SAN BERNARDINO – A year and a half after the Los Angeles City Council voted to explore the purchase of the Chinatown low-income apartment complex Hillside Villa, the process to keep people housed in that building might finally begin.
Hillside Villa tenants have been fighting for the past several years to stay housed amid unaffordable rent increases. Yet after several months of negotiation with the city of LA, the Chinatown complex’s landlord Tom Botz denied the city permission to enter the property to conduct an inspection, and the city sought a court order from Los Angeles Superior Court that would allow them entry. Now, Botz has finally agreed to allow the city of Los Angeles onto the property for an inspection – the first step in the city possibly purchasing Hillside Villa.
Both parties filed a document outlining conditions for the inspection in San Bernardino Superior Court on Friday, January 26. City officials are only allowed to conduct a visual inspection of the Chinatown apartment complex and must give notice of at least four business days before the inspection takes place.
Governments regularly use eminent domain to build projects like highways and Dodger Stadium, but Hillside Villa tenants argued that the city should exercise it on their behalf to keep their housing affordable. On May 27, 2022, City Council members stopped short of endorsing eminent domain, but directed the LA Housing Department to conduct an appraisal of the building and possibly make an offer on it.
Tenants have called on the city to buy their building and keep rents low after a 30-year affordability covenant expired in 2018, and landlord Tom Botz raised rents up to 300%. They have persisted with protests even after the landlord Tom Botz filed eviction lawsuits against 35 households.
In 2019, around 60 Hillside Villa tenants in the 124-unit building formed a tenants association and organized a campaign to get the city to seize their building using eminent domain — which allows governments to take private land and convert it to public use — in order to keep their rents affordable.
Botz has communicated with the city directly throughout the entire process and introduced several hurdles in the city purchasing the property. A Los Angeles Public Press investigation showed emails from Botz to city officials accusing the Hillside Villa Tenants Association of threatening his staff. He also tried to condition permission to enter the property on city employees stopping tenant protests. The emails also show him conditioning his permission on the city resolving Section 8 rent increase issues that he brought to them.
The emails also showed the tenants association criticizing the city attorney’s office for allowing Botz and his lawyers to delay court proceedings, most notably when the parties agreed to move the case to San Bernardino Superior Court, some 60 miles away from downtown LA, resulting in the postponement of the hearing on the court petition.
A judge granted a tentative ruling in favor of the city in July of last year, but another hearing was delayed until Monday, January 29 after Botz’s lawyers filed court documents alleging that the city attorney’s office failed to comply with discovery requests around the scope of the inspection. Botz also sued the city for damages, alleging that officials have led an “eminent domain offensive” that has led to financial losses for him.
The inspection agreement means that both the city’s petition and Botz’s complaint have been dismissed, but both parties can refile their cases at a later date.
For the tenants, this means that the city’s acquisition process might finally move forward, after a year-and-a-half of delay, ultimately saving them from eviction.