino parts of Hollywood and East Hollywood organized beautification projects, real estate values soared and, organizers estimate, nearly 12,000 working-class residents were ultimately displaced.
Under provisions of the state’s Ellis Act, landlords who claim to be leaving the rental business can evict tenants so long as the owners pay relocation costs to the displaced. Landlords have used the Ellis Act to evict residents in 308 units across L.A. in 2013; in 2014 that number went up to 725. And in 2015 another 821 units were emptied, according to the Los Angeles Housing + Community Investment Department (HCID). Tenant-activists, who have correlated the numbers, have arrived at significantly higher estimates.
Despite its liberal, progressive hues, Mayor Eric Garcetti’s administration has been unable to work out a way to stem the tide. True, it has declared a “homeless emergency” in response to the vast numbers of homeless Angelenos, and the mayor’s press secretary, Connie Llanos, argues that “One of the largest contributing factors to the City’s homelessness crisis is an underlying affordability crisis.” But City Hall hasn’t yet worked out a way to protect rent-controlled tenants from evictions without just cause or to use city authority to slow down the Ellis process – as have Berkeley, Oakland and many other cities. Absent such protection, many of these residents are simply an eviction notice away from homelessness.
The mayor’s office recognizes that this is a problem, but has been wrestling with how to adequately respond, given that it is a stricture created at the state level. Mayor Garcetti, says Llanos, “called on [HCID] last year to create easily accessible online resources for information about which buildings have been taken off the rental market via the Ellis Act. These resources are now available through the City’s Zoning Information & Map Access System (ZIMAS). The mayor also secured grant funding from Bloomberg Philanthropies to build upon these awareness strategies. To stem the loss of RSO units through the Ellis Act, the mayor is leading efforts to aggressively enforce AB 2222, new state legislation that requires one-for-one replacement of affordable and rent-stabilized units to qualify for the State’s density bonus program.”
Garcetti’s office argues that his enforcement policies have assisted almost 1,600 households in the first two years of his administration, helping evicted tenants receive about $19 million in relocation assistance from their landlords. It has also established a goal of building 100,000 new housing units over the next five years, of which at least 15,000 will have to be affordable housing.
Many tenants’ advocates are skeptical about these programs, believing they are too little too late and don’t really address the scale of Los Angeles’ housing crisis, a crisis now engulfing entire neighborhoods in the sprawling metropolis. Some, such as Dont Rhine, argue that Garcetti has, in fact, co-opted organizers, convincing them to accept as inevitable changes that are fundamentally altering the city’s housing ecology and shifting power evermore towards landlords and developers at the expense of tenants and the working poor.
“You don’t make change by talking to the City Council,” Rhine says. “You make change by shutting things down. That’s how we got public housing in the 1930s, because of ‘eviction blockades’ and other direct action.”
In conversations with tenants around the city, Rhine and his fellow organizers have been discussing the use of direct action to prevent renters from being evicted, in much the same way as the community group Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE) organized protests against foreclosure-triggered evictions during the height of the foreclosure epidemic. “Those are the seeds we’re planting,” Rhine says. “It’ll eventually come to that, because where are people going to go?”
“Good democracy depends on organized people making demands,” echoes Leonardo Vilchis, of Boyle Heights’ Union de Vecinos. “We need to keep fighting and offering a space for the voices of tenants to be heard.”