CHINATOWN – Around a dozen Hillside Villa tenants, housing organizers, and supporters protested outside LA Housing Department General Manager Ann Sewill’s house Saturday morning, calling on her to share a deal that she is believed to be negotiating about their housing with their landlord Tom Botz.

Hillside Villa tenant Alejandro Gutierrez said Sewill has refused to share details and to include tenants in the negotiations. “Maybe it’s a great deal for us, but we don’t know. And maybe it’s really bad and we’re not included to give our opinion about it.”

Hillside Villa is a 124-unit building built in 1989. The units were kept affordable under a 30-year covenant which expired in 2019. Since then, tenants have formed an association to protest their landlord Tom Botz raising their rents up to 300%, which they cannot afford. They have gone on rent strike and fought for the city to seize their building using eminent domain. They have also criticized officials for acquiescing to delay tactics from Botz and not being transparent with the tenants. Tenants also called on Mayor Karen Bass to fire Sewill for not defending them.

Residents believe that the deal includes a covenant extension that they want to make sure benefits them. Tenant Mary Ramos hopes that any extension would keep rents affordable and adequately address the tenants’ back rent. Even if a deal achieves this, Ramos wants to continue fighting for eminent domain, a government right to seize private property for public use. Hillside Villa tenants argue that eminent domain is the best way to keep their housing affordable in the long run.

In emails obtained by LA Public Press, Botz and Housing Department officials discussed a covenant extension for 10 years retroactive to 2019, when the covenant expired. But LA Tenant Union organizer Jacob Woocher, who is working with Hillside Villa residents, said a deal needs to keep the tenants housed for at least 10 years going forward, not 10 years from 2019, which is already five years ago. 

Appeals to their Councilmember

Tenants also called on their Councilmember Eunisses Hernandez to release the terms of this deal. A couple tenants met with Hernandez last week and said that she is having trouble getting other Councilmembers to support the eminent domain of Hillside Villa.

Hernandez’s spokesperson declined to confirm the existence of a deal or comment on any of the details. They pointed LA Public Press to the LA Housing Department and City Attorney’s office. Spokespersons from both departments declined to comment, while Botz and the mayor’s office did not reply to requests for comment.

Hillside Villa residents said city officials alluded to a deal with Botz in a meeting from a couple weeks ago that included Hernandez’s staff and officials from the mayor’s office. But when pressed for details, they told tenants that the officials could not discuss any of the terms, because they are related to “ongoing litigation” between Botz and the city.

Hernandez is the councilmember representing the area where Hillside Villa is located. Eminent domain is a campaign promise Hernandez made while campaigning for City Council. Now tenants wonder if she’s reneging on that support. The Hillside Villa Tenant Association issued a call to action last week, asking people to call Hernandez’s office. “We need your help!” the tenant association said. “The city is trying to kill our demands for eminent domain and push some deal with the landlord that will NOT solve our problem.” 

“Of course, they are politicians. They will promise… the sky for you just to make you comfortable. But we know what their tactics are, so we don’t really believe [that], unless we see it,” Ramos said.

In an email, Chelsea Lucktenberg, Hernandez’s spokesperson, reaffirmed the Councilmember’s support of eminent domain for Hillside Villa and said that “she will continue to do everything she can to keep the tenants at Hillside Villa housed.” This includes “[advancing] the appraisal of the building despite the many bureaucratic and legal hurdles it has faced.”

This legislation includes a motion requiring the Housing Department to report back on a long-delayed appraisal of Hillside Villa and their negotiations with Botz to purchase the building. “We expect a report back to be heard soon, so the tenants and the public can hear directly from the Housing Department on the progress made since the initial instruction to acquire the building,” Lucktenberg said.

But tenants are afraid that the report might not include details related to a possible lawsuit settlement between Botz and the city. Ramos characterized the secrecy of this deal as being “very bad for us,” because the tenants cannot judge whether the deal would actually keep them housed and what it would mean for eminent domain.

During the meeting last Tuesday, city officials told Hillside tenants they expected the appraisal to start by March 1. “To our knowledge the appraisal has not been scheduled,” said Lucktenberg. “But we fully expect it to go forward.”

But Ramos is unsure, given delay tactics that Botz has employed in the past (it’s been almost two years since the City Council approved an appraisal as a first step to buying and keeping Hillside Villa affordable). An investigation by LA Public Press found officials accommodating these tactics in emails with Botz, as well as joking about eminent domain.

Tenant concerns after meeting with the city

The emails obtained by LA Public Press also showed negotiations between LA Housing Department officials and Botz after a covenant extension for at least 35 of the building’s 124 units until at least midway through last year. In an email from April 21, 2023, Botz tried to predicate such a deal on the city agreeing that they would not need to purchase the building to keep rents affordable.

LA Public Press reviewed meeting notes in which tenants were told during Tuesday’s meeting that Sewill of the housing department, the city attorney’s office and Botz were currently in negotiations. Eric Ares, Councilmember Hernandez’s Director of Homelessness and Housing, said the details are secret because they are related to a lawsuit Botz filed against the city last year. In this lawsuit, Botz alleged that officials led an “eminent domain offensive” that led to financial losses for him, but he agreed to dismiss the lawsuit in January, albeit on the condition that he could file it again.

Housing organizer Jacob Woocher, who was at the meeting, told LA Public Press that he had to point out the lawsuit had been dismissed, when officials brought it up.

Mary Ramos reiterated a call to fire Housing Department General Manager Ann Sewill. “She is always with the landlord, on the side of the landlord, not on the tenant.”

On Saturday, shortly into their protest, Sewill came outside and told the tenants, “Three-hundred fifty [sic] feet away or you’re trespassing,” ostensibly referring to a law that prohibits demonstrations within 300 feet of the home of the person being protested. She got into her car that was parked on the street, ignoring questions and appeals about the deal and honking at tenants who blocked her car for several minutes.

Sewill drove away after tenants moved out of the way of her car and police showed up.

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.