Tenants of Hillside Villa apartments filled City Hall with celebratory cheers on May 27 after City Council unanimously agreed to protect the tenants’ housing by employing eminent domain to purchase their building.
Dozens of tenants took the stand to share stories of living in the Chinatown apartment building for decades and then facing sudden rent increases of up to 300% – and noted that the property owner, Tom Botz, receives over $1 million a year in government subsidies.
One tenant said the construction of a downtown parking shelter 30 years ago displaced her family, and that she and her disabled husband and daughter refuse to be displaced again. Tom Botz recently raised her rent from $1,000 to $3,000 a month.
When Botz constructed the building in 1988 with zero-interest government loans, he agreed to maintain affordable rent for 30 years. Now the 124 units at Hillside Villa, along with over 11,000 households in Los Angeles, face sudden massive rent increases as their affordability covenants expire.
Tenants at the council meeting said the city had decades to work out a solution to the impending affordability crisis but did nothing, leaving tenants at grave risk of homelessness unless they organize to fight back.
Three years ago, tenants announced the formation of the Hillside Villa Tenant Association, and began to meet weekly in the courtyard of their apartment building. They requested meetings with City Councilmember Gil Cedillo, and organized dozens of protests and City Council call-in days, demanding Cedillo join the struggle to keep their housing. Tenants say Cedillo promised to support them, but failed to follow through and avoided meetings with his constituents.
Meanwhile, Botz violated anti-price-gouging laws by demanding massive rent increases during 2020’s state of emergency, and his daughter threatened to evict tenants for allowing their children to play in the common areas of their own apartment building.
After the tenants spoke at the May 27 meeting, they booed Botz’s lawyer, Patrick Hennessey, who had come to represent the landlord’s position.
Hennessey claimed that rent increases did not affect the majority of Hillside Villa’s households because they have Section 8 vouchers – which provide assistance to low-income families, the elderly, and those with disabilities. The tenants at City Hall – some of them Section 8 recipients – shouted “Liar!”
Hennessey presented his calculations: After subtracting the 71 households with Section 8 vouchers and the 10 new tenants, he said that leaves 27 households “to be dealt with.”
Eminent domain, he said, would be too expensive for the city. Instead, tenants should simply apply for Section 8’s federal housing subsidies, or the city should offer some other subsidy to cover Botz’s proposed rent increases.
HIllside Villa tenants earlier said that the Section 8 wait list is years-long, and that Botz was attempting to divide the organized tenants by evicting some in favor of those with Section 8 vouchers.
Cedillo, who sponsored the bill after years of tenant protest, said Tom Botz was to blame for the slow pace of action; the landlord had reneged on a negotiated agreement in which the city would forgive Botz’s $5.5 million zero-interest loan in exchange for 10 years of tenant protections: no displacement or rent increases.
The motion will allow the city to purchase the building at the appraised price of about $45.7 million, to be repaid within two to five years. Advocates said the loan will be paid by state or federal funding, or taken over by an affordable housing nonprofit, so it won’t cost the city anything long-term.
While tenants and advocates said they were ready to celebrate the historic vote, they also expressed anger towards lawmakers they said had failed them again and again.
Leslie Hernandez said Cedillo had repeatedly dodged meetings with his constituents by claiming he doesn’t know how to use Zoom. She reminded City Councilmembers, “You work for us, not the other way around.” Cedillo likes to claim he works hard for the community, Hernandez said, but tenants did the work of bringing this motion forward. “I am so pissed that we have to scream and shout for you to listen to us.”
Melissa Reyes added, “Nobody should have to fight ths fucking hard to be housed.”
The Hillside Villa Tenants Association left the courtroom chanting, “iSí se puede!”