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Los Angeles Can Easily Afford to Purchase the Hillside Villa Apartments

History shows there’s always money for police and luxury development. Will the city now cry poverty instead of keeping families housed?

Members of the Hillside Villa Tenants Association at a recent press conference in their building’s courtyard. (Credit: Jo Ran of CCED)

The numbers are in and they confirm what the Hillside Villa Tenants Association has been saying for months: purchasing their building using eminent domain would preserve affordable housing at a rate far cheaper than it costs to build new units.

A formal appraisal conducted by the city concluded that the 124-unit building in Chinatown could be purchased for about $45 million. This may sound like a lot of money, but that comes out to just $360k per unit. By comparison, new (privatized) supportive housing in LA costs around $550k per unit.

Here’s the other thing: LA has about $43 million in CARES Act funds left from the federal government, and if they don’t spend it by December 31 of this year, that money will vanish. The decision here is not whether to use this money for Hillside Villa or for some other, important project — the decision is between Hillside Villa and nothing at all. We’ve seen the state squander billions of dollars in funds for housing through sheer incompetence. We hope the city can avoid doing the same.

Councilmember Gil Cedillo has introduced a motion to use that money to purchase Hillside Villa, so we’ll see now how the rest of City Council reacts. The Hillside Villa tenants, for their part, are committed to holding him and the others accountable and making sure this gets done.

But given how friendly LA politicians are towards real estate interests — and let’s be clear, landlords do not want the city seizing properties in order to keep families housed — we can anticipate that some of the more conservative members will balk, claiming the city simply cannot afford to spend that kind of money.

Don’t believe them for a second. LA City Council has spent far more money on far less valuable projects. They also have not hesitated to use eminent domain when they find it necessary. The problem isn’t the price tag, or the use of eminent domain — the problem, history shows, is that this would actually help poor people.

I’ve already written about the ridiculous amount of public money that has gone to subsidizing corporate development, especially luxury hotels (which are sitting largely empty while people die on the street), in downtown LA. So let’s just focus on a few projects here, starting within walking distance from Hillside Villa, just across the 101 freeway.

In 2016 City Council voted to give up to $198 million in tax breaks to The Grand, a super-luxury development that already sits on public land that will feature fancy restaurants, expensive apartments, and a hotel run by the gym company Equinox. Sure, you could argue that the benefits will trickle down, that this will stimulate the economy, that workers will be hired, whatever.

Or we can just be straightforward and see this for what it is: massive amounts of public money being handed over to line the pockets of the various corporations and investors involved. LA City Council is willing to spend the equivalent of almost five Hillside Villas for a development that will benefit rich investors (and, to be sure, consumers with lots of money).

Across the street from The Grand is the Walt Disney Concert Hall, also built on public land. Here, City Council spent $110 million to build a parking garage. Who do you think fills the seats of this auditorium as the prestigious LA Philharmonic plays: the city’s working class, or the elites?

Even more outrageous is that these two projects sit atop Bunker Hill, where the city used eminent domain to clear 140 acres of land and 11,000 low-income residents in order to pave the way for high-rise corporate developments.

There always seems to be money if a project is going to benefit the rich.

And don’t forget that LAPD now spends $3 billion per year, as Black Lives Matter — Los Angeles and the People’s Budget coalition have spotlighted. Hillside Villa could be purchased with less than what LAPD spends in a single week.

Let’s end this brief tour back in Chinatown, again within walking distance of Hillside Villa. Here, the county is contemplating spending $125 million on a gondola — yes, a gondola with cars suspended in the air that carry just a few people at a time — that can take passengers from Chinatown to Dodger Stadium. Buses would probably do just fine, but money is no issue when it comes to making LA the type of “world-class” city our politicians love to brag about.

The same logic applies to eminent domain, whether it’s for Bunker Hill (11,000 people displaced), Staples Center (250 people displaced, and “probably the most profitable building in the world”), Dodger Stadium (1,200 families displaced), or the W Hotel in Hollywood (30 small businesses displaced). Suddenly, though, we might hear about how eminent domain is so extreme.

The history is clear: if LA elites think something is worth doing, they do it. Now it’s up to the Hillside Villa tenants and the movement that supports them to see this through.