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L.A. City Council moves to buy apartments to protect tenants from huge rent hikes

Activists at the City Council meeting.
Activists demand that the City Council approve the acquisition of a Chinatown apartment complex.
(David Zahniser / Los Angeles Times)

The Los Angeles City Council voted Friday to make an offer on an apartment complex in Chinatown, following an emotionally charged hearing where tenants voiced their rage and frustration over massive rent hikes sought by the building’s owner.

On a 12-0 vote, the council instructed housing officials to obtain a new appraisal for Hillside Villa, a 124-unit property just north of downtown, then submit an offer based on that research.

The vote comes as Councilman Gil Cedillo, who represents Chinatown, is in a tough reelection fight against an opponent, activist Eunisses Hernandez, who has called for new tenant protections. Meanwhile, uncertainties still surround the proposed transaction — the property’s price, the building’s condition and whether a fraction of the tenants might not be permitted to remain.

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The 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 owner to sell. Several spoke of the anxiety they and their relatives have felt after receiving notices of increased rents, some of which have doubled or even tripled.

Residents at Hillside Villa told the council they can’t afford the rents the landlord is seeking. “We’re going to be homeless,” one said, “and we need you to help.”

“We have been protesting, and we have been hunting down whoever we need to protest, in order for us to be here to ask you guys to help us keep our house affordable,” tenant Leslie Hernandez said. “We are not asking for anything that is not in the power ... of you guys to do.”

Hillside Villa tenant Alejandro Gutierrez told the council his family recently received a notice saying their rent will go up to $2,660, up from $1,063 in 2019. Gutierrez, who has lived in the building 26 years, said he does not want to be pushed out, but cannot get a Section 8 voucher due to the long waiting list.

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

The frustration and anger in the room reached its peak when Patrick Hennessey, an attorney for the landlord, tried to speak during the public comment period. Dozens of audience members screamed “Liar! Liar! Liar!” — bringing the meeting to a temporary halt — as he attempted to argue that a better strategy would be to provide a portion of the building’s tenants federal Section 8 housing vouchers.

VIDEO | 00:12
Hillside Villa

Renters and tenant activists at Los Angeles City Hall yell “get out” while Patrick Hennessey, an attorney for Hillside Villa, tries to speak before the City Council.

Police officers later escorted Hennessey out of the council chamber to ensure his safety.

Attorneys for Hillside Villa say residents in 71 units already have Section 8 vouchers to help them cover the rent. Another 16 units are either vacant or have tenants who are paying market-rate prices without difficulty, they said.

Housing officials said earlier this week that the type of voucher mentioned by those lawyers are not easily available to the tenants at Hillside Villa.

Activists at a council meeting confront the attorney representing Hillside Villa's owner.
Activists at a City Council meeting confront Patrick Hennessey, left, the attorney representing Hillside Villa’s owner.
(David Zahniser / Los Angeles Times)

Friday’s vote was the culmination of more than two years of advocacy by tenant activists and the building’s renters, who had urged the city to use its power of eminent domain to force the building owner to sell. Cedillo embraced that idea in February 2020, after negotiations with the owner over a deal to protect the tenants broke down. But some of his colleagues expressed concerns about such a purchase, saying they wanted to know the full financial impact.

Hillside Villa’s owner, Thomas Botz, has said repeatedly that he does not want to sell. Cedillo, in turn, said the city will probably need to wield the power of eminent domain, typically used to acquire private property for the construction of bridges, schools and other facilities, to force Botz to relinquish the property.

“In the area of preserving affordable housing, there’s no other city doing what we’re doing — not in the county, not in the state, nor in the nation,” Cedillo told his colleagues. “So I thank all of you for having the courage and being willing to take these risks.”

Housing officials have proposed a strategy where the city would purchase the building, then sell it to the housing authority, which has a portfolio of public housing developments. The housing authority would ultimately pay the city back, while providing Section 8 vouchers to each unit in the building and restricting rent increases for a 55-year period.

The council received an initial estimate that said the cost of buying and fixing up Hillside Villa would reach nearly $60 million. Attorneys for the landlord said the true cost of the purchase and renovations could exceed $90 million.

Housing officials said they would report back to the council for further instructions once they have submitted an offer and received a response. Another vote would be needed to proceed with the purchase, they said.

Officials said they do not yet know how many tenants, if any, could be forced out once the building is publicly owned, because they earn too much and do not comply with the property’s income restrictions. Housing activists said they believe 113 of the building’s residents qualify as low income.

Lawyers for the building’s owner have characterized the city’s strategy as “wasteful,” saying more than two-thirds of the building’s residents are not in any financial jeopardy.

Activists, on the other hand, said the owner cannot be trusted — and contend that he will renege on his commitment to welcome Section 8 tenants.

Jacob Woocher, an organizer with the Hillside Villa Tenants Assn., told council members that Friday’s vote offered them a chance to show they “care about poor people.”

“L.A. has the opportunity to lead the nation in taking on the housing crisis,” he said. “First Hillside Villa, then the city.”


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