L.A. council backs plan to acquire Chinatown apartments
The Los Angeles City Council voted Friday to make an offer on an apartment complex in Chinatown, following an emotionally charged hearing where tenants voiced their rage and frustration over massive rent hikes sought by the building’s owner.
On a 12-0 vote, the council instructed housing officials to obtain a new appraisal for Hillside Villa, a 124-unit property just north of downtown, then submit an offer based on that research.
The vote comes as Councilman Gil Cedillo, who represents Chinatown, is in a tough reelection fight against an opponent, activist Eunisses Hernandez, who has called for new tenant protections. Meanwhile, uncertainties still surround the proposed transaction — the property’s price, the building’s condition and whether a fraction of the tenants might not be permitted to remain.
The council moved forward after hearing impassioned demands from Hillside Villa tenants, some fighting back tears, to use the power of eminent domain to force the owner to sell. Several spoke of the anxiety they and their relatives have felt after receiving notices of increased rents, some of which were doubled or even tripled.
“We have been protesting, and we have been hunting down whoever we need to protest, in order for us to be here to ask you guys to help us keep our house affordable,” said tenant Leslie Hernandez. “We are not asking for anything that is not in the power … of you guys to do.”
Hillside Villa tenant Alejandro Gutierrez told the council his family recently received a notice saying their rent will go up to $2,660, up from $1,063 in 2019. Gutierrez, who has lived in the building 26 years, said he does not want to be pushed out, but cannot get a Section 8 voucher due to the long waiting list.
“Chinatown has been my home for all these years,” he said. “Chinatown is my neighborhood that I love.”
The frustration and anger in the room reached its peak when Patrick Hennessey, an attorney for the landlord, tried to speak during the public comment period. Dozens of audience members screamed “Liar! Liar! Liar!” — bringing the meeting to a temporary halt — as he attempted to argue that a better strategy would be to provide a portion of the building’s tenants federal Section 8 housing vouchers.
Attorneys for Hillside Villa say residents in 71 units already have Section 8 vouchers to help them cover the rent. Another 16 units are either vacant or have tenants who are paying market-rate prices without difficulty, they said.
Housing officials said earlier this week that the type of voucher mentioned by those lawyers are not easily available to the tenants at Hillside Villa.
Friday’s vote was the culmination of more than two years of advocacy by tenant activists and the building’s renters, who had urged the city to use its power of eminent domain to force the building owner to sell. Cedillo embraced that idea in February 2020, after negotiations with the owner over a deal to protect the tenants broke down.
Cedillo called the city’s use of eminent domain, which has typically been used to acquire private property for the construction of bridges, schools and and other facilities, “unprecedented” as a tool of protecting low-cost housing.
“In the area of preserving affordable housing, there’s no other city doing what we’re doing — not in the county not in the state, nor in the nation,” Cedillo told his colleagues. “So I thank all of you for having the courage and being willing to take these risks.”
Get the lowdown on L.A. politics
In this pivotal election year, we’ll break down the ballot and tell you why it matters in our L.A. on the Record newsletter.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.
Housing officials have proposed an arrangement where the city would purchase the building, then sell it to the housing authority, which has a portfolio of public housing developments. The housing authority would then pay the city back.
Last year, the council received an initial estimate that said the cost of buying and fixing up Hillside Villa would reach nearly $60 million. Attorneys for the landlord said he does not want to sell, and argued that the true cost of purchase and renovations could exceed $90 million.
Officials said they do not yet know how many tenants, if any, could be forced out once the building is publicly owned, because they earn too much. Housing activists said they believe 113 of the building’s residents qualify as low income.
Michael Leifer, attorney for the building’s owner, previously called the city’s strategy “wasteful,” saying more than two-thirds of the building’s residents are not in any kind of financial jeopardy.
Activists, on the other hand, say that building owner Thomas Botz cannot be trusted, and contend that he will renege on his commitment to welcome Section 8 tenants.