SAN BERNARDINO — Tenants of a low-income apartment complex in Chinatown, and the city of Los Angeles, won a qualified victory in San Bernardino Superior Court Friday in a years-long struggle with a landlord over severe rent increases. The city has long sought to conduct an inspection of the Hillside Villa property, as a first step towards potentially buying the building as a way to preserve affordable rent. 

However, the landlord of the 124 unit apartment building has consistently denied city inspectors entry as part of a stalling tactic. In response the city began legal proceedings (and as part of that a change of venue to San Bernardino occurred). Now, Judge Janet Frangie has issued a tentative ruling granting the city’s petition for an order permitting the city officials to enter the premises.

The apartment complex, located at 636 North Hill Place in Chinatown, had been subject to an affordability covenant — basically an contractual agreement for rents to be kept affordable in exchange for certain government subsidies in building an apartment complex, that used to be a relatively common way of incentivizing lower-income housing. In 2019 that covenant expired, allowing the landlord, Tom Botz, to raise rents to market rate.

A man wearing an LA Dodger hat and shirt addresses two organizers in face masks and his fellow tenants in red t-shirts outside of the San Bernardino Justice Center.
A Hillside Villa tenants addresses his fellow tenants and housing organizers after a hearing in San Bernardino Superior Court where the city of Los Angeles was tentatively granted permission to enter the property. (Phoenix Tso/LA Public Press)

Tenants say they can’t afford these increases — some of them as high as 300% — noting many have lost work, family members, and have gotten sick themselves during COVID pandemic. Many tenants use Section 8 vouchers (federal rental assistance). Botz has said that the city should help tenants who cannot afford to pay by also getting them on Section 8, but he has recently served eviction notices to tenants with vouchers as well.

Many Hillside Villa tenants have been on a rent strike for at least a couple years and have called on city officials to help them stay housed by buying Hillside Villa and keeping rents affordable. In late 2020, After pressure from tenants, then Councilmember Gil Cedillo started filing motions to explore a city purchase of Hillside Villa.

The judge’s tentative ruling at Friday’s hearing means the city will likely be able to access Hillside Villa for this inspection, which the city says is an essential step in the purchase process. Outside the courthouse, members of the Hillside Villa Tenants Association and their supporters from the LA Tenants Union, and Chinatown Community for Equitable Development, clapped in celebration.

“Even though it’s not as fast as some of us would like it to go, at least it’s progressing,” said tenant Ed Concepcion.

Origins of the tenants’ fight

In 2019 Botz raised rents substantially, resulting in calls for the city to purchase the building and the rent strike. However, Botz has said that he won’t sell, and tenants have also publicly advocated for the city to seize the building through eminent domain — a legal doctrine allowing governments to seize private land for public use — in order to keep rents affordable. Tenants have protested in front of many city offices calling on officials to act urgently on their behalf, including the LA Housing Department and former Councilmember Gil Cedillo.

In 2020, then-Councilman Cedillo introduced a motion to the city council for the city to purchase the apartment building using federal COVID relief funds, but the chief administrative officer (CAO) said those funds were ineligible. About six months later, Cedillo filed a motion asking the city to use a reserve fund loan for the Hillside Villa purchase process. A year after that, in May of 2022, the city council voted unanimously to initiate this process — one of the first steps of which would be conducting an inspection.

Six months after what several city councilmembers called an “unprecedented” vote, the city attorney filed a petition in Los Angeles Superior Court, asking they be granted permission to enter Hillside Villa for the inspection. Court documents obtained by the Hillside Villa Tenants Association and reviewed by LA Public Press, show that the city asked the owner for permission to enter and inspect, but he denied them.

In January 2023, Botz’s lawyers filed a petition for a change of venue, to San Bernardino Superior Court — some 60 miles east. His lawyer Patrick Hennessy filed a declaration saying members of “a mob” were hostile and intimidating towards him while he spoke on behalf of his client and after he finished speaking. Botz’s attorneys claimed in court documents that a mob would also disrupt any court proceeding if the venue change wasn’t granted.

In February, about a month later, the LA city attorney’s office agreed to the venue change and the judge granted it. Two months after that, the city attorney’s office filed a motion to set a hearing date for their petition, saying they had waited over five months for the petition to be heard. The judge then set the hearing for July 7. In late June, Botz’s lawyers filed their opposition to the city’s petition, claiming that the city is seeking “broad entry rights and uses for an indefinite period of time” and not offering compensation for entry, among other reasons.

At the July 7 hearing, Hillside Villa tenants and their supporters sat quietly in the gallery while Judge Frangie said that the law clearly grants permission to the city but that the city must tighten the parameters of the inspection and compensation must be addressed. Zakia Kator of the LA City Attorney’s office appeared via Zoom to request another hearing date for October 27, and Michael Leifer, a lawyer for Botz who also appeared virtually, agreed to this date, provided the city grants them the discovery he is seeking.

October 27 was set as the next hearing date, but the judge added that Leifer would have to “tighten” his discovery request and that he would have the opportunity to address eminent domain at a later date.

Phoenix Tso is a journalist with a passion for hyperlocal storytelling. She is usually on the search for coffee, new food to try, or a nature walk.