Commemorating Japanese Internment by Evicting Little Tokyo Artists

Little Tokyo Artists

It’s been 75 years since the US Government issued an order to intern all residents of Japanese descent. DLJ Real Estate Capital Partners is going to commemorate that event in a special way.  The company will soon be evicting the tenants at 800 Traction, another reminder to the residents of Little Tokyo of just how little their lives really mean.

Of course, you hear about evictions all the time in LA, and City Hall has let us know repeatedly that renters are completely disposable when their lives are weighed against investor profits. Mayor Garcetti has used the Department of City Planning like a sharp knife in carving out his radical gentrification agenda, and tenants from Boyle Heights to the beach communities know they have a target on their back.

But still, this case stands out, because of the history involved….

You see, Little Tokyo used to cover a lot more territory than it does now. While 800 Traction is no longer considered part of the district, prior to WWII it fell well within the bounds of the Japanese community. Many Japanese residents lost their homes and businesses because of the internment. City Hall took more land away in the 50s to build Parker Center. More land, more housing, more businesses were lost when (ironically) Japanese corporations moved in during the 70s and 80s. And so over time Little Tokyo has been reduced to a shadow of what it once was.

But there’s another layer to this that makes it even more disturbing. A number of the residents at 800 Traction are Japanese-American artists who’ve been living in the community for decades. They’ve worked with local cultural institutions, creating art for the people who live in Little Tokyo. They have deep roots in the neighborhood and helped create the Downtown art scene when nobody wanted to live there. Many people have pointed out the horrible irony in the fact that real estate interests have spent a fortune on branding the area as the Arts District, all the while kicking out the artists who made the place happen.

The tenants could be forced out by the end of this month. It’s hard to say whether they have any hope of keeping their homes, but it can’t hurt to raise your voice to support them. Please write to Councilmember Jose Huizar, and ask him why he isn’t doing more to protect the artists of 800 Traction against the soulless vampires at DLJ Capital Partners.

Here’s a clear, straightforward subject line.

STOP THE EVICTIONS AT 800 TRACTION!

Councilmember Jose Huizar
councilmember.huizar@lacity.org

And don’t forget to copy Mayor Garcetti, so he understands the damage his gentrification agenda is causing.

Mayor Eric Garcetti
mayor.garcetti@lacity.org

If you want more details, here’s an excellent piece from the Rafu Shimpo.

They Say Gentrify – We Must Unify!

 

Tenants Kicked Out as Landlords Cash In

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Ellis Act evictions are so common in LA these days that I’ve gotten used to hearing reports of landlords kicking their tenants out. It happens all the time. As speculative development continues to push property values higher, property owners are eager to cash in. Over 20,000 units have been removed from the rental market through the Ellis Act since 2000. And in addition to the thousands of tenants who’ve been kicked out under Ellis, it’s likely that thousands more have lost their apartments because they were bamboozled by unscrupulous landlords using cash-for-keys scams.

In the course of writing this blog I’ve met a number of people who’ve either already been evicted or are facing eviction. So when I went to meet a group of tenants who live in a small building on Las Palmas it seemed like a familiar scenario. The owner plans to demolish the existing structure in order to build a 7-story mixed-use project, and so the people currently living there have got to go. The breadwinners in these families are working hard to make ends meet, and odds are they’re getting by on paychecks that add up to well below LA’s median income. While I’m sure they’re worried about getting evicted, one thing that encouraged me is that they seemed much more angry than scared. They’re not going to take this lying down.

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Some of the tenants facing eviction.

The tenants are paying much less than the area’s median rent, but they’re also getting next to nothing in terms of repairs and maintenance. I could see walking into the building that the owner wasn’t taking care of it properly. The tenants told me a number of stories about problems with their units that the landlord was either slow to fix or didn’t fix at all. My guess is that he’s been sitting on the property, waiting for the right deal to come along, and didn’t see any point in spending money on upkeep. I should mention that he has laid out some cash to fix up a few of the units, just not the ones that are occupied by the current tenants. You may be asking, why would he do that? The answer is simple. He’s posting the refurbished units on the net as short-term rentals. This is a pretty common practice. Landlords are doing it all over the city, and it’s more or less legal unless the tenants were evicted under the Ellis Act. So when we talk about a shortage of apartments in LA, we have to remember that there are probably thousands of units that are actually being used as unofficial hotel rooms.

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Council District 13 Candidate Sylvie Shain.

My friend Sylvie Shain came by to talk with the tenants. Sylvie is running for the CD 13 council seat, in large part because of her concern over LA’s affordable housing crisis. She knows first-hand what it’s like to be evicted, having been forced out of her apartment by owners who planned to turn the building into a boutique hotel. Sylvie spent over an hour with the tenants, giving them info on what protections they had under the law and helping them figure out their next steps.

Several days later I went to a neighborhood council meeting on the proposed project. The purpose of the meeting was to talk about the impacts of the new structure, not the eviction of the current tenants, but it’s hard to separate the two. The owner has said that he will reserve seven units in the new building to replace the seven units that are currently occupied in the old building, and that he will offer them to the current tenants at the price they’re now paying. This may sound like a good deal, but there are a few problems with it. First, the owner hasn’t actually signed an agreement, which means he’s under no obligation to honor these terms. Second, while the owner is offering to replace seven units, there are actually fifteen units in the existing building that are covered by the rent stabilization ordinance (RSO). His deal would mean the loss of eight more RSO units. This may not sound like a lot by itself, but thousands of RSO units have been taken off the market in recent years, which is one of the reasons affordable housing is so scarce these days. Third, the owner knows that the new structure will probably take a couple of years to complete. If the current tenants get forced out, there’s a good chance they won’t find anything they can afford in LA. It’s entirely possible that by the time the proposed project is completed, none of them will still be living in the area, and he won’t have to offer them anything.

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Neighborhood Council meeting on the proposed project.

Then there’s the way the Department of City Planning (DCP) is trying to push this project through. They’re trying to approve it with a categorical exemption, which means they’re arguing that because it’s in-fill development and conforms to the current zoning, the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) doesn’t require an environmental assessment. And to make that argument, they cite CEQA Guidelines, Section 15332. But CEQA requires that the project meet a number of conditions in order to grant the exemption, including the following….

Approval of the project would not result in any significant effects relating to traffic, noise, air quality, or water quality.

Traffic is already getting to be a problem on Las Palmas. Formerly a quiet residential street with one lane going each direction, in recent years it’s become a short cut for drivers looking to avoid congestion on Highland during rush hour. And traffic on Las Palmas is going to get a lot worse, because in addition to this project there are two others about the same size that are currently under construction, one just to the north and one just to the south of the existing building. But wait, there’s more. At the corner of Las Palmas and Franklin work recently began on a complex that wil contain over 100 units. In other words, if this project is approved, the neighborhood will gain about 300 units, which will definitely have a significant impact on traffic.*

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Traffic northbound on Las Palmas at rush hour.

What’s more, the proposed project is about 500 feet away from the facility that houses both the Canyon Pre-School and the Las Palmas Sr. Center. Children and seniors are known to be sensitive receptors, and to say that there will be no significant impacts to air quality or noise levels during construction is ridiculous. The kids and seniors at this small facility already suffered an onslaught of construction dust and noise when work on the project at Las Palmas and Franklin began last year. But the DCP apparently just doesn’t give a damn, and so they’re trying to rush this project through with no environmental review whatsoever.

After the neighborhood council meeting, I contacted the DCP hearing officer to find out what the timetable was for the project’s approval. It’s tentatively scheduled to go before the City Planning Commission on April 13, though it could get pushed back. Meanwhile, the tenants wait and wonder whether they’ll have to find a new place to live, in a city where rents are spiralling higher every year.

*
Some housing advocates may be cheered by this news, but don’t get too excited. The vast majority of these units will be well beyond the reach of those making the area’s median income, $34,807 a year. [Source: LA Times, Measuring income along L.A.’s Metro stations by Kyle Kim and Sandra Poindexter, March 4, 2016]

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View of construction site from Highland.

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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A Big Win for Tenants

Members of Union de Vecinos and the LA Tenants Union at a gathering on Thursday.

Members of Union de Vecinos and the LA Tenants Union at a gathering on Thursday.

It’s not uncommon these days to hear about a group of investors buying an apartment building and forcing the tenants out. Sadly, this kind of thing happens all too frequently in LA, and we’ve seen thousands of apartment dwellers lose their homes in recent years. Many renters don’t know their rights and leave without putting up a fight. Those that try to stay can get ground down by long and costly court battles.

But every once in a while the tenants win out.

Apartments at 4330 City Terrace.

Apartments at 4330 City Terrace.

Earlier this year the apartments at 4330 City Terrace were bought by Manhattan Manor, LLC. (Love the name. It’s so classy.) The new owners immediately imposed a steep rent increase on the tenants, certainly knowing that most couldn’t pay and would have to leave. Carolina Rodriguez’ rent went from $1,250 to $2,000, far beyond what she could afford. She could have thrown in the towel and left, hoping to find another place she could afford. But she decided to fight, and last month, she won.

With the help of the Los Angeles Center for Community Law and Action (LACCLA), Carolina went to court, and the jury sided with her. In fact, not only did the jury decide that $2,000 a month was unfair, they said that the apartment she occupied needed major repairs and was only worth $1,050 in its current state. Must’ve been a shock to Manhattan Manor.

Celebration on City Terrace after the victory in court.

Celebration on City Terrace after the victory in court.

On Thursday a crowd of people gathered at 4330 City Terrace to celebrate this victory. In addition to residents from the building, members of Union de Vecinos (UV) and the Los Angeles Tenants Union (LATU) showed up to hear speakers talk about Carolina’s struggle, and to remind everyone that the struggle is still going on. Noah Grynberg, the lawyer from LACCLA who argued the case, gave an energetic speech about the importance of protecting people’s rights. Elizabeth Blaney, of UV, emphasized that there was still a long way to go in the battle against gentrification and displacement.

Noah Grynberg, of LACCLA, speaks to the crowd.

Noah Grynberg, of LACCLA, speaks to the crowd.

And Carolina took the mike to talk about how she came to the point where she felt she could stand up to the landlords. She mentioned another tenant who lived in the building, Jesus Baltazar, who had been a major influence. Though he was very ill, Jesus had insisted passionately that the tenants had to make a stand, that they shouldn’t be pushed around. His determination inspired her, and she decided to go to court. Sadly, he has passed away. His daughter, Georgina, is still fighting eviction.

Carolina Rodriguez tells how she decided to fight eviction.

Carolina Rodriguez tells how she decided to fight eviction.

The struggle goes on. Property owners will continue to kick people out of their homes in their pursuit of higher profits. But this story shows that tenants can fight back, and they can win.

If you’d like more info about the organizations mentioned above, the links are below. They all deserve your support.

Union de Vecinos

Los Angeles Tenants Union

Los Angeles Center for Community Law and Action

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Talking About Displacement

MTA construction along Crenshaw Blvd.

MTA construction along Crenshaw Blvd.

Speaking at a recent Los Angeles Current Affairs Forum, MTA CEO Phil Washington talked about how the growth of LA’s transit network has been accompanied in some areas by gentrification and displacement. Washington is concerned about the fact that low-income residents are being pushed out of the communities they call home, and he wants the MTA to do more to address the problem.

It’s good to hear somebody at the MTA talking about this. The question is what can actually be done. Earlier this year the MTA Board agreed that when new residential units were built on the agency’s land their goal would be to set aside 35% for low-income renters or owners. That’s fine, but it’s not nearly enough. What we really need is to have the City and the County commit to changing their planning practices. Mayor Eric Garcetti and Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas serve on the MTA Board. They should both support Washington and take a public stand against displacement. Then they should push for the City and the County to create policies to address the problem.

While gentrification is happening all over the city, the growth of LA’s transit system definitely seems to be a catalyst. Downtown, Koreatown, Hollywood, and Highland Park have already seen thousands of low-income residents displaced. Leimert Park and Boyle Heights seem to be next on the list as the MTA continues its rapid push to expand, bringing an influx of developer dollars to neighborhoods near rail stops. As property values skyrocket, rents go up, too, and low-income tenants who can’t afford to pay must find somewhere else to live. Tenants in rent-controlled apartments can be forced out by landlords who use the Ellis Act to convert their units to condos.

I’m really glad to hear Washington talking about displacement, and I hope others back him up on this issue. This is a conversation we need to have, and it should have started long ago.

MTA construction in North Hollywood

MTA construction in North Hollywood