a law, a city, a citizen

Being on the Other End(s) of Things…

By Amory Starr

 Progressive Planning: The Magazine of Planners Network

Spring 2007

Faith is mad at me today. Faith is an organizer with Power Tenants. I believe in Faith. A recent college grad, she’s doing what I urge my favorite students to do –working as a community organizing intern. She’s a good organizer. I recognize everything she does. She’s trying to get me to organize a house party. She’s offering to come by and pick me up for the neighborhood council meeting tomorrow. In a gentrifying neighborhood, fighting eviction from my building for a condo conversion, I’ve learned what it feels to be on the other side of community organizing – trying to work on an individual problem with a collective, long term strategy, fighting my own rage, exhaustion, and disempowerment. I’m also fighting my internalized classism – my belief that because I don’t have money I don’t really deserve anything after all.

Today I was supposed to make a flier to hand out down our street. Rose Avenue is clearly the next wave of gentrification-speculation in Venice. The real estate agents have signs on almost every building now. The homeless services center has been successfully evicted. Four houses that used to have jumbled informal economy-type front yards are now empty. Oh and the tienda that always had a family talking in the concrete patio – gone. I wanted the flier to say something like “Stop the luxurification of Venice!”, “Demand an affordable Rose!” Even “we have a Right to the City!” But I’m busy writing a new book, and worn out by the fight already. Faith said all the right things, “as tired as you are, you know that if you unite with other people, that’s your best chance to share the work and really win.” Yes, I know. I put her off another day.

More than a year ago, my serene loft in a 6 unit live/work building was sold to an inexperienced outfit called “The Urban Coyotes”, who made clear their plans to flip the building ASAP. They paid $3.5 million and they think they’ll sell our units for $900,000 to $1 million each. A bit uninformed, they don’t realize that the condos in the neighborhood going for those prices have award winning architects doing the interior architecture. They have learned that the building leaks from every direction.

There’s a lot at stake. As bare-bones live/work spaces like ours are turned into luxury condos, artists and a whole category of small enterprise is eliminated from the neighborhood.

Only two tenants stuck it out. My neighbor has operated her business in her loft for 17 years. She’s terrified about losing clients in a move. We’ve resisted two evictions, weathered a 35% rent increase, and tolerated months of too-loud-to-talk-on-the-phone renovation noise. Under the constant threat of eviction, I haven’t traveled for research for over a year.

We have also spent hundreds of hours trying to get help from the city and from attorneys. We have visited the LA Department of City Planning in person four times, as well as calling them on the phone another 7 or 8 times. Each time we are told that the landlords cannot relocate us until after receiving the final subdivision approval from the Real Estate Commissioner BUT in response to our pleading that someone in the planning department INFORM the landlord that this is the case, we hear “no, we don’t do that.”  Despite the fact that the municipal ordinance states: “Any dispute regarding an eligible tenant’s right to continue tenancy…may be heard by the Advisory Agency when application for such review is made by the subdivider or an eligible tenant.” Why are they not doing their job? We just don’t understand.

The County Department of Real Estate also confirms our reading of California Subdivision Map Act (66427) and compliant LA Municipal Zoning Code governing condo conversion (12.95.2), but they do not tell landlords how to behave. The Department of Housing in Los Angeles takes complaints and has an enforcement procedure but their funding is linked to the municipal Rent Stabilization Ordinance (RSO) so they only provide services for buildings covered by Rent Control, the shrinking stock of buildings built before 1979. Our building was built in 1987. We’ve visited the City Attorney’s office. They don’t “do” tenants. We’ve visited Building and Safety, our local Neighborhood Council, repeatedly called the California State Office of Consumer Affairs (who assured us that the City Attorney’s Neighborhood Dispute Resolution office would “take care of us”), and so many other offices. We made a 9-minute video DVD about the situation, including all of the relevant legal citations and distributed 15 copies to City Councilmen, the Housing Department, and the Planning Department along with complete copies of the paper trail and the relevant state and local laws.

We have stopped counting the number of civil servants and tenants rights attorneys who have told us that we have “no protections” if we are not under the RSO. They just don’t believe us when we tell them to go look at the condo conversion ordinance and notice that it is part of the Zoning code and is totally independent from the RSO, which is part of the Housing Code. The most famous tenants rights attorney in town, the one who “never loses a case” refused to even read 12.95.2, s/he “doesn’t want to get into condo conversion”. We aren’t poor enough, we aren’t a big enough building, and we aren’t close enough to a sheriff’s eviction to qualify for a tenants’ rights attorney.  Sadly the Mello Act, which asserts that 10% of units within 1mile of the beach must be affordable only applies to buildings with at least 10 units. We fall between all the cracks, but that means that all of those categories to which we belong are unprotected.

We see what’s happening up and down our street, hoping against hope that the speculation will fall flat because there’s so much new construction on nearby, more desirable, Main Street. The hottest street in the neighborhood, Abbot Kinney, seems to be expanding its modern loft/retail mix south beyond its former boundary of Venice Blvd.

I try to figure out why I’m feeling so hopeless. I’ve fought the WTO, repeatedly. Here we’re just talking about a couple of Coyotes, some local real estate companies, and an 8-block stretch of Rose Avenue.

Maybe it’s because there really is something about LA. In New York, I notice, people spend their leisure time out. In LA, after being out (in traffic), we want to stay home. In LA, people don’t answer the phone, make excuses for turning down invitations, pretend to be a lot busier than we are. Home is a refuge. But maybe it’s not LA.

In 2006, working with the Institute for the Study of Dissent & Social Control (www.dissensio.org), I did 40 interviews with all kinds of activists all around the country about their experiences of surveillance. What we learned, from Quakers to those now likely to be labeled “enviroterrorists”, to those who make art for street protests, is that there is simply no space for heartfelt, authentic citizenship. The much-theorized apathy of non-voters was finding its way into the most committed activists. Most of the people we interviewed remained active, but their attitude about their work had suffered a big change. All started out believing that fierce democratic engagement could eventually move their fellow citizens and their country. They found that their every move within a democratic context, within a political tradition of civil disobedience, was now attacked by a state with “zero tolerance” for activism, supported by a media-whipped citizenry quick to agree to the criminalization of political dissent. Now they despair completely, their activism becoming a ritual of moral principle rather than strategy directed at hope.

This brings me to the great hope of the poor and downtrodden of Venice, Councilman Bill Rosendahl. Around the time of our first eviction, Mr. Rosendahl introduced a bill to the City Council proposing a moratorium on condo conversions. About a year later, just a couple of months ago, the City Council modified the existing condo conversion ordinance to require a higher relocation payment to displaced tenants. We dutifully attended the city council meeting and cheered when Mr. Rosendahl pounded the table shouting that he won’t tolerate losing 80 units a month in his district. Over the last year, we have briefed five of Mr. Rosendahl’s aides on our situation. We have written a legislative analysis; we have defined the kinds of enforcement mechanisms that are needed. At the urging of a tenants rights attorney we have begged these five aides to contact our landlord, express displeasure at his treatment of tenants in his district, and to let him know that Mr. Rosendahl is eyeing his application with some suspicion. The attorney believes that this is our best strategy for getting the landlord to behave. We do not understand why his office will not take action.

The best moment in the whole thing was the day we were at City Council. I saw one of Rosendahl’s aides and asked if I could give him an update. This was immediately after the staggering rent increase. I explained all the legal details to him and he nodded and blinked. Then he said “ok, I’m going to introduce you to someone who can help you.” I thought, “at last, he’s going to put someone from Planning or the City Attorney’s office to work on our case!” He walked across the Chamber and introduced me to Larry Gross, Executive Director of one of the handful of tenants rights organizations in Los Angeles. They defend poor people and they are so underfunded that they do not have a single lawyer on staff. Here is the city outsourcing law enforcement to non-profit organizations! I was dumbfounded.

I’ve talked to so many civil servants in the city who refuse to do anything other than suggest that I dial the number of another civil servant. I’ve found that the law is meaningless and that something being illegal isn’t enough to get it stopped. I’ve learned that office after office after office of the city and the state whose mission is to provide services and safeguards to the citizenship are inactive/unmoving/unresponsive/deflecting. I’ve learned that we have to hire a lawyer to prove that we’ve been “damaged” by the illegality and the lawyers don’t want to take the case because “the landlords always win”. I’ve found that it’s apparently easier to talk to your Congressman about the war than to your City Councilman about enforcing existing law in his own city. I’ve thought about the experiences of tenants with less chutzpah, rhetorical bravado, fewer connections and resources, or who don’t know the law is online and that with some effort, ordinary people can read it. I’ve thought about those who are too intimidated or busy to visit the imposing, high-security City Hall, or who can’t make their story simple, focused, and demanding enough to get heard past the “I’ll take your number” point of the process.

With all of my scholarly training, class & race privilege, and aggressive activist disregard for bureaucratic “handling”, I have not been able to solve this problem. I am learning on a deep, experiential level, what every Black person knows, that the police are not on your side. My psyche knows this already from being in the streets with riot cops. But the whole city government? I knew this about the World Bank, I didn’t know about the city. Some readers are thinking – well, it’s not that that they have no intention of providing justice – they’re just hamstrung and overworked. But I’ve been in abusive relationships, and I’ve learned that it doesn’t really matter if it’s because of the alcohol or because I was annoying, or because his dad did it to him, or just because. It’s the same to the person on the receiving end. The advisors to abused women say that trying to understand why is an excuse for staying in the relationship. Does this apply to my relationship with the city? What about my fiery-rhetoric City Councilman. What compromises him? I’m not sure exactly. I’m not sure I care or should care.

So Faith wants me to organize. I think I’ll write the flier tonight. Because I’m an activist. That’s the only reason now.

Last stop: The Greater Venice Neighborhood Council Land Use and Planning Committee. “We don’t do affordability, that’s the Neighborhood Committee.” From observing a 3 hour meeting on a number of projects, Faith and I conclude that the LUPC seems to only “do” parking spaces. Once again, I am told that I am in the wrong place. The services are available, justice is at hand, if only I’ll just go over there. So I go home, back to the web, only to learn, shagrined, that I’ve been duped again. The Neighborhood Committee has no meeting scheduled. And the nice lady from the Land Use committee emails me the numbers of two more Legal Aid agencies; it turns out they “aren’t taking any new cases at this time.” This is just like welfare reform: give people the runaround enough and the rolls will shrink by discouragement and attrition. Fewer complaints is interpreted by government to mean fewer problems. Maybe this is why the marble halls of City Hall are empty of constituents. It ultimately serves the agencies to avoid a reputation of efficacy and accountability, that way the people will not even seek assistance. I glimpse a Bladerunner present, a city of sealed layers.

Biking home yesterday, talking about utopia and the necessity of imagination, we tumbled horrified over our handlebars. We knew the old Pioneer Bakery was being turned into a full-block residential development. But the West wall, the one with the beautiful New Orleans mosaic mural, was abruptly gone. It was the only mural on our street,  We never imagined that the new development would not maintain the mural. We biked home, numb. Very, very consciously, I typed a large font all-caps email to the Neighborhood Council: “HOW MANY PARKING SPACES DID YOU GET FOR THE MURAL?” I realized that trying to be a citizen has turned me into a crackpot.