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Al Jazeera America

Tuesday June 09, 2015

Black Tenants Say Greed, Discrimination At Play In Mass LA Eviction
California law offers few protections for elderly, disabled, veteran residents of 1625 Crenshaw Boulevard

By Naureen Khan
 

Every Saturday afternoon, a group of tenants from 1625 Crenshaw Boulevard gather outside their handsome stucco apartment building in Mid-City Los Angeles, offering freshly grilled hot dogs and hamburgers to passers-by.

The mood may be jovial, but the summer cookouts double as protest. These residents are counting down the days until eviction proceedings could begin against them. Participants hoist signs that read "Stop racist evictions" and "Homes for people, not for profit," hoping to draw attention to their plight.

Tenants of this 43-unit apartment building — predominantly African-American, many of them elderly or disabled and receiving vouchers for Section 8 federally subsidized housing — were told their rental contracts were being terminated shortly after the building came under the ownership of Lafayette Square Apartments in December of last year.

Critics charge that the maneuver is part of an increasingly common scheme in Los Angeles to drive away low-income residents and raise rents, contributing to the affordable-housing crunch in the city and the gentrification of once diverse neighborhoods.

Notices informing residents that they had 60 to 90 days to forfeit their units began arriving in their mailboxes in January. By March, most tenants had been notified that their rental contracts would be terminated by mid-June.

"Landlord in good faith seeks to terminate your Section 8 lease/tenancy for economic reasons. These including difficultly in dealing with Section 8 requirements, paperwork, inspections and attempt to obtain rent increase, failure by Section 8 agents in returning phone calls and constant waste of time to obtain information," read one such notice sent to a resident. "You are further notified that it is the purpose and intent of this notice to terminate tenancy at the end of said 90-day period."

Under the Section 8 housing program, low-income individuals use vouchers to offset their rent at a residence of their choosing, as long as the property meets certain standards and negotiates rents with the federal government.

"I just don't know," said Floyd Harrelson, an 82-year-old Korean War veteran who has lived in the building for seven years, renting a one-bedroom apartment for $1,200 a month with the help of his vouchers. "I didn't know life can be that hard after being in the Marine Corps for 10 years."

Larry Gross, the executive director of the Coalition for Economic Survival, a nonprofit that advocates for policies for low-income people in Los Angeles, said that as the housing market in Los Angeles has rebounded after the recession, real estate tycoons and developers have once again begun to buy up parcels in the hopes of pushing out tenants and converting the properties into high-price, luxury rentals.

"Basically, they're trying to clear out poor people to try and get higher-income people in there to jack up the rent, and it's purely about greed and profit, at the expense of these tenants, many of them who are elderly," he said. "This person is coming along and completely disrupting their ability to live out the rest of their years in the environment that they know, that they feel comfortable with, where they have friends and neighbors nearby, where they have services nearby."

Tenants at 1625 Crenshaw have begun a campaign to pressure their new landlords to either let them stay or give them relocation assistance. The problem: California offers them scant legal protections.

Buildings constructed before 1978 in the state fall under the Rent Stabilization Ordinance, which compels landlords undertaking mass evictions in which the tenants are at no fault to offer generous relocations packages — $7,000 to $19,000, depending on factors like age, disability and the number of dependents. The building at 1625 Crenshaw, built in 1984, misses the mark.

Property managers have made offers of compensation to some elderly and veteran tenants, some residents said. Harrelson said he was offered $4,000 to move by June 15.

"It's hush money, I guess," he said, noting that it would cover only a fraction of the cost of a move, including having to submit the first and last month's rent in a new building. "But who's going to pay the rent in July?"

The Crenshaw tenants instead are left with appealing to the conscience of their new landlords, said Leilani Sashae, who has taken the lead in organizing her neighbors under the banner of the Residents and Tenants Action Coalition. In addition to the weekly cookout protests, she has requested meetings with City Council members and tried to raise awareness of what she believes are outdated laws that do not protect tenants.

"Just because it's legal doesn't make it right," she said. "They're saying, ‘We don't think you're valuable. You don't exist. You're nothing to us. This is about money. We're just here to make our money, and we couldn't care less about you and where you go.'"

Sashae, a nurse, has experienced homelessness, and in addition to keeping up her campaign to shield tenants from eviction, has come back empty-handed in her search for a new home.

"I've packed, and I've unpacked," she said. "I don't have a place to go to. I have let this issue consume me, and I've been looking at the same time, and nobody wants to take a Section 8 voucher. And I don't have that money to move."

Many of the other residents find themselves in the same situation. Trina Childs, 45, has been living in Crenshaw for 21 years and is recovering from a brain tumor. Catherine Green, 90, has been living in the building since it was built and will be forced to move in with her family in Georgia if she is evicted. Bobby Hall, 62, who lived in a veterans' shelter before he moved into the building in 2011, may have to return.

"You sign your name into a contract, it should be honored," he said. "We followed the rules and regulations given by the property manager, yet by no fault of our own are being put out on the street."

Reached for comment, Power Property Managers, a Culver City–based company retained by Lafayette Square Apartments, sent a statement reiterating that the company made a business decision to no longer participate in the Section 8 voucher program.

"Lafayette and its authorized agents will continue to work with each and every tenant who approaches its appointed property management firm," the statement read. "Lafayette has already offered all tenants a regular non–Section 8 month-to-month rental agreement, of which some tenants have already taken advantage."

The statement noted that no eviction proceedings have been initiated.

Rashida Thomas, a 36-year-old hairdresser who is not a Section 8 tenant and has lived in the building for 15 years, nonetheless said she too received a notice in January asking her to give up her unit. As she was readying to move, management contacted her and abruptly changed its tune, she said, asking her to stay. She said the company initially asked that she pay $100 more than her current $1,230 rent on a month-to-month basis, refusing to let her sign a lease, before trying to nearly double her rent to $2,435.

Thomas said she sees a clear effort to clear out black residents.

"I'm not under Section 8, so if that was your issue, that's not the issue for me. I'm not a senior. I'm not a veteran. I'm not disabled. I'm not any of these things that you don't want to deal with that would make me not the ideal tenant, except that I'm black," she said.

Thomas said that she is choosing to stay in the building for the time being in solidarity with her neighbors. "Displacing people from their homes who have lived here for all this time and contributing to homelessness is not right. Something should be done," she said.

Housing advocates said they are broader implications for the fabric of Los Angeles as mass evictions become more common.

"One of the strengths of Los Angeles is its diversity, and unfortunately, we're headed toward a more segregated city, where it's a city of haves and have-nots," Gross said. "What we're seeing is people like nurses and teachers and bus drivers and hotel and restaurant workers and clerks and the people who make L.A. run being run out of Los Angeles."


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