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The Biggest Rent Strike in LA History: Burlington Tenants vs. Slumlord Attorney Lisa Ehrlich

In rapidly changing Westlake, hundreds of tenants — almost exclusively Latinx — are fighting back.

Some of the children of Burlington Ave. About 50 kids attend the elementary school right across the street from the 192 units facing rent increases and evictions. (photo by Timo Saarelma)

In rapidly changing Westlake, hundreds of tenants — almost exclusively Latinx — are fighting back against predatory rent increases coming from a rich, white, West LA homeowner who’s looking to profit off of gentrification while totally disregarding the people she’s making miserable in the process (sound familiar?).

But the tenants are acting to ensure that this won’t go down smoothly, if at all. 85 of the 192 total units are currently withholding their rent — amounting to a loss of roughly $100,000 in monthly income for the landlord — making this the biggest rent strike in LA history.

Explicitly taking inspiration from the Mariachis’ struggle (and landmark victory) in Boyle Heights, the tenants are hoping that their unity, a legal defense highlighting the slum-like conditions of the buildings, and escalating direct action tactics will provide the protection that LA’s rent control ordinance fails to, since the building was built after 1978 and is thus not covered under the law.

This is just one concrete example epitomizing the racialized class war that is gentrification (and the capitalist housing market more broadly). High rents represent enormous transfers of wealth from low-income renters of color to the rich white people that own the buildings they live in. Then, when wealthier incomers decide they want to move into a neighborhood and it starts to gentrify, landlords force tenants to uproot their lives, resulting in massive displacement, the suburbanization of poverty and the resegregation of our urban areas, and huge numbers of people living on the street — Latinx homelessness increased by 63% from 2016–2017, compared to just 23% for the entire population. Meanwhile, people like Lisa Ehrlich are more than happy to exploit this crisis for personal profit.

But this could also be another forceful example of how organized tenants can triumph over a system designed to squeeze as much money as possible from poor renters before banishing them from the city. This fight, along with a similar one being waged by 80+ tenants living near USC, shows how radical and powerful the tenants’ movement in LA is quickly becoming (also: the need for universal rent control!).

More Details

This is all taking place at three adjacent buildings — 131, 143, and 171 S. Burlington Ave. — in Westlake, a rapidly gentrifying, majority-Latinx neighborhood sandwiched between Koreatown and Downtown LA. There are 192 units across the three buildings, comprising hundreds of individuals. About 50 children attend the elementary school across the street. Every single unit recently got a rent increase ranging from roughly 25% to 50%.

Jorge and his two sons.

Jorge (pictured above), a tenant on rent strike who lives with his wife and two kids in a 1BR unit, saw his rent go from $950 to $1300 per month ($350, a 37% increase). He’s concerned because he just wants his kids to be able to live a normal life, and “not worry about a meal for tomorrow because all our money is going to the rent.”

The tenants immediately organized themselves, and are currently also being assisted by the VyBe chapter of the Los Angeles Tenants Union (LATU), whose Eastside Local played a supporting role in the Mariachis’ victory. The tenants have asked for negotiations with the landlord in order to come to an agreement that provides for much more limited rent increases over a set period of time — something similar to the groundbreaking contract agreed to by the Mariachis and BJ Turner. But these requests for face-to-face meetings have been met with refusal.

36 tenants began a rent strike in March, and roughly 50 joined them this month in April, bringing the total to about 85. The original 36 were served eviction notices pretty quickly, and the next 50 have also just been served this week. Court proceedings have begun, and will continue for several months, at the very least.

They are being represented by Elena Popp of the Eviction Defense Network. According to her, eviction cases like these, if all tenants ask for jury trials, as is their constitutional right, would take 6–8 months at a minimum. Unless the court grants a motion to consolidate, each tenant will be tried individually.

But she is very confident that nobody will get evicted and that the tenants will ultimately win in court because, in her words, “the [landlord] breached its duty to provide what we call ‘habitable dwelling units’” — meaning the buildings’ conditions are so poor that the tenants can (in her opinion) legally withhold rent. The landlord has also been illegally charging tenants for the minor repairs that have been made, and there’s evidence of unlawful retaliation against the tenants’ organizing that involves sporadically turning off the hot water (more on this and the living conditions below).

The buildings are owned by a corporate entity called “1979 Ehrlich Investment Trust,” which owns other buildings in LA and was started by the now-deceased Richard Ehrlich. The “trustee,” meaning the official decision-maker and the actual plaintiff filing the eviction cases, is Donald Crasnick, a friend of Richard’s who appears to live in Palm Springs. Lisa Ehrlich, a Pacific Palisades resident and step-daughter of Richard, serves as the attorney and has a financial stake in the Trust, and thus in the Burlington rents. Donald Crasnick and Lisa Ehrlich are the actual humans behind this inhumanity. (Here’s a court document detailing some of the above info.)

A quick look at the building’s past and present blight can help show what scumbags these people are. To start, check out what’s detailed in this court case from 2004: 1979 Ehrlich Investment Trust bought these three Burlington apartment complexes in 1994. They soon discovered there were major construction defects, and in 1996 moved to sue the developers of the buildings (who had constructed them in 1989–90) because there was water leakage and toxic mold all over the place.The two parties settled outside of court in 1999, and then conspired (legally) to keep this evidence out of the hands of the people living in the apartments! The owners — 1979 Ehrlich Investment Trust, with Lisa Ehrlich serving as one of the attorneys — had done all sorts of tests and possessed lots of documentation about the uninhabitable conditions in order to build their case against the developers. But once that was settled, they used legal procedures to ensure that the tenants — the actual people whose health and lives were impacted by all this — would be kept in the dark and would lack evidence to recover damages.

“They want to raise the rent? Infestation; Rats; Roaches; Bedbugs; Termites; Bursting water pipes; Broken elevator; Mold on wall; Hot water off 7 hrs/day.”

These poor building conditions continue to this day. Walls and ceilings throughout the building are cracked or caving in. Raw sewage and standing water sit in the parking garage. Every tenant I spoke to has a regular rodent problem that won’t go away. Elevators break down for weeks or months at a time, forcing children and elderly residents to climb up 3 stories of stairs. And the landlord has been illegally charging tenants for the meager repairs that have been made — Jorge, mentioned and pictured above, saw a $40 increase in monthly rent after the landlord sent a rodent exterminator who just gave him some glue traps.

On top of all this, ever since the tenants began organizing against these unjust rent increases, the hot water has been periodically “broken” — or, more likely, shut off in retaliation by the building manager. This is probably the single most frustrating situation for the tenants at the moment, making it difficult to go about their daily lives. Yesenia, a tenant who lives in 131, said the following: “As soon as this movement started out, the first week of February … the [hot water] shut-off was the next day. … And now [it’s been off] the first week of April. I know it’s retaliation, it’s not a coincidence at all.”

85 tenants have already made the bold decision to go on rent strike and risk eviction. We can’t know what’ll happen next, but it’s sure to be radically disruptive.

My advice to Lisa Ehrlich and Donald Crasnick: save face and negotiate with the tenants.