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Column: For decades, activists got free rent from a leftist landlord. His son is putting a stop to it

Carol Wells of the Center for the Study of Political Graphics
Carol Wells of the Center for the Study of Political Graphics, one of the tenants of the Peace Center in Culver City, has sued to stop the evictions and planned sale of the building.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

In a land where next month’s rent hangs over so many like a cartoon anvil and never so much as during this job-killing pandemic — the Peace Center was a dream come true.

Rent? What rent? At this property, the tenants didn’t have to pay a dime.

For 31 years, a parade of progressive nonprofits occupied two buildings and set up shop in them — first, a small spot down the street from the Original Farmers Market in Los Angeles, and then a squat, two-story office complex in Culver City since 2014. They did so at the invite of owner Aris Anagnos, a Greek immigrant who made his fortune in real estate and subsequently spent it on radical causes.

He palled around with Sandinistas, protested the Turkish occupation of Cyprus and the U.S. invasion of Iraq, funded peace efforts across Eastern Europe and Latin America, and served as president of the ACLU’s Southern California chapter for a couple of years.

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Skeptics scoffed at how a Marxist like Anagnos could be interested in making money, he liked to tell friends. His stock response: “The revolution needs money.”

Carol Wells, whose Center for the Study of Political Graphics is the Peace Center’s longest-lasting free renter (since 1989), said the militant Midas was so committed to his noblesse oblige that he once yelled at her and other tenants for hiring a cleaning crew without his permission.

“He shouted to us, ‘You are my guests! You are paying nothing!’” Wells recalled from her cramped suite, packed with file cabinets and cardboard tubes containing more than 90,000 human rights posters — one of the largest collections of its kind in the world.

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In 2009, Anagnos created a charity named the Aris and Carolyn Anagnos Peace Center Foundation to formalize what before then had been handshake leases with his friends. Wells and other former tenants say he assured them the nonprofit would ensure they never had to worry about getting kicked out.

But you know that old saying: If a millionaire Marxist promises you free rent for life, get it in writing.

For Anagnos lived a long life. Ninety-five years. But he passed away in 2018. And his eldest son, Demos, did not see the world — or at least part of it — the way his father had.

Demos Anagnos took over the Peace Center’s affairs. But he wants to sell the building and dissolve the foundation. That means the tenants and their free rent would be expelled from the premises.

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On June 26, he sent a letter to Peace Center tenants that read, “If you are one of many guests who were here at the invitation of my beloved father, I would urge you to start making arrangements immediately.”

Wells did: CSPG sued Demos in August in Los Angeles County Superior Court, alleging that he’s breaching the fiduciary duty to his father’s original vision.

Although the lawsuit remains unresolved, Wells already scored a big victory. On Aug. 28, California Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra’s office sent a cease-and-desist order that stopped any sale or transfer of the Peace Center. It accused Demos Anagnos, his wife and their two sons — who sit on the Peace Center’s governing foundation — of “filing false, misleading or incomplete information” and “fail[ing] to act in the best interest” of the building and its users.

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The attorney general lays out a pretty convincing case. IRS law is clear that charities can’t stack boards with trustees related to one another by kin or cash. Becerra alleges that the Anagnos foundation board has consisted only of Demos Anagnos and his family since their patriarch’s death.

So for Anagnos to sell the Peace Center, change its foundation’s articles of incorporation, and seek to dissolve said foundation “violated” California law, Becerra’s office says.

Via email, Anagnos wrote that he couldn’t “comment on pending matters” but added that “it is an unfortunate reality that there are many false and defamatory allegations being made around this issue.”

While I wouldn’t say I’m about to pull out the world’s smallest violin — who closes a Peace Center in an era like this? — I do feel for Anagnos.

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Children are not obligated to carry on their parent’s passions. Hey, I chose not to be a Dodgers fan like my papi.

And we don’t necessarily see the world in the same way, either. Sometimes, a thing matters to your father and mother that matters less to you. But the law has a certain, necessary rigidity. And if you run afoul of it, which Becerra argues the younger Anagnos may well have done, you pay a price.

Sometimes, that price is having to honor what your late father wanted, whether you like it or not.

“I didn’t spend 30 years with Aris to not fight,” Wells said. “The groups he supported aren’t going to disappear. But his vision might.”

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The current Peace Center is an ideal gathering point for left L.A. — off the 405, next to a bus line, with ample free parking and free meeting rooms for anyone who asks the current tenants.

“It’s a place to feel the pulse of progressive L.A.,” said Kent Wong, director of the UCLA Labor Center. He frequently found himself over the years showing up to one meeting, then sticking around for others. “Aris really was a godsend to these groups.”

“Half the world hated us for what we did,” Theresa Bonpane said. She and her late husband, Blaise, ran Office of the Americas, a nonprofit that sent peace delegations to Central America and was a longtime Peace Center tenant. “So when someone comes along and creates something where you go to work and be surrounded by people in solidarity … Aris could not be more kinder for fostering that.”

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It became a second home for most; birthdays and memorials were held alongside lectures and film screenings. Every year, the Peace Center’s disparate groups held a Christmas party that Aris Anagnos always attended.

“He never lost his sense of justice,” said Wells, who keeps a self-published Anagnos autobiography in her office. “He wasn’t just the landlord. He was a presence.”

For someone who obviously loved his fellow travelers-cum-boarders, why didn’t Anagnos ever put his promise of eternal free rent in an ironclad contract? For someone willing to go so far to codify his beliefs into action — I mean, free rent in L.A.! — what would it have cost to get it seared into paper?

No one has an easy response.

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The closest to a definite answer is a Peace Center directors meeting two months before Anagnos passed away. The Center for the Study of Political Graphics’ lawsuit claims Aris Anagnos, Demos Anagnos and other board members unanimously voted then to grant CSPG and other Peace Center tenants free leases “in perpetuity.”

But there are no records or minutes of the motion, which has led to the current imbroglio.

Wells said Demos Anagnos never gave any clue that the Peace Center was in any danger of folding. Yet a full month before slipping his breakup letter under the CSPG door, the Peace Center building was put up for sale for $11.5 million.

Her lawsuit states that a since-deleted listing posted by Demos Anagnos’ son said the “charitable trust” that held the property allowed only 20% of its tenants to pay rent (Aris Anagnos always allowed a few paying, non-activist renters to keep the Peace Center sustainable). “There is massive upside for a new owner,” it continued, “to achieve market rents and enjoy the massive cash flow this building will produce.”

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“I don’t know what’s motivating [Demos Anagnos],” Wells said. “But I do know his father would be horrified.”

The attorney general’s decision will become permanent unless Anagnos appeals, which is expected. Meanwhile, Peace Center supporters continue to spread the word around town.

A petition to stop its sale boasts the signatures of politicians, labor activists and Hollywood luminaries like Jane Fonda and Martin Sheen. L.A. County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas wrote a letter to Becerra urging a “timely review and investigation” of the matter.

If a millionaire Marxist promises you free rent in the City of Angels for life, you’re going to fight like hell to keep it.


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