L.A.'s Class Struggle Looks Like This: The Tenants Movement
It’s well known that L.A.’s housing market is one of the most absurdly expensive in the country — rivaled only by the S.F. Bay Area, New York City, and Miami. In every one of these metropoles, working class renters are being pushed to, and beyond, their limits. Left with no other choice, many have already been forced to uproot their lives, often having to relocate dozens or hundreds of miles away from their jobs, communities, and histories.
by Cameron Hughes
The federal government’s housing authority, the department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), considers anyone paying 30% or more of their income toward rent to be “cost burdened”. In Los Angeles, 57% of renters fall into that category, a number that is quickly rising.
To many Angelenos navigating the rental market, only having to pay 30% of their paycheck toward rent would likely feel like a godsend. According to a recent analysis of U.S. Census data published by Zillow, the reality is that working class L.A. renters are spending what amounts to 121% of their income on shelter. Of course, you can’t spend more than 100% of your income on something — the statistic implies that a vast number of tenants are being forced to rely on government subsidies in order to stay on their leases.
Looking at the numbers, one should quickly come to the realization that this situation is untenable — something is bound to give. For L.A. residents, the overwhelming burden of cost is increasingly giving way to homelessness. Reports published by the L.A. Homeless Services Authority detail that the homeless population in the county has risen more than 37% since 2010.
As if things weren’t dire enough, rents continue to rise in the city. According to RentCafe, the average cost of an apartment inside of the city (as of Feb. 2019) is $2,371. This amounts to a 7% increase over last year. While the increase may be slightly skewed by new luxury units, things come into sharp relief when we realize that units in the $700-$1,000 range make up only 1% of ALL available apartments across the city.
The squeeze that we’re feeling isn’t going to let up any time soon. International real estate capital is pouring into the city and shows no signs of abating. Billionaires from around the world are sinking their money into development projects at rates of more than $1.5 trillion dollars per year, hoping to generate unprecedented returns, and displacing working people in the process.
It’s these conditions that are backing L.A.’s working class renters into a corner, forcing them to make a choice: pack up and leave, or, organize and fight. Increasingly, it seems tenants are choosing the latter.
• • •
With the winter sun setting behind them, around 25 organizers, tenants, and supporters walked up the narrow staircase leading to apartment #12 of the Waverly Complex. This Silverlake apartment belonged to the Peffer family; Melinda, Michael, and their young daughter, and had been their home for more than 17 years. Now it was being transformed into a battleground.
In March of 2018, the Waverly had been purchased by a pair of LLC’s controlled by two ultra rich real estate investors based in Beverly Hills. Unbeknownst to the Waverly’s tenants, the new principal owner of their complex, Steven Taylor (Ness Properties / Taylor Equities), had a fast growing reputation as one of L.A.’s most notorious vulture landlords. In the years prior, Taylor had purchased, evicted, and flipped dozens of properties in and around the city. Now, his sights were set on doing the same to all 36 units at the Waverly.
Rather than going through the complicated, time consuming, and expensive procedure of trying to formally mass evict the Waverly’s tenants, Taylor began the process of flipping the property while it was still fully occupied. Some thought that the complex was finally receiving a facelift, a turn of events that they welcomed. Their excitement soon gave way to annoyance, and then horror, as construction crews streamed in and out of the building at all hours — cutting tiles at 6 in the morning, installing drywall at midnight, etc.
Longtime tenant of the Waverly, Donna Barstow, wrote in a post chronicling these events that the complex felt “like a warzone”. And while trash and materials littered the parking lot, the worst was still yet to come.
It was only a few months after construction began that tenants began to receive the first notices detailing increases to their rent — which, up to that point, had remained relatively stable over the years. Some were notified of small increases at first, but were warned that ultimately, increases would amount to anywhere between 40% to 80% of their current rates.
This is of course an untenable cost of living increase for most people. It was unsurprising then, that tenants slowly began to vacate their units. Some were offered incentive buyouts to leave, while others were simply forced out by the incredibly disruptive combination of constant construction and abrupt spikes in cost.
Tenants like the Peffers, however, were unwilling to uproot their lives on the whim of a millionaire like Steven Taylor. The Peffers and several other resolved to fight.
They set about talking to their equally furious neighbors, conversations which evolved into the establishment of a tenants’ association at the complex. Soon after, the tenants allied with the Los Angeles Tenants Union (LATU) - an organization founded and run by tenants hellbent on improving conditions, fighting rent increases, and identifying the city’s worst landlords.
After combining forces, the Waverly tenants and LATU set down plans for an escalating campaign of pressure against Taylor and his co-investor Vicky Mense. The first action of the campaign included tenants and their supporters picketing Mense’s Beverly Hills fine dining eatery, Xi’an. Mense and Taylor must not have been used to tenants resisting the abuse that they were so adept at handing down, because just as soon as the pickets started, Taylor issued a statement that Mense had relinquished her stake in the property.
While this initial victory was heartening, Taylor was preparing his retaliation. No fault eviction paperwork was soon filed against nearly all of the remaining tenant organizers. Taylor now had the power of the state on his side, with all of the attendant threats of violence that such an alliance entails.
The Peffers, not willing to cede, declared that they would occupy their apartment in defiance of the eviction order. They then openly called on supporters and fellow tenants to join the occupation.
On January 28, as the sun began to set, 25 or so tenants and supporters climbed the stairs to apartment #12. Everything had been cleared out, from the inside of the fridge, to the heaviest pieces of furniture. A plan was devised, people wrote their names down on a large sheet of paper; deciding who would take which shifts to ensure that the apartment had individuals inside of it at all times.
Then began a waiting game. Many were ready to delay the sheriff from behind the locked door of the unit, and others were prepared to be carried off in handcuffs.
Over the next couple of days, three-to-four people were in the apartment continuously. These occupiers shared food and drink, had impromptu dance parties, talked about other organizing campaigns in the city, and generally took joy in the company of their fellow tenant partisans.
On the morning of January 31st, a call came down that the sheriff would be arriving before 10 a.m. Supporters were quickly called to the scene, and despite it being a weekday, around 8 people were on site within an hour. A large banner reading “Tenant power lies in organization, build a militant tenants’ movement!” was unfurled from the second floor of the building.
The sheriff arrived shortly after he had been anticipated. Three people remained inside of the apartment and, for as long as they could, stalled the impending enforcement of the eviction. In the end, the remaining occupiers exited the unit of their own volition and no arrests were made.
• • •
Just a few miles away from the Waverly, in L.A.’s Chinatown, a similar struggle was beginning to boil to the surface.
The Hillside Villa apartment complex houses 124 units, and is only about a stone’s throw away from the 101/110 freeway interchange. Built in 1990, the project received $5 million dollars in interest free loans from the (now non-existent) Community Redevelopment Agency, in order to secure the building as a site for ‘affordable housing’. These loans, other than being a massive glut of free capital for the building’s private developer, were successful at keeping leases relatively attainable for the predominantly immigrant and working class renters who would come to move into the complex.
For nearly 30 years, Hillside Villa provided some of L.A.’s lowest paid workers a place to live, to create community, and to raise their kids. Leslie Hernandez, a current tenant of Hillside Villa, is one such example. “I’ve lived here for 28 years” she said, “since I was a child”.
In late 2018, however, the ravages of the housing market would come crashing down on what many Hillside tenants had considered their sanctuary in one of Los Angeles’ most rapidly shifting neighborhoods.
In November of 2018, the first sign that things were about to change arrived in tenants’ mailboxes. While shrouded in confusing legal jargon, the notices spelled out that the ‘Low-Income Housing Tax Credit’ (the federal program that L.A.’s Community Redevelopment Agency used to appropriate money for affordable housing projects) had run dry for Hillside Villa.
Some renters paid the initial notices little mind, as they were used to receiving confusing letters from the building’s management. To make matters worse, these first notices arrived only in english, making them nearly inscrutable for Hillside’s high proportion of spanish and cantonese speaking residents.
A more stark reality set in when a second notice arrived, detailing just what the owner of the building intended to do.
With the housing subsidy drawing to a close, Thomas Botz, the building’s landlord, moved immediately to elevate all rents at the complex to market rate. For most longtime residents of the building, this meant that their rents would jump from a relatively affordable $840, all the way up to $2,450 — an astonishingly heartless 191% spike.
The notices elicited a flurry of emotions from the tenants; most said that they were sad, frightened, or panicked upon reading how much they were expected to pay. Unwilling to give in to dread though, many sought out fellow resident Rene Alexander, who had previously challenged the building’s management in court and won. “Other tenants would come knocking on my door, or I would see them in the laundry room and they just broke down and started crying”, said Alexander, “when they asked me what to do, I said ‘first of all, we need to do this together, instead of just individually’”.
To fight back, Alexander argued, the entirety of the complex had to join in a collective struggle against their landlord. Their first move was to form a tenants association, wherein the residents could speak to one another, clarify what their goals were, and develop a strategy.
As the tenants’ association developed internally, it began to attract the attention of groups like the L.A. Tenants Union, and Chinatown Community for Equitable Development (CCED). These organizations soon reached out and were able to provide resources and material to the residents of Hillside.
Not least among these resources were devices and interpreters to provide real-time, three-way translation for the mass meetings that the association was beginning to hold. This meant that if a cantonese speaker wished to address their fellow residents, spanish and english speakers wouldn’t be left out.
In late March of 2019, the tenants held their first mass meeting in the courtyard of Hillside Villa - having previously met offsite to avoid detection and monitoring from building management. This meeting was the last in a series that had been conducted in preparation for the organization’s first public action: a march through Chinatown to demand that Thomas Botz come to the negotiating table.
A number of tenants spoke to the gathered crowd of about 50, not only detailing the injustice of the rent increases, but of the state of disrepair that much of the building had fallen into. “We’ve dealt with rats and roaches, broken gates, leaking ceilings, and worse!” one tenant shouted into a megaphone, “and now they want to charge us more? That’s why we are fighting!”.
After discussing their plans for the march and selecting volunteers to fill various roles on the day of, Rene Alexander led the tenants in a chant to bring the meeting to a close: “Hillside Villa is our place, we will not be displaced!” bellowed up from the collective voice of those gathered, echoing off of the courtyard walls and into the night sky.
Two days later, the tenants gathered once again, though this time they were accompanied by dozens of their supporters. As more than 150 people streamed into the building, tenants stood and addressed the crowd to rally them before marching.
One highlighted that the indignities they’ve suffered have also fallen on their children, referencing a recent policy introduced by building management that barred children from running in the courtyard. This measure represented an especially cruel irony, given that the buildings’ owners had recently ripped out the only piece of play equipment available to kids on the property, leaving only a concrete slab and bits of twisted rebar in its place.
Tenant partisans from the Cinco Puntos apartments, where a similar struggle is ongoing, arrived and voiced their solidarity with the Hillside Villa tenants, vowing to fight together and win.
As the crowd’s energy peaked, a banner reading “Build tenant power!” was unfolded, signalling to those gathered that the march was beginning. Bypassers on the sidewalk in front of the building were likely caught off guard by the absolute deluge of bodies that began pouring out of the front doors of the complex.
For the next two hours, the march snaked around Chinatown, chanting “Vulture landlords, get a real job!” and “Chinatown escucha, estamos en la lucha!”. Fliers detailing the fight were handed out to those on the streets, and the march stopped in key locations to highlight where multi-millionaire and billionaire investors had been buying up property.
As the march returned to Hillside Villa, the air was filled with what felt like a mixture of joy and militant determination. Tenants vowed to continue and escalate the fight until their landlord agreed to meet them in good faith negotiations.
• • •
Class struggle isn’t a phrase that you’ll often hear outside of insular leftist groups, or when it’s not being haphazardly bandied about as a fear mongering buzzword by right wing pundits.
Our contention is that one doesn’t necessarily need a terminology to describe what’s clearly in front of their nose. As working people, we of course know that the most wealthy sections of our society are continuously amassing an untold amount of riches, resources, and power, all on our backs and through our labor.
In this way, our interests, and the interests of our bosses and landlords, fundamentally conflict.
We want to control our own destinies, to be able to do more than simply scrape by on the work that we do, and to live in dignified, comfortable, and safe housing. Those who we work for, or rent from, however, are only interested in extracting as much as they can from us. On the job this might look like having to work longer hours, at a faster pace, for the same pay. In our homes this may look like a greedy landlord jacking up rental prices when he or she sees fit.
In both cases, you’d probably disagree with the choices that they’ve made for you.
If you wanted a simple definition of class struggle, there it is. If you want an example of where actual, lived, class conflict is playing out in Los Angeles, look no further than the L.A.’s housing crisis. Wealthy investors are, as we’ve illustrated above, actively pushing the most vulnerable sections of the working class out of the city or onto the streets, all in service of extracting more rent from whoever has the means to take their place.
Research done by L.A. Tenants Union organizer Jacob Woocher, has helped to make clear the geographic component of housing and class conflict in Los Angeles. According to an October 2018 article penned by Woocher, published on knock-la.com, many of the wealthiest landlords participating in the wholesale eviction and flipping of L.A.’s working class neighborhoods, make their own homes in places like Beverly Hills, Pacific Palisades, Buena Park, and Palo Alto.
If we’re going to take class struggle seriously; if we’re going to take the blatant attacks on our ability to continue to live in this city seriously, it’s incumbent on us to get organized and leverage our own power.
Groups like the L.A. Tenants Union (LATU) are prime examples of where to start. LATU in particular was founded and continues to be run by and for tenants themselves. The organization has local sections across nearly the entire city, and meetings are free to attend.
The rising tide of the tenants movement in L.A. has so far seen some of the most militant, aggressive, and successful organizing campaigns around housing in the whole of the United States. Tenants of Mariachi Plaza in Boyle Heights launched, and subsequently won, a nearly year long rent strike to prevent increases. Tenants at the three building Burlington complex in Westlake Village, last year organized the largest rent strike in the history of Los Angeles — more than 80 families participated…and won.
If we want to make leeches like bosses and landlords go extinct, so that we can start to control our own lives, our own affairs - we have to begin by building our power as a class. Organizations like LATU, as well as the numerous independent tenants associations around the city, help us to do just this, in three three distinct ways. First, they help us to identify and strategize around our shared problems. Next, they help us to conceive of ourselves as a cohesive grouping with shared interests - a class. Finally, once both of the prior pieces are in place, these organizations help us to concentrate and exert our class power, in order to achieve our goals.
In building these institutions of class power, where we live, work, and go to school, we can one day gain full and democratic control of them — to do with them whatever we see fit.
Photos by Erik Adams and courtesy of L.A. Tenants Union. Additional reporting by Erik Adams. Salvo is a quarterly print and digital newspaper, covering issues in the greater L.A. area from a working class perspective.
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