Next Stop: Gentrification

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By Dalia Espinosa 

“When the Metro Gold Line was first introduced, that’s when everything started,” said 43-year-old Ofelia Platon, a community organizer at Union de Vecinos. “They come and present their amazing plans. They explain what this and that will become. But who is this for? Is one ready to let others enjoy the hard work that one cultivated?”

Residents from low-income neighborhoods, like Platon, have experienced decades of gentrification and displacement.

The Urban Displacement Project [UDP] focused its attention toward three locations: Portland, Southern California, and the San Francisco Bay Area. Despite intense similarities between the cities and its demographics, the data also suggests that gentrified hotspots are in close proximity to transit stations, and in turn, are more likely to experience the plaguing effects.

For instance, the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority [Metro] proudly states on its website that more than 9.6 million people use their services which extend past 1,000-square-miles. These numbers account for nearly a third of California residents, not just Angelenos. The lesser-known truth, however, is that property value increases the closer the property is to transit stations such as Metro.

When transit stations are built in neighborhoods, the cost of living increases and rent prices soar.  Low-income residents struggle to afford the changes, and if they are unable to adapt to the new living expenses, evictions and displacement happen.

Platon has lived in Boyle Heights for over 10 years after relocating from South LA. Initially, she, like many other hardworking and family-motivated individuals, did not make community involvement an urgent priority. Instead, she dedicated her hours to raising her at-the-time young children. Often, she questioned the significance or purpose of her role in the community, but after attending several meetings and protests, her activist drive began to grow.

“I was in my own world,” she admitted. “That’s why I now tell people [not to] close [themselves] off in [their] own world.”

At first, she joined community efforts toward cleaning litter, pollution, graffiti, and violence out of Boyle Heights. Progress was reached, but as soon as it became noticeable, gentrifiers began to come in, she explained. Nonetheless, Platon’s energy and dedication to the community weren’t overlooked either. On several occasions, Union de Vecinos, an organization of neighborhood committees near East LA, tried to recruit her. She joined their team in 2004.

“One of the reasons as to why I found the courage to accept the position at the union is because of all that was happening in my surroundings,” she said.

The biggest problem now, according to Platon, is gentrification and displacement. While it is happening in many locations, there is an urgent call to action in Boyle Heights. Tenants are fighting against outrageous rent increases and community displacement.

The LA City website for the Community Development Department states that rental units built after October 1, 1978 do not qualify for the city’s Rent Stabilization Ordinance. That means that landlords are able to increase rent prices without many limitations. The website, however, states another important piece of information, one that many developers fail to comprehend. -- “Even if the rental unit is not covered under the RSO, renters have rights under California law.”

Platon expressed relief as she talked about how fortunate she was in having rent control. But even then, she explained, it is not easy on the wallet. Basic needs are expensive and the minimum wage is no longer enough. 

Last year, attention was drawn toward an almost year-long rent strike in Boyle Heights. The apartment complex at root of the rent strike is located on the intersection of South Boyle Avenue and East 2nd Street. It is estimated to be about a two minute walk to Mariachi Plaza.

According to locals, Mariachi Plaza is more than a historic landmark for tourist attraction. Mariachi musicians have gathered around the plaza since the 1930s, seeking employment individually or as an ensemble. Because of that history, Mariachi Plaza gained its reputation. The state of Jalisco, credited to be the birthplace of mariachi music, donated a kiosk to the plaza long before the Metro railway was built. Since then, Mariachi plaza serves the hardworking community as a safe space where locals can get together to socialize, eat ethnic foods, and listen to live music.

“This is a beautiful neighborhood for us because it’s the Mariachi Plaza,” said tenant and rent-striker, Jose Sanchez. “It’s like a plaza in our little towns of Mexico.

Sanchez migrated to the U.S. in 1969 from Jalisco, Mexico. In 1996, he and his family settled down in Boyle Heights. They have lived in the same building for about 22 years. While he, himself, is not a mariachi musician, he shares an understanding and respect for the profession and its workers.

Despite the changing times, mariachi musicians still carry their instruments and post around the plaza in their adorned charro suits awaiting employment opportunities. There is a common understanding amongst locals that if they want to hire a mariachi group, they come to Mariachi Plaza, explained Sanchez.

Ironically, the 25-unit apartment complex that underwent new management in December 2016, was planned to be renamed “Mariachi Crossing,” according to the LAist. Within a month, seven tenants, four of which are mariachi musicians, received a letter from the new landlord, Frank “BJ” Turner, informing them that rent would be increased by 60 to 80 percent.

Tenants were expected to pay the disclosed amount beginning April 2017, otherwise, eviction awaited. The new rent prices implemented under the development project would ultimately lead to the eviction of its long-term tenants, including the mariachi musicians. Their profession is a humble one, and their overall salaries reflect it. Living at close proximity to the Mariachi Plaza is imperative to their livelihood, but paying close to $2,000 a month for rent is not a reasonable option.

“Although what he is doing is legal because this building does not have rent control, we believe that this is abuse from his part,” said mariachi musician, tenant and rent-striker, Enrique Valdivia. “What we have wanted is to meet with Turner and say, ‘Ok, fine. We accept a rent increase, but the amount you want is unjust.”

Enrique Valdivia and his brother, Luis Valdivia, are both mariachi musicians. They have lived together in the same two-bedroom apartment for over 22 years. An 80 percent rent increase, in their case, would result in an additional $800 a month.

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In accordance to the UDP analysis, gentrification does exactly that. It wipes out communities. In most instances, the communities are low-income people of color. Once the individuals become evicted due to rent increases, they become displaced onto the streets or a cheaper alternative that is hard to find.

“The kids downstairs go to school here,” said Sanchez. “They have been going there for years. This is home to them. Imagine what they are thinking right now. Are we going to kick the kids out of their home [and] have them find another school? They're going to move somewhere where they don't know anybody. Don't those situations touch [developer’s] hearts?” Sanchez added, “ I bet [Turner] is counting every single penny and is thinking, 'Oh my god, I'm going to make nothing but money here.' But he forgot one thing: we're still humans too, and we are willing and will fight to the end."

For months, tenants and allies attempted to contact Turner. They tried phone calls, emails, letters - they all went unanswered. Next, they reached out to politicians, media, and unions. Most politicians were unresponsive or of little help, according to some locals. Reporters followed the situation, but still, their stories did not make its way into many mainstream outlets. Finally, they joined two unions that would help support their fight until the very end: the Los Angeles Tenants Union and Union de Vecinos. In July 2017, they began a rent strike.

Sanchez is one of the tenants who, at the time, had not yet received a rent increase. However, solidarity ran high. He, along with other allies, continued to support the rent strike through participation in fundraisers, protests, and other calls to action.

Francisco Gonzalez, a tenant at the same building for 12 years, told an almost identical story to Sanchez’s when asked about Turner’s failure to meet with the tenants.

According to the men, Turner refused to meet with the tenants often, many times making scheduling excuses. When he finally agreed to meet them, he had a list of requirements: Turner would decide the location, require identification cards, meet them on a one-on-one basis, and have an officer and lawyer on sight. Tenants were opposed to this plan because they were fighting as a group and wished to remain as one. Turner’s plan seemed full of intimidation and manipulative tactics to break the strike, said locals.

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Tenants who participated in the rent strike still paid their normal rent, said Sanchez. Their payments were handed to the union until Turner reached an agreement with his tenants.

“So what we're fighting here is saying, ‘Give us some time,’” said Sanchez. “Yeah, we're flexible. We're not denying that we have to pay a little bit of [an] increase. We got a solution. We want to make him an offer. But how can we make him an offer if he doesn't want to show up and talk to us?”

As a collective group, tenants, allies, and union workers participated in fundraisers to gather money for supplies and other expenses. They protested outside Hollywood properties that belong to Turner, raising their voice through megaphones and showcasing their cause through posters. Nothing, however, seemed to bring Turner around. 

Turner began eviction processes, and three tenants showed up at the LA Superior Court early October 13, 2017. The court cases went on until February, but eventually resulted in an agreement between Turner and those tenants.

According to the Boyle Heights Beat, Turner and the 13 tenants on rent strike reached a compromise. They settled for an immediate 14 percent rent increase, and each year, an increase of up to 5 percent could be implemented. This contract ends in 2021, and at the end, new negotiations will be made between the tenants and Turner. The agreement does not apply to the other 12 units in the building.

"Aquí estamos y no nos vamos," was a chant used at the North Hollywood protest back in October.

“I think raising our voice the way that people are doing so now, and standing up is our only option.” said Platon. “We have to keep fighting [and] protesting. I think that is the only way that we can stop excessive rent hikes at least a bit.”

 

Dalia Espinosa