DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES — On a recent afternoon, Luz Molina and her daughter traveled to the Seventh Street Los Angeles Housing Department office looking for help with her landlord.
Instead of finding city employees to help her, she peered through the glass into the darkened lobby. The office was shuttered.
The Los Angeles Housing Department (LAHD) has closed its main office at 1200 West Seventh Street after its landlord opted to lease the whole building to a different tenant. The site has been closed to the public for nearly a month.
The LAHD typically mediates disputes between renters and landlords, including those over living conditions, harassment, rent increases, and evictions. But it currently finds itself in the same position as the aggrieved tenants who often visit its now-shuttered public counter at the Seventh Street office.
The owner of the property is not extending leases for all five city departments renting space there, of which the housing department is the largest by far, with 672 employees, according to the Department of General Services. LA CARE — LA County’s public, low-income health care plan — is taking over the entire building as a tenant, LA CARE spokesperson Penny Griego confirmed.
LAHD employees have joked that their displacement is a no-fault eviction, which is when a landlord evicts the tenant for a personal or business decision, not because the tenant is at fault, and employees have reported to LA Public Press concerns about a rushed relocation plan. They’re worried they won’t have access to the resources they need to work at temporary spaces.
That LAHD was apparently unable to halt its own displacement is ironic to LA Tenants Union organizers like Tony Carfello, who says the housing department often fails to prevent displacement for renters. He says the department is extremely lenient with landlords, giving them “the white glove treatment” and allowing them to evade consequences.
“Wouldn’t it be great if the housing department had someone to turn to, to help them stay in their building?” he said.
LAHD and its general manager Ann Sewill have become a lightning rod for tenant frustration in the COVID era. Last year, tenants protested outside the Seventh Street office, calling out the department’s inaction buying the Hillside Villa Apartments in Chinatown as well as its failure to enforce the Tenant Anti-Harassment Ordinance. They called for Sewill’s firing. Tenants from the Hillside Villa Apartments said Sewill had personally alerted police chief Michel Moore to a protest at their building. Though thousands of tenant harassment complaints have been submitted to the housing department, Sewill’s office had taken action on just a handful of complaints as of this summer. Harassment complaints it doesn’t act on are closed with a form letter sent to tenants and landlords advising them of the law.
Ultimately, the housing department is at the mercy of its landlord, just like any other commercial tenant in Los Angeles, says Chelsea Kirk, a policy director at the tenant rights nonprofit Strategic Actions for a Just Economy. Powerful city agencies like the housing department and longtime community restaurants like Suehiro Cafe in Little Tokyo are equally powerless to stop rent increases or no-fault evictions.
“Commercial tenants don’t have any power when it comes to commercial leases,” said Kirk. “Unlike residential tenants who have some protections, albeit inadequate ones, commercial tenants have none.”
“In fact, commercial rent control is prohibited in the state of California, so no cities are able to enact commercial rent control, even if they wanted to,” Kirk added.
The LAHD first moved into the Seventh Street office in 2003, after it was booted by the Department of Water and Power from the iconic, city-owned John Ferraro Building. The housing department’s final day at the Seventh Street office will be January 25, said department spokesperson Sharon Sandow. She did not answer questions about why the lease could not be extended.
Until construction in the new offices is completed, however, LAHD employees will temporarily relocate to 444 S Flower Street along with employees from the other displaced offices. Information provided to LAHD employees, reviewed by LA Public Press, notes there will be a week-long gap between the closing of the Seventh Street location and the opening of the Flower Street location, and that in the spring, they will have to move again.
The city has also sought to lease additional temporary space for the LAHD at the department’s Echo Park location.
The office’s closure is poor timing for tenants seeking assistance from the department: On February 1, landlords will be allowed to raise rent again in the city’s estimated 620,000 rent-controlled units. Rents have been frozen in those units since the onset of the pandemic, but starting next week, landlords will be able to raise rents by 4%, and landlords who pay for electricity and gas in their buildings can also raise the rent an extra percentage point for each utility.
The Seventh Street office is located in Westlake between Downtown and MacArthur Park, an area famous for its dense, rent-controlled housing stock. The nearest public counter for the community is now on Sunset Boulevard in Echo Park — not far by car, but more than a half an hour away on public transit.
When Molina got to the now-closed office, she read a sign on the door directing her to other LAHD locations in Echo Park, Boyle Heights, the San Fernando Valley, and South L.A.
“It’s important for me to get information for me and another neighbor,” Molina told LA Public Press. “My building [has] a lot of problems. My landlord, she [is] fixing nothing.”