Tenants make a demand for dignity.
For years, Adly Abdelmalak owned the three properties on Franklin & Western Ave in Hollywood. Operated by Abdelmalak as unregistered boarding houses, the Franklin properties were rented mostly to low-income tenants of color—people who moved to Hollywood in hopes of contributing to the entertainment industry as actors, musicians, and writers.
Abdelmalak charged these tenants $600 a month for a single bunk bed; at one point, 13 adult tenants lived at one of the properties. He refused to address multiple code and health violations, including black mold, bed bugs, rats, termites, broken or missing smoke detectors, and faulty plumbing. He left the building in disrepair, ignoring structural issues inside the homes as well as outside on porches, including broken windows, unfinished carpet, and unfinished doorways. Working with a master tenant — an absentee tenant employed by a local housing-rental company—Abdelmalak ignored the dilapidation and refused to maintain the properties.
In the words of Michael Ross, a tenant at Franklin & Western, the residents “wondered who’s in charge here, who’s taking care of the property.” Meanwhile, their predatory landlord focused on selling the buildings to real estate developer Dynamic Development Company. Upon acquiring the building, Dynamic took up where Abdelmalak left off. With its attention on corporate clients such as Starbucks, Wells Fargo, 7-Eleven, Dollar General, and Chipotle, the multi-million-dollar company ignored city law and let Dickensian conditions flourish. The Franklin tenants continued to deal with unsafe and unreasonable housing, and Dynamic filed an application with the Los Angeles Planning Commission to demolish the two houses (and the adjacent gas station) in order to build a 5-story 86-unit mixed-use above-market rate development project.
Hoping that their development be seen as “good” in the public eye, Dynamic slated eleven of those units as “Very Low Income” apartments. However, far from acting as a housing solution, the inclusion of a few Very Low Income units merely means that, after being evicted, current tenants will be forced to compete with folks from all over the city who make more than them. The Planning Commission calculates Very Low Income at 50% of the County Area-Median Income which means that an individual making up to $31,550 a year would be considered Very Low Income. Very few of the current tenants have enough income to qualify as such. As explained in a video made by the tenants and organizers from the LA Tenants Union (LATU), in order to make $31,000 a year one would have to work full-time at a minimum of fourteen dollars an hour — a quixotic expectation that, understandably, most tenants at Franklin & Western are not able to meet. These simple calculations suggest that Dynamic is using the guise of supposed low-income housing to justify displacing long-time residents, residents who are so low-income that they won’t be able to afford the supposedly affordable housing being provided by the company evicting them.
In footage from LATU’s video, a tenant at Franklin & Western exposes the scheme:
“to get real they [Dynamic] need to be honest about what this project is really about. It is about taking poor people further and further outside of Hollywood, and outside of areas that are essential to their services for them to be able to survive.”
Michael Ross elaborates on the city’s landscape of inequality. During a phone call he tells me, “What’s happening here is a tale of two LA’s. A tale of two cities.” Chuckling at the quippy reference, he continues, “It really is. One that’s quite well-off and another that is on the opposite side of that economic experience. One rich, one poor. One affluent, one decidedly less than.”
In late 2016, in a move parallel to those of renters across the city , the tenants at Franklin & Western launched a rent strike in response to months of neglect. And, for some time, while the properties at 5440 and 5448 West Franklin Avenue sat in Escrow, it was no longer clear who the tenants should pay rent to: Abdelmalak or Dynamic Development. On February 8, 2018, the City Planning Commissioners agreed to approve Dynamic’s proposed development as a way to resolve the matter of ownership. Importantly, the city approved the project on the condition that Dynamic Development “ameliorate the situation” of substandard living conditions and make the repairs demanded by HCID, the city’s housing department, since August 2017. The commission also demanded that Dynamic “provide tenant relocation assistance … in a manner consistent” with city laws.
Disregarding the city’s ultimatum, Dynamic continued to refuse to fix the previous owners’ violations. The company took advantage of the city’s labyrinthine bureaucracy, dragging its feet for months to avoid correcting 31 code violations. Last week, on March 29, Dynamic proceeded with a lockout, an eviction enforced by the sheriff’s department and overseen by Abdelmalak and Josh Trifunovic, an officer of Dynamic Development. During the lockout, Abdelmalak repeatedly badgered the tenants (many of whom face homelessness as a result of an eviction). At the end of a traumatizing day for the residents, Abdelmalak told them and others within earshot that “I had fun today. This was fun for me.”
This is all to say: in response to demands that they follow pre-existing city law, new owner Dynamic Development Company and previous landlord Adly Abdelmalak happily called on the state to remove rent-controlled tenants from their homes.
The high visibility of the eviction, along with local media coverage, effectively forced Dynamic to issue a press statement saying they had nothing to do with the lockout. However, this statement is explicitly contradicted by Trifunovic’s appearance during the eviction process. The eviction itself contradicts Dynamic’s previously stated intentions: in a July 20 letter to the tenants, Dynamic development director E. Kelly Harrison promised that no tenants would be forced to leave until voluntary relocation settlements had been agreed to.
Now a few days after the lock-out, the tenants continue to fight to be treated with dignity. Specifically, the tenants demand that Dynamic Development abide by the Planning Commission’s February 8 findings and by the pledge made by Dynamic’s own development director last summer. They further demand that Dynamic provide the tenants fair relocation assistance, as required under the city rent stabilization ordinance. As Ross emphasized both during our call and in LATU’s video,
The point needs to be made that you’re not dealing with statistics or pathological abstracts or case studies. You’re dealing with real people who are here hoping to make an impact on a city…what this comes down to for us is a demand for justice and equality under the laws of the city of Los Angeles, as written…
For us, this is a demand for dignity. Doing what we can, in our own way, to come out of this with a measure of justice and pride and hope for the future. The future this city represents.”