Hillside Villa tenants gain significant domain

Hillside Villa Tenants Leader Alejandro Gutierrez speaks in solidarity with Cathay Manor tenants at their September 11 press conference. (Photo: Karen Cheung)

Tenants of the apartments at Hillside Villa filled City Hall with celebratory cheers on May 27 after the City Council unanimously agreed to protect tenants’ apartments by using outstanding property to purchase their building.

Dozens of renters attended the booth to share stories of how they lived in the Chinatown apartment building for decades and then faced sudden rent increases of up to 300% – noting that property owner Tom Botz lost over $1 million dollars a year in government subsidies.

One tenant said that the construction of a downtown parking garage 30 years ago evicted her family and that she and her disabled husband and daughter refused to be evicted again. Tom Botz recently increased her rent from $1,000 to $3,000 a month.

When Botz constructed the building on interest-free government loans in 1988, he agreed to maintain an affordable rent for 30 years. Now the 124 units at Hillside Villa, along with over 11,000 households in Los Angeles is faced with sudden massive rent increases as their affordability agreements expire.

Tenants at the council meeting said the city has had decades to find a solution to the looming affordability crisis but has done nothing, leaving tenants at serious risk of homelessness unless they organize to fight back.

Tenant three years ago announced the establishment the Hillside Villa Tenant Association and began meeting weekly in the courtyard of their apartment building. They requested meetings with City Council Member Gil Cedillo and organized dozens of protests and City Council convocation days to urge Cedillo to join the fight to save their homes. Tenants say Cedillo promised to support them but failed to deliver and avoided meetings with his constituents.

Meanwhile, Botz flouted anti-price gouging laws by demanding massive rent increases during the 2020 state of emergency, and his daughter threatened to evict tenants for allowing their children to play in the common areas of their own apartment building.

After the tenants spoke at the May 27 meeting, they booed Botz’s attorney, Patrick Hennessey, who had come to represent the landlord’s position.

Hennessey claimed that rent increases didn’t affect the majority of Hillside Villa’s households because they have Section 8 vouchers – which support low-income families, the elderly and people with disabilities. The tenants at City Hall – some of them Section 8 recipients – shouted “Liars!”

Hennessey presented his calculations: After subtracting the 71 households with Section 8 vouchers and the 10 new tenants, he said there were 27 households to “treat”.

Eminent Domain, he said, would be too expensive for the city. Instead, renters should simply apply for Section 8 federal housing subsidies, or the city should offer another subsidy to cover Botz’s proposed rent increases.

Hillside Villa tenants previously said the Section 8 waiting list was 8 years long and that Botz was trying to split organized tenants by evicting some in favor of those with Section 8 vouchers.

Cedillo, who sponsored the bill after years of tenant protests, said Tom Botz was responsible for the slow pace of action; The landlord had failed to honor a negotiated agreement under which the city would give Botz’s $5.5 million interest-free loan in exchange for 10 years of tenant protection: no evictions or rent increases.

The application will allow the city to purchase the building for an estimated price of approximately $45.7 million, which is expected to be repaid within two to five years. Proponents said the loan will be paid for from state or federal funds or paid for by an affordable housing nonprofit, so it will cost the city nothing in the long run.

While tenants and advocates said they were ready to celebrate the historic vote, they also expressed anger at lawmakers, who they said had failed them time and time again.

Leslie Hernandez said Cedillo has repeatedly dodged meetings with his constituents by claiming he doesn’t know how to use Zoom. She reminded city council members, “You guys work for us, not the other way around.” Cedillo likes to claim he works hard for the community, Hernandez said, but the tenants did the work to move this motion forward. “I’m so mad we have to scream and scream for you to hear us.”

Melissa Reyes added, “Nobody should have to fight so damn hard to get housed.”

The Hillside Villa Tenants Association walked out of the courtroom shouting, “iSí se puede!”

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