This is an update to the story of Rodney Drive tenants struggle vs. Scapa Silverman Properties (which operates more than 40 L.A. apartment buildings under many different names, LLCs and other corporate entities, including Hollywood Hills Apartments).
In March 2011, Jeff Scapa and Bill Silverman bought an attractive two-story apartment building at the corner of Rodney Drive and Prospect Avenue in Los Feliz Village, whose long-term tenants had had years of stable ownership by one family assisted by a resident manager. From the beginning, the new owner let every tenant in the building know that he’s not the absent but friendly landlord they’d had before.
The new owners fired the resident manager and made clear they did not like having a group of long-term tenants in rent-stabilized units at below-market rates. They made low-ball “cash for keys” offers and then started outright harassment of the tenants to pack up and leave. Some of the harassment tactics were false claims of lease violations and some were changes that would clearly decrease the safety and security of the tenants in their own homes.
The tenants organized and formed a unified front, the Rodney Drive Tenants Association. They reached out to tenants rights clinics and organizers to become aware of their rights as tenants. What they didn’t know yet about their rights, they would read, research, learn, teach and practice themselves. The tenants beat back these initial attempts to force them out. Things were mostly calm for almost three years, but it turned out to be the calm before the storm.
The landlord then played the Ellis Act Eviction card. In January 2015 all the tenants in the 12-unit rent-stabilized apartment building got slammed with no-fault eviction notices. Everybody would have to go. The Rodney Drive tenants realigned their organizing trying to combat the impending Ellis Act evictions. They decided in consensus that no way would the evictions happen quietly, and without a fight. They sought help. The Los Angeles Housing and Community Investment Department (HCID) had to be dragged kicking and screaming to give what turned out to be only very little help, and then dropped the issue. The City and its councilmembers threw up their hands. The tenants only got a one year delay in their evictions on the basis of their senior age or a disability. They were legally entitled to this extension but had to fight HCID and the landlord for it.
Loaded with artistic talent, creativity and a strong will to defend their homes the Rodney Drive tenants, many of whom are professional artists, actors and writers, launched a fiery public campaign that lasted for the final year of their stay in their apartments.
It started with a text “Evicted … Walt + Timo” painted in a window facing the courtyard of the building. Then the other tenants posted “Evicted By Ellis Act” signs in all the other windows. They marched, yelled and protested on the streets. They talked to media and were widely covered in mainstream and independent media platforms. They helped make the “Ellis Act” a frightening household word. The Rodney Drive battle became one of the base struggles founding the Los Angeles Tenants Union.
The eviction of the predominantly queer, artists, actors, writers and creative workers of the Rodney Drive building cut off the tenants from their community where they had invested with their lives, work and input.
Most of the Rodney Drive tenants had to move out of Los Feliz Village. In the late stage of the upscaling and churning up of the neighborhood they could find nothing they could afford. When losing their rent-stabilized apartments and moving to market rate units their rents went up more than 100%. Without a question this kind of rent hike is an unfair burden for nearly anyone.
When the Rodney Drive tenants started to move out, renovations started in the emptying apartments. Suddenly, new tenants started to move into the newly renovated units. How could this be legal? Wasn’t this a breach of the Ellis Act and the LA Municipal Code? A representative of HCID stated off-the-record in a conversation with one of the tenant activists that the whole building should have been sealed after the Ellis Act evictions.
The landlords have claimed repeatedly that the new tenants live in the apartments without paying any rent. The landlords say they can do this for 5 years to duck the Ellis Act and RSO policies, and then can start collecting rents at whatever price they want.
The Rodney Drive fight has been a battle of lower middle class tenants vs. the predatory 1%. It has to be noted that one of the owners of Scapa Silverman Properties himself lives in an 8 million dollar, 5 bedroom / 4 bathroom mansion in Beverly Hills. Mom-and-pop landlords? Nope.
To be clear, the battle of Rodney Drive has not unfolded as the displacement of poor and working class people of color that typifies gentrification in Los Angeles, such as the ongoing struggles in neighborhoods like Highland Park and Boyle Heights. The Rodney Drive tenants had modest lower middle class wages, disability or retirement pensions, and the privilege coming from being mostly white and well educated — which admittedly eased their diaspora compared to many others being displaced. They did not end up on the streets and that was never a realistic fear or threat.
However, the displacement of tenants like those of Rodney Drive and those from other middle-income neighborhoods, fuels a cascading displacement of other families. Displaced tenants with somewhat higher income then compete for scarce housing with others of lower income, often in gentrifying working class areas. Those at the bottom of the chain are forced out of the city or onto the streets.
According to The Coalition for Economic Survival (CES), and San Francisco-based Anti-Eviction Mapping Project, 24,021 rent stabilized affordable units have been destroyed in the City of LA from 2001 through June 30, 2018 due to the Ellis Act. Loss of 24,021 units in 17 years may not seem like a large number first, but it chips away at the total of 618,000 RSO units at the rate of about 5 units/day.
There doesn’t seem to be much study or statistics exploring where all the lower income, working class people go to flee the rising rents. One can only look at Zillow and see where rent is still relatively affordable: Inland Empire, Antelope Valley, Lancaster, Bakersfield, Victorville, the desert, or out of state to Las Vegas or even rural Nevada.
Already in 2013 in his LAWeekly article Patrick Range MacDonald talks about a “Latino diaspora” from Hollywood and East Hollywood. Between 2000–2010 there was an exodus of more than 8 percent of Hollywood and East Hollywood’s population, nearly 13,000, mostly Latinos. This is believed to be the largest mass departure from an L.A. neighborhood. How many have moved away from Echo Park, Highland Park and Boyle Heights? We don’t even know. This is urban cleansing and it still hasn’t stopped.
As of December 2018, the Rodney Drive battle still continues, though for now it has moved from the streets to the courts. The tenants brought an affirmative suit against the evicting owners for depriving them of their long term homes, the security of affordable rents, and for violating various laws and rights in doing so. The tenants hope to use their court case and their example to force the City to enforce its laws and protect tenants, and to dissuade other landlords from such flagrant abuse. Depositions and discovery have revealed ever more clearly how much landlords think they can get away with violating basic human rights not to speak of ordinary human decency. The outcome of this battle is still unknown. A trial date has been tentatively set for March, 2019.
Existing tenant protections by the City or State are not enough. This is where the importance of tenant organizing comes in, to break the chain of displacement and gentrification. What we have now, displacing tenants and destroying lives and communities every single day, is not sustainable.
In these times of crisis our movement for housing rights is growing stronger, wider, more fierce, more clever, more relentless day by day until there is housing justice for all.
Text: Timo Saarelma
Editing: Walt Senterfitt