Chinatown is being cleansed of Latinx and Chinese tenants. But they’re fighting back.
The City of Los Angeles has failed Ana Quevedo, Adela Cortez, and Rosario Hernandez. Now, their entire multi-ethnic community — mostly Chinese and Latinx — is at risk of being displaced.
In the late 1980s these three women were kicked out of their homes as the city spent $500 million to subsidize the expansion of the Convention Center downtown. Fortunately, the now-defunct Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) was able to move them to an “affordable housing” development in Chinatown that it had just helped finance to the tune of $5 million in zero-interest loans given to the for-profit developer. With 124 units, a spacious courtyard, and a view of City Hall across the 101 Freeway, the Hillside Villa Apartments would be their homes for the next 30 years.
But now the building’s affordability contract has expired, and the landlord, Thomas Botz, has decided that rents are going way up on June 1.
For Hernandez, who immigrated to LA from Mexico in the 1980s and now lives with her daughter and son-in-law, Botz is raising the rent from $840 to $2,450 per month. Right now she’s close to her job at a daycare center, and is able to live with her family in the 3-bedroom they rent. “I can’t afford the increase,” she tells me (in Spanish). “I don’t know where I’ll go if I have to leave.”
For the landlord, that’s precisely the point. All the luxury units being built in Chinatown, as well as its proximity to downtown, suggest to property owners that an abundance of wealthier tenants are available to replace current ones.
With an estimated 14,000 of these “affordable” units in LA County set to be converted to market-rate within the next 5 years, the residents of Hillside Villa represent just a few of the tens of thousands of people who will be forced out of their homes as landlords like Botz cash out while the city and county do pretty much nothing.
But these tenants are taking matters into their own hands.
The Hillside Villa Tenants Association
They’ve formed the Hillside Villa Tenants Association along with over 70 of their neighbors in order to struggle collectively to stay in their homes. They are being supported by organizers from the LA Tenants Union, Chinatown Community for Equitable Development (CCED), and the Democratic Socialists of America, Los Angeles (DSA-LA).
Their association is a remarkable example of organizing that crosses barriers of both ethnicity and language. The majority of the tenants are Latinx, many of them immigrants, and there’s also a sizeable Chinese population — this being Chinatown, of course. Their weekly meetings are conducted with consecutive interpretation in English and Spanish, with CCED members simultaneously interpreting for the Chinese-speaking tenants as well.
In early February, a little over a month after receiving the rent increases, they formally announced themselves as a TA, and presented their demands to the building’s ownership. The tenants believe that in recent years they’ve experienced increased harassment from the building’s management, alongside an inverse decrease in maintenance. Their demand letter reads, in part:
“Our children used to be able to play outside in the common areas, now they are forbidden; we used to have one free parking space, now we are charged; we never had armed security, now we have a rent-a-cop who routinely interrogates us, despite knowing who we are, and places one hand on his revolver to show he is serious; we used to have a pest-free building, now we can’t get the manager to fumigate our apartments…”
Their main demand, however, is that rents remain affordable. More specifically, they’re seeking a contract similar to what the Mariachis from Boyle Heights were able to win: capping rent increases for a number of years, and then guaranteeing that the landlord will collectively bargain once that contract is up.
Last Thursday, February 21, the Association had their first negotiating session with the landlord (and his children; see below), held outside in the building’s courtyard. Botz had immediately responded to the tenants’ request via email to meet face-to-face, and at the meeting even agreed on the spot to disarm the building’s security guard.
But he didn’t seem to be willing to significantly budge on the rent increases. The fight will continue, and likely escalate.
Public Money, Private Profit
The building, located at 636 N. Hill Place, was constructed beginning in 1986 by a corporation called “L.A. Sunset Properties II.” At some point around the year 2000 — it’s not clear exactly when — Botz, a now-retired lawyer who lives in Malibu, bought that corporation, and thus the building. Today, two other corporate entities respectively manage and own it, both of which are controlled by Thomas Botz. LLCs controlled by Botz own at least 5 other residential buildings in LA County.
Oddly enough, his two 20-something children, Chloe Botz and Nolan Botz, live in the very building where these rent increases are happening. Their rooms, however, according to several tenants, are newly renovated and much nicer than all the others.
Chloe, the elder sibling, plays a leading role in managing the building. She patrols the halls, clipboard in hand, and has been personally offering tenants buy-out offers in advance of their rent increases: $1,000 for every month they leave before June. Many tenants also claim she has taken actions to prevent children from playing in the common areas, although the building’s official policy is that children are allowed to play in the such areas, just not with hard balls.
Nolan appears to be less involved, but is nonetheless taking after his father: he works in residential real estate at the firm Marcus & Millichap. (Coincidentally, or maybe not at all, his employee profile page was taken down the day after the tenants sent their demand letter.)
The development was subsidized from the ground-up by over $5 million in zero-interest loans — about two-thirds of that coming from the local CRA, and one-third from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). In return, the developer-landlord agreed to build and rent all 124 units to low- and moderate-income households for 30 years. This agreement was not altered upon Botz assuming control of the building.
The original loan agreements explicitly state that any profits from the development — once the original loans are paid back — may be kept in full by whoever owns the building.
There’s no way to know how much they paid for it, or how much in rent and fees they’ve already collected so far. But with rents in Chinatown skyrocketing as the area gentrifies, things are looking up for the Botz’s.
The people that live there are not so lucky.
They are, however, joining tenants across Los Angeles in rebelling against both their respective landlords and the smooth functioning of the capitalist real estate market. From the elderly folks at the Metro Senior Lofts in Chinatown battling a massive “affordable housing” developer, to the Westside LATU members fighting against Tyler Wilson to keep Patricia Sanchez in her home, to the tenants in Lincoln Heights withholding rent from a slumlord who’s also a minister, the struggle for housing as a human right rages on.
The Hillside Villa Tenants want to live in Chinatown, so they are now entering the fray too.
NOTE: this piece has been corrected to reflect the fact that there is no official policy at the apartment complex banning children from playing in common areas, and that ownership has not explicitly expressed an intention to replace the current tenants with whiter ones.