Violeta Hudson has lived in her apartment building in the Oakwood section of Venice for 22 years, fighting to push out drug dealers and criminals and to make her seaside community a place she could feel proud of.
Now Hudson and hundreds of low-income tenants of Holiday Venice Apartments say they are fighting to keep the owners from pushing them out and ending the federal rent subsidies that made their homes affordable.
On a warm and breezy Saturday afternoon that was a testament to ideal California beach life, about 150 tenants, religious leaders and other supporters marched in protest and rallied at the Brentwood home of one of the apartment complex's owners.
Men, women and children carrying placards and shouting slogans marched in a colorful, noisy procession through Venice streets to the boardwalk. They were joined by Democratic Rep. Jane Harman, a Venice resident who told the crowd she will work with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to ensure that tenants are protected.
"There is nowhere else on Southern California beaches or probably in all of California where you can walk a few steps to the beach and see such a diverse group of people having fun together," Harman said. "In Venice, we celebrate diversity, but we have to do more; we have to fight for diversity. Keeping Holiday Venice Apartments affordable is our next fight."
Tenants said the apartments, on Indiana Avenue between 5th and 6th avenues, have served as an anchor for low-income African American and Latino families, many of whom have lived in the neighborhood for 20 or 30 years. There are 14 buildings, some 246 units and more than 1,200 residents.
The units were built in the late 1960s with low-interest federal loans that required the owners to keep them affordable for the term of the 40-year mortgage. In the 1970s, HUD approved Section 8 rent subsidies to keep rents low.
But two years ago the units were acquired by two investments groups, Namco Capitol Group and New Venice Investors, who sought to pay off the government loan early, end the subsidies and allow rents to rise, said Elena Popp, a housing attorney for the Legal Aid Foundation.
Popp said that without subsidies, it is unlikely any of the residents would be able to stay.
Representatives of the investment groups could not be reached for comment Saturday.
In recent negotiations with HUD, the investors withdrew their request to prepay the loan, Popp said. But the victory could be short-lived, she said, and tenants are now fighting to have the properties sold to a nonprofit owner who would commit to keeping them affordable. "We're not out of danger yet," she said.
Tenants allege the owners have failed to properly maintain the buildings. "We're just tired of broken promises and their lies," said Hudson, 50, a disabled mother of two. "They say they are going to fix up the apartment nice and pretty, but everything they put in falls apart."
Hudson spoke while marching in front of the Spanish-style home of a man identified as the president of Namco Capitol Group. About 50 of the tenants caravaned to the Brentwood neighborhood in a school bus.
They marched in a circle in front of the gated home, chanting with signs. No one answered the doorbell and the only evidence of occupancy was a security camera mounted on the house, which moved from left to right, scanning the protesters.
Among them was Leo Castaneda, a 62-year-old grandfather of 18 who said he has lived in the Venice neighborhood for 25 years, the last five in a two-bedroom Holiday apartment with his wife. He carried a portrait of Pope John Paul II and said he had written to the pontiff about the tenants' plight. Much to his surprise, he recently received a reply from the Vatican.
"The pope said he would give his blessing to us and pray for all of us," Castaneda said. "My entire family grew up [in Venice] and we want to stay."