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While LA's Affordable Housing Disappears, A Tenants’ Group Goes Big

HOUSING CRISIS - Gil Cedillo couldn’t shut his office door. Something was in the way. It was Rosario Hernandez’s foot.

Capital & Main accompanied Hernandez and other women tenants from the Hillside Villa apartments when they visited Cedillo at Los Angeles City Hall on May 4, the first day the building was open to the public since it shut for quarantine in March of 2020. They demanded a meeting with the councilmember, and say Cedillo had been ignoring them as he ran for reelection. But when they knocked on his office door, Cedillo opened it himself, his eyebrows rising above his thick-framed glasses when he saw the Hillside Villa mujeres. “I’m in a meeting,” Cedillo explained mournfully in Spanish, “that is more serious than you.”

“Gil Cedillo just said he’s in a meeting that’s more serious than the Hillside Villa tenants,” organizer Janis Yue said, running a stream on Instagram Live. “Comparably serious,” Cedillo mumbled.

“¿Por qué no esperan?” he said.

The women yelled at him at the same time. “We’ve been waiting for three years!”

Ever since their building’s 30-year affordable housing status expired in 2019, the tenants of the Hillside Villa Apartments have led a direct action campaign to convince the city council to acquire their building for public housing. On May 27, the city council will vote on whether to start an acquisition process that could end in utilizing the power of eminent domain.

 

Hillside Villa tenants rally at L.A. City Hall on May 4. Photo by Jack Ross.

report from the Los Angeles Housing Department approves a plan to acquire the building with money from the city’s reserve fund, to be repaid in two to five years with a mix of bonds, tax credits and a loan from the city’s Affordable Housing Managed Pipeline Program. If landlord Tom Botz refuses the city’s bid, Councilmember Cedillo is committed to using eminent domain, if necessary, his office told Capital & Main in a statement.

Cities have used eminent domain, or the threat of it, to take property for housing before: Washington State, Philadelphia and New York City have all used the power of eminent domain to buy property for housing in the last decade. But the Hillside Villa tenants live in an affordable housing development that is privately owned. It’s unusual for tenants to successfully lobby their city into taking affordable housing from a private owner, according to H. Jacob Carlson, an urban sociologist at Brown University who studies social housing and gentrification.

“A lot of these expiring covenants get turned over to market rate,” he says. “I haven’t known of a case like this.”

Located at 636 N. Hill Place in Chinatown, Hillside Villa was built in 1988 with loans and tax credits given to its developer in exchange for providing 30 years of affordable rents, an arrangement called an affordable housing covenant. (The 30 year covenant began when the building reached 50% occupancy in 1989.) 

Since the United States largely stopped building public housing in the early 1970s, cities have had to entice developers to build affordable housing with financial incentives. The problem is that affordability agreements are usually structured to expire after a set number of years, and when they do, landlords can make significant profits by raising rents to market rate.

As a result, Los Angeles, and the United States as a whole, is littered with time bombs like the Hillside Villa Apartments. In Los Angeles County, an estimated 10,000 more affordable units will expire in the 2020s alone, while more than 30,000 affordable rental homes in California are at risk of expiring over the next 10 years — 7% of the state’s current supply of affordable homes. A 2018 report from California’s Department of Housing and Community Development, however, found that over 68,281 units subject to affordability covenants were at risk of expiring before 2028.

The Villa agreement followed this pattern; its affordable housing covenant expired in 2019, and its landlord, Tom Botz, issued 200% rent increases. Additional increases this year would raise rents for some tenants by 300% more than what they paid before the covenant lapsed.

“Affordable housing strategies post-Nixon have mostly been bribing the private market to create affordable housing, and really not much else,” H. Jacob Carlson says. “Tax breaks and subsidies to private developers to create affordable housing has been the dominant model in the U.S. for decades.”

But Botz says that eminent domain acquisition of his property threatens this public-private model of affordable housing development.

“If the city goes and expropriates buildings from private developers like us — who have made their 30 year deal and kept their end of the deal — just to have the building taken away at the end, no private developer would build another unit of housing in cooperation with the city of L.A. ever again,” Botz told the Los Angeles Times.

 

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With affordable housing covenants fast expiring in the 2020s, it’s still an open question what lawmakers, currently trying to house more than 65,000 living outside in Los Angeles and more than 160,000 in California, will do about it.

Sarah Dusseault, a former chairperson at the Los Angeles Homelessness Services Authority, says the expiring affordability covenants threaten tenants as well as the progress made by the city and the county in the fight against homelessness. “Keeping currently affordable housing affordable is critical to prevent more families and individuals from becoming homeless,” she says.

In the fall of 2021, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed Assembly Bill 1029, which rewards local governments with credits if they extend affordability covenants and prioritizes them for funding to do so. But extending affordability agreements merely reinforces the public-private model that may soon force the Hillside Villa tenants, and tens of thousands of Californians like them, from their homes in the next decade, the Hillside Villa tenants argue.

In 2019, Cedillo tried to arrange a 10 year extension of the building’s affordability covenant. But when the deal fell through, the tenants set their eyes on a different target: eminent domain acquisition of the property — kicking their private landlord out of the picture entirely and removing profit motives from housing by returning its control to the government. Once the building is acquired, the tenants want to transfer ownership to a nonprofit or community land trust through which they can control the property, they say.

“This could really set a precedent for expropriating slumlords,” says Janis Yue, an organizer with the Chinatown Community for Equitable Development (CCED). 

When the agreement for the 10 year extension fell through in 2019, tenants took inspiration from the land around Hillside Villa, which is located in Los Angeles’ Chinatown neighborhood.

In the early 1950s, the city used eminent domain to clear Chavez Ravine, ultimately to build Dodger Stadium, which is one mile north of the building. In 1959, the city used eminent domain to level Bunker Hill, under a mile south of the building. And Hillside Villa is located in the city’s second Chinatown, a neighborhood developed after L.A. used eminent domain to clear its first Chinatown in the 1930s for the construction of Union Station. The Broad Museum and the new Frank Gehry-designed Grand LA apartments were both built on public land, part of the city’s Grand Avenue project that cost at least $198 million in tax incentives. The Walt Disney Concert Hall was also built on public land, and its parking lot alone cost Los Angeles County $110 million.

“Los Angeles loves using eminent domain,” Hillside Villa organizer Jacob Woocher says. “They just don’t like using it to help poor people.”

As a councilmember, Mayor Eric Garcetti compared eminent domain to the Ring of Sauron from Lord of the Rings: an all-powerful but ultimately corrupting tool. While hotels sat empty in the first years of the COVID-19 pandemic, a “Seize the Hotels” campaign in Los Angeles saw activists and lawyers urge Garcetti to take hotels for housing with eminent domain, if necessary. But even when President Biden signed an executive order directing FEMA to fully reimburse cities leasing hotel rooms for the homeless, the city still did not expand its hotel shelter program, Project Roomkey, which has failed to meet housing targets as some hotels declined to participate and the city declined to make them.

Instead, Los Angeles has continued to try to build its way out of its housing crisis, relying on dollars from Measure HHH, a $1.2 billion bond measure passed by voters in 2016 to build 10,000 units of permanent supportive housing for the homeless. The program has produced only 1,142 units so far. In the pandemic, the city increasingly committed its resources toward constructing so-called tiny homes, prefabricated sheds six square feet smaller than American Correctional Association standards for a prison cell. The sheds are expensive: The city has spent over $48.4 million constructing 1,252 dwellings, and has spent another $25.1 million annually operating the sites, according to records disclosed to radio station KCRW

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As the mujeres sat in Cedillo’s hallway on May 4 waiting for their meeting, word came up from the lobby: City Hall was closed. Just a few hours into the building’s reopening, security officers at the entrance were turning away visitors again.

“This is what we did three years ago,” Rosa Hernandez said. “Sat right here when we started.”

The Los Angeles City Council takes a lot of money from the real estate lobby. In the council’s  lowest moments, councilmembers have sold their ability to approve developments — and eliminate affordable housing requirements — to the highest bidder. One former councilmember is in prison for accepting bribes from developers while another is awaiting trial. Six of the 15 councilmembers are landlords. As Cedillo runs for reelection this June 7, the California Apartment Association has spent over $650,000 in independent expenditures supporting him or attacking his opponent, per city ethics filings. On April 25, Cedillo walked past Hillside Villa tenants into a campaign event with developers, where he was filmed urging donors present to “protect those who protect our interests.”

As a result, the members of the Hillside Villa Tenants Association say they are deeply wary of their council ally. They believe they won the council’s support largely against the council’s will, using direct action and open antagonism, like protesting in front of councilmembers’ homes, to get the backing of elected officials. “All politicians are bad,” one Hillside organizer said at a meeting in the spring of 2021. “You make them do good things.” The tenants nodded. 

The success of their campaign points to a new zone of power for tenants shut out of City Hall. Instead of hoping for salvation from “electeds,” tenant organizing can force politicians to go against real estate interests in Los Angeles, even to reverse one of the dominant neoliberal housing policies of the last 50 years. Fueling the Hillside tenants’ actions is a real rage at elected officials, whom they see as shills.

“We’ve tried playing nice before,” says Janis Yue. “We’ve gone through email, done the calls, done the texts, and it’s just so easy for them to ignore and write [us] off. These kinds of confrontations and direct actions — it’s been the only way to make these politicians feel the urgency of the violence they’re complicit in.”

As a team of police grew in Cedillo’s hallway, a staffer emerged and announced that Cedillo would meet with three tenants in half an hour. He took their names and disappeared into the office. Then 20 police officers ejected the women from the building. (The three approved tenants were later let back in for their meeting.)

In a protracted dispute, the tenants fought to stay inside as the cops herded them away from Cedillo’s door and out of City Hall. In the fourth floor landing tenants unfurled a banner demanding eminent domain. Cops penned them into elevators, and the women fought their way out, singing happy birthday to two tenants as the elevator doors tried to close, sirens shrieking. City staffers, including City Councilmember Nithya Raman, one of the only representatives on the council to win election while refusing real estate money, hurried past the tenants behind a door marked “employees only.”

Outside City Hall, they unfurled their banner again, ignoring directions from the police to move to a “free speech zone” across the street.

On Friday, May 27, they will return for the council’s vote.

“Housing is a human right!” they chanted.

“Fight fight fight!”

(Jack Ross is a writer based in Los Angeles. This story was first published in Capital & Main.)