LA is cutting its tentative agreement to provide $15 million to save Chinatown tenants from steep rent increases

(Myung J. Chun/Los Angeles Times)

LA is cutting its tentative agreement to provide $15 million to save Chinatown tenants from steep rent increases

LA Politics, Homepage News

David Zahniser

April 13, 2024

Residents who have been fighting massive rent increases at a Chinatown apartment complex could find some financial relief thanks to a tentative agreement between Los Angeles housing officials and the landlord.

The proposed agreement would require the city to spend nearly $15 million to ensure rents are subsidized in dozens of units at the Hillside Villa Apartments, according to a memo issued Friday by the city’s housing department.

The agreement would run through February 2034 and cover 106 of the building’s 124 units. For some tenants, the subsidies would close the gap between the amount they paid in 2019 and the market rent the landlord is willing to charge, city officials said.

The subsidy would not apply to 17 apartments whose tenants already pay market rates, or to one unit reserved for the building’s manager, the report said.

The deal, if approved by the City Council, is intended to resolve a long-running battle over steep rent increases announced several years ago by 636 NHP LLC, the building’s owner. The company requested these increases after the expiration of a 30-year agreement with the city that had capped the building’s rents.

The new agreement would effectively undermine tenants’ efforts to have the city acquire Hillside Villa using eminent domain, the legal process used by government agencies to force property owners to sell.

Ann Sewill, general manager of the Los Angeles Housing Department, warned the city in her memo that if the city were to complete the purchase of Hillside Villa, the cost of purchasing, renovating and refinancing would be nearly $93 million. She also pointed out that the owner is not interested in selling.

“Purchasing the property from a reluctant owner would be a long, expensive and legally uncertain process, resulting in much higher acquisition costs,” she wrote.

The proposal will be taken up by the municipality’s housing committee


Wednesday before reaching the full council.

Councilmember Eunisses Hernandez, whose district includes Chinatown, declined to say whether she supports the agreement. An aide said Hernandez is still assessing it.

“She would like the tenants, who are the parties directly involved, to have an opportunity to express their opinions and for it to be discussed in a public forum in the City Council,” said Chelsea Lucktenberg, a spokesperson for Hernandez.

Sewill said her office’s proposal would give the city first right of refusal to purchase the building if the owner decides to sell it at any time before February 2037. The deal would also give tenants six years to pay off rent owed for the period between 2019. and 2024.

If those tenants enter into a repayment agreement and make the required payments during the six-year period, the owner “shall not seek to evict tenants for unpaid rent covered by that agreement,” the report said.

Tenant advocates have for years pressured city leaders to forcibly purchase Hillside Villa, organizing protests at their homes and elsewhere. They launched their campaign after the building’s mostly Latino and Asian residents, many of them elderly and low-income, received notice that their rent would double or even triple.

On Friday, a tenant advocate expressed disappointment with the city’s proposal, saying she is particularly concerned that tenants are still being asked to repay unpaid rent.

Currently, 35 households are facing eviction, said Annie Shaw, organizer of the Chinatown Community for Equitable Development, a group that works closely with Hillside Villa tenants. Several others owe back rent but have not received legal paperwork, she said.

“This [agreement] is very far from what the community really needs,” she said. “Eminent domain would have been a much better solution.”

Shaw and a handful of Hillside Villa tenants showed up at Friday’s council meeting to present their own list of demands, calling for 100% forgiveness of unpaid rent. They also said any agreement to subsidize rents would have to remain in place for 99 years.

Mary Ramos, a resident of Hillside Villa, said a deal to implement rental subsidies until 2034 would not be enough.

“I’m 73. By then I’ll be 83,” she says

told the council.

Thomas Botz, the board member of 636 NHP, declined to discuss the details of the proposed deal, saying Friday that it “speaks for itself.”

‘I hope that the tenants appreciate what Ann Sewill does for them and the city, and that they do not allow themselves to be misled by the municipality [tenant] organizers,” he said.

According to the housing department, Hillside Villa already accepts Section 8 rental vouchers for 68 units of the building.

Former Councilman Gil Cedillo, who represented Chinatown for nearly a decade, launched the effort within City Hall to purchase Hillside Villa in 2020 after an earlier round of negotiations with Botz failed. Two years later, while stuck in a dire situation

during the election campaign, Cedillo convinced his colleagues to take the first step towards a purchase by requesting an appraisal of the building.

Botz resisted the city’s attempts to enter the building to assess its condition, sparking a lengthy legal battle that delayed the appraisal by more than a year.


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