On a backstreet in Venice, a security guard studies a chic woman sitting on a grassy island across the road. Her braids loosely pulled back with a hair clip, she is at once adventurous and composed. Her oversized sunglasses are fashionable, but they were purchased for another reason. “They're from a local business,” Amanda Seward says. “I thought it would be nice to support them.”
Behind the guard lies a fenced-in compound of nearly 700 apartments that sit almost entirely vacant, their occupants exiled through buyout or eviction: Lincoln Place, the site of the beach's most wrenching, decades-long, sometimes-ugly tenant-rights battle.
That the buildings are standing, and that 83 tenants will return while others will get compensation from the landlord, is a testament to Seward's fortitude.
She is small, slight and speaks with precision. But during the fight, she defied the mayor of Los Angeles, held off legal attacks by the property's multinational corporate owner, won state historic-preservation status for the buildings and began an effort that Los Angeles City Hall insiders predicted would not succeed — the repatriation of tenants.
In 2001 Seward was simply an entertainment-industry attorney in a city filled with them. Though respected in her field, she didn't know historic-preservation law, nor tenant law, and wasn't a litigator. She was interested in the old buildings themselves. The owner planned to demolish them.
She appreciated their design, which embodied modernism's aesthetic and social mission: “to give common people access to good design,” Seward offers, to change the world in a positive way. Designed by an African-American architect, they embody the Garden Apartment movement and were meant to foster community. Seward says multiple generations, nationalities and races have supported each other in the enclave. “I just did not think that kind of community could be ignored or forgotten.”
Seward knows something about community. Though she has traveled far from California at times, and has lived in London, where she helped to launch CNN's European network, she grew up in Ocean Park. Her mother was a single parent, with a landlord who was supportive.
But when Seward pushed for historical preservation of Lincoln Place, that landlord pushed back, leading to a high-stakes standoff. “I'm a fighter and I don't believe in bullies,” she says. When the mayor, preservationists and tenants all concluded they'd gotten the best deal possible, the landlord still hedged on signing it. Without that signature, Seward didn't see a way to enforce the agreement. When seniors and those with disabilities were threatened with eviction, Seward taught herself tenant law. In court, a judge ruled against her first brief, causing her to feel the terrible gnaw of uncertainty.
“It seemed like no one would look at me,” she says. Then she thought, “The sheriffs are going to be out there,” ordering residents to get out.
The legal argument she devised on the fly — she convinced the judge that the tenants deserved a trial after other judges had disagreed — became the basis of a significant tenant victory.
That ruling laid the groundwork for agreements today between the landlord, tenants and preservationists, and for ongoing negotiations between the landlord and City Hall.
As for Seward, she's returned to the world of indie-film deals. She still works only on films she believes should be made, but these days she loses a little less sleep over them.
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