Rent Strike

LATU Rent Strike Vine Selma 2005 SM

Things are heating up. The Los Angeles Tenants Union (LATU) has called for a rent strike. And they’re not alone. According to a graphic posted by the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project, there are tenants withholding rent in the Bay Area and San Diego. The Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE) seems to be on board, too. Here’s an excerpt from a statement they released….

Today on May 1st, millions of tenants and homeowners across the country will be unable to make their housing payments. Many of us are choosing food and groceries over rent – a choice no one should have to make

We are turning our economic reality into political action, by going on strike today to demand rent and mortgage forgiveness! Governor Newsom has the power to cancel rent and mortgage payments for those impacted by the COVID crisis – join us in urging him to do it!

The health and well-being of our children, our seniors – all of us – is at stake. Together we have the power to force the politicians to recognize our reality. Together we need to make them recognize that housing is a basic human right.

Rent Strike Graphic from ACCE 200501

Rent strike graphic from ACCE web site.

Other groups are taking a different approach. Here’s part of a press release from a group called Street Watch LA….

An unhoused Los Angeles resident, Davon Brown, has gained access to an empty hotel room at the Ritz Carlton in Downtown Los Angeles with the intent to stay to shelter in place during the COVID-19 crisis. He entered the room after asking to see one before booking, and with the support of community organizers from Street Watch LA (an initiative by the Los Angeles chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America) he has refused to leave until Mayor Garcetti commandeers vacant hotel rooms for the unhoused during the pandemic.

Obviously the pandemic is pushing people to take extreme measures, but it would be a mistake to think this is just about the coronavirus. Housing prices have been soaring for years. Millions of people are rent burdened. There are tens of thousands of homeless people in LA County. We’ve been moving closer to a tipping point for years, and the virus may be pushing us over the edge.

I have mixed feelings about the rent strike. On the one hand, there are a number of landlords out there who work hard to provide decent housing at a fair price. I know some of them personally, and I worry that they could be impacted if their tenants stop paying rent. On the other hand, there are also a lot of predatory real estate investors who have been snapping up multi-family housing, kicking out tenants and then raising rents so they can flip the building. I’ve seen many of them in action, and honestly I think they should be in jail. They have no interest in providing housing. To them apartment buildings are just an asset, and all they care about is jacking up the value so they can make a quick profit.

To make things even worse, most of our elected officials either turn a blind eye or actively encourage this kind of real estate speculation. Over the past few years the City of LA has been granting permits to legally convert residential units into hotel rooms. Last year the City passed its Home Sharing Ordinance to prohibit landlords from offering apartments as short-term rentals, but the practice still seems fairly widespread. Mayor Eric Garcetti has tried to convince people that he’s concerned about the housing crisis, but in fact, first as a Councilmember and now as Mayor, he’s shown over and over again that he’s a fervent supporter of predatory real estate investment.

LATU Protest at Mayor Mansion 1 CROPPED

Image posted on LATU Facebook page from a protest outside the mansion in Hancock Park where Mayor Garcetti lives.

I don’t know how the rent strike will turn out, but it seems to me that this is only the beginning. Middle and low income households have been hurting for years. While wages have mostly remained stagnant, the cost of living has continued to climb. Young people who can’t find a decent job have been forced into the gig economy, which in most cases means they don’t get sick time, they don’t get vacation days, and their employer can cut them loose by sending them a text.

The pandemic isn’t the problem. It’s just the catalyst. Things have been messed up for a long time. It’s just now that people are getting desperate enough to take action.

LATU Rent Strike Sign in Boyle Heights from LATU FB Page 2005

Photo of rent strike banner over freeway in Boyle Heights, also from LATU Facebook page.

 

Burbank Blvd. Bridge Demolition

Brbk Bridge Demo from Live Feed 9 200426 CROPPED

An image from Sunday morning, when demolition was largely completed.

A few months back I wrote about the Empire Interchange/Interstate 5 Improvement Project, a massive undertaking that’s been in process for years. One component of the project is the demolition and replacement of the Burbank Blvd. Bridge over the I-5. This weekend the freeway was shut down and the demolition took place. The photo above is from a live feed that was posted on-line, and shows what the scene looked like this morning. Here are a few more shots from the live feed that show the demo in progress.

Brbk Bridge Demo from Live Feed 0 BEFORE CROPPED

An image from the live feed before the freeway closure, when the bridge was still standing.

Brbk Bridge Demo from Live Feed 3 200425 CROPPED

An image from Saturday, when demolition had begun.

Brbk Bridge Demo from Live Feed 5 200425 CROPPED

Demolition continues on Saturday, as the sun goes down.

The project is way behind schedule and there’s no telling when it will actually be completed. For more info, you can read my previous post by clicking here.

 

Local News Is Dying

 

Newspapers SM

Obviously, the impacts of the pandemic we’re experiencing have gone far beyond just threats to human health. It’s devastated numerous industries, and in many cases we can’t even predict the long-term effects.

Local newspapers are getting hammered by the outbreak. As businesses have been shuttered, they’ve stopped spending on advertising, and this has been catastrophic for newspapers small and large. The loss of revenue has forced the LA Times to close down three local papers it published, the Burbank Leader, Glendale News-Press and La Canada Valley Sun. No doubt we’ll see more closures in the not-too-distant future.

Publications that report local news have been declining for years, and as that has happened, Americans are less and less aware of what’s going on in the cities they live in. Did you know that the City of LA was facing annual budget shortfalls of $200 million to $400 million before the pandemic even hit? Did you know transit ridership in LA County has been declining for years and is down about 20% since 2013, in spite of the fact that taxpayers have spent billions to build new rail lines? Did you know that the State requires cities to recycle 50% of their solid waste, but that the RecycLA program hasn’t even hit 35%? If you didn’t know these things, it may be because you’re relying on TV or social media to get your information, instead of experienced journalists who know how to report hard news.

Local news is crucial to keeping people informed. If you don’t know what your elected representatives are up to, there’s no way you can make an informed decision when you go to the polls.

The LA Times has done an excellent breakdown of this frightening situation. I urge you to read it. And then, if you don’t already subscribe to a local paper, get on-line and sign up.

Coronavirus Crisis Hastens the Collapse of Local Newspapers. Here’s Why It Matters

Life in LA Under Lockdown

C19 PlaBoy Sign

Many people have been documenting how life has changed in our cities since stay-at-home orders were issued. Sorry if this post seems redundant, but because this blog is about reporting on life in LA, I felt like I had to write something about this episode.

Life is definitely pretty strange these days. I’m fortunate in that my health is good and none of my family or friends have been infected with the virus, but it’s heartbreaking to read about those who are dealing with the worst impacts. In addition to those who have been infected, there are so many people who’ve been hammered by the shutdown. What’s going to happen to the folks who have lost their jobs? While some may return to work when the stay-at-home orders are lifted, it’s clear that the economy is getting pounded, and it seems like many jobs will just go away. In LA the City Council took action to stop evictions during the pandemic, but there’s still no certainty as to how affected households will make up rent over the long term. I’m concerned about the pandemic, but I’m actually much more worried about what comes next. The news from the US and abroad seems to point to a global downturn.

But right now I can only focus on what’s in front of me, and that’s getting through the day during the lockdown. I can’t say it’s been especially difficult for me personally, but, as I’m sure everyone has noticed, life in LA is pretty weird these days.

Last week I was out to get groceries, and on my way home I saw a young woman standing on a street corner waving a styrofoam head that was wearing a black mask. I had no idea what it was about. Then yesterday I went out again and realized that there are a number of street vendors selling masks, and many of them are waving styrofoam heads at passersby. It does look kind of surreal, but I guess that’s just a part of the landscape right now.

C19 Panorama Mask Vendor

Street vendor selling masks in Panorama City.

One of the strangest things about the pandemic is the contrast between the businesses that have shut down and the businesses that must remain open. Grocery stores are so busy they can’t keep the shelves stocked. But many other businesses are shuttered. Here are a couple of photos to illustrate how this looks in Hollywood.

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People waiting to enter Trader Joe’s at Vine and Selma.

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Businesses shuttered on Hollywood Boulevard.

The closure of the newsstand on Cahuenga is one of the things that worries me most. Obviously, print journalism has been getting hammered for years. This newsstand has been shrinking steadily for over a decade. Will it ever reopen? And even more troubling is the question of what will happen to newspapers. I heard that the LA Times has lost one third of its advertising revenue and could be laying off 40 people. I’m sure other papers are getting hit as hard or harder. Will more papers fold as a result of the pandemic? Probably. And if that happens, we’ll see even less local news than we do now. This is very scary. The internet has pushed local news reporting to the brink of extinction. (Aside from TV news shows that focus on murders, fires and sports scores.) Already the vast majority of LA’s citizens have no idea what’s going on at City Hall. As a result, the Mayor and the City Council have been letting the City go to hell for years. Corruption is rampant at City Hall, homelessness is out of control, and we’re facing huge budget deficits. If the LA TImes and/or other local papers go under, we’ll have even less local reporting and less oversight. This is very dangerous.

C19 Hlwd Cahuenga Newsstand Closed

Will this newsstand on Cahuenga ever reopen?

Of course, signs are popping up all over the place. Stores are posting their rules, restaurants want you to know they’re open for delivery, and public notices tell you what you can and can’t do.

C19 Orange Line Bus Sign

You have to use the rear door when you board a bus.

C19 NoHo Groundworks Sign

Groundworks is North Hollywood is only open for take-out.

C19 Hlwd Hlwd Wilcox Signal Sign

You’re not even supposed to push the button to get a walk signal.

One of the strangest changes for me is the disappearance of rush hour traffic. Ordinarily during rush hour in Hollywood, Cahuenga northbound is jammed, often to the point where traffic is backed up several blocks. For the past few weeks, Cahuenga has been wide open, even at peak commute times.

C19 Hlwd Cahuenga Rush Hour Empty

Rush hour traffic on Cahuenga is no longer a problem.

But cars haven’t disappeared completely. In fact, given the stay-at-home order, I’m kind of surprised at how many cars are on the road. Here’s a shot of Highland north of Hollywood.

C19 Hlwd Highland Traffic

Even during a pandemic, there are still plenty of cars on the road.

And speaking of Hollywood and Highland, that’s one spot that’s been completely transformed by the outbreak. Ordinarily the sidewalk on the northwest corner of that intersection is crowded with people. Even at two in the morning you’d find a collection of vendors, partiers, rappers, cops and costumed characters parading around. Here’s what it looked like yesterday in the middle of the day.

C19 Hlwd Hlwd Highland Deserted

The corner of Hollywood and Highland is nearly deserted.

When will we get back to normal? Impossible to say. And you have to ask what “normal” is going to look like. Even when the stay-at-home order is lifted, life is not going to snap back to the way it used to be. As I mentioned before, LA’s budget was a mess even before the pandemic. With the global economy tanking, you can bet that LA will get hit hard. I wish I could end on a positive note, but there’s not much reason for optimism in LA these days. The city was in bad straits before the virus hit. Our elected officials have shown a frightening inability to address LA’s problems even when the economy was supposedly going strong.

Right now this city’s future looks pretty bleak.

C19 Hlwd Homeless on Hlwd Blvd

Plagues

Dntn Skyline w Fwy 200314

The last couple of weeks have been pretty intense. The coronavirus is spreading in the US and a national emergency has now been declared. At the same time stock markets, in the US and around the world, have been plunging, with fears of another recession on the minds of many.

LA County declared a state of emergency earlier this month, and as concern has grown over the spread of the virus, local and State officials have been weighing their options, trying to figure out how to respond rationally without creating a panic. Last week the Los Angeles Unified School District decided to close all schools. LA City Hall and LA County Courts are either postponing hearings or trying to find alternatives that don’t involve bringing lots of people together in a single room.

And in addition to all that, on Monday it was announced that former LA City Councilmember Mitch Englander was being charged by the Justice Department with obstructing a corruption investigation. The Feds have accused Englander of witness tampering and making false statements. While Englander stepped down from the City Council a while ago, this case could well have implications for people currently serving at City Hall.

So it’s been a wild couple of weeks. I have to say I feel kind of overwhelmed and confused. Of course the immediate concern is the coronavirus. I’ve been checking the LA County Department of Health web site every day. On Sunday they had identified 53 cases within the County, and officials were telling us to avoid non-essential travel and to stay away from public gatherings. Today the number is 144, and theatres, bars and gyms have been ordered to close. Restaurants can stay open, but only for take-out orders. As the news gets worse, you can feel a general sense of anxiety in the air.

On Saturday I was out of the house for most of the afternoon, and I’m realizing now that’s the last time I’ll be roaming around the city for a while. At that point it sounded like going out was okay, as long as you didn’t hug anybody and kept washing your hands. And I have to say I was curious to see what was happening on the streets. Remembering the photos I’d seen in February of deserted boulevards and public squares in Wuhan and Beijing, I was wondering if we’d gotten to that point in LA.

Hlwd Blvd People

That wasn’t the case on Saturday. People were still out and about. I went to the market to pick up a couple of things. The place was packed, and a number of items seemed to be sold out, but most of the shelves still held plenty of goods.

Hlwd TJ Refrig

Next I went to a coffee house on Cahuenga. There were about half a dozen people inside, which seemed more or less normal, but when I asked the woman at the counter how business was, she said “Super dead.” Also, when I asked for a mug, she said they were only using disposable cups. I assume that was to avoid transmitting germs.

Hlwd Groundworks

Based on the latest updates, it does look like life in LA was be pretty different for at least the next couple of weeks, but I imagine we’ll pull through. Humanity has dealt with contagious diseases in the past, and I feel confident we’ll eventually put this one behind us. But there’s another kind of plague that’s been afflicting LA for a while, and unfortunately it looks like it will be with us for a long time to come.

I’m talking about corruption.

Corruption is a disease that’s been with us since the beginning of time. It’s always present in one form or another, but in some cases it turns both chronic and acute. For the last several years in LA we’ve been experiencing a major outbreak among our elected officials, and I doubt we’ll see a cure any time soon. Citizens have been saying for years that members of the City Council are infected, but for the most part the Council is in denial. Local media has published a number of stories that seem to confirm that the disease is running rampant at City Hall, but the few efforts that have been made to rein it in don’t appear to have taken hold.

The Englander story is just the latest episode in a long and tawdry saga. The former Councilmember is accused of having accepted tens of thousands of dollars in cash and gifts from a businessperson in exchange for facilitating connections with a developer. You might think that since Englander no longer serves on the Council that the problem has already been taken care of. No such luck. Englander’s seat on the Council has been filled by a former aide, John Lee. Lee apparently accompanied Englander on the trip to Vegas where much of the money changed hands. He claims he wasn’t aware of anything illegal taking place, but the Feds’ indictment refers to a “City Staffer B” who sounds very much like Lee. Apparently both Englander and City Staffer B sent checks to the businessperson to reimburse them for part of the cost of the trip. Unfortunately, both checks were backdated to August 4 in an apparent attempt to make it look like they were sent before the FBI started asking questions. If this is true, then Lee is also guilty of falsifying documents.

Then there’s Arman Gabay, co-founder of the Charles Company, which filed an application years ago to build a large project in South LA. Initially the project received strong support from Councilmember Herb Wesson, who helped the developer win millions of dollars in federal loans. Coincidentally, Gabay, his family members and associates, had contributed thousands of dollars to campaign and officeholder accounts associated with Wesson. But last year the developer was charged by the Department of Justice with having bribed a County official. The trial is still pending, but the project is dead. At some point after Gabay was hit with the bribery charge, Wesson decided he could no longer lend his support. Interestingly, a recent filing by the US Attorney in the Gabay case says that wiretaps captured conversations between the developer and public officials about permitting problems and government financing for a proposed project. According to the filing, Gabay was told he could resolve the problems if he made a $10,000 campaign contribution. Sadly, the filing does not disclose the name of the official who received the contribution. We can only guess.

And let’s not forget Councilmember Jose Huizar. In 2018 the FBI raided Huizar’s home and office, and apparently among the things they were searching for were records related to the Councilmember’s fundraising efforts. Would Huizar take money from developers in exchange for project approvals? The FBI won’t discuss specifics, but the LA Times reported that a campaign committee with ties to the Councilmember received $50,000 from Onni Group just two months before a key vote on a property where the developer planned to build.  No charges have yet been filed against Huizar, but the Feds aren’t the only thing on his mind. He’s also being sued by two former staffers. Among other things, the suits allege that the Councilmember was guilty of sexual misconduct, that he retaliated against those who voiced criticisms, and that he required staff members to engage in fundraising efforts during office hours.

There’s plenty more dirt to dish on the City Council, but you get the point. And actually, I could forgive a lot of things if our elected officials were just doing a decent job of running the City. But LA is falling apart. We’re in serious trouble. It’s not just that the development process has been completely poisoned by a pay-to-play culture. The way City Hall does business is inherently opaque and dishonest. A classic example is last year’s budget process. When the budget was passed in mid-2019, elected officials were patting themselves on the back and claiming that the City would see a surplus of $30 million to $70 million annually over the next four years. What a shock when six months later we were told that the City was now facing annual deficits of $200 million to $400 million over the next four years. What happened? Apparently when the City Council passed the budget they neglected to mention that they were negotiating contracts with city employees that would blow a huge hole in the City’s finances. They decided not to inform citizens about the cost of the contracts until it was done deal. Everything was done behind closed doors. Once again the public was shut out.

Our elected officials talk about addressing homelessness, but the number of people on the streets continues to rise. Renters are getting thrown out of their apartments because they can’t pay high housing costs. Streets and sidewalks are crumbling, and even with record revenues City Hall can’t find the money to maintain them properly. The urban forest, crucial to replenishing groundwater and keeping the air clean, continues to decline due to years of neglect. The Mayor blathers on about getting people out of cars and onto transit, but DASH ridership has fallen from 25 million trips in 2014 to 19 million trips in 2019. (I won’t mention Metro’s depressing ridership stats. They’re a County operation.)

And with another recession just around the corner, it looks like things will only get worse. If the Mayor and the City Council couldn’t put this house in order when times were good, what’s going to happen when the bottom falls out of the economy? The culture of corruption that pervades City Hall has fostered a secretive and opaque decision-making process where deals are cut behind closed doors and the public is kept in the dark.

This is the real plague that’s taking LA down. We’ll survive the coronavirus. It’s City Hall that’s going to kill us.

Dntn Distant 2

Coronavirus and Short-Term Rentals: Who’s Looking Out for Tenants?

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The Ellison apartment building is on the left.

Last night I got an e-mail from a guy I know in Venice. He’s been living for decades at the Ellison, a beautiful old apartment building. In recent years the landlord has been turning vacant units into short-term rentals, to the point where now the tenants are in the minority, and the place has been overrun with tourists. Like all the rest of us, he’s concerned about the spread of the coronavirus. He writes….

Maybe it doesn’t seem like an issue now, but:

I’m a senior citizen living on the fifth floor of the same apartment building for forty years. I don’t want to share the one elevator for 58 apartments/“Ellison Suites” with bargain hunting, international tourists.

I think he has an excellent point. As a senior citizen with COPD, he has a right to be worried about living in a building with tourists from all over the world when health officials have voiced serious concern about the spread of the virus. A top official at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said, “It’s not so much a matter of if this will happen anymore, but rather a question of exactly when this will happen and how many people in this country will have severe illness.”

Tenants at the Ellison have been dealing with a lot of issues since their landlord decided to turn the building into a quasi-hotel. Loud music, late night parties and drunken revelers have been ongoing problems. But now they have to be concerned about whether they could be exposed to a serious disease.

Why should renters have to deal with this? It used to be that there were clear boundaries between residential and commercial uses, and tenants could expect to be shielded from the disturbances that arise with transient occupants. But now we live in a world with tech “visionaries” who value “disruption” more than they value communities. And while LA has passed a short-term rental ordinance, it’s still an open question as to how strict enforcement is going to be. Remember, Eric Garcetti’s former spokesperson, Connie Llanos, left her job at the Mayor’s Office to go to work for AirBnB.

This isn’t just a health issue. It’s a liability issue. While there are many law-abiding individuals who are legally renting their house or apartment under the Home Sharing Ordinance, there are still plenty of landlords (like the owner of the Ellison) and commercial operators who are flouting the law . If a renter is infected with the coronavirus through contact with a tourist, will these landlords pay for their healthcare costs? I seriously doubt it. And yet, as this contagious disease spreads across the globe, with new cases every day, tenants who moved into their building with the expectation that they’d be living with other tenants find themselves coming into frequent contact with vacationers. Also, aside from STRs, the City of LA has actually approved a hybrid apartment/hotel use at the Metropolitan in Hollywood and Level Furnished Living in Downtown. They’re getting ready to do it again at 949 S. Hope.

We are seeing new cases of coronovirus infections every day, and the numbers are spiking in multiple countries. It seems to me that if tenants have evidence that their landlord is illegally offering multiple units on short-term rental web sites, they’d be perfectly justified in seeking an injunction to protect their health.

If you see a problem here, why not contact the Mayor and ask if he sees a problem, too. And while you’re at it, why not write to the City Attorney’s Office.

Mayor Eric Garcetti
mayor.garcetti@lacity.org

Leela Ann Kapur, Chief of Staff, City Attorney
leela.kapur@lacity.org

Couldn’t hurt to copy your Councilmember as well.

Maybe you could use the following subject line….

Coronavirus and Short-Term Rentals

The Death of the Newsstand

Boyle Heights Newsstand from LA Times 2002

Photo from LA Times by Irfan Khan

Today the LA Times ran a story on a newsstand in Boyle Heights that will probably be closing this year. Like so many other casualties of the rise of digital media, newsstands are a dying breed. While you can still find a few here and there in LA, most are long gone. In my own neighborhood, Universal News, (used to be on Las Palmas) has been closed for years, and World Book & News (1652 Cahuenga) has drastically reduced its stock. I know the odds are that one day it will close down, too.

While I hate to see newsstands disappear, I know that change is inevitable. As advances in print technology in an earlier era gave rise to newsstands and made them a part of the fabric of our cities, advances in digital technology have now marginalized newspapers and magazines.

In theory, print news and digital news should be the same. In reality, the shift has led to a huge change in the way the news is reported and consumed. The internet allows us instant access to news outlets all over the world, which seems like an incredible opportunity, but the promise is different from the reality. It allows us to search for the news we want to read, often to the exclusion of news that we should read. And while we now have what seems like an infinite number of sources to choose from, I feel like that allows most of us to subscribe to the sites that tell us what we want to hear.

One of the most damaging casualties of the rise of digital media is the loss of local reporting. Twenty years ago in LA, both the Times and the Daily News had beat reporters covering City Hall and the various city departments. They knew the landscape, they had the connections, and they kept the public apprised of what our elected officials were doing. Now, with both papers having slashed staff over the years, reporting on City Hall is sporadic, and our electeds have found they can pull all sorts of stunts with very little public scrutiny.

Here’s the link to the story about the newsstand in Boyle Heights. A small piece of LA history that’s about to disappear.

Spanish Language Newsstand Braces for the End