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Six Years Into Rent Strike, Tenants Union Will Battle Landlord in LA Court

The Hillside Villa Tenants Association is engaged in one of the longest rent strikes in the history of Los Angeles.

Members of the Hillside Villa Tenants Association rally in front of a banner that says "Stop Breaking Families Apart" on August 12, 2023, in Los Angeles, California.

This year marks the sixth year that the Hillside Villa Tenants Association (HSVTA) has been engaged in a ceaseless struggle to protect their homes in Los Angeles’s Chinatown. When the tenants first came together on a cold winter night in November 2018 — a meeting called by the late leader Luisa Ramirez, in response to notices from the landlord stating their rents would massively increase — surely none of them thought the fight would go on this long.

Their struggle has become one of the longest lasting rent strikes in the history of the city, if not the nation, as dozens of tenants have not paid a dollar of rent in over three years.

Their efforts have also been notable for the radical demand they have placed on the city: expropriation. Since May of 2019, the tenants have demanded that the local government use the process of eminent domain to take the building from the landlord and keep it permanently affordable.

But the new year also brings a new battlefield: eviction court. The stakes have never been higher, as 35 families have now been served unlawful detainers, the legal term for eviction. The first batch of lawsuits was filed in September 2023, and the latest ones were filed and served to tenants just days before Christmas of the same year.

The tenants remain unwavering in their rent strike. Thanks to the organization they have created, as well as to support from Chinatown Community for Equitable Development (CCED) and the Los Angeles Tenants Union (LATU), all 35 families have properly responded to the lawsuits, and will be represented by attorneys. Win or lose in court, tenants have vowed to fight for their homes to the end. As one longtime resident, Jennie Limheya declared as she burned her eviction notice last August: “If [the landlord, Tom Botz] wants our money, he can have it in the next life.”

The Genesis of the HSVTA Rent Strike

While the Hillside Villa tenants’ struggle began in response to threats of enormous rent increases, it took more than a year, in addition to a global pandemic, to get to the point where more than 30 families were willing to entirely withhold their rents.

The tenants won an initial, interim victory back in 2019 by using the courts to their advantage. Legal aid lawyers were able to demonstrate that the landlord did not comply with state notice laws related to increasing rents on buildings that were formerly subject to affordability restrictions, and brought a lawsuit on this issue. This forced the landlord to negotiate with the city to keep rents low for 10 years in exchange for certain subsidies, yet this deal collapsed by the fall of 2019.

The long-threatened rent increases resurfaced and became a reality in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, with the landlord serving notices of rent increase to take effect in October 2020. This is when the first large group of tenants began the rent strike. These initial notices were rescinded, but then quickly reissued to take effect in February 2021. At this point, with dozens of families completely unable to pay, the rent strike expanded to more than 30 households.

Meanwhile, HSVTA has kept its eye on the ball and has not stopped fighting for expropriation of the building through eminent domain.

Slow Progress on Expropriation

The evictions are just one battle of the larger war between the HSVTA and the landlord, 636 NHP LLC, a corporate entity controlled by Tom Botz and his family. For the last several years, the tenants have seen that the only possibility for their collective stability is in getting the building completely out of the hands of the landlord, thus their focus on pushing the city of Los Angeles to use eminent domain.

“We are poor people, we are elderly people, we are families with small children, and we cannot pay the rent that the landlord is demanding,” explained Rosario Hernandez, a resident who has lived at the property since 1988. Hernandez knows the impacts of eminent domain well: She was displaced from her previous home when the city expropriated land in the area to make room for the Los Angeles Convention Center. “The landlord will not stop,” she continued. “He will do everything he can to raise the rent and get us out, and that is why the city must take the property from him.”

After years of fighting the prior council member for their area, Gil Cedillo, in May 2022, HSVTA won a historic city council vote that instructed the Los Angeles Housing Department (LAHD) to take the first steps in moving towards expropriation. Specifically, LAHD was instructed to conduct an appraisal of the property’s market value and make an offer to the landlord to purchase it.

Progress has stalled since then. Rather than immediately moving towards an appraisal, the Housing Department, under the leadership of Ann Sewill — whom the tenants have demanded be fired — wasted months trying to negotiate with Botz. This was despite Botz, as he himself described it, telling the city he was not interested in selling the property “about a hundred times.” The city also decided to ask a court of law for permission to enter the building and conduct the appraisal, rather than ask the tenants themselves to allow access, which has of course resulted in further delays. As of this writing, the appraisal — ordered to be conducted nearly two years ago — still has not happened.

Sewill, the general manager of the Housing Department, herself has displayed notable hostility towards tenants — one example is particularly telling. Less than two months after the city council vote, Botz sent a landscaping company to demolish the community gardens at the building. In response, the tenants engaged in a collective garden defense to prevent the landscapers from destroying their plants and medicinal herbs, facing down police that had been called by building management. From documents obtained through a public records request, we learned that later that day, Sewill personally emailed LAPD Chief Michel Moore to report the incident and to highlight that Botz was the owner of the building, not the city. Moore replied to Sewill, notifying her that the Hillside Villa building would be placed in a “Special Location” file for increased awareness among the local command. This is a salient example of the heads of two major city departments working in concert to protect landlords, rather than tenants.

Mayor Karen Bass and council member Eunisses Hernandez, meanwhile, despite their claims to progressive politics, have failed to support the push for expropriation. Neither will take responsibility for the city’s lack of progress, nor publicly support this innovative use of eminent domain for the purposes of protecting affordable housing. This has been particularly disappointing from the council member: Although she spoke out in “100% support [for the tenants’] fight for eminent domain” while she was campaigning, once in office, she has equivocated and refused to back this demand.

In early February, the city council passed a motion introduced by council member Hernandez asking for a report back on the situation from the Housing Department. However, it has been communicated to HSVTA that the council member’s and mayor’s office expect this report to include some sort of deal made with the landlord — negotiated entirely behind closed doors, without input from the tenants — that may effectively sink the prospects for eminent domain.

Organizing Gets the Goods

Tom Botz has made his choice: He would rather spend tens of thousands of dollars paying his lawyers to throw 35 families onto the streets than negotiate a solution for the city to take ownership of the building — and pay him tens of millions of dollars in the process — so that the community could benefit.

That all 35 families will be represented in court is above all a testament to the tenants’ organization and fierce struggle. Any tenant lawyer or organizer in Los Angeles knows the difficulty of winning the lottery-like process to get an eviction defense attorney as a low-income tenant.

This is one of the extremely important lessons here: It is precisely because of HSTVA’s collective, political battle over the last five years that they have been able to accomplish the otherwise impossible task of finding lawyers for 35 families at once. Community-minded lawyers at various nonprofit organizations across the city have stepped up and will vigorously defend the tenants in court — almost certainly with other organized tenants from LATU and CCED at their backs.

As the tenants have emphasized all along, HSVTA’s fight is not an isolated struggle. Over the years, they have garnered the support of other tenant associations, grassroots organizations and labor unions, including the Los Angeles Community Action Network, the Pilipino Workers Center and UNITE HERE Local 11. Over half a decade of fighting has exposed how dire the city’s housing crisis is; these are just 35 of the more than 75,000 families in the city who have had to face eviction notices in the past 12 months, hoping to avoid joining the ranks of the 46,000 people who are unhoused on any given night.

The story of Hillside Villa has vast implications for the battle between landlords and tenants over land in Los Angeles, and exposes the weakness of the government’s response to this dire situation. The tenants’ organizing begs the question: If supposedly progressive politicians cannot bring themselves to expropriate even one building from a landlord from Malibu, how do they expect to tackle the extraordinary crisis we are living through?

While the tenants are confident they will win in court, they also know that victory in the legal system is not enough; the landlord can try again, and again, and again. In the longer run, the city must take bold action to put the Hillside Villa Apartments under public or community control, as the tenants and their movement have been vigorously demanding.

Sonia Rodriguez, a leader within HSVTA, is clear about the larger stakes involved: “I am fighting these evictions so that my children and grandchildren have decent housing. It is for the generations that are coming. We must also be organized for others in this city who are in the same situation and have the same fight, and go forward without fear.”

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