By Alan Oda
The longtime residents of a building adjacent to L.A.’s Chinatown are worried about being evicted for not paying rent they claim has unfairly tripled since last year. The city of L.A. is trying to help, yet the owner of the property says city of Los Angeles officials are being dishonest in their negotiations.
It is a continued uncertain future for a complex known as Hillside Villa, the city considering purchasing the property while the owner insists he is not selling.
Hillside Villa is a 124-unit property located on South Union Street, a few blocks southwest of Los Angeles’ historic Chinatown. The tenants include Chinese families, many with elderly members, who have been long-time residents. The property, presently owned by Thomas Botz, was developed in the 1980s with loans from the city of L.A. to build affordable housing, based on a 30-year affordability covenant.
Those covenants have expired, permitting property owners to increase rent. As a result, some rents have increased three-fold at Hillside Villa.
“The goal is to keep (current tenants) housed in their units. For the people living there, who have been there for decades, there’s a priority for having them staying in community,” said Eunisses Hernandez, Council Member of District One, which includes Chinatown. “I would like to see investment in communities, (yet) most developers want to move in people with higher incomes. There’s a priority for (residents) to stay in the community as they have for generations, I want them to survive gentrification like I have.”
City of Los Angeles looks to purchase property to save tenants
One strategy the city of L.A. is pursuing is to purchase Hillside Villa through eminent domain, the government using their power to take private property and repurpose it for public use, following the payment of just compensation.
“The City has continued to push its eminent-domain campaign forward in court to the extent it can,” said Botz. “While proceeding in court, the City continues to conceal and withhold evidence concerning its actions from ownership.”
Botz said the area is zoned for 345 units. He said he has the same long-term plans shared by other property owners. “Pursuing eminent domain, the City has demanded that ownership negotiate with the City. Those City-demanded talks are ongoing with a group of City officials who ownership believes are authorized to negotiate,” said Botz. “Those negotiations are rocky, with the City repeatedly backtracking on various issues. And we are resisting the City’s eminent domain because Hillside Villa is not for sale to the City.”
Hernandez has met with Botz and his company, Groveland Management LLC.
“We’re working on a lot of different pieces, our conversations are ongoing. The priority is (to address) the eviction notices that have already been filed. We’re talking to everyone we can to keep these people housed,” Hernandez said, adding “there’s just so much interest in developing (these properties).”
Ownership accuses Hernandez of misinformation.
Landlord fights city-refusing to sell
“Very recently the Council Member, who has not been involved in the negotiating group, demanded a meeting with ownership,” Botz said. “Under continued pressure, ownership had accepted her meeting demand in writing. Despite the written acceptance by ownership of the meeting demanded by Ms. Hernandez, she falsely informed her followers that ownership rejected her meeting demand.”
“The driving factor is we have more people going into the streets, eviction is a pipeline to homelessness,” said Chelsea Lucktenberg, Communications Director for Council District One. She said in the broader context, evictions have increased exponentially. “Prior to Covid-19, the city really lacked tenant protection. We’re now dealing with 40,000 evictions being filed, the courts are swamped with the number of cases.”
“Looking at the Council district, we keep looking on how to provide housing. The city’s responsibility is to address expiring covenants,” said Lucktenberg, adding there are about 6000 total covenants expiring before 2028, with 500 in their District One.
“All of this is operating in the same ecosystem, we have thousands of tenants dealing with rent debt,” which could exacerbate the current homelessness crisis. She cited Measure ULA, a measure providing relief for the homeless. The initiative passed by Los Angeles voters in 2022 but is currently being challenged in court by the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association and the Apartment Association of Greater Los Angeles (AAGLA), among other parties.
The measure significantly increased transfer taxes on real estate sales over $5 million. ”One of the purposes of Measure ULA is to help fund some of the rent debt” currently incurred by low-income tenants, Lucktenberg noting this is one of several strategies being pursued.
“The city initiated about a year ago their efforts to (protect) the current residents from eviction. The process is going through the courts, albeit slowly,” said Lucktenberg. “The city is trying to gain access to make an appraisal (for the eminent domain process), the courts are dealing with this, while Mr. Botz objects.” She added “court dates keep getting pushed back. The benefit of this skews toward the owner more than the tenants. The (extended) process leaves the tenants vulnerable.”
For his part, Botz said he is willing to continue to meet with the city, though he reiterates as far as he is concerned, the property is not for sale. “Until an agreement with the City is reached, ownership will continue to seek to enforce its legal rights, including the right to collect seriously-delinquent rent from a group of tenants who have not paid their rental obligation(s) for years.”
Hernandez sees two issues related to Hillside Villa. One is keeping Hillside Villa as affordable housing available for Chinatown residents. “I want to preserve these communities, but I also want to make them thrive. Chinatowns are disappearing across the county. This is the consequence of tremendous amounts of displacement.”
The other looming issue is what is happening at Hillside Villa may foreshadow future conflict. Hernandez said the Chinatown adjacent property “is one of many potential (mass) evictions possible” as a result of redevelopment. She said “Hilliside Villa is the ‘canary in the coalmine,’ it’s a dangerous situation. There are thousands of affordable housing covenants about to expire. We need to do this right, and get this right, and be proactive. It’s taken years of advocacy. But it is a frustrating, time-consuming process.”
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