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Heartless in Venice

Photo by Hans SewardLincoln Place was darker than usual Tuesday night. Here and there, strings of Christmas lights blinked in lifeless repetition around blackened windows. Security cars patrolled empty streets. Some remaining residents nervously peeked out behind curtained windows. They looked spooked, fearful that it was their turn — that their time had come. Some 12 hours earlier, 52 families were forcibly removed from their homes in the affordable-housing complex in Venice. Sheriff’s deputies descended at 9 a.m., kicked them out and changed locks. The families were allowed three trips, holding whatever they could carry in their arms, leaving valuables and heirlooms behind. By evening, the displaced families who had lingered on the pathways, confused, upset and lost, had found somewhere to go. Some went with friends, others to distant relatives or homeless shelters.“When my 15-year-old son left for school today, he had no idea there would be no home to come back to,” said Clare Sassoon between sobs. “Imagine what that’s going to be like for him. We went straight to a real estate agent, and hopefully we can find something. But as of now, we are homeless.”The tenants have 15 days to arrange to return for their belongings — a one-time shot, just before Christmas.The evictions came just minutes before Los Angeles Superior Court Judge David Yaffe was to hear arguments from AIMCO — the Denver-based corporation that owns Lincoln Place — the City Attorney’s Office and preservationists.The hearing on Tuesday stemmed from an earlier Court of Appeals judgment requiring that conditions for Lincoln Place’s development plan be reviewed. The issue: whether AIMCO’s bulldozing of five buildings in 2003 signifies the start of the project, with all the city-approved conditions kicking in, including a no-eviction clause. It’s hard to sort through because AIMCO won’t publicly state what it plans to do with the property. “We’re not sure,” says Patti Shwayder, AIMCO vice president.It boils down to this: If AIMCO can hold off announcing that it plans to go through with the preapproved project until after all tenants are evicted, it will make the no-eviction clause moot. This is exactly what the tenants and preservationists believe is happening. Yaffe decided that yes, the conditions must be followed, but he didn’t clarify whether they should be followed now, while tenants are being evicted, or later, if AIMCO applies for permits. Yaffe did his job — he only had to review the conditions, not enforce them. According to Amanda Seward, a representative for the preservationists, City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo himself promised he would ask the court to enforce the no-eviction clause.Seward says Assistant City Attorneys Susan Pfann, Suzanne Tracy and Robert Gutierrez “talked out of both sides of their mouths for hours” before a confused Yaffe asked them blankly, “What do you want the court to do?” They replied, according to Seward, that “the conditions have not been invoked!” The exact opposite of what Rocky had promised.The tenants believed that Delgadillo was the white knight who would step in and save them from evictions. It had taken them months to get his attention. They had chanted outside his office, requested countless meetings, but it wasn’t until Lincoln Place tenants pulled a Cindy Sheehan and camped outside Delgadillo’s private residence last month that the wannabe attorney general met with them. He swore to “earnestly pursue” the issue. And he shook hands with the tenants, took pictures, and they believed him.Jonathan Diamond, spokesperson for Delgadillo, said, “There are limits to what the city attorney can do.” Diamond called Seward’s comments a “misrepresentation of the conversation,” and said the characterization of what happened in court amounted to “name-calling, which isn’t productive.” Diamond passed the buck to Yaffe, claiming it was the judge who “declined to respond and address the issue of enforcing the conditions.” Diamond conceded, “It’s a tough time of year to not have a home.” When asked if it was true that two of AIMCO’s attorneys had contributed to Delgadillo’s campaign, Diamond replied, “You know what? It doesn’t make a bit of difference.” It makes a big difference to the tenants of Lincoln Place. If you hear them tell it, the 38-acre development was a community for people of all ages. Neighbors would pop in on those who were sick or elderly to see if they needed anything from Ralphs, a prescription picked up at Rite Aid, or their mail fetched. Slowly, AIMCO’s evictions have killed the once-thriving community. By next March, when the last of the evictions will have taken place, the way of life there will be but a memory, unless some city agency steps up to challenge the out-of-state developers and protect affordable housing in this city. City Councilman Bill Rosendahl, whose district includes Lincoln Place, said it was the largest number of people evicted on a single day in Los Angeles history and called it “an assault on affordable housing, a slap in the face to renters everywhere and an insult to the community of Venice.” Rosendahl left City Hall and headed to Venice as soon as he heard that evictions had started. He said their stories “broke his heart.” There was a mother unable to get pajamas for her children (who were at school) to sleep in, there was a 7-year-old boy who had to translate the Sheriff’s yelling for his mother, who didn’t speak English. The boy didn’t understand “eviction.” He was scared and “traumatized.” Rosendahl begged AIMCO to “unlock the doors.” He also said that he contacted Attorney General Bill Lockyer and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. “It will be an unconscionable thing if the remaining seniors and disabled are evicted in March. I have not given up,” he said.The only ones left in the nearly deserted complex are the disabled and those over 65, and their days are numbered.“I keep seeing myself living on the streets, pushing a shopping cart,” says Gloria R. Morales, 74, fiddling with the ruffles on her brown-and-white polka-dotted dress. “I’ve been living here 31 years and one month, in the same apartment,” she says proudly. Lincoln Place was a sanctuary for her all those years ago, when a burglary in a shady part of town left her 14-year-old daughter so shaken they had to move. Back in 1974, Morales was a single mother who had just been laid off. She felt lucky to have been accepted into the low-income housing development. “But now, there is just lots of worry every day.”Rosa McNary, 80, has been living at Lincoln Place since 1977. “You used to hear children playing,” she laments. “But now it’s so quiet.” Her conservative, neat appearance belies her open-mindedness. She tells how she moved from Austria and came to fall in love with Lincoln Place and a certain young man she met at the German American Club during a New Year’s Eve ball. “I used to stay with him here on weekends, then I moved in with him. I loved it here. It was like living in the country, with so much green, no high-rise buildings, flowers and trees. We never married, we talked about it, and we made a vow that as long as we like each other, we’ll stay together and then go our own ways, but we didn’t.“We stayed in that apartment together until he passed away,” she says, her voice breaking into sobs. And there are so many others with similar stories. They are now left alone with their memories of a happier time as Rocky Delgadillo shrugs his shoulders. The tenants still hold on to the hope that maybe, like the Grinch’s, Delgadillo’s heart might grow two sizes bigger one day.


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