Story and Photos by Katie J
(Highland Park) — “Gente Si! Gentrify NO!” A chanting crowd gathered at the York and Figueroa intersection, underneath the American flag and afternoon sun. “Here, take one.” A small child handed her friend a sign reading ‘Our Future! Our Fight!’ as she clutched her own, which proclaimed ‘I Love My Community.’ “Start them young, huh?” One mother said to another, as both laughed. The feel of family, unity, and neighborly love buzzed through the air. But there was a distinct, strong undercurrent of urgency — this was not a casual gathering. The individuals from across Los Angeles that came were there to fight, to speak their piece, to be heard. To support one another in the battle against the many-tentacled monster of gentrification. Organized by NELA Alliance, BKR Gang and Drug Intervention Program, Eviction Defense Network, and concerned residents and local business owners, the day’s march and resource fair were a direct response to growing threats within a rapidly gentrifying Highland Park.
A little after 4PM, NELAA organizers called for everyone to circle up. Pastor Wayne Turner of BKR gave a rousing cry for unity in these difficult times, for neighborly support and outreach. “The Highland Park homeless population has grown almost 20%,” he said. “When the city cuts our resources, our problems only get worse.” Next, organizer Arturo read a piece he’d prepared, which asked everyone gathered to remember the roots of this fight. “Our ancestors walk with us… every step we take we honor the earth… we are a people of the river, of these hills.” As he spoke, organizer Melissa translated into Spanish. “This march is over 500 years old… let’s speak some truth to those that deny our existence.” A member of the Brown Berets spoke next, explaining that the Berets were there to help with crowd control, and asked that marchers remain on the sidewalks. “The police will look for any little reason to intervene, to stop us.” Miguel, another organizer, ended the short speeches and began the march with a powerful chant that overtook the crowd “Si se puede! Si se puede!” which continued as the crowd headed down Figueroa. “Si se puede! Our streets!”
Marching down Figueroa, everyone chanting and waving signs, it took less than 2 blocks before an LAPD SUV turned around to trail the rally in a slow, close crawl next to the crowd. Their presence did not deter the ignited marchers, who cheered even louder. Many, many passing cars honked in support (one of the marchers even held a sign reading ‘Honk if you can’t make rent’) and the verdict was crystal clear: the neighborhood was with the cause. As voices rang out with “The people, united, will never be divided!” local business owners rushed to their doorsteps, to wave and cheer and high-five the marchers. The owner of Michelle’s Nails at 5727 N. Figueroa was perhaps the most enthusiastic supporter, jumping and encouraging her small son to give high-fives too. “I have been here 16, almost 17 years” she said “this year my rent has finally doubled.” She pointed up and down the street at other businesses. “We rent month-to-month, and it keeps increasing, little bit, little bit, until it’s double. I’m worried…” she shrugged, “I’ll have to move.” When asked about her neighboring businesses, her voice fell as she recalled the owner of a makeup studio across the street, a friend of hers. “She’s gone this year. More and more people cannot pay rent, and they just have to go… I am glad everyone is out here today. I am glad everyone is here.”
Several short stops were made in front of new businesses, including the Greyhound Bar. “One guy argued with me that gentrification isn’t all bad,” said a member of El Sereno Against Gentrification. “He told me, the Greyhound owners are from Ohio and they play Ohio State games, and now white people who would be afraid to come here feel more welcomed.” She sighed, and continued to lament the liberal misunderstanding of “gentrification as desegregation” argument. “The problem isn’t individuals moving, it’s how outside realtors and developers suck resources from the community, from the people.” Several other marches nodded in agreement: conscious consumption patterns must be valued. “It’s not inherently bad if people move to Boyle Heights, but if they continue to shop at the Trader Joe’s in Silver Lake, then Boyle Heights gains nothing.” Throughout the evening, the values of unity, community support, and mutual respect were discussed and encouraged: we must build neighborhoods, not big businesses. Honor the existing culture, don’t import a new “trendy” one.
The final stop was perhaps the most important and, for many, the most cathartic: Council Member Gilbert Cedillo‘s district office. Cedillo is the chair of the Los Angeles Housing Committee, and in his position has failed to support the existing residents facing the dangers of gentrification, instead working with developers and landowners. “Shame on you! Shame on you!” The crowd threw fists in the air as they shouted their frustrations at a closed office. The evil capitalist developer puppet, one hand on a home and the other on a sack of money, was waved in front of Cedillo’s window as the crowd yelled “Stop ignoring your people!” And where was Cedillo at that very moment? In Sycamore Grove Park, hosting Councilmember Gilbert Cedillo’s 1st Annual Latin Jazz & Music Festival.
Guided by the vigilant and dutiful NELAA organizers on bikes, the crowd was brought to Antigua Bread’s parking lot, where a resource fair was set up and delicious food was being prepared (donated by Las Cazuelas Restaurant & Pupuseria and Panaderia.) The Eviction Defense Network hosted a lawyer who gave legal advice, and collected donations for residents caught up in bullish legal battles. NELAA organizers set up a stage for lively music. Jesica Vasquez was one of the organizing members. She explained that after NELAA’s event “Testimonios del Barrio” last December, residents of the community have been contacting them for assistance, resources, and more. “It was the local businesses and members of the community who asked for this event.” She said, “We’re getting calls all the time– ‘my neighbor is getting evicted,’ or, ‘my neighbors are gone‘– left and right, call after call, it’s just so much. Gentrification in Highland Park has been very violent, even more so than other areas.” She pointed behind her. “Media Drive, 17 families were just evicted. 17.” When asked if council member Cedillo had responded to this, she shook her head. “Neighborhood demands were delivered, but nothing. Calls aren’t returned, there is no communication.”
One of the attendants, Vanny Ras, was among those who came to show their discontent with Cedillo. In a solemn but defiant tone, she spoke about the displaced residents of Media Drive, one of whom is her mother. “She was homeless for a while.” Already working to provide for her own family, Vanny also took her mother into her studio apartment. “Then that strains me.” The hurt and anger was evident in her voice, but her eyes remained steely and steady. “My mother’s building got bought out and then suddenly they add $350 to the rent? You’re gonna slap people with that? People are already barely making it.” Others in her mother’s building were pushed out and over the edge of ‘barely making it.’ “We know those families, evicted from Media– some of them are living in their cars now, in the parking lot behind their old building. Some are camped out on the Arroyo.” Her hand clenched into a fist as she continued. “I was born and raised in this neighborhood. It’s not fair for newcomers to roll in here and throw their money around.”
The newly-formed and direly-needed Los Angeles Tenants Union was also present, to hand out literature and tell interested individuals about their meetings. Founding member Christina Sanchez-Juarez explained that by moving their twice-monthly meetings around the city, they’re hoping to unite renters from all over Los Angeles. “Our founding town hall was July 18th, and each meeting has grown, we’ve gotten a great response.” She said that typically, this type of work– residents banding together to fight back– has been done building by building, once tenants are faced with management issues or even eviction. The L.A.T.U. hopes “that by uniting everyone across the city we can start a movement. With all of us working together, we can change city-wide laws for renters.” Though they’re barely a month old, she explained that the members have spent over two years studying the effects of gentrification, mapping movements and changes, and working to better understand this fight on a larger scale. “We’ve got a lot of tenants in a lot of fights throughout the city… our goal is a unified network.”
One member of the L.A.T.U., Walt Senterfitt, is currently wrapped up in a legal battle for his home, too. The tenants of 1655 Rodney Drive are battling evictions justified under the Ellis Act— a 1985 state law that allows landlords to “go out of business.” One Ellis Act loophole lets landlords temporarily take rent-stabilized buildings off the rental market, “legally” evict occupants, then flip the properties or retenant them at market-rate rents. This isn’t the intended use of the law, but landlords count on renters’ lack of knowledge about the law and their rights, and employ intimidation tactics to chase the tenants out of their homes. “This is the loophole that was used in San Francisco, ” explained Walt, “so our main goal is to educate people on their rights, to organize them, and hold developers to honor those rights… we aim to build a movement, to get the city to stand on our side, not the developers’.”
The L.A.T.U. table shared the story of a similar battle being waged in MacArthur Park, at the courtyard property at 521 S. Carondelet Street. Tiger Munson has lived there for 16 1/2 years, and is now one of four remaining tenants. His is a tale of the creeping, repeated intimidation and bulling practices used by landlords to evict residents. “We had the same mom and pop owners for 15 years, but they sold in July 2014,” he began, “and then the new owners made us all sign new leases. We had a lot of management issues, and lots of new rules, like no pets– they started to harass families that had pets– and no using the barbecue grills even though it’s a courtyard property, and we all communed outside there… At the end of September, every resident received a notice claiming they were a ‘nuisance,’ and we all were given different reasons.” Tiger went through the laundry list of harassing moves by the new landlord. “5 units were given eviction notices. These were three-day notices dated the 23rd but delivered the 25th. Then a second round of notices came on the 27th… these were purposefully confusing. And suddenly, the building management ‘didn’t know anything.'”
before & after pictures via Chez 521 Carondelet
Sadly, the tactics Tiger described are widely used. “They used divide-and-conquer tactics after we all had to find lawyers.” He described his neighbor, a Latina who does not speak fluent English, being subjected to select regulations. He said she’s scared, and all the communication and notices from the landlord are only in English. “They filed a lawsuit against us, and we couldn’t legally pay rent the entire time that was in effect. Then they later dropped the lawsuit and hired a security guard, with a gun, and said he was allowed to collect rent.” And the armed guard came to collect the lump sum of back-owed rent all at once. The security guard was an obvious intimidation effort. “He started asking rude questions, making false accusations against residents, even kids. He said he had cameras, so now surveillance is something to worry about… You know, we were a building of families, social workers, artists… one lady ran a small day-care, and they’ve all but put her out of business.” If adding threats like surveillance and guards weren’t enough, the owners also saw fit to vandalize the property.
“They spray painted red all over, on ‘cracks,’ even leading right up to my door. We had a lush, beautiful courtyard. The property was built in 1914, and there were over 100 plants and trees over 80 years old. One day they claimed there would be ‘trimming,’ but they took it all– they cut down the trees and painted all the stumps blood red. One guy finally left after that. Then they re-filed a lawsuit, but only against two tenants. One left in May, the other left this month. They threw out one of my neighbors who has a mental illness… he’s homeless now.” As if it weren’t enough to send multiple, purposefully confusing notices and file frivolous suits at whim, the “legal” actions are taken against the tenants without notifying them. “If they file a lawsuit against me, they won’t tell me. I call the courthouse every day to check that nothing’s been done against me. It adds a lot of stress, a lot. I mean, how are we to know?” And still, the owner persists. “He filed for a permit to build a 5-story building on the property. I only found out because someone from a similar organization messaged me on Facebook.” Thinking about his home, Tiger’s voice stumbled slightly. ” I don’t know how they’re gonna ‘Ellis Act’ it, but… I’m afraid the city’s gonna give it to him.”
An integral piece of gentrification that makes all this displacement possible is the collusion between outside developers and government officials. Friends of Highland Park is a coalition of concerned residents who are banding together not as building tenants but as neighbors, to fight for their city. Their enemies aren’t necessarily landlords, but developers, and city and state officials. Lisa Duardo is a member of FoHLP who has worked tirelessly for the past two years “to advocate for sensible development, accountable governance and respect for Highland Park’s heritage.” A small but strong woman, she confidently strode to the mic and addressed the crowd in clear and forceful tones. “Look around you. Look at the parking lot behind you, at the hills beyond, the trees, the historic house… Developers want to completely change it all.” Armed with an astounding collection of meticulously recorded data, legal correspondence, court records, city statements, maps, and more, Ms. Duardo described the future outsiders planned to impose. “Directly behind us will be a 50 unit building. Some units will be labeled ‘affordable housing,’ but they refuse to tell us what they consider to be affordable. To your right will go 20 condo units at ‘market value.’ These public parking lots will be put under ground and leased monthly. Raise your hands if you want to pay for monthly parking to visit the Highland Theater.” The crowd roared “NO” and several boos floated through the air.
Ms. Duardo then began to explain the potential environmental impact that such reckless development would have on the area. “This nice breeze we are feeling right now will be gone, because these proposed buildings will be over 47 feet tall. The Arroyo Secco is right down the street, but the plans for all this building have no filtering system in place. Greenhouse gases, the most harmful of which is carbon monoxide, are unaccounted for in these proposals. These 80+ new units will be air conditioned, with 400 new parking spots, and the developers say they will mitigate the environmental damage by using low-VOC paint and LED lights. How is that going to affect the carbon monoxide from all these new cars parked on streets along our schools?”
She explained the various underhanded legal loophole tactics the developers have used to gain federal funding, bypass environmental impact reports, and more. “Where they can’t lie, they claim they will ‘mitigate impact,'” which she fears could take the form of a pay-off to the community, in one shady outlet or another, “but out of the community’s hands.” Friends of Highland Park are raising funds to pay for an environmental impact report themselves, and to put money towards their legal fees accrued from battling the developments. “Our representation isn’t pro bono, so we help where we can.” She said she had personally– along with another FoHLP member– gone through over 6000 documents to collect and compile data to give to the lawyer. “By doing all that work ourselves, we saved about $2500.” The blood, sweat, tears, and more that each member has given to this cause was powerfully evident, and yet their legal battle is only in its first round.
As the sun began to set, NELAA led the crowd to the American Legion for a theater performance about the pains and terrors of gentrification on personal, familial, and community levels. Their work puts faces to this fight, names and voices to the displaced, while empowering and supporting neighbors. The mainstream media does not cover and follow these personal stories. They dismay at the rising homeless population, while championing gentrification and then muse on and act befuddled over the growing inequality gap. But your neighbors are organizing, they are fighting back. There are resources available, and a growing movement calling for Angelenos to unite and stand together for our communities, our homes. As L.A.T.U.’s brochure reads, “If you don’t care now, will you care when they come to evict you?”
- 52% of the LA population are renters, the largest nationwide. – Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University, 2013
- 47% of Angelenos’ income goes towards rent. The Federally recommended amount is 30% – NYU Furman Center, May 2015
- This year, the county found 44,359 homeless, a 12% increase from last year. Only 30% of those have access to a shelter. – Los Angeles Times, 5/11/2015
- “One in four households [in L.A.] spends at least half its income on housing. And its not just poor families that are struggling. Roughly half of middle-income households were rent burdened in 2011, compared with just 11% in 2000, according to a UCLA analysis.” – Los Angeles Times, 1/11/2015
- Since 2001, 18,744 rent-stabilized housing units in Los Angeles have been lost under the Ellis Act.” – LA Housing and Community Investment Department
Gratitude and solidarity to all who shared their stories with EnClave LA.