Tenants Take a Stand

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There’s been a noticeable shift in City Hall’s public stance on evictions recently. A couple years ago, the Mayor and the City Council weren’t saying much, and certainly weren’t doing much, about the wave of displacement that was sweeping across LA. Ellis Act evictions had been rising steadily, thousands of tenants had been forced out of rent-stabilized apartments, and City Hall’s reaction was pretty much, “Who cares?”

But now that the issue is getting media attention and our elected officials are taking some serious heat for their inaction, the change in attitude at City Hall is noticeable. Mayor Garcetti has unveiled the Home for Renters campaign, designed to inform tenants of their rights. The Housing & Community Investment Department (HCIDLA) web site is offering booklets renters can download in English and Spanish to learn about how the law protects them. There’s also been an accompanying media blitz to get the word out. I have to wonder if City Hall’s sudden concern for LA’s renters will last beyond next year’s election, but right now you can tell the politicians are nervous.

One of the most striking examples of this turnaround can be found in the story of a group of tenants living in the apartment building at the corner of Yucca and Argyle in Hollywood. The building is home to 44 households, including singles, couples, families with children, seniors and veterans. It’s subject to LA’s Rent Stabilization Ordinance (RSO), which means that rents can only go up about 3% every year. A while ago they got word that the building was going to be sold to Champion Real Estate, a developer that had plans to build a luxury high-rise on the site. It seemed like it would just be a matter of time before the new owner started handing out eviction notices.

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But that hasn’t happened. Yet. And a large part of it has to do with the fact that the tenants decided they weren’t going to let themselves be pushed around. They connected with the LA Tenants Union (LATU), which helped them organize the Yucca Argyle Tenants Association (YATA). They spoke out. They took part in public actions. They got support from their neighborhood council. They let the world know they weren’t going without a fight.

In fact they made so much noise that the developer stepped forward with pretty unusual offer. I asked Sasha Ali, of YATA, for an update, and here’s her response.

The developer recently stated at the Hollywood United Neighborhood Council’s Planning and Land Use Management meeting that he is willing to offer affected tenants the right of return to the proposed development at their existing terms of rent. He also offered to relocate returning tenants in Hollywood during construction and subsidize their rent.

When you think about the fact that many tenants evicted under the Ellis Act have to fight to get the payments that the law requires, this is pretty impressive. It’s a sign that the media attention about displacement is having an impact. Remember, this is happening in Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell’s district, and O’Farrell has been getting a lot of heat about widespread evictions happening on his watch. Could he have asked Champion to make some concessions in order to cool things down? Well, O’Farrell is up for re-election next year.

There’s no way of saying for sure what will happen next. Sasha said that at this point, eviction notices have not been served, and in fact Champion hasn’t actually bought the building yet. The tenants have retained a lawyer to help them negotiate with the developer.

I’m glad that the tenants at Yucca and Argyle are demanding a fair deal, and I wish them the best. But the dynamics that have created this situation are still wreaking havoc across LA. The eviction juggernaut is being driven by the huge profits developers can reap by buying an existing building, knocking it down, and putting up something much larger. This usually works pretty smoothly, because the City Council is mostly willing to grant whatever entitlements the developer asks for. Want a zone change? Sure! Boost the floor area ratio? No problem! Reduce setbacks to zero? Hell, yeah! Developers feel pretty confident they can make a bundle on these projects because they know all they have to do is hand a wish list to someone like O’Farrell, and he’ll do everything he can to make their wishes come true.

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The City Council has no legal authority to stop Ellis Act evictions, but they need to stop incentivizing the practice. They need to stop handing developers massive profits by approving endless entitlements. If you want to talk about building higher density, fine. Let’s create community plans that will allow the City to increase density in an orderly way. Let’s revise our zoning so that developers can work within a consistent framework. (And I’m not talking about wasting time on a worthless sham like re:code LA.) And then let’s make the City Council abide by those plans, instead of making exceptions for every project that comes their way.

Hopefully things will turn out okay for the folks at Yucca and Argyle. But we need to stop the practices that create these situations in the first place. The City Council needs to stop handing out favors and start doing some planning.

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