Six months ago I’d never heard of The Hermitage. Because I follow development issues, I’d been copied on a few e-mails that described an urban farm in Valley Village that was threatened by a proposed residential project. But there are so many communities getting hammered by reckless development, I didn’t pay much attention. Until November, when I finally decided to check it out.
First, let me show you a few photos of what The Hermitage used to look like.
As you can see, it used to be a lovely place, a small collection of rustic buildings that served as a home to chickens, ducks, dogs, cats and bees. A unique urban farm in the middle of the San Fernando Valley. Now let me show you what it looked like when I visited.
Quite a change. You’re probably asking, “What happened?” Well, a lot of things. The story is so complicated, so twisted, and so disturbing on so many levels, I’m not sure if I can tell it properly. But this story needs to be told, so I’ll do my best.
Let’s start with the former manager, who still resides on the property, though she’s facing eviction. Because of her current situation (which will become clear as you read on), she was nervous about having her name appear in print, so I’ll call her the caretaker. The caretaker has been living at The Hermitage for over 20 years, and has truly taken care of the place. In addition to renting and maintaining the units, she also planted gardens, cared for the animals, and invited groups from the surrounding community to come and learn about nature.
But last year the caretaker’s lawyer informed her that developer Urban Blox was planning to buy the property. She was surprised, since she had an agreement with the owners that gave her the option to purchase The Hermitage if they ever decided to sell.
And this is where it starts getting complicated. Urban Blox did sign an agreement to purchase the property, but it’s not clear whether the owners, two elderly women, signed or not. While their signatures appear to be on a contract for the sale of the property, both women stated in subsequent depositions that they had no recollection of signing the agreement. It may be that a relative arranged the deal without their permission. In October 2014, the grandson of one of the owner’s showed up at the caretaker’s door to deliver a letter stating that she was no longer the manager. But in spite of his claim to be acting on the owners’ authority, their signatures were nowhere to be found on the letter. And in the same depositions referenced above, the owners say they never retained the grandson to represent them.
The caretaker made numerous attempts to contact the owners, without success. After months of uncertainty, having heard nothing from the owners and fearing that they were ready to sell to Urban Blox, the caretaker sued them to enforce her right to buy The Hermitage. In fall of this year, the LLC set up by Urban Blox to develop the property filed a suit against the owners, then amended the complaint to include the caretaker, then dropped the owners from the suit. Both cases are still pending
But that’s just one part of the story. By summer of this year, all the former residents of The Hermitage were gone. And while the legal power plays were unfolding, squatters began moving in to one of the vacant buildings on the property. The first one arrived in early summer, and by September a number of others had moved in. Since the squatters’ arrival, the caretaker reports numerous acts of theft and vandalism. Tools have been stolen from her workshop. Trees have been cut down and plants have been ripped out of the ground. She doesn’t feel safe when she’s at home, but she’s also afraid to leave, for fear of what might happen when she’s gone. And she’s kept a detailed log recounting numerous incidents.
But it’s not just the caretaker who’s been affected. Neighbors started getting nervous when they noticed strange chemical smells emanating from the house occupied by the squatters, and they were more than nervous when they saw visitors coming and going at all hours of the night. And there’s more. One of the squatters has been seen by neighbors walking down the sidewalk with a rifle in hand. This has also been documented in photographs. Since the squatters showed up the neighborhood has seen a rise in burglaries and car break-ins.
I talked to a couple of people who live in the community. The first woman I asked about the squatters told me she was frightened for the caretaker and frightened for the neighborhood. She also asked me to withhold her name for fear of reprisals. She did share her suspicions about the squatters running a drug lab, and told me that one of them had been shot recently. She didn’t feel safe, and wondered why the police weren’t doing more to protect residents. The second woman I spoke to was more angry than frightened, and she didn’t mind giving her name. Fiona Manning confirmed what the first neighbor had reported, and added a few more details. She has seen the squatters sitting out in the open drinking and smoking dope. She’s heard gunshots at night. She recounted an incident where a neighbor asked the squatters to turn down their music, and they responded with threats. Fiona also described an encounter she had with one of the squatters. As she was walking down the street, a young man reeking of pot started following her, and calling out, “I know you, I know you. Are you a friend of my grandmother’s?”
I had a brief exchange with one of the squatters on my first visit to The Hermitage. I don’t claim to be a substance abuse expert, but having lived in Hollywood for 20 years, I’ve gotten pretty good at recognizing meth addicts. This glassy-eyed, jacked-up, paranoid kid seemed to show all the signs.
What makes this even weirder is that the caretaker and her neighbors have called the North Hollywood Division of the LAPD on numerous occasions, and while the police have come by about a dozen times, they’ve taken no action to rein in the squatters. The caretaker and Fiona both report that they’ve been told by officers not to call any more. Apparently the North Hollywood Division has decided the problems have arisen from a landlord/tenant dispute, but that doesn’t begin to explain the numerous issues involved. Whatever’s happening with the property itself, the fact that the neighbors have seen one of the squatters carrying a gun, have heard gunshots, and reported burglaries and car break-ins seems to indicate there’s a little more going on than a tiff between a landlord and a tenant. I was surprised to hear about the North Hollywood Division’s apparent reluctance to take action. The few times I’ve called the LAPD they’ve usually been quick to respond and ready to help. I can’t understand why they haven’t tried harder to address this situation, especially since it seems that some of the squatters are on probation.
Once it became clear that the police weren’t going to take action, Fiona and others tried calling Councilmember Paul Krekorian’s office. Though there were numerous conversations with one of his staffers, and promises of help, nothing ever materialized. Actually, this doesn’t surprise me at all. I’ve been in touch with a number of people who live in Krekorian’s district who’ve reported the same thing. His staffers are friendly, they’re always willing to listen, but the conversations never produce any results. A number of Krekorian’s constituents seem to feel that time spent talking to his staff is time wasted. You’d think that a councilmember might be moved to take action if constituents complained they were living in fear because of a group of squatters. Apparently Krekorian doesn’t think it’s a problem.
After receiving no help from Krekorian, the caretaker tried getting in touch with State Assemblymember Adrin Nazarian, but nothing came of that. In desperation, she tried contacting every member of the State Assembly. Only Patty López’ office responded. Fiona says, “She was a godsend.” While the neighborhood’s own elected representatives apparently didn’t feel the situation warranted taking action, Patty López organized a meeting with members of the community. About 15 people showed up, and they had plenty to say. While López declined to get involved in problems related to the squatters, she was concerned enough about the project proposed by Urban Blox that she wrote a letter to Nazarian’s office. In it, she lists a number issues raised by the community, including vacating a public street for the developer’s benefit, the loss of green space, the loss of parking and impacts to wildlife.
In fact, throughout the approval process people have expressed serious doubts about the project. When it came before the Area Planning Commission, Vice-President Lydia Drew Mather said she wished the Council Office and the Developer had worked more with the community to address potential problems, and added that she felt the project was moving forward too fast. Commissioner Rebecca Beatty voiced concern about the fact that the project would get rid of rent-controlled units. Even City Councilmember José Huizar, Chair of the Planning & Land Use Management Committee, questioned the wisdom of greenlighting a project when the developer’s right to the property was being debated in court.
But did that stop the City Council from approving Urban Blox’ plan? Of course not. The Council gave it a thumbs up. They’re apparently okay with bulldozing rent-controlled units, vacating a public street, cutting down trees and displacing wildlife. This is what City Hall does. Our elected officials are happy to hand the developers an entitlement worth millions of dollars so they can get rid of a unique community resource and replace it with high-priced housing.
There’s one more detail I want to add just to throw a little more light on how projects get approved in LA. When a developer comes to the City with a proposed project, California law requires the Department of City Planning to prepare an Initial Study to assess what impacts the project might have. The Initial Study is used to determine what level of environmental review is required. In this case the Initial Study was signed by Planning Assistant Courtney Shum. Does it surprise you to learn that before taking the position at City Planning, Ms. Shum worked as a registered lobbyist for Max Development, LLC (DBA three6ixty), a firm that has received tens of thousands of dollars from its client Urban Blox?
If it was just a matter of the caretaker finding a new place, maybe she could walk away from this mess. But The Hermitage is also home to chickens, ducks, dogs, cats and bees. She is responsible for all of them. So she stays close to her small house and cares for the animals, reluctant to leave for fear of what might happen while she’s gone. And she still hopes that somehow she can hang on to her home.
If you see a problem with a City Planning Assistant being involved with a project that benefits a client of her former employer’s, you might want to drop a line to Planning Director Vince Bertoni. Here’s his e-mail address.
Don’t forget to include the case number in the subject line.
And you could also copy your own Councilmember on the e-mail, just to let them know you’re fed up with the way City Hall does business.