For years, the East Los Angeles Community Corp. has billed itself as a group that pushes back hard against the displacement of families from Boyle Heights, the working-class community east of downtown.
The nonprofit group has built hundreds of units of affordable housing, rehabilitating local landmarks in the process. At a time of rising rents, it has pressed politicians to put more low-income homes next to transit stops. And this year, it hung a banner from one of its buildings that read: "Boyle Heights says no to gentrification."
Now, the group finds itself under fire from activists who contend it is carrying out its own form of displacement.
The accusations were triggered by the East L.A. corporation's decision to build a $25-million affordable housing complex — one that would require the demolition of several apartment buildings at 1st and Soto streets. That project, known as Cielito Lindo, has upended the lives of dozens of renters who have to move, critics say.
"They're incredibly stressed, especially since they've spent a month and a half looking [for apartments] and have not been successful in finding something," said Elizabeth Blaney, co-director of the group Union de Vecinos. "They know the clock is ticking."
The dispute between the two nonprofit organizations, both advocates for tenants, reflects a broader anxiety in working-class neighborhoods as L.A.'s latest real estate boom pushes up housing costs. In the Cielito Lindo fight, even like-minded activists are at odds over the definition of gentrification, a term frequently used to describe the economic forces that cause renters to be priced out of their homes and neighborhoods.
Eighteen households, involving about 50 people, received notices from the East L.A. corporation last month saying they need to be out this year. Under the law, each household will be eligible for relocation packages worth a minimum of $19,500.
Blaney maintains the removal of the tenants is a form of gentrification. Isela Gracian, the East L.A. group's top executive, strenuously disagrees, saying her organization is going well beyond what's required of landlords in similar situations.
Gracian said her group gave tenants 120 days notice to leave, 30 days more than required. The nonprofit also is providing each tenant the opportunity to move into the 50-unit Cielito Lindo once it opens in fall 2017, she said. Building affordable housing, she added, is a key strategy for pushing back against gentrification.
"As the city continues to look at how to resolve the housing crisis ... there's going to continue to be situations where you have to have relocation," she added.
Gracian says all but two of the households affected by the project would qualify for spots in Cielito Lindo based on federal income guidelines for the development. Blaney counters that every tenant should be guaranteed the right to return to the completed project. She also criticized Gracian's organization for saying it will disqualify applicants who owe more than $2,500 to collection agencies for expenses other than medical or education bills.
Amid the discord, tenants are sounding anxious. Blanca Casale, who pays $530 per month for a single apartment, says she wants to move into Cielito Lindo once it's built. But it's been hard for her and her husband to find anything in the interim that's comparable to their current place, which is close to her job, the subway and their daughter's elementary school.
"Everything now is more expensive, for something that's uglier and farther from her school," she said.
Terry Navarro, one of those who received a notice to move out, worries that some of her neighbors will be disqualified from returning to Cielito Lindo because of past credit problems. "There should be no restrictions," she said. "Just let us come back."
Gracian said her group will work with tenants to help them clean up their finances and is exploring exemptions that might allow those who make too much to qualify for an apartment to come back to the new development.
The nonprofit developer is a political powerhouse on the Eastside, securing public funds for hard-to-build projects, including the conversion of the historic, Victorian-era Boyle Hotel-Cummings Block near Mariachi Plaza to an affordable housing complex. The group has spoken out against other developments it sees as harmful to the community. In one Facebook post last year, the organization talked up the neighborhood's work in establishing "creative spaces to heal from the threat of displacement."
Boyle Heights painter Lilia Ramirez, who has lived on 1st Street since 2009, calls such statements hypocritical. Ramirez's house, which she shares with three other artists, has been used for pop-up community art exhibits. It is slated for demolition as part of Cielito Lindo's second phase, which is expected to start construction in 2017.
Ramirez, 44, hasn't received a notice to move. But she's already worried about losing her yard, with its herb garden and raised beds for growing vegetables. The East L.A. Community Corp., she said, is downplaying the emotional toll of searching for another home and having to move — twice.
"It's very disruptive, having to move and then come back," Ramirez said. "How do you plan a future?"
In recent years, the nonprofit housing group has moved tenants while completing two other projects. At one, known as Las Margaritas, four out of eight affected households later returned. At the Boyle Hotel, three out of 42 households came back, according to the group.
Gracian said everyone who asked to return to those projects was permitted to do so. Blaney says that's not true and that she personally worked with mariachis who did not qualify for the hotel's new units. "They told me they didn't make enough," she said.
Boyle Heights resident Mario Chavez, who recently served on the city's affordable housing commission, is sympathetic to both sides. Chavez says it's unfair to label the East L.A. Community Corp. a gentrifier. But he also noted that the nonprofit's residential projects are so appealing they have the potential to attract buyers from other neighborhoods — potentially driving up housing prices in the area.
Across from Hollenbeck Park, the Community Corp. also has been renovating the long-vacant Linda Vista hospital, beautifying its Spanish-style exterior and adding dozens of affordable units for seniors.
"Making things nicer is obviously more inviting to people," he said. "Once that project is finished, who wouldn't want to move into that neighborhood?"
Times staff writer Emily Alpert Reyes contributed to this report.