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LOS ANGELES — After a year of tense negotiations, residents of the historic Santa Fe Art Colony now have city council on their side. In October, the city passed two new measures beefing up renters’ protections, and the artists facing displacement are taking full advantage of the law.
A year has passed since Miami-based developer Fifteen Group purchased the live-work compound on the edge of Downtown Los Angeles. Last November, after a 30-year rent control protection expired, they raised tenants’ rent as high as 82%. This year, SFAC tenants have had their rent go up as high as 130%, forcing out those who remained after the previous hike.
In order to preserve their community, the SFAC Tenants Union put a bid offer on their property in April 2019, hoping that Fifteen Group would sell them the building at market rate. In compliance with state law, the developers had 90 days to accept or reject the tenants’ offer, but Sylvia Tidwell, president of the Tenants Union, claims that to this day, Fifteen Group has never formally acknowledged their bid, which violates the law and places their residents’ housing security in limbo while their rents rise on schedule.
“A plain reading of the statute indicates that Fifteen Group had two options after the tenant association made their offer, and Fifteen Group failed to do either of those two things,” explained Jesse D. Palmer, the Tenants Union’s transaction attorney, in an email to Hyperallergic. “The tenants association has been ready, willing and able to purchase the property and even though the 90-day period has expired, is still willing to purchase the building. If Fifteen Group refuses to sell — which is their right — then they should comply with the statute by recording the required declaration that they will not sell for five years.”
The colony’s struggles are just a symptom of the city’s overall housing crisis, where the market for affordable units is depleting while developers flip buildings and raise rents to maximize profits. In an effort to mitigate displacement, the Los Angeles city council passed two renters’ protection measures in late October which help people better fight unjust evictions. The first prohibits “without cause” eviction notices, which Tidwell clarified in a memo sent to residents: “[L]andlords can evict people only if they have ‘just cause’ (such as not paying rent, criminal activity, violating provisions of the lease, etc). This is a good thing for us.”
The other, more impactful, measure is a cap on rent hikes. Last week, Los Angeles passed the Emergency Renters Relief program, which limits rent increases to 8% for the remainder of the year. This is a windfall for SFAC tenants like Tidwell, who, according to KCRW, was expecting a jump from $1,426 to $4,493 per month. City council has approved a three million dollar fund that will go to landlords to help pay the difference between the new rents and tenants’ capped raise. The measure is so new, however, that SFAC tenants haven’t been able to take full advantage of it.
“On Friday we learned how the subsidy works and [on Monday] a group went down to housing to apply for the subsidy. It was so new that housing didn’t have the forms yet. When we showed up they looked a bit startled,” Tidwell said
But on the morning of Wednesday, November 6, Tidwell said that Fifteen Group responded by serving three-day eviction notices “to a group of tenants who followed the instructions of Council member Nury Martinez’s office on how to apply for the rent subsidies.”
The Tenants Union believes this is an act of retaliation, and therefore illegal. The city’s Housing + Community Investment Department (HCIDLA) could step in to assist the SFAC tenants. Tidwell explained that if HCIDLA intervenes, it “involves their filing individual lawsuits, at which point we would each have to hire an eviction defense lawyer” before Friday.
Subsidies and rent caps are only temporary protections, so the Tenants’ Union has looked for more permanent solutions to protect their housing. Tidwell shared that the Los Angeles Conservatory has nominated the SFAC compound to become a designated historical monument. “It’s over 100 years old. The property has a distinguished architect, John Montgomery Cooper,” Tidwell explained. Cooper has other buildings protected by historic designation in the Southern California region, and the Santa Fe Art Colony is his earliest work that remains standing. With historic designation, Fifteen Group would remain the building owners, but wouldn’t be able to gut the building and replace the lofts with luxury units.
Tomorrow at City Hall, the Cultural Heritage Commission will review and vote on the LA Conservancy’s nomination of SFAC for Historic-Cultural Monument protection. If SFAC wins the vote, it will go forward to the City Council for further review. That review process process takes a long time, however, and it will be months before SFAC finds out if they’ve made the final cut.
“We’re seeing if David can beat Goliath,” Tidwell said with a dry laugh.
Over the past few months, the Tenants Union has reached out to their local representatives in hopes of restarting stagnant negotiations, rallying support from the offices of LA County Supervisor Hilda Solis, State Assemblyman Miguel Santiago, and City Council District 14 representative Kevin de Léon. With their intervention, SFAC residents want to amplify their predicament and publicly pressure Fifteen Group to acknowledge their bid.
Over email, Hilda Solis’s communications director, Michael Knapp, explained how their office is mediating communication between SFAC and civic entities. “Since July, Supervisor Solis and her office has reached out and engaged the tenants, Los Angeles Community Development Authority, Los Angeles Housing and Community Investment Department, Mayor Eric Garcetti’s office, and LA City Council District 14 to help find a viable solution and keep residents in their homes.”
“Supervisor Solis strongly supports that the Fifteen Group reconsider converting the restricted units to market rate units, and that a compromise be reached with the residents that allows them to stay in their homes,” he continued.
According to the SFAC Tenants Union, Mayor Garcetti’s office has been unresponsive, and after a year of trying to secure a face-to-face meeting, the union still hasn’t met with Garcetti.