At twilight on Tuesday at Hollywood and Vine, two Mexican men in dark mariachi suits strummed and tuned the strings of their guitars. They were flanked by a crowd of two dozen protesters who stood shoulder to shoulder and held up signs outside the W Hollywood Residences.
A few news crews filmed. A few reporters scribbled in notebooks. A few oblivious tourists stopped and posed for a selfie at Carmen Miranda’s star on the Walk of Fame. A tenants rights organizer with a microphone asked a stream of pedestrians on Hollywood Boulevard: “How many of you can afford an $800 rent increase?”
The protest was targeted at a Los Angeles developer with ties to the W Hollywood Residences who purchased a Boyle Heights apartment complex in late December and raised the rents of several longtime tenants in the 25-unit complex between 60 and 80 percent. After the tenants refused to pay and tried to negotiate a lesser increase, the owner, Frank "BJ" Turner, sent them eviction notices.
Their predicament has struck a chord in Los Angeles at a time when the city is experiencing a housing shortage replete with a rapid rise in rents. Rick Coca, spokesman for City Councilmember José Huizar, whose district includes Boyle Heights, told the Weekly in April, "Just because it's legal doesn't make it right." Adding to the tension of the situation, about a third of the tenants in the building are mariachis, performers of a traditional form of Mexican music in a traditionally Mexican part of the city that has become the front line in the battle against threats of displacement caused by gentrification. Ten mariachis live in the building.
To make matters more uncomfortable, Crescent Canyon Management, the same company that issued the letters, also created a website refashioning the building at 1815 Second St. as boutique apartments and dubbing them — much to the chagrin of tenants and supporters — "Mariachi Crossing."
L.A. Weekly reached out to Crescent Canyon Management but did not get a response.
In reply to a query in April about the rent increases, Jon Snow, a real estate manager with Crescent Canyon, emailed a statement to the Weekly in which he referred to "significant improvements" to the building since Turner's purchase, "including all new HVAC units, new fencing and gates, new on-site laundry facilities, improved trash collection, roof repairs, new exterior paint and landscaping and improved exterior lighting throughout." Longtime tenants say the changes were mostly cosmetic and did not address problems such as water damage, dark mold and rusted and filthy air vents.
Boyle Heights is home to a deeply rooted Mexican-American community whose cultural and community hub is Mariachi Plaza, a popular gathering place for mariachis seeking paid music gigs. Proximity to Mariachi Plaza is key to the livelihood of mariachis in Los Angeles and has been since the 1930s — and Turner's apartment building is a block away.
"If they take me away from Boyle Heights, I won’t be able to earn a living," says Luis Valdivia, 50, one of the mariachis at the protest. He and his brother, Luis Valdivia, have shared a two-bedroom apartment in the building for 21 years.
In January, the Valdivias received a letter from a property management company representing Turner that notified them their rent was increasing by $800 a month — an 80 percent rise. The brothers say they’re willing to pay a rent increase but that their attempts to negotiate a more affordable rate with Turner have been in vain. “We’ve never met the man," Enrique Valdivia says. "He’s never shown his face.”
On Sept. 13, the Valdivia brothers will face their landlord's lawyers in court for the first time since they received their eviction notice on June 28. They and other tenants in the building have joined the Los Angeles Tenants Union, which helped them secure legal representation from the nonprofit Los Angeles Center for Community Law and Action.
Elizabeth Blaney, co-director of the L.A. Tenants Union, says the two sides will have an opportunity at court either to resolve their differences through negotiation or set a date for a jury trial. Blaney says organizers chose to stage the protest at the W Hollywood Residences because Turner the landlord was involved in development of the luxury condominiums there, including the sale of several units.
Another of the tenants at the protest who is facing eviction and will have her day in court on Sept. 13 is Gloria Reyes. Reyes, 47, has lived in the same apartment with her husband and two daughters for 27 years ("It's where I learned to crawl," says Gloria's daughter, Melissa Reyes, 23.) In January, the Reyes family received a letter from Crescent Management that notified them their rent was increasing from $900 to $1,400 a month.
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Some tenants at 1815 Second St. who have not received notice of a rent increase went on rent strike in support of those who did. Irma Aguilar says the building's manager offered her two months’ free rent and $2,000 cash to move out. Aguilar, 42, has three young children enrolled in Boyle Heights schools and says moving would mean taking them out of their school. Rather than accept the offer, she and her husband, a house painter, went on rent strike in July.
"It’s a strategy," she says. "The owner wants to peel us off in small groups over time, rather than all at once.”
According to real estate website Zillow, Boyle Heights ranked 11th in terms of rent increases among L.A. neighborhoods from January 2015 to May 2017. The median rent for an apartment in Boyle Heights has risen by more than 40 percent in the past three years.
"It's gotten too expensive to move somewhere else," Aguilar says. "Rents are too high everywhere."