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Fighting High Rents

If $8,000 a month for the penthouse atop one of those downtown Italian fortresses isn’t your speed, and you’d rather not pay $1,800 for a one-bedroom in the same building, you can get an older but still acceptable apartment a couple miles west near newly spruced up MacArthur Park for less than $1,000. But hurry. Rents are going up all the time. Just ask Vilma Santos.

Santos paid $995 for a two-bedroom apartment for herself and her kids within walking distance of her church, in a beautiful 1920s Romanesque building known as Precious Blood.

Her landlord notified her last year that he was raising the rent — to $1,200. That’s a 20 percent jump — too much for her family.

Santos went for help to the city Housing Department, in a huge mirrored-glass monolith that by chance is located next door to the Medici, the G.H. Palmer building that launched the downtown apartment renaissance in the late 1990s.

The Housing Department could offer Santos little hope.

“What did I get? Nothing!” Santos recounted at a gathering of One L.A./IAF (Industrial Areas Foundation), an organization working to organize people to pool their strength and demand a place at the table.

“Nothing!” Santos repeated, “except to say in my face, ‘There is nothing you can do because your apartment is not covered by rent control.’ ”

If the apartment was covered by the city’s rent-stabilization ordinance, her landlord could have jacked up the rent by 19 percent, and then only if Santos had lived there and had no rent increases at all since 1976. But like the hundreds of apartment buildings constructed in Los Angeles in the last quarter-century-plus, her building was uncontrolled.

The city’s rent-stabilization ordinance, known as the RSO, applies only to buildings completed before 1978, the year the law was adopted and the same year that the powerful Apartment Association of Greater Los Angeles helped pass the statewide property-tax rollback and freeze known as Proposition 13. About 60 percent of rental units in Los Angeles are in pre-1978 buildings.

The city sets the maximum allowable rent increases annually. The current limit is 3 percent.

Tenant advocates say Los Angeles lacks true rent control because of a state law passed in 1995. Under the Costa-Hawkins Act, all rent-control laws in the state became “vacancy de-control,” meaning that once a tenant moves out or is evicted, the landlord can jack up the rent to meet market demand. That gives owners and managers an incentive to find the flimsiest of excuses to evict, typically to make way for a higher-paying transplant from the suburbs.

“They’ll issue you a three-day notice to leave, unless you get rid of the bicycles in front,” said Evelin Montes, director of community organizing for Collective Space in the MacArthur Park area. “Or they’ll say you have to get rid of your plants. Or they won’t do anything about the rodents. The mice. The cockroaches.”

Other landlords have been even more crafty. Two years ago, the City Council passed a law to stop managers from unilaterally changing their leases to demand personal information from renters, like copies of their Social Security cards. The demands were meant to chase out undocumented tenants by frightening them into leaving, or to make compliance so onerous or intrusive that tenants would give up and get out.

For people like Santos, though, there was little choice but to find a new place.

Maria Guillen’s rent hike was even more shocking. Her $700 apartment on Lafayette Park Place became a $1,500 apartment within the space of a month. She scraped together more than $2,000 for lawyers to help, but she got nothing and had to move.

There were 96,000 evictions in Los Angeles last year for failure to pay higher rents, among other causes, according to the Eviction Defense Network.

Escalating rents and rapid turnover are enough cause for tension, but the class and ethnic differences make matters even more touchy. Young hipsters might blanch at the thought that they are gentrifying their neighborhoods, but to many Latinos being pushed out, that’s exactly what’s going on.

Last year, marchers shut down a stretch of Sunset Boulevard in Echo Park with a demonstration against “estos yuppies” who are displacing longtime working-class residents. High school student Stephanie Cisneros has won praise for her film about gentrification and ethnic and class displacement in the area and was the highlight at a Highland Park forum on gentrification earlier this month. The discussion was sponsored by Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg, who acknowledged that the problem of gentrification is a thorny one with no obvious solutions.

Gentrification, after all, is a great deal for owners, who see their returns skyrocket from higher rents while their tax increases are held low by Proposition 13. But that doesn’t make gentrification work for every owner. Lisette Miranda once lived on Soto Street in Boyle Heights, in the apartment building that her father owns and where her sisters grew up. Now a student in USC’s masters of social work program, Miranda has developed friendships with the tenants in the building and worries about their safety in a neighborhood where drug dealers lurk and alcoholics wander.

The less-than-ideal conditions have nothing to do with the building, which she said was kept in top condition for her family’s sake as well as the tenants’.

“Not all of us [landlords] are big companies,” Miranda said. “This is my dad’s retirement. This is our whole future.”

She would like to see a little upgrading in the neighborhood, she said, even if it’s labeled gentrification. As long as the area remains down-at-the-heels, her father is slapped with higher insurance bills, which come out of his kids’ nest egg, or otherwise must be covered by higher rents charged to tenants who he knows can’t afford to pay.

It’s taboo, Miranda acknowledged, to say anything good about gentrification. But she said the problem of gentrification goes hand-in-hand with low-paid workers who keep the economy moving but keep their heads low because of their immigration status. The issue is not just the cost of housing, but the wages that employers are willing to pay and the low costs that consumers demand for goods and services. Pay workers more, and they can afford to stick around. Fix their legal status, and they will raise their heads and demand higher living standards.

“We have to fix the minimum wage, if anything,” Miranda said. “If we keep beating around the bush with gentrification, we’re missing the point.”

Meanwhile, there is little incentive to build new housing when, according to Dan Rosenfeld of Urban Partners, a decent apartment in L.A. costs about $150,000 per unit to build and carries a break-even rent of about $1,200 a month.

That leaves a limited number of solutions: Let the market run its course, and let the immigrant working families who are pushed out fend for themselves in substandard apartments nearby or more decent housing several smog-producing freeway hours away; change state law and adopt stricter rent controls; or subsidize housing. The city is currently offering funding and incentives to apartment developers whose units will be rented out for below market rate. Many advocates also see promise in an inclusionary zoning law, which would require “affordable” units in any market-rate development.

Minimum-wage workers like Concepcion Garcia would be only too happy to do a little gentrifying. Garcia lives in a one-bedroom apartment near the corner of Florence and Main, pays $875 a month, and fits in seven people — herself and her husband in the bedroom, and her three daughters, a son and a grandchild in bunks in the living room. The kids stretch out on the floor to do their homework. The kitchen cabinets are falling apart, the walls are cracked, and the roof leaks. The rent may go up next month when her one-year lease runs out.

But Garcia’s complaint is not with her landlord. It is with her employer, Aramark, which hires her out to Boeing in Long Beach, cleaning offices, bathrooms, conference rooms and cubicles. Her 40-hour week brings her $1,000, and no benefits. The work has gotten harder and the supervisors more strict, she claimed, since she began working with Service Employees International Union, Local 1877, to organize her colleagues.

“When I have a union,” she said, “I can move. I want a house. Two bedrooms, a big living room, a big kitchen. Two floors. That’s all I want at this point in my life.”


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