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Chinatown Renters’ Saga Takes a Twist

Last month tenants in a large apartment complex were close to an agreement that would have kept their units affordable. Suddenly, they are facing eviction again.

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Hillside Villa photo by Isabel Avila

SINCE ITS CONSTRUCTION IN 1988, Chinatown’s Hillside Villa apartment complex has been designated for affordable housing, providing a home for the low-income and immigrant families who have long defined the neighborhood. But as gentrification and the reality of L.A.’s severe housing shortage come into play, the building’s future is uncertain. When Hillside Villa’s 30-year affordability covenant expired last year, landlord Thomas Botz notified residents that their rents would climb on June 1, 2019, to market rates—a monthly increase of $700 or more for some tenants.

However, with the help of activist groups (Chinatown Community for Equitable Development, the Los Angeles Tenants Union and the Democratic Socialists of America’s Los Angeles chapter) and the involvement of City Councilmember Gil Cedillo’s office, tenants were close last month to an agreement that would have kept their units affordable. But now, recent developments have left residents once again fighting to stay.

According to Rene AlexZander, president of the Hillside Villa Tenants Association, Botz had rescinded the rent hike and was about to strike an $11.7 million deal with the city to extend the building’s affordability covenant for 10 years. But on June 1, all of the building’s tenants—except for those with Section 8 vouchers—were hit with eviction notices. “At the last minute, when everything was supposed to be signed, sealed and delivered, they turned around and issued a 60-day eviction notice,” said AlexZander. “It seemed like we were all close to a deal to extend the affordability for 10 years,” said Shao Zhao, a paralegal who has lived at Hillside Villa for over a decade. “Everyone was very surprised, especially after the landlord agreed to take back the previous notices regarding the units going to market rate.”

Tenants fear their landlord is using the evictions to bargain for a better deal from the city. “It seems like—both from our attorneys and from Cedillo—that the motivation for giving these 60-day notices is leverage for the landlord to get more money,” said Zhao. “We’re kind of used as pawns.”

In an emailed response to Capital & Main, Thomas Botz’s attorney, Brandon Dimond, did not address the 60-day notices. Instead he stated, “We welcome a deal with the city that would allow the current tenants to stay. Those discussions are still ongoing and show promise. The rents at the Hillside Villa have been artificially low for over 30 years, and with the rising costs of maintenance, the owners can no longer afford to privately subsidize the low rents without risking the financial viability of the entire building.”

COUNCILMEMBER CEDILLO, whose office has been leading negotiations with Botz, is adamant that the building remain affordable for the current tenants. “I have four main goals that the tenants of Hillside Villa Apartments are in full agreement and support of,” he said in an email to Capital & Main. “One, no displacement of tenants; two, no evictions; three, no rent increases; and four, a 10-year deal to protect tenants from paying rent increases. I will use all resources and authority at my disposal to protect tenants and their quality of life.”

Cedillo referenced Hillside Villa specifically when he introduced a motion in May aimed at preserving low-income housing as affordability covenants expire in buildings across Los Angeles. “I applaud Mr. Cedillo specifically for finally coming to our side,” said Zhao, calling Cedillo’s motion “a good start” toward addressing the city’s wider housing crisis.

AlexZander also spoke to the larger issues surrounding the tenants’ struggle. “Our goal is not simply for the Hillside Villa apartments to remain as affordable housing. We want to set the example for the rest of the city that this is the type of action that needs to be done so that other people are not losing their homes.” With 11,000 affordable units in Los Angeles at risk of shifting to market rate, Hillside Villa represents an increasingly common scenario for L.A. renters.

While both sides say they are committed to reaching a deal, Hillside Villa’s future is still up in the air without a solid agreement. As the Tenants Association gears up to take legal action in the next phase of the fight, Zhao and AlexZander say that the uncertainty is taking a toll. “There is a lot of not just emotional, but physical, stress that is happening to a lot of the tenants,” said AlexZander. According to Zhao, “There are so many ups and downs. It changes by the hour sometimes.” However, both remain committed to staying. “My stance is that the Tenants Association will continue to fight. We’re not willing to move out of our homes,” said AlexZander.


Copyright Capital & Main

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