Threatened Tenants Want the Head of the L.A. Housing Department Out

Ann Sewill is not supporting residents of affordable housing, who are protesting amid intimidation by landlords: “We are an annoyance, a kind of obstacle to her”

One day, Leslie Walker would like to stop fighting against cancer, PTSD, and the people she thought she could trust, but couldn’t. For now, though, she’ll settle to take just one fight off her plate: the battle for her home.

Over the four years since moving off the street and into Hillside Villa Apartments, housing has remained a struggle for Walker. 

“Within three months of me living here,” said the 39-year-old resident of the Chinatown apartment complex, “I was executed with a rent increase.” 

A fight between Tom Botz, the owner of Hillside Villa, and Patricia Miller, the property manager, brought even more issues. The pair suggested to Walker that her lease “wasn’t even valid.”

“I’m an Army veteran,” Walker explained. “I served almost 10 years in the military. I am also a sexual assault victim. I’ve been dealing with breast cancer. I’m on my third diagnosis.” 

Before she moved into Hillside, Walker was living out of her car. Today, she’s terrified that Botz’s tactics will drive her to this situation once again.

Any Angeleno in this situation deserves support, says the L.A. Tenants Union, an umbrella organization that represents many local associations like the one at Hillside Villa. But Walker’s case is just one example of many similar situations plaguing the city. While a cancer-beating, assault-surviving, veteran of a decade is among the most sympathetic characters imaginable, there are tens of thousands of Angelenos who are under the same housing insecurity threats.

On Tuesday, a host of Walker’s fellow Hillside Villa tenants stood outside the Los Angeles Housing Department in protest, as they say that the city office has not supported this right to safe and affordable housing.

“We’ve learned over the past year-plus that no one in the city is happy with LAHD,” said Sunik Kim, an organizer at Hillside Villa.  “They have repeatedly sided with landlords over tenants, and it’s become very clear at our protests that all of these tenants across the city—regardless of what neighborhood they live in—have the same frustrations and complaints with LAHD.”

Outside the West 7th Street office, the Hillside Villa Tenants Association called for LAHD General Manager Ann Sewill to resign, and for the office to provide documentation that they told Tom Botz to rescind a recent rash of eviction notices. The group was joined by Chinatown Community for Equitable Development, K3 Tenants, LATU Hollywood Local, Vu/Fink Tenants Association, Cathay Manor Tenants, 651 Broadway Tenants, Woodlake Manor Tenants, 

The protest comes nearly a year after the LA City Council voted to appraise and make an offer for Hillside Villa Apartments—this after Botz raised rents over 300% for tenants, many of whom were already relying on Section 8 housing support to pay rent before the hikes.

Once the City Council approved the unprecedented move to potentially buy the building, the onus moved from the council to LAHD to execute the appraisal and potential purchase. But there has been no noticeable progress in the ten intervening months.

“We’ve been repeatedly trying to get in touch with the housing department and Sewill herself to get updates on this appraisal process,” said Kim, “but even that they have stalled completely.”

Ann Sewill (City of Los Angeles)

Hillside Villa tenants have asked for updates, but instead of answers, they have found obfuscation. Callers say they get passed from officer to officer, with each claiming they don’t have jurisdiction over the appraisal. And in the meantime, eviction notices and intimidation from landlords and Sewill arrive. 

The intimidation from landlords is expected, if not legal, but Sewill has at least once called the police on protesting tenants—a direct affront to their first amendment rights. 

Responding to a request for comment by LAMag, LAHD insists on its ongoing involvement in the care of Hillside Villa’s tenants. Following direction from City Council in 2022, the department says it worked to secure an appraisal of Hillside Villa, to gain a better sense of the cost involved in a potential purchase of the building, an email from the department states; the appraisal effort has been a wash. 

“We have repeatedly sought the owner’s consent to access the site for that appraisal, with no success,” LAHD wrote in an email to LAMag. “Since November, the City Attorney has sought a court order to give the city access, and we are still waiting for that hearing. Aside from the appraisal, the purchase of any building from an unwilling seller would be a lengthy and costly process.” 

Though LAHD says it will continue to remind landlords about their eviction obligations and restrictions, the department also says it’s constrained by legal limitations. “We do not have the power to stop evictions if they are carried out consistent with the law, and we do not have the authority to accelerate the judicial process or to initiate eminent domain proceedings,” LAHD wrote. “Nonetheless, we are fully committed to continue working with the tenants, ownership, and the city family, to reach a fair and humane solution.” 

Some of the organizations that stood in solidarity experienced direct forms of intimidation from their landlords, they say, such as threats to report undocumented tenants to border authorities, threats of direct violence or financial offers to vacate their apartments in what is called a cash-for-keys scheme.

At Hillside Villa, the intimidation toward residents comes via unanswered work orders for mold, flooding, and other apartment damages. This amounts to a direct contradiction of California’s Implied Warranty of Habitability, which is designed to ensure renters are paying for livable homes. 

“At the beginning of January, I had five inches of water standing in my apartment,” said Walker. “They still have not come in and done any repairs.”

Kit, an organizer with the K3 Tenants Council, who declined to share their last name because their landlords have in the past evicted organizing tenants, recognizes these tactics and laments that LAHD has done nothing to support people who must endure them.

“Even when we file these complaints with the Housing Department, because [the landlords] are making the conditions horrible for people, [LAHD] will send a letter. All the letters say is the statutes of what constitutes harassment. No support of any kind. The opposite,” Kit says. “In practice, they are not allowing people to enjoy quiet and safe minutes at home.”

For Kit, the urgency to get moving on the appraisal and purchase of Hillside Villa is somehow even greater now. “The county eviction moratorium is going to end at the end of this month, and we’re anticipating a huge increase in eviction notices,” they say. “Landlords are very excited to start evicting tenants.”

For now, Hillside Villa Tenants are prepared to stand up for themselves, despite the pushback from a housing department that doesn’t seem interested in protecting housing. This is in addition to, as Walker put it, “having to fight against a landlord, who has consistently treated us like we’re garbage.”

But Walker says that no matter what, they will endure.

“I’m capable of fighting because I’ve already fought for so long,” she says. 

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