But The Hillside Villa Tenants Association has sprung into action and is fighting back.
On Monday, June 29th, dozens of tenants at the Hillside Villa Apartments in Chinatown opened their mail to find notices telling them that their rents would increase massively in October of this year. Some tenants are facing rent increases of above $2,000 (going from $850 to $3,000 per month, for example).
There’s just one problem for the landlord, Tom Botz: these rent increases are plainly illegal, and the tenants are organized and ready to fight back.
Under an emergency order issued by Governor Gavin Newsom in December of 2019 related to the wildfires raging at the time, landlords in Los Angeles County cannot raise rents by more than 10% through the entire year of 2020. As the California Apartment Association warned its members: “Anyone convicted of violating the statewide anti-price-gouging law can face a year in county jail, a fine of up to $10,000, or both, as well as civil penalties.”
It’s unclear if Botz (and his lawyers) know this law is in effect and just don’t care, or are genuinely not aware. Either way, Botz may face legal consequences — including, again, up to a year in jail — if he doesn’t rescind these notices soon. Tenants and supporters are putting pressure on the California Attorney General, who’s in charge of enforcing these anti-price gouging measures, to act quickly to force Botz to notify tenants that these increases are void. Hundreds of people have called the AG’s office or filed a complaint online over the last several days.
The Hillside Villa tenants were prepared for these illegal rent increases, and are now acting quickly and collectively through the Hillside Villa Tenants Association (HSVTA), which has been in existence for almost two years and is supported by the LA Tenants Union (LATU) and Chinatown Community for Equitable Development (CCED).
“Hillside Villa is our place, we will not be displaced” / “Hillside Villa es nuestro lugar, no nos van a desplazar”
These rent increases will likely play out similarly to the other hurdles faced by HSVTA: Botz throws a punch, the tenants come together and hit back harder, Botz is forced to back down, and the tenants continue to defy the odds and remain in their homes.
Hillside Villa is an expiring “affordable housing” development. The developer got millions of dollars from the city and the federal government in the late 1980s to build the apartments, and in exchange for that money had to keep the rents low for 30 years. As required by California law, in September of 2019 Botz gave tenants 12-month notices that the affordability restrictions were ending, and then again gave 6-month notices in March of this year.
(Actually, the first 12-month notices came in June of 2018, and Botz thought he’d be able to raise rents to market rates on June 1st, 2019. But HSVTA organized against Botz, filed a lawsuit, and was able to get him to back off. Botz then sent new 12-month notices in September of 2019.)
Far from being caught off-guard, therefore, HSVTA knew exactly what to expect, and what to do. They had actually handed out flyers — with text in English, Spanish, and Chinese — to the entire building the week before, warning people of these illegal rent increases coming. Once the notices came, new flyers went out to all 124 units telling the entire building that the increases were illegal, and that the tenants association would fight them.
Now the plan is to pressure the Attorney General, pressure Botz, and potentially bring a lawsuit, if necessary.
Tom Botz should be punished; that much is clear. As an owner of multiple rental properties where hundreds of families live, he has a duty to know the law and to follow it. He has more money than we can probably imagine, and a team of lawyers. The Attorney General should prosecute him to the fullest extent possible.
They probably won’t, though, because that’s how the criminal (in)justice system in this country works. If you’re a Black man who is caught with drugs, you might go to jail for life. If you’re a rich white man who serially violates the law and abuses tenants — as just one example, his company was found guilty of discriminating against families for harassing and evicting tenants in response to their children playing in common areas — you might get a slap on the wrist.
But rather than send Tom Botz to prison, a more just outcome would be to take his property using eminent domain — just as the Hillside Villa tenants have been demanding for months. Councilmember Gil Cedillo introduced a motion to get this process started in January of this year, but the combination of COVID-19 and City Council’s bureaucracy has kept things moving slowly.
The process is going forward, though. Just last week council received a report from the Housing Department which states that “exercising eminent domain for the purpose of providing affordable housing for public use is appropriate,” and therefore “it is recommended that the City invoke the use eminent domain to acquire Hillside Villa Apartments in an effort to prevent the displacement of tenants.”
From what we know, the building is about to be formally appraised, after which point the city will make Botz an official offer to purchase it. If Botz refuses, then the eminent domain process can really kick off and, after a City Council vote, the city can take possession while the whole thing works itself out in the courts (this is called “prejudgment possession”).
The city can potentially take the building out of Botz’s hands within a few months, then. Botz was hoping he’d be able to get lots of the tenants out before that happened, but for now it looks like the Hillside Villa tenants are here to stay.
Their story continues to be a beacon of hope, and provides a serious lesson for tenants across California: organizing gets the goods.