Los Angeles Is Refusing to Enforce Hard-Won Tenant Protections

In Los Angeles, emboldened tenants are winning big against abusive corporate landlords. But as the city fails to enforce the terms of their victories, landlords continue to harass tenants with impunity.

A housing activist speaks to neighbors and housing rights advocates about landlord harassment in Los Angeles, California. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

On November 17, 2022, members of the Hillside Villa Tenants Association and the 920 Everett Tenants Association traveled to the home of the Los Angeles Housing Department’s general manager on the city’s West Side. The tenants, who live in Chinatown and organize with Chinatown Community for Equitable Development (CCED), have long been frustrated with the inertia of the city’s housing department (LAHD), so they staged a protest in front of the manager’s home, demanding action. One of the Hillside Villa tenants spoke forcefully: “If I don’t do my job, I will be removed from my workplace. I think we need the same for you. If you can’t do your job, just get the fuck out of there.”

The 920 Everett building is one among dozens owned and operated by Victoria Vu and Jerome Fink. Vu and Fink’s business model is typical for corporate landlords in California’s increasingly financialized housing markets: they purchase primarily rent-stabilized units through various LLCs in gentrifying areas; displace long-term tenants through cash-for-keys and/or harassment tactics; undertake shoddy, unpermitted, and often hazardous construction work; and rent out the renovated units at market rate, utilizing the legislative loophole provided by California’s Costa-Hawkins Rental Housing Act, which permits rent increases when tenants vacate their unit.

CCED documented these practices in the report Harassment for Keys, which tenants from 920 Everett and other Vu and Fink–owned buildings delivered to LAHD alongside countless complaints in July 2022. They insisted the city start holding predatory landlords accountable and protect tenants from harassment, retaliation, and uninhabitable living conditions — demands tenants reiterated at the November protest in front of the manager’s house.

The Hillside Villa Tenants Association, meanwhile, has been fighting for years to force the city to expropriate their building from their exploitative landlord, Tom Botz, who doubled and tripled rents after the building’s affordability covenant expired in 2019. In May 2022, the tenants secured a historic victory when the Los Angeles City Council voted unanimously to approve the funds to purchase their building.

Six months later, however, LAHD hasn’t even carried out an appraisal, the first step toward expropriation. Only after repeated actions and calls from tenants did LAHD finally file a petition with the city attorney to secure the appraiser access to the building. A hearing has been set for January 30, 2023 — one day before the city’s pandemic-era eviction moratorium is set to expire, leaving tenants who’ve incurred significant rent debt as a result of Botz’s predatory rent increases, and who must begin paying full rent starting February 1, vulnerable to eviction.

This six-month waiting period was entirely unnecessary, especially since Botz repeatedly indicated, including in May when his lawyer spoke before city council, that he was an unwilling seller, meaning the city would need to take legal action to secure access to the building. Alfredo Espinosa, who has lived at Hillside Villa since 1995, told Jacobin: “It’s very frustrating, and it’s very stressful. The owner raised our rent almost 300 percent. Thanks to the pandemic we have these eviction protections at the moment, but they’re supposed to expire by the end of January. So we don’t know what’s going to happen after that. Things are not being done by the authorities and people are getting sick over here.”

These examples demonstrate a pattern of willful neglect within the LAHD. The department’s failure to enforce preexisting codes and procedures, as well as victories secured through collective action, jeopardizes the well-being and safety of tenants. It also legitimizes landlord mistreatment and exploitation, further skewing the power dynamics of a for-profit housing system that is already stacked against tenants.

In recent years, after persistent pressure from tenant associations and tenant advocacy groups, the municipal government has passed legislation meant to correct this power imbalance, for instance by giving tenants legal recourse against landlords and restricting short-term rentals such as Airbnb and Vrbo that contribute to rent increases and limit rental housing stock. But these legislative frameworks, such as Los Angeles’s Tenant Anti-Harassment Ordinance (TAHO), which was passed in August 2021, are drastically underfunded or lack effective enforcement mechanisms, rendering them inconsequential. The impasse is illustrative of a liberal urbanism that prioritizes a veneer of progressivism over substantive structural change.

Municipal Priorities

Tenants from buildings across the city have told Jacobin about code violations, health and safety complaints, and rent stabilization ordinance (RSO) infractions that have gone unanswered by LAHD, even when tenants coordinate complaints to demonstrate patterns with specific landlords. Tenants who are being harassed by landlords — often these are the same tenants — are also met with inaction from the city, in spite of Los Angeles’s TAHO. The TAHO is meant to prohibit landlords from harassing or retaliating against tenants, and makes violations of the ordinance a criminal misdemeanor or a civil violation punishable by fines or prison time.

So far, however, despite receiving nearly four thousand harassment complaints, LAHD has referred only ten cases to the city attorney, and few, if any, private lawsuits have been filed by tenants themselves. In part, as Capital and Main reported in September, this is because LAHD has lacked funding for the enforcement of TAHO (although LAHD told Jacobin their staffing capacity has recently expanded). But it also results from the way the ordinance was written: attorneys are not guaranteed payment if they win tenant harassment cases, making it nearly impossible for tenants who cannot afford to pay legal fees to find attorneys to take on their cases.

A TAHO complaint is usually resolved either through reclassification, for instance as code or RSO complaints, or by LAHD sending an advisory letter to the landlord reminding them of the regulations stipulated under TAHO before closing the case. This extremely limited enforcement is particularly egregious considering harassment is a fundamental part of corporate landlord practices, a primary strategy used to displace long-term tenants of rent-stabilized units who are then replaced with tenants who can afford market rate — those affordable units permanently lost to the market.

The types of harassment used by corporate landlords and their employees (although certainly also by many so-called “mom-and-pop landlords”) take various forms ranging from threatening tenants based on their immigration status, pursuing illegal evictions and rent increases; withholding services; threatening physical violence; calling the police on tenants; delaying or neglecting maintenance and repairs; and carrying out loud, invasive, often harmful construction work with the express purpose of antagonizing existing tenants. As such, systematically reclassifying complaints risks obfuscating patterns of what are in fact deliberate harassment tactics.

Sam Trinh, a tenant of notoriously abusive landlord K3 Holdings (which recently changed its public name to Alpine LA Properties) and an organizer with the K3 Tenant Council, explained:

There is such a wide array of possibilities of what harassment is, but it’s important to understand that corporate landlords like K3 will do whatever it takes to get tenants out. The tactics are so subtle sometimes — and sometimes they mess up and it’s very explicit. But, for instance, using renovations to get people out looks good enough on paper, and they can get away with it. Speaking from my own personal experience, I’ve lived with it for several months; the constant loud noises, the banging, knowing that they have caused pipes to burst, flooding, broken into walls. That makes me very anxious.

In Trinh’s case, construction workers in the unit below cut a hole through the ceiling and into his bathtub frame. Trinh has filed multiple harassment complaints with the city, and each time LAHD sent a letter to K3/Alpine reminding them of the TAHO stipulations. When Trinh filed another harassment complaint this year, LAHD told him they had already sent advisory letters to K3/Alpine last year; case closed.

In the meantime, K3/Alpine has sent police officers to Trinh’s building on multiple occasions to confront tenants, as well as threatened to do so via text. The landlord is currently seeking to evict Trinh and his neighbor (and Jacobin contributor) Andrew Elrod, another tenant organizer with the K3 Tenant Council, for “nuisance” after they led an action in July to block construction work in their building. Three months later, the LAPD arrested Elrod in his home after the district attorney filed criminal burglary charges for the same action.

These examples point to a clear escalation of harassment and retaliation tactics from landlords, emboldened by a housing department that does little more than send letters, and police and sheriff departments that act on landlords’ behalf, from carrying out evictions — including a recent militarized eviction that tragically resulted in the tenant committing suicide — to confronting or arresting tenants in their homes.

The casualties are tenants who are displaced or stuck in uninhabitable conditions that severely compromise their mental and/or physical health. For instance, K3/Alpine is denying one tenant, who suffers from severe asthma, access to an inspection report about black mold in their apartment that they need for their health insurance to cover further tests and treatment. Another K3/Alpine tenant’s property manager left a dead rat in a bag with the tenant’s name written on it outside their building after they complained about conditions in their unit. That tenant, terrified, ultimately moved out.

Elrod told Jacobin:

Tenants need the city attorney to bring criminal charges, to prosecute this criminal company. And until that happens, the business practices that companies like K3 rely on will continue. There’s many more companies like K3 that see that you can in fact manage residential real estate by retaliating against tenants who try to enforce the building code and the rent stabilization ordinance and protect the habitability and affordability of their homes. Right now, landlords can enter tenants’ units unilaterally, without permission and without scheduling. They can order their staff to turn off tenants’ water. They can cancel all sorts of service contracts. They can make your home uninhabitable, and there’s no penalty.

As a result of inaction from both LAHD and their landlord, tenants at one K3/Alpine building, 1057 S Western Ave, have been withholding rent since May. Their demands include the reversal of coerced contracts, an end to systematic harassment, and addressing of habitability issues.

Enabling Abusive Landlords

The TAHO is currently one of the only tools available to regulate corporate landlords, and the fact that the city utilizes it to such a limited extent implicitly legitimizes landlords’ abusive business tactics, facilitating further consolidation of rental housing.

The LAHD stated in an email to Jacobin that the housing department is “fully committed to preventing and enforcing against tenant harassment,” but the fact remains that while corporate landlords have been increasing their market share of housing in Los Angeles, the city as a whole has reduced its investigative capacities.

As CCED point out in their report, Los Angeles previously had an interagency Slum Housing Task Force, founded in 1980. Although it was far from perfect, it successfully prosecuted landlords who committed repeated health and safety violations, several of whom went to prison. The task force, however, appears to have been defunded, then dissolved with no clear replacement. Meanwhile the city’s Home-Sharing Ordinance, which regulates short-term rentals and was passed in 2019 to help alleviate some of the pressure on the rental market, has been enforced so rarely that the city lost up to $302 million dollars in unassessed fines in the last year alone, according to a recent study. (Airbnb, it’s worth noting, is a major sponsor of the Olympic Games, which Los Angeles is slated to host in 2028.)

The city’s inaction, underfunding, and lack of enforcement reflects a seeming indifference to the consequences for the tenants of a hypercommodified and financialized housing sector, as well as an overriding desire to preserve the status quo at the municipal level. More pointedly, it reads as a concerted effort to limit tenant power.

This shouldn’t be surprising, considering the contents of the racist, homophobic recording of three Los Angeles city councilmembers and the county’s Federation of Labor president that leaked in October, which drew national attention and led to the resignation of two of the politicians caught on tape. On the leaked recording, as members discuss redistricting of somewhat progressive Councilmember Nithya Raman’s district, which encompasses part of Koreatown, the centrality of real estate to urban politics is laid bare — as is the threat of the emerging tenant movement.

Then council president Nury Martinez said, “It serves us not to give her all of K-Town because that solidifies her renters’ district, and that is not a good thing for any of us.” In other words, a councilmember beholden to tenants’ interests is a threat to the way the council operates. As Tracy Rosenthal writes of the scandal for the New Republic: “[It] forces a reckoning with the central fault line of power in the city, with which race intersects and from which it also distracts: real estate versus tenants.”

Jacobin contributor Samuel Stein has described this mode of urban governance as “the real estate state,” capturing how governments, particularly municipal governments, align their actions with the interests of real estate capital and design policy to stimulate ever-increasing profits for developers, landlords, and speculators. The paradigm took root during deindustrialization, when manufacturing shifted away from urban centers while real estate and finance became the primary bases of capital accumulation. In 1970, Henri Lefebvre characterized this transition in the following terms:

Real estate becomes the principal source for the formation of capital, that is, the realization of surplus value. As the percentage of overall surplus value formed and realized by industry begins to decline, the percentage created and realized by real estate speculation and construction increases.

Municipal policies strategically promote real estate speculation and profit maximization, and a stronger, more organized tenant movement threatens that objective — especially in cases like Hillside Villa’s push for expropriation, where tenants challenge the logic of for-profit housing itself. Although Hillside Villa tenants were able to force the city council to vote to purchase their building, every step of the process, even after the vote, has been littered with obstacles, dodges, delays, and unresponsiveness that have only been overcome by a persistent, organized tenant body.

This dynamic, of course, is not limited to Los Angeles or the United States. In Berlin, for instance, the Social Democrat-led government has persistently attempted to avoid implementing the landmark 2021 expropriation referendum, where nearly 60 percent of Berliners voted to expropriate corporate landlords that own more than three thousand units. However, a just-released preliminary report from the expert committee tasked with evaluating the feasibility of expropriation determined that the move is indeed legal and that the city is not obliged to pay market rate to landlords — putting more pressure on the municipal government to enact this precedent-setting victory for tenants in Berlin.

Municipal governments should take drastic measures toward regulating landlords and holding them accountable — including limiting corporate landlord market share, restricting vacancies, creating more transparency around property ownership, enforcing short-term rental housing ordinances, expanding and making permanent pandemic-era protections, and prosecuting landlords who harass tenants out of their homes or retaliate against tenants resisting their practices and organizing with neighbors. And tenants should continue to compel them to do so.

But recent history demonstrates that the liberal regulatory frameworks won’t provide an alternative to the commodified, financialized housing system. Rather, their proponents will agree that the current system is broken, but do little to alter it in any meaningful way. The necessary change needs to come from organized tenants asserting their power, a phenomenon that’s growing in frequency — with examples such as Hillside Villa’s expropriation fight, K3 tenants’ ongoing rent strike, as well as the Veritas Tenants Association’s (VTA) recent successful debt strike and just-launched contract campaign to force their corporate landlord to rescind city-wide rent increases.

Brad Hirn, lead organizer with the Housing Rights Committee of San Francisco who works closely with the VTA, spoke to Jacobin about the potential of securing transformative victories through collective action rather than at the legislative level:

In many ways, we’ve cast tenants as this passive population that cannot understand their own power with regard to the wealth they create for the real estate industry. Instead, we think we need to get politicians and lawyers to protect this huge population of people in California and in the country — that lawyers are the center of power. And they’re not; tenants are the center of power because tenants pay rent. And if you become strike ready, and you figure out how to unite with your neighbors, and put a strategy together that hits the landlord’s income — hits the revenue for that company — who knows what kind of leverage you will create? Because we’re so out of practice with strikes, we have no sense of how much leverage we could have.