In case you haven’t been following recent events at the Villa Carlotta, I’ll give it to you real quick. It’s a piece of Hollywood history, built in the 20s, and home for many years to musicians, artists, writers and other creative folk. But it was rent-controlled, and not too long ago the owner decided he wasn’t making enough money off it, so he sold the property to a developer who planned to turn it into an extended-stay hotel. As part of the process, it was deemed necessary to get rid of the existing tenants. Many of them were forced out using the Ellis Act.
Of the 50 apartments in the Carlotta, four are still occupied. Some of the tenants decided to fight the evictions, and not just because they wanted to hang on to their homes. There are a number of reasons to object to what the developer is doing here. First, the Carlotta is a historic building, and as such it’s protected by state law. In order to turn it into a hotel, the current owner planned extensive alterations to the structure. The remaining tenants, worried that the modifications would do irreparable damage, took their case to the Cultural Heritage Commission, which sided with them. Second, Ellis Act evictions have caused the loss of thousands of rent-controlled units in LA. A recent study by UCLA found that this city is the least affordable major city in the nation, and mass evictions are only making things worse.
And third, up until this whole mess started, the Carlotta was home to a community of creative people. According to many of the former tenants, it was a place where budding screenwriters and struggling artists could meet friends and make connections, where they could share their work and shape their ideas.
This aspect of the story took on new importance when it was announced that the Hollywood Arts Council had decided to hold a fundraiser at the Carlotta. The HAC apparently thought it would be the ideal place for the event, which was held to raise money for arts education at nearby Cheremoya Elementary School. The remaining tenants at the Carlotta were surprised by the announcement. It seemed odd that an organization which has the stated goal of supporting the arts in Hollywood had decided to hold their event at a venue that was nearly vacant because dozens of artists had been forced to leave.
They contacted the HAC and explained the situation, asking if the organization would consider moving the event. The answer was polite, but firm, no. Bothered by the apparent hypocrisy of the HAC’s actions, the tenants decided to protest.
Sylvie Shain, one of the few remaining inhabitants, had imagined the protest as an elaborate performance piece. Former tenants were asked to come to the event wearing white, and they would stand for the ghosts of the Villa Carlotta. Alternately, attendees could show up dressed in red to symbolize of the affordable housing massacre that’s taking place. The idea was to dramatize the plight of renters throughout the City.
Unfortunately, things didn’t work out as planned. The first part of the protest, with people congregating on the sidewalk outside, went smoothly. But when Sylvie led a group into the building things got kind of chaotic. There were moments when I couldn’t figure out what was going on. But one thing is clear. At one point Sylvie was forcibly ejected from the building and temporarily denied re-entry.
On the positive side, the event got a fair amount of media coverage. Two local stations showed footage on the evening news, and Curbed did a piece as well. The Los Angeles Tenants Union joined the residents of the Carlotta, and LATU members spoke eloquently about the affordable housing crisis in LA, emphatically pointing out the damage that the Ellis Act is doing.
It’s important to say that artists aren’t just having a hard time finding housing in Hollywood. In recent years Silverlake and Echo Park have both seen an exodus of musicians, writers and others who can’t afford to pay what landlords are asking these days. And then there’s the sick joke of the Arts District in Downtown. In the late 70s, creative people started moving to the industrial districts in the City’s center. The community came together because people who were struggling to make music or art or whatever could find cheap rents in areas that nobody else wanted to live in. But then the developers discovered it, started marketing it as the Arts District, and housing prices soared. Many of the artists who had created the community were forced to leave because it got too damn expensive.
So let’s get back to the question I asked in the heading for this post. This past Sunday night, who was really standing up for artists? Was it the Hollywood Arts Council, knowingly holding their fundraiser at a site where dozens of creative people had been forced to leave? Or was it the scrappy band of tenants who staged an action to call attention to the fact that artists and others are being thrown out of their homes all over LA?
You can probably guess what my answer would be.
Sylvie put together a beautiful brochure for the event, which you can view by clicking on the link below.
And if you’d like more info about the situation at this historic building, here’s a link to the Save Villa Carlotta Facebook page.