Los Angeles Council backs proposed Chinatown apartment acquisition

The Los Angeles City Council voted on Friday to make an offer on an apartment complex in Chinatown, following an emotionally charged hearing in which tenants expressed their rage and frustration over the massive rent increases demanded by the building owner.

In a 12-0 vote, the council asked housing officials to get a new assessment for Hillside Villa, a 124-unit property just north of the city center, and then submit a bid based on that research. .

The vote comes as Councilor Gil Cedillo, who represents Chinatown, is in an uphill battle for re-election against an opponent, activist Eunisses Hernandez, who has called for new protections for tenants. Meanwhile, uncertainties still surround the proposed transaction – the price of the property, the condition of the building and whether a fraction of the tenants might not be allowed to stay.

Council moved forward after hearing impassioned demands from Hillside Villa tenants, some fighting back tears, to use the power of eminent domain to force the landlord to sell. Several spoke of the anxiety they and loved ones felt after receiving notices of rent increases, some of which doubled or even tripled.

“We protested and we tracked down everyone we needed to protest, so we were here to ask you to help us keep our home affordable,” tenant Leslie Hernandez said. “We don’t ask for anything that is not in your power…to do.”

Hillside Villa tenant Alejandro Gutierrez told council his family recently received notice that their rent would rise to $2,660 from $1,063 in 2019. Gutierrez, who has lived in the building for 26 years, said he didn’t want to be deported, but can’t get a good Section 8 because of the long waiting list.

“Chinatown has been my home all these years,” he said. “Chinatown is my neighborhood that I love.”

The frustration and anger in the room came to a head when Patrick Hennessey, a lawyer for the landlord, attempted to speak during the public comment period. Dozens of spectators shouted “Liar! Liar! Liar!” – temporarily interrupting the meeting – as he tried to argue that a better strategy would be to provide some of the Federal Section 8 housing vouchers to the building’s tenants.

Lawyers for Hillside Villa say residents of 71 units already have Section 8 vouchers to help cover rent. Sixteen other units are either vacant or have tenants paying market prices without difficulty, they said.

Housing officials said earlier this week that the type of voucher mentioned by these lawyers was not readily available to Hillside Villa tenants.

Friday’s vote was the culmination of more than two years of advocacy by tenant activists and building tenants, who had urged the city to use its power of eminent domain to force the building’s owner to sell. Cedillo embraced the idea in February 2020, after negotiations with the landlord failed on an agreement to protect tenants.

Cedillo called the city’s use of eminent domain, which has typically been used to acquire private property for building bridges, schools and other facilities, “unprecedented” as a tool. protection of low-cost housing.

“In the area of ​​preserving affordable housing, no other city is doing what we are doing — not in the county, not in the state, not in the country,” Cedillo told colleagues. “So thank you all for having the courage and for being willing to take these risks.”

Housing officials have proposed an arrangement under which the city would buy the building and then sell it to the housing authority, which has a portfolio of social housing developments. The housing authority would then reimburse the city.

Last year, the council received an initial estimate that the cost to buy and repair Hillside Villa would be nearly $60 million. The owner’s attorneys said he did not want to sell and argued that the true cost of the purchase and renovations could exceed $90 million.

Officials said they don’t yet know how many tenants, if any, might be evicted once the building becomes state-owned because they earn too much. Housing campaigners said they believed 113 of the building’s residents were considered low-income.

Michael Leifer, attorney for the building’s owner, previously called the city’s strategy “wasteful,” saying more than two-thirds of the building’s residents are not in financial danger.

Activists, meanwhile, say the building’s owner, Thomas Botz, cannot be trusted and say he will renege on his pledge to take in Section 8 tenants.

Los Angeles Times

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