It's a never-ending struggle for L.A.'s low-income renters.EXPAND
It's a never-ending struggle for L.A.'s low-income renters.
Jason McGahan

Highland Park Residents Continue Strike Over Rent

Several residents in apartments on Avenue 64 in Highland Park have been on a rent strike since July.

The Los Angeles Tenants Union (LATU), which has helped other tenants around the city when faced with sudden rent hikes, posted information on its Facebook page that says tenants received notices of rent increases ranging from $500 to $700 per month; in one case, the change amounted to a nearly 80 percent increase.

Tenants claim habitability issues are common, including no hot water and leaking pipes. They want the new owners, Julia Boyd Curso and her brother, Marshall Boyd of Interstate Equities Corp., to meet with them and negotiate fair leases, according to LATU’s Facebook page. The 24-unit, non–rent controlled building was purchased in the fall of 2017.

Interstate Equities provided a written response to L.A. Weekly's questions about the rent strike and rent increases, saying they were sensitive to the concerns expressed by tenants and have gone to great lengths to keep rents below market rates.

“When we acquired the property, it was practically uninhabitable and half vacant,” the statement says. “But since acquiring Avenue 64, we have invested more than a half million dollars in improvements, including a new roof, tenting of the property, added lighting, secured parking, painting inside and out, and full renovations of vacant units.”

The statement also says, “Contrary to what has been reported, all work orders had been resolved up until the time that tenants stopped paying their rent and refused to allow us entry into their units to make repairs.”

Tenants who refuse to pay rent are subject to eviction, per the statement.

The Highland Park rent strike comes as data shows that rents in L.A. are up 3 percent compared with the previous year, according to RentCafe. The average rent for an L.A. apartment is $2,265, versus $2,195 the year before. L.A. also is home to the largest share of renters of any major U.S. city at 54 percent, according to U.S. Census Data.

Given the rising rents, it may be no surprise that Highland Park is not alone in resorting to rent strikes.

Most recently, residents from apartments on Burlington Avenue in L.A.’s Westlake neighborhood agreed to full rent increase at the beginning of this month, when the group nearly unanimously voted to end the six-month rent strike by paying September rent at the increased rate.

In February, tenants in Boyle Heights were able to successfully negotiate new terms with owner B.J. Turner after a nine-month rent strike.

Rent strikes have taken place in Long Beach and South L.A. as well.

As renters spend a greater percentage of their income on rent, L.A. also is looking to house the homeless with emergency, temporary shelters planned throughout the city.

The 2018 city homeless count found nearly 10,000 people experiencing homelessness for the first time, and a city report that accompanied a motion for a potential tenant's right-to-counsel program states it can be reasonably concluded that the combined effects of evictions and rental housing affordability are contributing substantially to the homelessness crisis in Los Angeles.

John Urquiza, a researcher, photographer and housing rights activist, said that a rent strike a few years ago in Highland Park on Marmion Way, near a Gold Line station, was likely the first rent strike in decades, and it marked a turning point.

“Mamion [Way Apartments] was probably the first building that had done a rent strike in 20 years,” Urquiza said. “The attorney they used said they hadn’t seen a rent strike in years. Marmion was a yearlong struggle — we did not win the right to stay but did win five to six months of rent so people could move into their next apartment [building].”

The new owners were turning that building very quickly, Urquiza said of the renovations and rising rents. After the Marmion Way experience, at least 15 more buildings went on a rent strike.

The Marmion Way Apartments, like the Avenue 64 building, was not under rent control, Urquiza said.

L.A.’s rent control law applies only to buildings constructed before October 1978, and limits rent increases to about 3 percent annually.

Rocio Rivas, president of the Historic Highland Park Neighborhood Council, said that as landlords sell their buildings, new owners come in and increase rents, usually remodeling the apartments as well.

“It’s ridiculous that they are raising rent two or three times as high,” Rivas said. “People are not given time to process this.”

Rivas said she knows a tenant on Section 8 whose rent increased twice in one year. The tenant likely will move out of state but is getting help from her family for now.

Another issue is that single-family homes are being demolished and replaced with larger buildings with rents that many in the neighborhood cannot afford, she said.

“Why is this allowed to happen?” Rivas said. “Why are there no safeguards for the community?”

She said new construction is happening at an alarming rate. “Those suffering are the lower and middle classes who are already struggling. They can fight or leave. If they fight, who helps them? It is often easier to leave because the burden is too much for them.”

Urquiza said he is aware of rent hikes in rent-controlled and non–rent controlled buildings.

In rent-controlled buildings, it starts with harassment, including notices about parking in the wrong place, Urquiza said.

At Marmion, Urquiza said there was “construction harassment,” meaning planned construction work began before tenants moved out, water and power were turned off and on, and air conditioning units were disconnected for several days. Fortunately, tenants were able to stop sandblasting work for a week, which was great, Urquiza said, but the process with extremely stressful for tenants. He knew one couple that got a divorce.

Urquiza said Councilmember Gil Cedillo, who represents Highland Park, was not helpful when Marmion Way residents turned to his office for help, and said he knows of at least four protests due to rising rents and development that have taken place outside Cedillo’s office.

Fredy Ceja, communications director for Cedillo’s office, said in an email, "Our office was initially involved in the Marmion Way apartments and when it turned into a legal case, we were forced to let the legal process take its course."

He also said that the Avenue 64 apartments are not in Cedillo's district (they fall in Councilmember Jose Huizar’s area) but did not address the question of how to approach rising rents in the area.

Rick Coca, press contact for Councilmember Huizar, said they support Avenue 64 residents.

“It is absolutely unreasonable to expect most residents in Los Angeles to afford the kind of rent increases proposed here,” Coca said. “And as we've said before, just because you can raise rents doesn't mean you should. We supported residents and Union de Vecinos in a similar action with the Mariachi apartments on Second Street in Boyle Heights … and in that case, encouraged the owners to sit down and talk to the residents."

In a letter to the Avenue 64 property owners last month, Huizar said the rent increases, "if instituted, will place a heavy burden on those families and lead to displacement."

Huizar also expressed disappointment to hear of habitability issues at the apartments.

The letter adds, "Los Angeles is in the middle of an affordable housing crisis, and displacing more families only exacerbates the problem."

Urquiza, the activist and photographer, also talked about the need for affordable, market-rate housing, as well as rent control for all, and for a change in perception.

“In America we don't see community, we don't see people — we see profit, we see an opportunity, we see an investment. We don't see the people in those units,” Urquiza said. “We used to develop homes for soldiers, we cared about the population and wanted them housed. We see housing as a commodity. That needs to change.”

[Ed. note: This article was amended after receiving comment from Councilmember Gil Cedillo's office, and to reflect that L.A.'s Westlake neighborhood group voted to pay full rent and end the strike.]

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