This article was originally published by LAist on August 8, 2023.
Dozens of renters are facing notices to pay or quit — the first step toward eviction — at an embattled Chinatown apartment building that’s become the epicenter of a heated battle over affordable rents.
The 124-unit property, known as Hillside Villa, was originally developed in the 1980s as affordable housing using loans from the city of L.A. But the building’s original 30-year affordability covenant has expired, and some tenants have seen their rents triple in recent years as a result.
In an effort to preserve affordability and keep low-income tenants housed, the L.A. city council voted in May 2022 to acquire the building. At the time, the move was described as “unprecedented.” But since then, the city has made little progress toward buying the property.
Evictions mount as rising rents squeeze low-income Americans
Now, Hillside Villa owner Tom Botz is demanding tenants pay back rent he says they owe — or leave this week. Over the weekend, tenants received a three-day notice to pay or quit. Rene Alexzander is one of them. He said residents are disappointed in the city’s response.
“We have all these people here who cannot afford to move anywhere else,” Alexzander said. “And the city has done absolutely nothing.” Alexzander plans to fight the latest threat of eviction.
The City’s Response
In a written statement, Zach Seidl, spokesperson for L.A. Mayor Karen Bass, said the mayor’s office is in communication with tenants.
“Our office has met with residents of Hillside Villa, a privately-owned building that is not in the City’s control, and in coordination with the City Attorney and Housing Department, we are working on long term solutions,” he said.
Councilmember Eunisses Hernandez, who represents the district where Hillside Villa is located, tweeted a statement over the weekend calling on Botz to rescind the notices.
This is a city crisis, and the city is refusing to do anything.
Rene Alexzander, Hillside Villa tenant
“This dangerous escalation from owner Tom Botz shows — yet again — that he is willing to gamble with the safety and security of vulnerable tenants who have lived in Hillside Villa for decades,” Hernandez said. “Mr. Botz has not responded to outreach from my office, and actions like this show his continued unwillingness to negotiate in good faith with the city.”
Hernandez’s office did not offer answers to questions from LAist about what powers the councilmember has to stop evictions from moving forward at Hillside Villa.
Attempts to Purchase the Property Have Stalled
Botz has repeatedly said he’s not interested in selling the building to the city. Renter activists and tenants at Hillside Villa have called on the city to seize the building through eminent domain. But in a meeting with reporters in March 2023, Bass said her administration is not considering that route for Hillside Villa.
“Eminent domain — I know that so many of the tenants would like for us to do that. But you know very well, eminent domain can take years,” Bass said.
In an email to LAist on Tuesday, Botz said again that Hillside Villa is not for sale.
“Due to its location, it is currently zoned for 345 units and ownership, like many owners, has long-term plans for its property,” Botz said. “City-demanded talks are ongoing with a group of city officials who ownership believes are authorized to negotiate. Those negotiations are rocky, with the city repeatedly backtracking on various issues.”
Botz also said Hillside Villa ownership has agreed to meet with Hernandez. He added, “Until an agreement with the city is reached, ownership will continue to seek to enforce its legal rights, including the right to collect seriously delinquent rent from a group of tenants who have not paid their rental obligations for years.”
In a 2021 city report, the L.A. housing department estimated it would cost nearly $60 million to acquire and rehabilitate the building. However, with Botz unwilling to sell, the city has not been able to inspect the property for a detailed appraisal. Earlier this year, the housing department began the process of seeking a court order to force Botz to grant the city access to the property for an appraisal. That request is still tied up in court.
Meanwhile, tenants say they could lose their housing long before the city ever makes an offer on the building. Alexzander said the tenants plan to fight evictions in court if necessary, but he blames this situation on city officials for not moving fast enough.
BREAKING: dozens of tenants at the Hillside Villa apartments have received eviction notices from landlord Tom Botz this weekend.
— LA Tenants Union (@LATenantsUnion) August 5, 2023
“It’s not just Hillside Villa. Thousands of people are in the same position that we are,” he said. “This is a city crisis, and the city is refusing to do anything.”
A 2021 report from the nonprofit California Housing Partnership estimated that more than 10,000 publicly funded units of housing across Los Angeles County were at risk of losing affordability restrictions.
Back in 2020, Botz told LAist via email that the city taking the building from an unwilling seller would have a chilling effect on future affordable housing development.
“No developer would ever again agree to build low-income housing and operate it for 30 years under strict rent and occupancy restrictions, only to have the city take the building away at the end of the 30 years,” he said at the time.