Even as tenants die of COVID-19 or related illnesses, the harassment continues from management. But so does the struggle by the tenants.
On Sunday, January 31 at least least six tenants at the Hillside Villa Apartments in Los Angeles’ Chinatown were served with “3-Day Notices” demanding rent supposedly owed from February of the previous year, before the pandemic hit.
Tom Botz, the main owner of the building, and his daughter Chloe Botz, who helps run the building’s day-to-day operations as its unofficial manager, are seeking to exploit a loophole in the current eviction protections to get several tenants out in the midst of a struggle by the Hillside Villa Tenants Association that has now lasted for over two years.
These threats of eviction — if tenants do not pay the rent demanded in the 3-day notices, the landlord can file formal eviction lawsuits against them — come as two elders in the Hillside Villa Tenants Association have died in the last few weeks. One passed in the last week of December, and another in the final week of January. At least one of the deaths is the direct result of the COVID-19 virus.
Time that should have been spent on commemorating, grieving, and reflecting has now instead been interrupted by the urgent need to respond to these 3-Day Notices. Even worse, one of the tenants who received these notices is the son of the woman who passed in late December.
Leslie Hernandez, one of the core tenant leaders at Hillside Villa, had this to say:
“As we all know, 2020 was a very difficult time to many of us. A lot of us lost our jobs due to this pandemic. And unfortunately we have also lost two beautiful ladies due to COVID-19. But this hasn’t stopped Tom Botz and his family from harassing us. [Tom and Chloe] Botz have failed to see us tenants as people. All we are to them is a source of income. And once again he proved that to us just this week [with these eviction notices].”
Despite politicians’ rhetoric and media stories about California’s “eviction moratorium,” tenants can still be evicted for rent owed before March of 2020. And this can occur even if the tenant has never missed a single rent payment — if the landlord files an eviction lawsuit, and the tenant doesn’t respond to the lawsuit within five days, they could lose their case on a “default judgment,” even if the law is technically on their side.
Protections that appear to be real on paper can be meaningless in practice due to the deep inaccessibility and anti-poor bias of our legal system, including the near necessity of having an attorney in order to ensure one’s rights are enforced.
At least four out of the six tenants that received these 3-Day Notices are refusing to comply, swearing that they do not owe the amount of money being demanded. Documents provided to KNOCK, including ledgers provided by management, back these claims up.
Leslie Walker, a formerly homeless veteran, received a notice claiming she still owes over $1,000 from February 2020. A ledger given to the tenant by management shows she did owe this money at the end of that month — but then shows she paid management back in full in the first two weeks of March 2020, even ending with a credit on her balance.
So the landlord’s own numbers show that Ms. Walker almost immediately paid back any rent she may have owed as of February 2020 the very next month.
When asked how they could evict her for money she clearly already paid back, Chloe Botz replied to Ms. Walker that there’s some law stipulating that any rent paid from March 2020 onward cannot be applied to rent already owed. When pressed by tenants to specify further on exactly which law she’s referring to, Chloe could not provide an answer, and simply said that’s what their lawyers told them.
“I have severe PTSD, breast cancer, I’ve dealt with homelessness before — but Tom and Chloe Botz don’t give two shits about that,” Ms. Walker told KNOCK. “If I’m out on the streets again, what kind of risk does that put me at? They don’t even take it into consideration.”
A similar situation is playing out for Ms. R. Hernandez (a different Ms. Hernandez than the tenant quoted earlier in this story). She is being asked to pay thousands of dollars of rent she supposedly owed as of February, even though in April she paid a larger amount of money to management as part of a verbal payment plan reached in order to totally clear her debt. Her ledger, too, shows that she substantially paid off the money claimed for February of 2020 in April, just two months later.
“I don’t know where they get the balls to do this,” she told me. “It’s stressful because they’re doing this again, and again, and again — even though we’re in a situation where they’re not supposed to evict people.” She has previously fought off eviction attempts by Botz.
Fortunately, the tenants were able to rely on the strength of their Tenants Association, in addition to relationships with organizers from the LA Tenants Union (LATU) and Chinatown Community for Equitable Development (CCED) and lawyers from the Los Angeles Center for Community Law and Action (LACCLA). Group conversations were held to collectively address each eviction notice, case-by-case, to decide whether or not tenants should pay rent they don’t believe they owe, or otherwise dare Tom and Chloe Botz to file eviction lawsuits. Most elected for the latter choice.
If the landlord does choose to file formal evictions, the tenants say they are prepared to fight vigorously both in and out of court.
Meanwhile, rents for dozens of tenants have increased as of February 1, and the process of taking the building away from Tom Botz is slowly moving forward. LA City Council’s Housing Committee recently voted to send to the full council a motion that would instruct the city to find the $45 million required to purchase the 124-unit complex. A full City Council vote is expected soon.
The struggle continues.