CHINATOWN — When tenants of a large Chinatown apartment complex found out in 2018 that the covenant keeping their rents affordable would soon expire, they called on the city to help them fight enormous rent increases.

Four years later, Los Angeles City Council committed to exploring a purchase of the building to keep tenants housed. Residents of the complex — Hillside Villa — expected quick action. Because city officials often pay lip service to protecting Angelenos from becoming homeless amid a citywide housing crisis, tenants expected the city to follow through.

Instead, emails obtained by LA Public Press show a persistent pattern of city officials lashing out at tenants while cooperating with Hillside Villa’s owner, Tom Botz, including numerous concessions officials gave him in the hopes that he would eventually give them access to Hillside Villa. The emails also show officials criticizing tenants’ strategies and blaming them when negotiations broke down. 

LA Public Press reached out to Botz and to the officials who sent these emails. Botz did not respond to a request for comment, nor did his attorneys Michael Leifer and Patrick Hennessey. LA Housing Department General Manager Ann Sewill and Deputy City Attorney Zakia Kator declined to comment. 

Fighting for eminent domain 

Many Hillside Villa tenants have lived at the 124-unit Hillside Villa for decades. They’re on fixed incomes or do not make enough money to afford Botz’s rent increases. For the past several years, they have protested in front of city officials’ houses and offices, calling on the City of LA to seize their building using eminent domain, or the right to seize private land for public use.

Governments regularly use eminent domain to build projects like highways and Dodger Stadium, often displacing low-income families. But Hillside Villa tenants have argued that the city should exercise it on their behalf, because it’s the only way to keep their housing affordable. Their advocacy seemed to pay off during the May 2022 vote, when the City Council stopped short of endorsing eminent domain, but voted instead to explore a purchase of the building.

A year and a half has since passed and the city hasn’t even completed the first step — conducting an appraisal — in making an offer to purchase the property. In the meantime, Botz has filed eviction lawsuits against 35 households at Hillside Villa.

“We are dealing with a completely unreasonable landlord. He has been oppressing us with [a] 300 percent rent increase,” Hillside Villa tenant Richard Lai said during a November protest in front of City Hall (Lai spoke in Cantonese; these quotes are taken from a live interpreter). “If you do not help us, we’ll be out on the streets and we won’t have a place to live anymore.”

On Jan. 19 of this year, the Hillside Villa Tenants Association wrote a letter to LA Mayor Karen Bass and their Councilmember Eunisses Hernandez, demanding “aggressive action” to seize Hillside Villa via eminent domain. They also renewed demands that Bass fire Sewill as head of the LA Housing Department. “You have the power to replace Ann Sewill with someone who will actually defend tenants.”

Joking about tenants’ ideas

One exchange that is emblematic of the city bureaucracy’s attitude toward tenant’s ideas was between officials from the LA Housing Department — the department in charge of researching how the city could buy Hillside Villa, including negotiating with Botz, the landlord, and the Housing Authority of the City of LA (HACLA) — the department that would make an offer on the building. 

In late September 2022, after negotiations broke down, HACLA Chief Strategic Development Officer Jenny Scanlin blamed tenants in an email to Housing Department General Manager Ann Sewill, saying, “Unfortunately, the current tenants seem to have upset the apple cart for all of us!” 

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

Scanlin also reaffirmed that HACLA would not be interested in pursuing eminent domain. In her reply, Sewill jokingly laid out a scenario in which the city would use eminent domain, but would have to protect HACLA from liability, once the agency steps in to manage the building: “And then if we do get Council to agree to do eminent domain you would be interested in purchasing from [the] City as soon as we got ownership, assuming you were indemnified for eminent domain lawsuits? C’mon – it’ll be fine!”

In her response, Scanlin wrote,“… Appreciating your on point humor! That’s why I love working with you guys even on the hard stuff.” She punctuated the sentence with a winking face.

In an email comment to LA Public Press, Scanlin defended her emails with Sewill. “HACLA never considered this a joking matter…,” she wrote. “The circumstances for negotiating a solution were not ideal and I believe my discussion with counterparts to be just that – a discussion of how to approach things professionally when the surrounding circumstances felt at times out of our realm of control.”

Scanlin also doubled down on the belief that tenants caused a breakdown in negotiations between city officials and Botz. “Mr. Botz originally was working cooperatively to allow HACLA to consider a voluntary acquisition of the site,” she wrote to LA Public Press. “However, because of actions and statements made by the tenants after they met with a few of our (HACLA) staff, Mr. Botz and his attorney began to assume that HACLA was working solely upon the direction of the City and more specifically at the direction of the tenants and towards eminent domain.” 

Scanlin referred to a Sept. 21, 2022 email where Botz definitively denied the city entry to Hillside Villa, claiming that tenants targeted a worker supervising landscaping and painting projects. “Please stop meeting with these people, stop promising them things, stop encouraging them, and mostly, don’t buy them a building,” Botz wrote, before finishing with “…the appraisal is off.” 

Regulatory capture

The LA Housing Department and HACLA were directed by LA City Council to find a way to keep Hillside Villa tenants housed, but emails show staff instead intervened on behalf of the landlord Tom Botz, who claimed that the tenants threatened him and his staff, oftentimes when they were protesting his rent increases or landscaping projects that they thought detrimental to tenants’ wellbeing.

This phenomenon is common: An agency charged with protecting the public interest ends up working in the interest of the group that it’s supposed to regulate, or, regulatory capture.

While Botz accused the city of encouraging tenants to threaten his staff in September of 2022, emails reviewed by LA Public Press show that Botz made similar complaints throughout the summer of 2022. The evidence Botz gave ranged from claims that the tenants screamed at landscapers to what appears to be a screenshot from a security camera of the tenants protesting outside of Botz’s house. On Aug. 4, 2022, he forwarded an email from the property manager, Patricia J. Miller, who said she didn’t feel safe leaving her office because tenants screamed at her and banged on her door multiple times. She called the police three times and at one point, “approximately 12 officers” responded, according to Miller, who included a photo of the responding officers in her email to Botz. 

Tenants and organizers said that Botz’s landscaping projects from that summer included cutting down trees around the property and digging up a community garden some of them had meticulously nurtured. The Hillside Villa Tenants Association tried to appeal to staff and to the landscapers. The tenants even posted on Instagram that July asking the community to contact the landscapers and tell them to not remove the garden in a “firm but respectful” manner.

Regarding the Aug. 4 incident, Hillside Villa tenant Marina Maalouf disputed the claim that the tenants were aggressive towards Miller, the property manager. Rather, they were protesting what Maalouf called Miller’s rude treatment of them, “…and telling her, she has to be nice and everything. She has to listen to us.”

In a couple emails, Botz asks city officials not to meet with tenants and accused them of encouraging their protests in doing so. But after forwarding Miller’s email, Botz asked Sewill to get the tenants to stop interfering with the landscaping projects. Sewill agreed to talk to the tenants and set up a meeting with the Hillside Villa Tenants Association for Aug. 23, 2022. Sewill was in effect intervening in Botz’s dispute with the tenants on his behalf.

The emails don’t detail what Sewill and the tenants discussed, but in a follow-up email, the tenants association told Sewill about the continued destruction of the community garden and how it wore on the health “of the elderly women, who are key leaders of this fight.” Maalouf said the tenants have tried to raise a number of apartment issues with Sewill, but she has never followed up with any concrete assistance.

In a parallel negotiation, Geoffrey Moen, director of development for HACLA, was also trying to help city officials gain access to Hillside Villa for the appraisal, but instead was caught up in trying to address numerous issues Botz brought up with Section 8 rent increases. In mid-September, Moen asked if the city could move ahead with the appraisal, but Botz said HACLA still hadn’t addressed all of his Section 8 issues. He also accused HACLA of supporting tenant protests against him. A few days later, Botz sent the email declaring the appraisal off.

At this point, Moen had notified the LA Housing Department, and an official from there suggested getting the city attorney’s office involved. That office filed a petition in November with LA Superior Court, seeking an order to access Hillside Villa. This was around six months after the initial City Council vote. The process dragged on until Jan. 23, 2024, more than a year later, when Botz and city officials filed court documents agreeing to let the city onto Hillside Villa property. 

Another agency captured

When Hillside Villa appraisal negotiations moved to the courts, Botz’s lawyers adopted a similar strategy to their client, portraying the tenants as threatening in key filings. 

In January 2023, Botz’s attorneys filed a motion to move proceedings to San Bernardino Superior Court. They claimed that Botz would not receive a fair trial in LA County because members of the public behaved like a “mob” during the May 2022 City Council vote, while one of the attorneys, Patrick Hennessey, made a public comment. The motion mentioned footage from the LA City Council YouTube livestream, showing this. An LA Public Press review of the recording shows protesters interrupting Hennessey with their chants and at one point getting closer to him while holding signs or taking video, but no one physically obstructs him.

Court documents show that Deputy City Attorney Zakia Kator agreed to the venue change, some 60 miles east of LA, which postponed the hearing date. 

In early March, the Hillside Villa Tenants Association wrote to Kator, the lead attorney, expressing disappointment “that the city is allowing Botz’s lawyers to delay like this,” and asking for an update. When they received no answer, the tenants emailed Kator at the end of March with a decidedly more frustrated tone. They criticized Kator for agreeing to the venue change and therefore accepting the argument that they behaved like a mob during the Council vote, a characterization they called “racist and absurd.” The tenants said Kator’s “inaction is costing time that we do not have to waste.”

Deputy Mayor of Housing Jenna Hornstock (who was copied) emailed Kator that same night, saying she should write back to the tenants and inform them that the city attorney’s office had agreed to file an ex parte motion — a motion that can be granted without a requiring a certain amount of notice or response from Botz’s side — to set a hearing date for the appraisal. 

Email records show no record that Kator informed the tenants of these developments (Kator declined to comment). Instead, her supervisor John Heath wrote to the tenants saying that the city is the client and not them, so the city attorney’s office could not discuss any legal strategy with them. Referring to the tenants’ criticisms of Kator’s actions, he wrote, “Please know that this Office does not tolerate threats, bullying or intimidation from anyone.” Internal emails show another colleague expressing support for Kator, saying her eminent domain expertise and strategy were sound.

Yet, things did move faster after the tenants intervened. One month later, the city attorney’s office did file the ex parte motion and the hearing took place in early July, with the judge issuing a preliminary ruling in favor of the city (meaning the city could finally enter the property). 

The judge also ruled that the city would have to allow Botz’s attorney to conduct discovery and get more details on what the appraisal would entail, and set another hearing for October. But in late August, Botz’s attorneys filed a motion to delay the hearing again, claiming in court documents that Kator had not fulfilled her part of the deal to get more information about the appraisal to him. The judge granted this request, setting the hearing date for Jan. 29, 2024.

As tenants have waited for the city to conduct an appraisal of Hillside Villa, they have had to start fighting eviction lawsuits filed against 35 of their own households. They have continued to write open letters to their elected officials and to protest at city buildings to pressure leaders to support them and move with urgency. 

A week after tenants wrote to Mayor Karen Bass and Councilmember Eunisses Hernandez, calling on them to once again employ eminent domain and fire Housing Department General Manager Ann Sewill, a sign of progress materialized. The city, along with landlord Tom Botz, filed documents outlining an agreement for city officials to inspect Hillside Villa. 

The agreement will be taken up on Monday at San Bernardino Superior Court.

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.