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Tenants In LA’s Chinatown Are Demanding The City Use Eminent Domain To Buy Their Building

”We believe the City of Los Angeles can and should use eminent domain to purchase the building and ensure it remains affordable.”

Some of the Hillside Villa tenants, and organizers from LATU and CCED, at City Hall

“We do not want to have to worry about rents being raised to market-rate in 5 or 10 years; we do not think a heartless and unaccountable landlord like Thomas Botz should be profiting off of subsidized housing; and we strongly believe that working-class tenants of color like us deserve to stay in Chinatown, permanently.” — from a letter the Hillside Villa Tenants Association sent to Councilmember Gil Cedillo

After 6 months of organizing in response to expiring “affordable housing,” the Hillside Villa tenants can now claim a small victory: their landlord Thomas Botz feels the pressure and has agreed to push his outrageous rent increases back a month, to July 1. The tenants believe this is a sign of a more lasting agreement to come soon.

But now they have a bigger demand: that the city intervene and use eminent domain to buy the building to keep it affordable forever.

Eminent domain would involve the city literally forcing Botz to sell the building at its current market value, and would be legal as long as the building is then used for some sort of public purpose (like keeping families in their homes).

Along with supporters from the LA Tenants Union and the Chinatown Community for Equitable Development (CCED), about 10 tenants showed up to Councilmember Gil Cedillo’s office on Friday morning to present him with this demand. The tenants had emailed the office the week before about setting up a meeting with the Councilmember, but didn’t even get a response.

Their demands to Cedillo were also delivered in a letter sent after the visit. The letter states:

“Our main demand is more lasting, and what we want from you is relatively straightforward: help us keep the Hillside Villa Apartments permanently affordable. We believe the City of Los Angeles can and should use eminent domain to purchase the building and ensure it remains affordable in perpetuity. Alternatively, the City could help arrange funding for a nonprofit to purchase the building.”

The tenants go on to explain that the city could easily afford the roughly $9 million it would cost to buy the building from Botz:

“We know that LA has the money, evidenced, for example, by the $1 billion in subsidies promised to just 8 developments since 2005 (including $198 million for The Grand Avenue Project [in Bunker Hill] just across the 101 Freeway). Additionally, according to Occidental College Professor Jan Lin, the city spent $36 million in 2007 on Blossom Plaza in Chinatown.”

Eminent domain has historically been wielded by cities to uproot poor people of color and clear the way for corporate-driven development. The Bunker Hill section of Downtown LA, which involved the displacement of 11,000 low-income people, is a perfect example of this. Here, in the 1960s onward, the city used eminent domain to buy and clear 140 acres of land to make way for massive office towers, luxury hotels, and bougie museums. Bunker Hill sits just across the freeway from the Hillside Villa Apartments.

The tenants know this, and are pushing to radically change how things are done in LA. They’re putting forth an idea that can be extended to the tenants of the 14,000 other “affordable” units in LA County that will be converted to market-rate rents in the next 5 years.

Their letter also makes clear they don’t trust Cedillo, but are willing to work with him:

“[W]e must be directly involved in all negotiations. We saw how you recently sided with the developer of College Station, clearing the way for 725 luxury apartments without requiring any affordable units on-site. And we saw how you forced the senior tenants at Metro Lofts to rely on this market-rate developer.”

Cedillo’s office, of course, didn’t give any indication they would help the tenants on this. The tenants expect to have a face-to-face meeting with Cedillo soon.