Boyle Heights Tenants, Mariachis Celebrate Victory over Exorbitant Rent Hikes

A nine-month rent strike comes to a close when tenants successfully negotiate new terms with owner B.J. Turner

Mariachi musician Luis Valdivia (white suit, center) waits to address the crowd regarding an $800 rent increase he was hit with at a rally at Mariachi Plaza in April, 2017. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.
Mariachi musician Luis Valdivia (white suit, center) waits to address the crowd regarding an $800 rent increase he was hit with at a rally at Mariachi Plaza in April, 2017. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

Her own rent hadn’t been raised, Irma Aguilar, a 20-year tenant at 1815 E. 2nd St. told the crowd gathered to celebrate tentants’ successful negotiation of a collective rental agreement with building owner Frank “BJ” Turner, but she had decided to become a huelguista (join the rent strike) because she knew she would likely be targeted next.

The three-and-a-half year deal the tenants hammered out with Turner would mean that the rents he had attempted to raise by 60 to 80 percent last January would now only see a fourteen percent increase, with an allowance for a five percent increase each subsequent year. Back rent not paid during the nine months tenants were on strike would be recouped via the fourteen percent increase – they wouldn’t have to pay additional sums to make up the difference. And at the end of the three-and-a-half year period, Turner agreed, he would enter into a new negotiation process with residents in good faith. Turner would also agree to make all necessary repairs to the units.

The victory comes as a tremendous relief for residents and the community alike after a very long and stressful year of fighting to be heard.

None of us could have paid the increases, Aguilar ruefully concluded her remarks to the crowd in Spanish. What they really wanted was to get us out of here, to displace us.

It was hard to argue with that.

Within a few weeks of buying the building located just a block from Mariachi Plaza at the end of 2016, Turner had raised rents on a handful of long-term tenants by between 60 and 80 percent. He had also created a website for the building, re-christened “Mariachi Crossing,” targeting those that wanted a taste of a “vibrant” neighborhood and a Metro station within walking distance that could take them to experience the real excitement found Downtown. [The website has since been removed. The Craigslist ad with many of the same images and text is here.]

At the time, the new owners justified the hikes by claiming to be making significant upgrades to the communal elements of the property (laundry facilities, lighting, roofing, etc.). Tenants pushed back, saying that the owners had first told them they were going to upgrade the units to make them more luxurious, but then made only a few cosmetic improvements around the edges of the building, leaving tenants’ long-standing issues and repairs unresolved.

To the tenants, the targeting of only seven units for increases meant Turner was testing out his ability to push people out. The fact that the building had been built after 1978 and was not under rent control protections made it all the easier for him to do so.

The move was seen as particularly insidious because not only would an $800 jump in rent have displaced mariachis like Luis and Enrique Valdivia and made it more difficult for them to reach Mariachi Plaza to get work, but Turner was using the idea of mariachis to essentially re-brand the place.

He appeared to be promising new residents cultural adjacency – they could feel they were linked to the spirit of a place without having to actually rub elbows with the locals.

The gleaming white interiors suggest tenants can live culture-adjacent.
The staging of the gleaming white interiors suggests the possibility of a clean and simple life-style of cultural adjacency, one that is insulated from the “vibrant” community that gives it such cachet.

Considering that as many as 15 mariachis occupied the building’s 25 units – all of whom relied on access to the plaza to get jobs and all of whom would likely have found themselves displaced from Boyle Heights entirely – the expansion of rent hikes to the rest of the building would have dealt a significant blow to the health of the mariachi community and culture. Especially as others around the plaza were beginning  to lose their battles against evictions and rent hikes as the year progressed.

So, when tenants first held a rally last April, they simply asked that Turner meet with the group, face to face.

They wanted him to understand that they were the heart of the community.

Displacement would not only put their way of life at risk, but also hurt the community for generations to come. The mariachi tradition is often passed down within families, but many also give lessons to area music students, they patronize (and keep alive) unique community-serving shops and region-specific restaurants with a long history in the area, and they provide a soundtrack for some of the most important moments of residents’ lives.

Moreover, they had weathered the challenges the community had seen at the plaza and remained a key constant throughout. Having informally claimed the intersection at 1st and Boyle as a gathering space as early as the 1930s, the community essentially grew up around them. When the corner became a hub for less reputable and more dangerous endeavors in the 1980s, the presence of the mariachis helped to keep the space accessible to residents and kept local businesses like the donut shop they used as their de facto headquarters afloat. So much so that the transformation of the traffic triangle into a bona fide plaza in 1994 – imperfect a process as it may have been – was predicated on the idea that elevating the mariachis would also elevate and heal the community.

Now that the community they had helped build against all odds was finally more appealing to outsiders, tenants speaking at the April rally argued, developers, artists, and even public agencies were devaluing their contributions and eagerly pushing them aside.

Residents put signs up around the property at 1815 E. 2nd St. in an effort to shame Turner into meeting with them. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.
Residents put signs up around the property at 1815 E. 2nd St. in an effort to shame Turner into meeting with them. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

To give Turner more incentive to meet with them, tenants continued to pay their regular rent and ignore the increases.

But instead of responding to their requests for a meeting to negotiate a reasonable rent increase, Turner returned their checks two months in a row.

It was stressful not knowing what their fate was going to be while still having to deal with a manager that regularly come through the building to tell tenants to leave, Luis Valdivia told me in April.

So when Turner finally expressed interest in meeting in June but put a number of conditions on the meeting (e.g. tenants had to meet with him individually), the tenants had had enough.

They refused the meeting.

They were subsequently sent eviction notices. By this time, however, they had rallied the support of neighbors like Aguilar, who agreed to take on the risk of a rent strike starting last July.

The coalition of 13 tenants – just over half the building – and a lot of bad press still seemed to have very little impact. Tenants were given court dates instead of meetings. So they took the fight to him, planning actions in his neighborhood throughout the fall, culminating with encampments outside his home in Rancho Park in December, where protesters spoke to Turner’s neighbors about his actions in Boyle Heights.

They finally got their face-to-face meeting.

It was this “contacto persona a persona” Arturo Ramírez, president of the Organización de Mariachis Unidos de Los Ángeles (also pictured at top, next to Luis) told La Opinion, that finally allowed for an agreement to be reached.

The agreement itself is rare. Tenant organizing has been in the zeitgeist for some time; the late mayor of San Francisco Ed Lee made a name for himself in 1978 by organizing public housing tenants in a rent strike until the city remedied their poor living conditions. But the urgency of the displacement of lower-income communities of color has sparked renewed interest in the tactic, with embattled communities in Fillmore (San Francisco) and Brooklyn taking up the charge more recently.

And it certainly isn’t the easiest way forward. The laundry list of people thanked by the tenants yesterday – including the L.A. Tenants Union and Unión de Vecinos for their advocacy, Defend Boyle Heights and BHAAAD for pushing local, national, and international conversations on gentrification, the Democratic Socialists of America for their support, lawyers from the Los Angeles Center for Community Law and Action for steering tenants through a complex legal system, Councilmember José Huizar, lawyer Richard Daggenhurst, and their own neighbors for having been willing to put the larger community’s needs ahead of their own – spoke to the costs of sustaining such an endeavor over the long haul.

Speaking on behalf of Unión de Vecinos – the tenant rights group that was the first to come to the residents’ aid, Elizabeth Blaney said the victory was possible because of the long history of organizing within the community itself. “Gentrification is not inevitable,” she declared.

Valdivia, for his part, having received job, housing, community, and cultural security all in one fell swoop the victory appeared to be overwhelming.

Honestly, it is going to have a significant impact because we are now assured that we can stay here for another three-and-a-half years…he told the crowd in Spanish. I cannot emphasize enough how big this is for us.

As mariachis, he continued, they are dependent on access to the plaza just around the corner from here. And as someone who had been an integral member of the community for more than 30 years, he concluded, Aquí queremos vivir. [Here is where we want to live.]

Listen to the mariachis and hear comments from residents at last night’s gathering here.

 

  • Stvr

    “The staging of the gleaming white interiors suggests the possibility of a clean and simple life-style of cultural adjacency, one that is insulated from the “vibrant” community that gives it such cachet.”

    I leave this quote without comment.

  • sahra

    You have no idea how much genuine, unabashed joy I take from the fact that you cannot resist faithfully hate-reading me, despite your years’ worth of public declarations that you would never read us again.

    You’re my ride or die, baby.

    -sahra

  • Vooch

    3 years from now – socialists in the neighborhood will be wondering why there is a acute shortage of rental housing

    LOL

  • sahra

    Because a handful of lower-income tenants negotiated lower rents in an existing building…?

  • Vooch

    people who have saved their hard earned money by deferring consumption over decades and therefore built up a bit of capital are rather sensitive to having their property stolen.

  • sahra

    well that escalated quickly. yikes.

  • Vooch

    you might study the South Bronx carefully.

  • sahra

    And you might study redlining carefully as well as the ongoing denial of the ability to accumulate generational wealth via home ownership people of color have endured before making pronouncements about who has saved their “hard earned” money and who is “stealing” property.

  • Vooch

    sorry sweetie – that arguement doesn’t hold water. I know plenty of ultra high income households that are dead broke and plenty of $12/hr households that are prosperous.

  • Earl D.

    My only real objection to the article (and the quote in question) is that it casts the developer as the cause of gentrification and grassroots collective action as the (or at least a) solution, when in fact developers are simply responding to market scarcity. If the developer had staged the apartments in a more culturally sensitive way (while skirting cultural appropriation) they would in all likely-hood have increased the cost of preparing for the model photos and still would be able to change exactly the same rent.

    We can all cheer that the highly sympathetic existing tenant’s managed to avoid hefty rent increases, but all that’s doing is shifting the burden from an existing tenant to a prospective new tenant, and who’s to say that a street musician already living there is more deserving than a server working in a local restaurant who will otherwise have to travel an hour to get to work?

  • sahra

    Lol. When folks start saying nonsensical sh*t just to hear themselves talk, that’s my cue to leave a conversation behind.

    All my best, “sweetie.”

    -sahra

  • D G Spencer Ludgate

    I never thought in my Streetsblog readings that I would agree with Vooch…

    In the United States we do not punish people for the sins of their ancestors. It is not Frank BJ Turner’s fault that there was redlining in past generations. Your post is a deflection from the issue.

    $1,600 a month for a one-bedroom apartment is 1/3 less than a one-bedroom in my market. Do you honestly believe that Mr Turner should provide welfare subsidies and rent his units at below market rates?

    It’s bad enough that we have organizations such as the Shriver Housing Project that uses the threat of a jury trial to blackmail owners into paying scofflaw tenants to leave. The tenants engaged in a slanderous act by discussing their situation with Mr Turner’s neighbors. The tenants are lucky that additional civil charges were not filed.

    Neighborhood demographics change over time. We need to recognize that people are now free to live anywhere they can afford. The Mariachis should embrace technology. They no longer need to hang out on the corner to book a gig. They can post on Craigslist. They should work with TaskRabbit to create a Mariachi category with a reduced commission. Energy should be spent on solutions, not fighting market forces.

  • sahra

    So, there’s a lot of willful misreading here that I don’t have the time or energy to address {for ex. whether I blame Turner for redlining. I don’t. Nobody does.}…

    But I do find the argument for the deactivation of the public space really startling. The way the mariachis use the plaza is literally what urbanists and planners dream about – everything they are aiming for has to do with creating walkable spaces where neighbors want to congregate and where their presence buoys the local economy, builds community, and enhances the vibrancy of the culture. They are integral to keeping the place alive. Energy should be spent on figuring out how to build on and support that street culture, not ways to dismantle it.

  • Vooch

    She thinks that stealing is a good deed IF the theft benefits someone she favours.

  • Lauren Bertrand

    I’m going to post something I already posted at another site today, just because I’m that big of a nerd….

    Racism will never go away. It’s a cardinal sin, like greed and envy (with which it largely overlaps). We are humans, and as humans we are sinners. I say this as an atheist who still recognizes the viability of religion to subjugate us mercifully and not delude us toward the humanist utopias that nearly always result in far greater oppression, as well as an economic stagnancy that imprisons the same people it tries to uplift.

    What we can hope will go away, someday (and even this is Pollyannish), is the capacity for people to be wounded by racism. Someday, in something far from a utopia, the most wounded will shrug aside the hate and recognize that those lousy racist people aren’t worth their time, and then move onward.

    A race-neutral worldview holds much more promise than one that continues to seek out discrimination, or to make victimization excuses that ultimately ensnare people in the sort of self-pity and impotent anger that routinely spawns violence. Because, in the long run, if you’re hellbent on looking for racism and discrimination everywhere, you’re always going to find it.

  • sahra

    The reason it is important to look at questions of racism, particularly structural racism, is because of the hierarchies and power dynamics inherent therewithin and the extent to which those dynamics deny certain groups the same opportunities and access and voice and visibility others of privilege enjoy. It’s really that basic. To suggest it is about self-pity or victimization reinforces those dynamics and moves us farther away from, not closer to, the utopia you claim to seek.

ALSO ON STREETSBLOG

Finally Given a Platform, Boyle Heights Speaks Out on Metro’s Mariachi Plaza and Affordable Housing Plans

|
Accused of smirking her way through Metro’s heated community meeting on the fate of Metro-owned properties in Boyle Heights by an agitated attendee, a clearly flustered Jenna Hornstock (Metro’s Deputy Executive Officer of Countywide Planning) had had enough. “It’s hard to stand up and say, ‘We screwed up!'” she said of feeling like she had […]