Los Angeles’s housing market is in crisis. Low-income communities of color across the city are facing systematic displacement due to gentrification. Skyrocketing housing costs have created a homelessness epidemic that has left almost 60,000 people living on the streets. And now, the city is undergoing its largest rent strike in recent history.
In three buildings on South Burlington Avenue in the rapidly gentrifying Westlake neighborhood, an estimated 200 families in about 80 units are currently refusing to pay rent. After years of neglect, the buildings’ management company began rolling out exorbitant rent increases this February, hiking residents’ rents anywhere from 25 to 40 percent. For the buildings’ working-class tenants, these rent increases are just not affordable—so they’ve joined together and have been on a rent strike since March.
The tenants of the three Burlington Avenue buildings have been living in deplorable conditions for years. Back-flowing drains cause leaks and floods, leading to serious mold issues; trash is left to pile in the dumpsters, filling the trash chute to the top floor of the three-story building; and large sewage pipes in the first-floor parking garage repeatedly become backed up and flood the area with the building’s collective waste. Maintenance requests are only selectively resolved, if not completely ignored, by the property-management company, which has made the buildings breeding grounds for roaches, bedbugs, and rodents. And when repairs and fumigations are completed, they are routinely charged to tenants.
Alba Arevalo, a tenant of the 131 South Burlington Avenue building, gave a tour of the damage to her apartment, lifting segments of peeling carpet repeatedly soaked by numerous leaks and floods. “My carpet has been changed once in 20 years.… These other [stains] are [from] water that falls when they use the showers upstairs,” Arevalo said, as she pointed to the large splotches covering her living-room ceiling. “They keep raising our rent, but these people don’t fix anything.”
The Burlington strikers aren’t just fighting for repairs, however. They’re demanding their rightful place in the neighborhood many of them have called home for years. In doing so, they’re showing that, without collective action, tenants’ rights are woefully unprotected in Los Angeles.
“In the last four to five years, there’s been a citywide process of displacement and gentrification happening all throughout Los Angeles,” says Trinidad Ruiz, a volunteer organizer with the “VyBe” (short for Vermont y Beverly) chapter of the Los Angeles Tenants Union, which has been working with the tenants to win their rent strike. “The LA Tenants Union formed to meet that crisis head-on.”
Lisa Ehrlich, a lawyer and part-owner of the buildings, has been facing off in court against Elena Popp of the Eviction Defense Network, who is representing the Burlington tenants. So far, Popp has won six cases, while Ehrlich and her team of lawyers have won three. In one of the most recent cases, a jury concluded that the habitability issues were so bad that the tenant should pay only $1 in monthly rent.
The tenants hope the ongoing strike will force Ehrlich to negotiate an agreement that could save their homes. They’re asking for long-term leases and repairs of all habitability issues in exchange for a reasonable rent increase. With their recent successes in court, the momentum may finally be on their side.