More than 100 tenants on rent strike in South Central

By Alma Villegas

Lupe Sanchez and Johnny Johnson talk after Johnson's attempted eviction, Los Angeles, Calif.,  May 5, 2020. Earlier, the gate between them had been locked with a coil chain to prevent Johnson from re-entering the property. 

More than 100 tenants in South Central are not paying rent and advocating for rent forgiveness while “Safer at Home" orders ease throughout the next few months.

“I am currently on a rent strike with my household--my family--and have been for the months of April and May,” said Lupe Sanchez, 23, who joined South Central Local (SCL) of the Los Angeles Tenants Union (LATU) less than a year ago. LATU is a member-funded organization that supports tenant rights. “Our goal is to pressure elected officials to push rent forgiveness for all units.”

Sanchez is one of 112 tenants in South Central participating in a nationwide rent strike, according to SCL representative, Paul Lanctot. With the city’s unemployment rate up to 24 percent in April, these tenants say they are choosing to pay for food and other urgent expenses instead of high rent costs.

“Our work to reduce the spread of this virus came with a massive cost. Instantly, businesses shut down on our main streets,” said Mayor Eric Garcetti during a press conference on May 8. “Households lost jobs and hours and income, and by our estimate, our city’s unemployment rate has risen from 4.7 percent in February to over 24 percent in April.”

Under a temporary city ordinance, landlords cannot evict tenants, and face up to $15,000 in fines for violating the order. Tenants are, however, expected to repay all missed rent within a year of the local emergency period’s termination.

While tenants don’t have to provide documentation of their affected income, they do have to give written notification that they can’t pay rent, according to the Los Angeles Housing and Community Investment Department. Tenants must notify landlords up to seven days after each rent due date.

Sanchez said tenants participating in the rent strike understand there are laws currently protecting them from eviction. The victory they seek, she said, is rent forgiveness for the rent they will eventually have to pay back.

“It’s a tactic we’re using as a collective. In order for it to be successful, it has to be collective and it has to be strategic,” Sanchez said. “It’s important for folks to know they are not alone.”

Although temporary protections for tenants exist, small landlords and their representatives say they’re concerned about the lack of assistance to landlords.

“We are essentially the only small business industry that is forced to continue to deliver full services without compensation,” said Megan Briceño, a landlord speaking during public comment at a City Council meeting on May 6. At the meeting, councilmembers approved penalties for landlords who violate local tenant protection orders.

Beverly Kenworthy, the executive director for the California Apartment Association’s Los Angeles Division, also spoke during public comment. She warned that without assistance, many small landlords could soon be out of business.

“We just think allowing frivolous lawsuits or class-action lawsuits is really going to drive out the mom and pops, it could really be the final nail in the coffin for them when this crisis is over,” said Kenworthy who represents “members who own/and or operate approximately 65,000 rental units within the Greater Los Angeles area,” according to the CAA website.

One day before the City Council approved tenant protections, members of different LATU chapters stopped an attempted eviction in South Central.

The crowd of about 50 people included surrounding neighbors and passersby who noticed the commotion outside Uncle Dave’s Housing (UDH) near 93rd and Figueroa streets. The property is one of four transitional housing units under the same name in South Los Angeles, according to UDH's website.

Johnny Johnson, 57, a two-year resident of UDH, said he met the property manager with a letter describing his situation the day before the attempted eviction. The letter stated Johnson would not be able to pay rent in May because the pandemic had affected his income. “I come respectfully and I still get the short end of the stick,” Johnson said after almost being evicted.

The following day, UDH operator, David Wohlman, and executive director, Felicia Edelman, locked the property’s entrance and exit with a coil chain, and placed Johnson’s belongings on the sidewalk.

“We have no comment, thank you,” said Wohlman when Sur Central Times reached out.

Johnson was finally able to re-enter his home following the crowd’s protests. “I was just about to say ‘forget it’ and put all my stuff in storage until everyone came together and said ‘nah JJ don’t give up’,” Johnson, who is also an SCL member, said.

Sanchez and Johnson live in City Council District 8 where the average annual wage is $25,200, the lowest in all districts, according to a 2018 economic report by the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce. The unemployment rate there was also one of the highest at 8.7 percent. The pandemic has further affected resident income.

A year ago, the balcony of the apartment Sanchez and her family share “crumbled to the floor.” For weeks Sanchez said “management did not acknowledge what happened.” Concerned for the safety of her family and neighbors, Sanchez said she reached out to LATU for support.

“LA Tenants Union helped me and my neighbors get organized. We got together and started a tenants association. We would talk about shared concerns and our issues within the building,” Sanchez said. “Before, we would keep to ourselves, everything was very hush-hush. The mindset was ‘if no one bothers you, don’t bother them.’”

Tenants interested in joining the rent strike or learning more about SCL can send an email to south-central@latenantsunion.org or call (323) 536-1551.

Comments