September 10, 2015

Boyleheightbeat
Tenants protest against ‘displacement’ by ELACC

Protesters hold signs in front of one of the apartment buildings to be demolished for the construction of a 50-unit apartment building near 1st and Soto streets. Photo by Antonio Mejías-Rentas

A small group of Boyle Heights tenants being evicted to allow construction of an affordable housing development is asking the East Los Angeles Community Corporation (ELACC) for a guarantee of housing in the Cielito Lindo development once construction is completed.

ELACC recently served 120-day eviction notices to 15 tenants in five properties it owns in the 2400 block of 1st Street, near the intersection with Soto Street. The not-for-profit developer plans to build a mixed-use development that will include 4,600 square feet of commercial and retail space and 50 apartments for low-income families.

A handful of the tenants who must move out by November 30 joined neighbors and local activists in a protest Wednesday evening in front of one of the apartment buildings set to be demolished. Unión de Vecinos, a local nonprofit group that organizes tenants facing displacement, staged the protest. One speaker said that many tenants did not participate because they were working or feared retaliation.

“No más desalojos, garantías para todos,” (“No more displacements, guarantees for all,”) chanted about 30 protesters, who carried signs in Spanish and English and marched around the four corners of 1st and Soto streets as the sun began to set on a very hot late-summer day.

Unión de Vecinos notes that the tenants are being forced to abandon their rent-controlled apartments in a prime location near the Metro Gold Line and a supermarket. The group said that some tenants are paying as little as $450 for a one-bedroom apartment and that many will end up paying up to 45 percent more for comparable housing elsewhere.

ELACC says that tenants will receive relocation funds to cover any additional rent during the 24 months of construction. The developer has assigned an independent relocation expert to help tenants find housing, and tenants are being offered first right of refusal at Cielito Lindo.

But speakers at Wednesday’s protest said that ELACC is requiring extensive credit and background checks and that some of the 15 displaced tenants may not qualify for a new apartment. They said some tenants fear that they would not be able to afford their new rents, once the relocation funds run out after two years.

Speakers cited the displacement of several mariachi musicians from the historic Boyle Hotel near Mariachi Plaza who were unable to obtain housing in the renovated building.

“We want a guarantee in writing, not verbally, like they did with ‘mariachi hotel,’” said Terry Navarro, a tenant at one of the properties scheduled for the bulldozer.

Tenant Terry Navarro holds  a sign in front of the house she rents, which is to be demolished for the construction of a 50-unit apartment building near 1st and Soto streets. Photos by Antonio Mejías-Rentas

Navarro, a 59-year-old disabled woman, shares a small house in the back of an apartment building with her daughter, who is also disabled. Because she receives assistance under Section 8, she only pays a third of her monthly income towards the nearly $1,200 rent, and the government pays the rest.

“It’s not fair that they’re trying to get us out of here. It’s our neighborhood,” said Navarro. She said tenants should not be required to qualify for the new housing. “We’ve never been late with our rent.”

Elizabeth Blaney, an organizer with Unión de Vecinos, says tenants are asking for a guarantee that the residents can come back without credit or background checks. “Simply by the fact that they were tenants here is enough of a qualification to [avoid] being permanently displaced,” Blaney said.

Unión de Vecinos claims that some of the tenants who received eviction notices went to a pre-qualification interview with ELACC and were told that they would not qualify for an apartment in Cielito Lindo.

ELACC President Isela Gracián confirmed that two tenants were told that they have incomes that were too high to qualify for affordable housing under federal guidelines.

Housing and Urban Development guidelines, which are updated every year, currently define low-income families as households of one to seven people earning from $13,980 to $51,500 a year.  Gracián said ELACC must adhere to HUD guidelines to qualify for development funding.

The head of the nonprofit developer argued that monthly rents at Cielito Lindo–expected to be occupied by December 2017–are projected at $437 to $1,033 and that in most cases returning tenants would pay less than they do now.

Gracián said the developer has held several meetings with the tenants and is helping them fill out the paperwork necessary to qualify for the affordable units. In the case of the two tenants with the higher incomes, she said ELACC would look into any possible adjustments in the requirements that would allow them to qualify, but stopped short of guaranteeing them housing.

“We want them to come back to this new unit with greater amenities for them to be able to enjoy on a long term,” said Gracián.

She disputed claims that ELACC is contributing to gentrification by pushing tenants in low-rent apartments out of the neighborhood. “The Cielito Lindo [development] is part of ELACC’s broader work on pushing back gentrification” by increasing the number of affordable units in the market, Gracián said.

She argued that rent-controlled units, such as those being demolished, shoot up to market rate as soon as a tenant moves out, while units at Cielito Lindo will be required to remain affordable. ELACC says that tenants at Cielito Lindo will be guaranteed affordable rents through a 55-year renewable contract.

Cielito Lindo is actually a two-phase project that is expected eventually to add 31 more units on an additional 1st Street property. However, ELACC has halted construction of the second phase because it has not been able to buy one of the buildings that would need to be demolished.

Demolition of phase one buildings is expected in December, with construction set to begin in January.

At Wednesday’s protest, Unión de Vecinos’ Blaney said that ELACC has scheduled a meeting with the 15 phase one tenants on Tuesday to discuss relocation and compensation terms.

“We will be asking ELACC at that meeting [to] give us the right to return as part of the relocation package,” the activist said. “A guarantee in writing that we can return no matter what.”

Protesters march at the intersection of 1st and Soto streets after protesting in front of one of the buildings to be demolished (above). Photos by Antonio Mejías-Rentas