CHINATOWN — Mary Ramos never thought her biggest concern in retirement would be homelessness. But after 14 years of paying rent on her two-bedroom apartment at Hillside Villa in Chinatown, she was served with an eviction notice in early August. 

“We have old people like me — I’m 72, and I’m disabled — and some of [the tenants], we have children,” she said. “So what, what is he thinking?” she said, referring to her landlord Tom Botz.

Hillside Villa is a 124-unit low-income apartment block sitting on a hill in Chinatown. From 1989 until 2019, Ramos’ apartment complex was kept at prices significantly lower than market rate, as part of an “affordability covenant agreement” — deal that cities offer builders as a way of incentivizing affordable housing construction.

Last year, the city announced it would take up the cause of acquiring Hillside Villa, with the Los Angeles City Council ordering the LA Housing Department to conduct an appraisal of the property. But months of regulatory and judicial proceedings have ensued, with tenants frustrated by the lack of transparency and urgency with which the city bureaucracy has treated their plight.

Emails obtained by LA Public Press show tenants reached out to the city attorney’s office for updates on a court petition to allow the appraisal, to no avail. In other emails obtained by LAPP, from May, tenants expressed their disappointment with their city councilmember, Eunisses Hernandez over her lack of public and substantive support of their cause. 

In her first eight months in office, Councilmember Hernandez was only minimally involved in negotiations to keep Hillside Villa affordable, despite promising to fight for Hillside Villa tenants in her campaign. In an interview with LA Public Press, Hernandez said that she had expected the city attorney and mayor’s offices to take the lead on Hillside Villa and similar citywide housing issues. Since that hasn’t been the case, she said, “We started taking the reins of this process,” by pressuring officials to fight harder on negotiations and in the court process, and make rent relief available to Hillside Villa tenants and other LA renters in danger of eviction.

The Housing Department and the City Attorney’s office declined to comment.  Mayor Karen Bass’ office and Botz did not respond to a request for comment.

Years of fighting

Covenants, like the one used at Hillside Villa, are used as a relatively cheap way to get more affordable housing built, but the ‘tomorrow never comes mentality’ of this method tends to delay the inevitable.

Four years ago the affordability covenant covering Hillside Villa expired and since then Ramos and 60 or so of her neighbors have been fighting enormous rent increases imposed by landlord Botz. Her eviction notice was part of a second batch of 21 notices that Botz has served since pandemic protections expired earlier this year. Prior to that he’d served eviction notices to five ‘Section 8’ tenants whose cases are going through the court system. In these long years of struggle and insecure housing the tenants have fought for the city of Los Angeles to negotiate with Botz on their behalf, even pushing for the city to exercise its powers of eminent domain. 

“When we voted you into City Hall, we believed you would be our champion, courageously advancing our demand for Eminent Domain and co-strategizing with us every step of the way,” the Hillside Villa Tenants Association wrote in a statement. “However, your messaging on the [April] 27th had a union-busting effect on our Tenants Association (TA) –instilling fear, confusion, and distrust to what CD1 can actually do to defend low-income renters like us.”

To some extent the city has been doing what it can to help the tenants, or at least it has appeared so. But emails obtained by LAPP show that the city hasn’t always acted with the leadership necessary to actually save these tenants’ housing. Councilmember Eunisses Hernandez (District 1), who represents Hillside Villa’s residents, said in an interview that she doesn’t think that the mayor’s office and city bureaucracy have done enough to help.

Her Aug. 5 Twitter (now called X) statement — which came after the 21 families were served with eviction notices — was Hernandez’s first public statement about Hillside Villa since she first took office in December of last year.

“I am calling on Mr. Botz to work with my office to find a resolution and to immediately withdraw all evictions that have been issued to the tenants,” she tweeted.

A young woman addresses an assembled crowd in front of a building. Members of the crowd hold protest signs.
Chinatown Councilmember Eunisses Hernandez address Hillside Villa tenants and other renters at the Chinatown Tenant Power March earlier this summer. (Phoenix Tso/LAPP)

Tenants say they are grateful that Hernandez is speaking up on their behalf. But Ed Concepcion, who was also served with an eviction notice, also wonders why it has taken so long for city officials to say anything, including Mayor Karen Bass, whose office met with Hillside Villa tenants in the spring.

“If everything’s still quiet and not much is going on, they don’t think it’s a problem,” he said. “But there’s so many things brewing underneath all that, you know?”

“We need the mayor’s team to move with us and move, hard and fast with us on this. We need others like the housing department to really be more transparent — the city attorney’s office to help us fight harder.” said Hernandez, who calls Hillside Villa “the canary in the coalmine.”

Hernandez had reached out to Botz prior to his issuing the 21 eviction notices on Saturday, Aug. 5. In a statement posted to her Twitter, the councilmember said Botz had not responded and that “actions like this show his continued unwillingness to negotiate in good faith with the city.”

Ramos’ notice ordered her to pay $13,300, while others were ordered to pay up to $16,000. LA Public Press reviewed one notice dated Friday, Aug. 4 in which the $13,300 was labeled as a “rent payment,” but no information was given on how the amount was calculated. The tenants guess that Botz is asking for back rent.

“We think he just wants money from us, if we will agree to what he wants,” Ramos said, adding that she doesn’t think he cares whether she and her neighbors end up on the streets.

“He doesn’t care about us at all. Because if he did, he will make a consideration to talk to us, just talk to us.”

An endless back and forth

A man in red shirt speaks into a microphone in a courtyard, surrounded by other people in red shirts and standing next to a woman in a red shirt holding a piece of paper.
Tenants address supporters and press in the Hillside Villa courtyard after being served with eviction notices. (Phoenix Tso/LAPP)

In January, Botz’s lawyers asked for a change of court venue to San Bernardino, which the city acquiesced to without resistance. In July, a judge ruled in favor of the city’s petition to enter Hillside Villa to perform the appraisal, with a hearing to hammer out details set for Oct. 27. But on Aug. 30, Botz’s company (636 NHP LLC) petitioned to move the hearing to next year, declaring that the city attorney’s office had not complied with discovery requirements. Judge Janet M. Frangie granted the request.

In an emailed statement, Councilmember Hernandez said she is “frustrated by the ongoing delays,”

“At almost every step along the way, we have seen how our court system, our land-use policies, and even city processes are not designed to center the needs of vulnerable tenants who cannot afford to wait years on end when they are facing eviction right now.”

Hernandez met with Botz in August, in the hopes of persuading him to pause the evictions, as negotiations with him continue. Annie Shaw — an organizer with Chinatown Community for Equitable Development who works closely with Hillside Villa tenants — says they are fighting the evictions. On Sunday, Sept. 17, 17 out 21 tenants served with notices were notified of unlawful detainers, or eviction lawsuits, filed against them. The tenants have started a GoFundMe to raise money for eviction defense.

The City Council has also approved Hernandez’s motion to allocate some Measure ULA funding — a mansion tax passed by LA voters last year — to programs involving short-term emergency assistance, tenant outreach, eviction defense and protections against tenant harassment. Around $20 million is for rent relief. Hernandez hopes that money can help Hillside Villa tenants and other renters.

More than 60% of LA residents are renters, according to U.S. Census data. The Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count found that in 2023, there were 46,260 unhoused people in the city of Los Angeles. To Hernandez, Hillside Villa is indicative of an issue that affects the rest of the city.

“The city can move fast when it wants to, and when it doesn’t care or doesn’t want to, it moves like molasses. And it’s like pulling that sword out of that rock. Like, that’s how hard they make it. But we really need to, as a city, as a whole council, really begin to prioritize ending this eviction-to-homelessness pipeline.”

Hernandez is even more frustrated because the City Council had just approved a new contract for the LAPD that would cost the city an additional $1 billion over the next four years. 

“It’s a line item that’s fixed in the police budget,” she says. “It ties up money in a concrete way that would take a catastrophic thing to happen for us to be able to access.”

Hernandez called the budget “a statement of our values” and that so far “we value law enforcement and criminalization over prevention over support over keeping people housed.”

At the same time, she is confident that the city can find other funding sources to save Hillside Villa tenants and other tenants throughout the city from eviction. “We need to reassess the budget and even the budget process because there’s so much money that just goes unnoticed.”

Over the next several years more than 10,000 housing units in LA County will see such covenants expire, according to the California Housing Partnership, meaning thousands more Angelenos are at risk of becoming homeless. This makes the Hillside Villa saga all the more urgent as an exemplar for other tenants hoping to keep their rents affordable, and leaves today’s city council with the dilemma of how to help their constituents stay housed.

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.