Who’s Really Standing Up for Artists?

Tensions running high at the Villa Carlotta on Sunday night.

Tensions running high at the Villa Carlotta on Sunday night.

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.

Windows boarded up at the Villa Carlotta.

Windows boarded up at the Villa Carlotta.

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.

The lobby where tenants used to gather, now deserted.

The lobby where tenants used to gather, now deserted.

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.

Protesters holding a banner to protest evictions.

Protesters holding a banner to protest evictions.

The same message in English.

The same message in English.

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.

Ghosts of the Carlotta

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.

Save Villa Carlotta

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Sucking the Soul out of Hollywood

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I was saddened, but not really surprised, to hear that the Villa Carlotta had been bought by a developer that wanted to turn it into an extended stay hotel. This kind of thing is going on all over Hollywood these days. Developers and real estate interests with tons of cash buying up older buildings, kicking out the tenants, and reinventing the place as a playground for the upscale crowd.

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It’s especially sad with the Villa Carlotta, though, because of the community that had grown inside those walls. Take a look at this article from Vanity Fair, written by a tenant, to get a sense of what’s being lost as these people are forced out by the owner.

Ciao, Villa

Here’s another article from the LA Times.

Changing Neighborhood Engulfs Their Old Hollywood Home

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There are larger issues, too. Not only are these people losing their homes, but they’ll have a hard time finding anything else that they can afford. Rents are going up all over LA. Owners of older apartments are jacking up rents, and units in many of the new buildings start at around $2,000 a month.

It’s well known that LA is in an affordable housing crisis, and taking the 50 units in the Villa Carlotta off the market is just one more turn of the screw. Hopefully SB 2222 will put a stop to this. It was recently signed into law by Governor Brown, and requires that developers who acquire a rent-controlled property maintain the same number of affordable units regardless of what they plan to do with the property. But LA has lost thousands of affordable units in recent years. The new law may be too little too late.

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In The Times piece the writer describes the meeting the developer had with the tenants to let them know they were being evicted. The way they were spinning it was that the tenants should be glad, because the developer was going to spend a lot of money refurbishing the building. This just shows how clueless they are. These people aren’t just losing their home, they’re losing a place where they made friends and partied, a place where they shared food, stories, art and music. For these people it wasn’t just a place to live, it was a community. The Villa Carlotta is a lovely relic of old Hollywood, but even more special than the building are the people who lived there.

Of course, the new owners don’t care about the people. All they care about is money.

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