On Friday, May 27, members of the Hillside Villa Tenants Association and their supporters, who had packed the Los Angeles City Council chambers dressed in red shirts and holding signs that read “EMINENT DOMAIN NOW” and “PUBLIC MONEY PUBLIC USE,” erupted in cheers and began chanting “Sí se puede! Sí se puede!” The tenants had just secured a historic win, becoming the first tenants’ association in the United States to successfully force a municipal government to approve the public purchase of their building to preserve affordability.
In a unanimous vote, the LA City Council resolved to take out a loan from the city’s General Reserve Fund to acquire Hillside Villa, a 124-unit affordable housing complex in Chinatown. The building’s affordability covenant — a condition of the loan and subsidies granted to the developer in the 1980s — expired in 2019. In the years since, Hillside Villa’s landlord, Tom Botz, has issued up to 300 percent rent increases that would effectively displace most tenants. (They’ve remained housed due to a COVID-related eviction moratorium set to expire in 2023.) Yet after an extraordinary three-year fight, the unprecedented victory puts Hillside Villa Tenants Association on the verge of securing the right to stay put and preserving affordability — decommodifying their homes and exposing the inherent flaws of the United States’ neoliberal affordable housing program in the process.
Since the 1970s, when Richard Nixon instituted a moratorium on public housing construction, the provision of low- and moderate-income housing has been outsourced to private developers and operators through subsidized programs like the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) and Section 8. Under LIHTC, the federal government issues tax credits to developers who, in exchange, provide temporary affordability in a percentage of units of a usually for-profit development. (States are only required to award ten percent of LIHTCs to nonprofits.) Once the affordability covenant expires, as in the case of Hillside Villa, the landlord can raise rents to market rate, while the working-class tenants who cannot afford the increases are forced out — displaced by mechanisms of the housing policy that provided them with affordable homes in the first place.
Each unit lost to the market means another low-income household searching for an affordable home, a situation only compounded by the nationwide shortage of affordable housing. LA County alone is in need of half a million affordable units to keep up with current demand, and 8,900 units will lose their rent restrictions over the next eight years. Meanwhile, rents in LA County increased by an astounding 65 percent between 2010 and 2019, while median household incomes went up by only 36 percent — a discrepancy that, along with gentrification and financialization, helps explain why 75 percent of households were rent-burdened even before the pandemic.
Given Los Angeles’s citywide affordability crisis, the threat of ending up on the street in a city that is also unsurprisingly a focal point of the nation’s homelessness crisis has been constant for some Hillside Villa tenants. Yet with city council approving the money for the building, the tenants’ fears of losing their homes can hopefully be put to rest. Leslie Hernandez, a thirty-year tenant of Hillside Villa, said, “Just knowing that a lot of my neighbors who three and a half years ago didn’t know what their future held, seeing that relief, that weight lifted off their shoulders, knowing they have a home — it’s an amazing feeling.”
The actual acquisition of the building, however, might not be straightforward. First, the city has to make an offer to Hillside Villa’s owner, Tom Botz, who has indicated he will refuse to sell. Then city council will have to vote on whether to invoke eminent domain to expropriate the building — something the tenants have been pushing for since 2019 and which would likely pass a vote since the council has already approved the funds. The ownership and management of the building would then be transferred to a nonprofit that would repay the city through a combination of tax credits and other funds, with a stipulation that it must remain affordable for at least 55 years. (The tenants, who prefer a co-op model to ensure tenant control, will continue to push for permanent affordability.)
Regardless of whether city council purchases the building outright or through eminent domain, it will set a precedent for how cities can approach expiring covenants and preserve affordability. This is crucial considering that nationally, nearly half a million affordable housing units built through the LIHTC program have affordability covenants set to expire by the end of this decade, which will likely trigger an unprecedented wave of displacement. But tenants in buildings with expiring rent restrictions should not expect elected officials to initiate this process on their own.
While the Hillside Villa Tenants Association has redefined what is possible for tenants’ movements, their struggle also demonstrates that any demands for and realization of radical change — like expropriating exploitative landlords — must originate within and be forced by tenants’ movements themselves. Leslie Hernandez said:
We opened the door for a lot of renters and showed that this is possible. It’s just a matter of sticking together and not letting your politicians take control over your fight. We did this — the tenants, the organizers, our supporters. Because if it hadn’t been for our fight and us getting angry, shouting, screaming, protesting, hunting down whoever we had to hunt down, we wouldn’t be here right now.
Public Money for Public Use
The Hillside Villa Tenants Association was founded in 2018, after Tom Botz announced the upcoming rent increases. The tenants spent months getting their city council member, Gil Cedillo, involved, but after Cedillo negotiated a ten-year extension of the affordability covenant, Botz reneged on the deal, and Cedillo informed the tenants that there was nothing else he could do. The tenants, however, had begun discussing the potential of fighting for the city to expropriate their building through eminent domain, keeping their homes off the speculative market and eliminating their landlord altogether — who, it’s worth mentioning, receives more than $1 million in public money annually through Section 8.
Yet again, the tenants had to fight to get Cedillo’s attention, staging sit-ins at his office or confronting him and his staff at public events. Eventually, Cedillo introduced the motion to explore the possibility of expropriating Hillside Villa to city council, but the lack of engagement from their elected official continues to infuriate tenants. “It shouldn’t be like this,” said Leslie Hernandez. “It shouldn’t have to be us missing work, missing hours, or switching doctors’ appointments in order for them to pay attention to us.”
While navigating politics and bureaucracy, being dodged by their representatives, and receiving constant requests for information from various committees, the tenants were supported by Chinatown Community for Equitable Development and the Los Angeles Tenants Union — core pillars of LA’s growing tenants’ movement. Rene AlexZander, a twenty-year tenant of Hillside Villa, explained: “The type of support that we’ve had has been very helpful. They taught us what needs to be done, how to say it, and how to approach it, and that was a huge factor.”
Another factor that kept the tenants going as they inevitably grew discouraged or exhausted over their long fight was “a really strong core group of older women that went to every single meeting. And it was so inspirational knowing that no matter what, they were going to be there, putting their foot in the door and saying, ‘Hell no,’” said Rene AlexZander. These women, most of them Mexican, El Salvadorian, and Filipina, have been the vocal, persistent backbone of the movement. “Seeing a lot of these ladies, especially the non-English speakers — it’s a great feeling knowing they’re not scared of what will happen anymore. They know they have rights, they know they have a voice, and they used it,” Leslie Hernandez said.
In addition to their weekly meetings, the tenants have carried out more than fifty actions, including protests in front of their landlord’s Malibu mansion, the homes of city council members, and buildings — such as Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall — that were built on land seized through eminent domain. The City of Los Angeles frequently uses eminent domain for projects like stadium construction, urban “revitalization,” and highway expansion, often displacing low-income communities in the process. But by demanding that eminent domain be used to preserve affordability and keep people housed, these tenants are reclaiming the law in a system where profit accumulation usually outweighs consideration of public need.
After decades of privatization and public money being funneled to for-profit developers and landlords, Hillside Villa Tenants Association has shown how tenants’ movements can decommodify and reclaim housing as a public good, reversing the deleterious effects of neoliberalization — an effort reminiscent of other re-municipalization struggles across the globe in realms like public infrastructure and public services. Yet this type of fight has to start with tenants themselves.
“Look what we accomplished,” Rene AlexZander said after the win. “Not just for ourselves, but for so many other tenants that are fighting the same injustice.”