A yellow Sureway bus arrived in a quiet, upscale Buena Park neighborhood near Coyote Hills on Sunday afternoon. One by one, dozens of tenants set to be evicted from an apartment complex a block from USC in Los Angeles exited with protest signs in hand. The residents readied to march before the multimillion-dollar, majestic, white mansion in which landlords Chung Suk and Hae Jung Kim comfortably make their home.
“They’re evicting working-class people of color to make a profit off their displacement, and we’re not down with that, are we?” asked Paul Lanctot of the LA Tenants Union through a microphone.
“No!” the tenants responded.
“Despite our repeated requests [for the Kims] to meet with the tenants, they continue to refuse, citing racist claims of safety, as if these tenants are dangerous,” Lanctot continued, “so we decided we’d come out and meet at his house!”
Though they called for Chung to “come out of his castle,” the Kims had caught wind of the picket beforehand and showed no signs of being home. That didn’t stop desperate tenants from taking turns on the microphone to air their grievances about being cleared out to make way for student housing.
“These people are using more money to put us out on the street instead of trying to relocate us or let us stay,” said Tracy Pierson while seated on her walker. The stress of looming evictions landed her in the hospital recently. “In the hospital, they told me this is inhumane to do people like this. Everybody is somebody.”
The residential picket proved to be the latest salvo in a dispute set in motion after the Kims acquired the apartments off Exposition Boulevard for $8.5 million in September. The following month, tenants found a notice stating their tenancy would terminate in 60 days. “Although no reason is required to terminate a non-rent-control, month-to-month tenancy, this notice is given for the reason that the new owner intends in good faith to renovate your unit and the property in which it is located and rent as student housing,” stated the Buena Town Management letter dated Oct. 12, 2017. (The apartments are not protected by the Los Angeles Rent Stabilization Ordinance, which applies to complexes built and rented on or before Oct. 1, 1978, and restricts the reasons landlords can carry out evictions.)
The Exposition apartments have been home to mostly black and Latino working-class residents, with some units dedicated to transitional and Section 8 housing. Word of impending evictions first sent an alarm through the community. “We were all worried about living on the streets,” said Chrystian Shields, who rents a room for $500 per month. “It’s hard for us to get up and move like that.”
But then tenants decided to organize and fight back. “A resident went to the Eviction Defense Network, which is a law firm that we work with pretty regularly, and they sent them to the [South LA local of LA Tenants Union],” Lanctot said. By mid-November, residents were holding weekly meetings to discuss the situation.
The tenants are challenging the evictions in court on the basis that they’re inherently discriminatory. The matter goes to the Stanley Mosk courthouse in downtown LA on May 1. Part of the Eviction Defense Network’s strategy is to ask for a jury trial in such cases. “Because there’s so many evictions happening throughout the city and there are only 33 judges who oversee eviction cases, the idea is to clog up the courts,” Lanctot said. “A judge won’t even be selected yet, let alone a jury.”
Against the odds, they are also trying to bring the Kims to the negotiating table, something the landlords have so far refused to do. “They made one proposition where they would meet up, but they wouldn’t even be in the same room with us for their safety,” Shields said. “We just find it offensive. . . . We just want to be heard.”
Attempts to reach the Kims for comment through their property-management company proved unsuccessful. The Felman Daggenhurst & El Dabe firm representing them in the case declined to give a statement. Ahead of the Sunday protest, the Kims distributed a letter to their neighbors. “It’s unknown how big the crowd is going to be and to what extent the noises are going to be,” the letter warned. “We want to sincerely apologize for the inconvenience for disturbing your weekend while you rest at home.” The couple encouraged neighbors to contact the Buena Park Police Department, if needed. A patrol car kept a watchful eye nearby, but it left after an officer spoke with legal observers present at the protest.
While the Exposition tenants seek community support, unoccupied units are already under renovation. Among residents’ complaints is that workers toil loudly into the night hours. “Some of us have bugs, cockroaches and have seen rats,” 34-year-old Jackelin Lopez said in Spanish. “There’s a lot of mold. There’s no landscaping or cleanups in the area around the buildings. The conditions are deplorable.”
Lopez lives with her husband, two young daughters and cancer-stricken mother in an apartment for which they pay $1,600 per month. “In this situation, I can’t easily move because I have specialists that treat my mother in the area where I live,” she says. “The majority of the people who live here have some type of disability.” Lopez points to another neighbor, a stroke survivor who has no access to an elevator. The tenants tried bringing their stories to LA City Councilman Marqueece Harris-Dawson for support, but have only met with council staff. (Harris-Dawson’s office didn’t reply to the Weekly’s request for comment.)
With proactive support from community groups such as the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, Union de Vecinos and the new Poor People’s Campaign, the tenants hope they can get activists in OC to help keep pressure on the Kims to negotiate. After hours of picketing outside the Buena Park mansion in the warm sun, tenants marched around the neighborhood before calling it a day, filing back into the bus and heading to the place they can call home for now.
“They bought a whole neighborhood of low-income housing,” Shields said. “They immediately just want to put us out so they can renovate it and have a bunch of rich schoolkids come in. We don’t know where we’re going to go. None of us know.”