For more than a year, Gerardo Urbina and his family have had to place a bin in the middle of the bathroom floor to absorb water dripping from the upstairs apartment.
They’ve had to kill centipede-like bugs that emerge below the bathroom sink, observe rats darting from the apartment complex dumpster, and withstand the smell of gas that permeates their home while they use the kitchen stove.
These are all issues Urbina, 44, and his family has been dealing with for months as other empty units in their complex were renovated under new ownership. Upgrades haven’t been made to units already occupied by tenants.
That’s why Urbina was taken aback when in March he received notice that rent for his two-bedroom apartment would be raised from $1,160 to $1,860. He found out he wasn’t the only one. Tenants living there between five and 20 years were informed their monthly rents were going up by $500-$700, the L.A. Tenants Union says.
Now, Urbina and eight other families, are among the latest group of Los Angeles tenants who are refusing to pay rent as a form of protest. Led by the L.A. Tenants Union, tenants organized a rent strike until their landowner negotiates what they describe as fair leases and addresses the habitability issues in the building. July is their first month on strike.
Rent strikes are emerging across Los Angeles and across the country as the price to live in cities continues to rise. More than a handful of rent strikes are occurring in neighborhoods across Los Angeles alone. Many renters say they’ve been inspired by a group of mariachis living near Mariachi Plaza in Boyle Heights who successfully reached an agreement with the building’s owner to remain in place after going on rent strike. As of now, median rents in Los Angeles stand at $1,360 for a one-bedroom apartment and $1,750 for a two-bedroom, according to a report from Apartment List.
“It’s a lot of stress,” Urbina says.
He says his 11-year-old son has asked him, “Are we going to live in the street? … Are we still going to have a home?”
Urbina and the other tenants — who are mostly working-class Latinx households — live in a 24-unit building in the Highland Park neighborhood of Los Angeles. The complex is now owned by Avenue 64 Apartments LLC, which is listed as having the same address as the Silicon Valley-based Interstate Equities Corporation, the company that sent Urbina the rent increase notice. Online real estate records show the building was sold for $6.7 million in late September 2017.
Soon after, the company made superficial renovations to the complex, repainting the building’s façade and replacing the carpeting and cupboards of all the non-occupied units, the L.A. Tenants Union said.
Next City reached out to Interstate Equities Corporation but did not hear back from the company.
From the outside, the building on Avenue 64 now mirrors the assortment of flipped homes (houses that are purchased, renovated and resold for profit) across Highland Park. What used to be a white structure is now a gray building with colorful orange doors and minimalistic fonts. This design pattern has been referred to as the “Ikea-fying” of Los Angeles.
The renovated units are listed at monthly rents of $1,699 for a one-bedroom and $2,250 for a two-bedroom apartment.
Highland Park is a largely Latinx community that’s been described as one of the most gentrifying Los Angeles neighborhoods. Vogue in 2017 published an insider’s guide to Highland Park, “where elote vendors sit at curbs across from record stores.” Famed chef Nancy Silverton recently opened a pizzeria in Highland Park.
The way the L.A. Tenants Union sees it, the Silicon Valley corporation is “invading” a community of largely low-income Latinx renters by treating their housing “as assets to bring profit to their shareholders rather than recognizing them as homes,” says Julian Smith-Newman with the L.A. Tenants Union.
The rent strike is a “pretty drastic, strong, and courageous step,” Smith-Newman says. The Northeast Local chapter of the L.A. Tenants Union helped the renters form an association, which newer tenants of the building have also joined. Tenants were then encouraged to post fliers on their windows to protest rent hikes and living conditions in the complex.
“Greedy Owner = Displaced families and children” one poster reads, and “STOP PRICING US OUT OF OUR HOMES!!!” another one declares.
Attempts have been made to negotiate, but the corporation has continued to refuse, Smith-Newman says. Additionally, the apartment complex does not fall under the city’s Rent Stabilization Ordinance, which only pertains to units built before October 1978. This November, California residents will vote on a ballot that would expand rent-control options for cities across the state.
The rent strike, at this point, is the only tool that remains available to them, the L.A. Tenants Union says.
“It feels worse than ever to live here,” says Rosemary, a tenant who lives there with her elementary school-aged daughter. (She requested to withhold her last name for privacy.) “A lot of my friends here, they’ve had to say goodbye to a lot of people who have been priced out of the community.
“Highland Park, we’ve been hit so hard,” Rosemary says. “We really need a win for the people here.”
As for Urbina, who works as a dishwasher, he’s the main provider of his home and can’t imagine affording to live elsewhere. He has lived in that complex for 20 years with his partner and three children.
“My kids have their lives here, their friends and their schools,” Urbina says. “They don’t know any other place. They’ve lived here all their lives … I don’t know where we’d end up if we leave.”
Alejandra Molina is a Next City Equitable Cities Fellow for 2018-2019. Previously, she was a reporter for the Southern California News Group where she covered cities, immigration, race, and religion. In her decade-long career, she's reported how gentrification has affected downtown Santa Ana in Orange County, followed up how violent shootings have affected families and neighborhoods, and reported how President Donald Trump has impacted undocumented communities in the Inland Empire. Her work has appeared in The Press-Enterprise in Riverside, The Orange County Register, The Los Angeles Daily News, and The Mercury News in San Jose. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in broadcast journalism from the University of La Verne, where she taught an introductory journalism course as an adjunct professor.