As Friday evening commuters whiz by, a small group of citizens are standing on the street corner of Vermont Avenue and Sunset Boulevard waving signs at the passing motorists. Their signs read, “Honk 4 Renters Rights,” and “Housing is a Human Right.”
Walt Senterfitt, a 71-year-old epidemiologist with a long white beard and rainbow suspenders, is at the center of the “honk-in.” Senterfitt, who is being evicted from his home of eight years under the provision of a state law known at the Ellis Act. He is the brains of the operation, organizing his neighbors and helping others around him fight for affordable housing.
“We have the human right to housing. We believe that everyone has the right to affordable housing,” Senterfitt said. “That is what we are trying to defend.”
Senterfitt and his neighbors have lived in the Los Feliz Rodney apartments ranging from eight to 23 years. Their plight is not uncommon in Los Angeles, the most unaffordable city in the nation.
Affordable housing rally at the corner of Vermont and Sunset.
According to a UCLA study conducted by the Ziman Center for Real Estate, the median household in LA spends 47 percent of its income on housing. The national recommendation is 30 percent of gross income.
Elsa P. Chagolla, executive director of Inquilinos Unidos (United Tenants), said, “It’s impacting not just low-income people but middle class families.” Inquilinos Unidos is a non-profit organization that works with tenants to fight for safe and affordable housing.
According to LA Housing and Community Investment, landlords evicted 725 units in 2014 under the Ellis Act, an increase of 135 percent over the previous year.
The Ellis Act was originally intended to help individual landlords renovate and redevelop. Now it’s being used to remove tenants from affordable housing and lease the units at market value. Removing these apartments has had a ripple effect on the market.
Inquilinos Unidos traditionally serves tenants in neighborhoods like Westlake, MacArthur Park and Pico Union, but recently they have been seeing more cases from Highland Park, Echo Park and Hollywood, all areas that are rapidly gentrifying.
Chagolla said, “Low income and even middle-class folks can’t afford to live in Los Angeles, and these are the people that live in these communities and if there is nowhere to live, how are they going to keep the city running?”
A high rent burden means that many LA residents are turning to creative solutions to pay their bills.
Brandi Veil, a wellness coach and “sharing economy” advocate, decided to turn her biggest financial burden into an asset when she rented out her house and loft on Airbnb.
“I couldn’t afford my home if I didn’t have the loft to move back and forth with, or we would have to give up the loft,” Veil said. “So I would be doing less in society if I didn’t have that access and then I would have to shift gears back to a corporate job.”
The financial crisis triggered a spiritual epiphany for Veil. Through her experiences, she became immersed in the sharing community and founded the Sharing Heals project. As a sharing advocate, Veil believes sharing is about an exchange of human interaction that will help the economy grow. She hosts workshops and Google Hangouts where she holds discussions about the “sharing economy.”
“If we can use the tools, technology, sharing economy and self-awareness, we can shift to a more conscious consumer marketplace,” Veil said. “It is a way to help people connect to one another and the planet once again.”
LA’s problem is intensified by outdated zoning and parking regulations.
Lens said single-family ownership is a significant part of LA’s development. In denser cities such as Chicago and New York, they do not focus on this type of property development.
“LA’s single-family living is common for the United States, but it’s very out-of-whack with places that have this kind of housing demand and incredible density and demand for living here,” Lens said.
Mayor Eric Garcetti recently announced a plan to add 100,000 affordable housing units by 2021, but housing advocates claim Los Angeles is lagging behind other major cities when it comes to new construction.
“The city is not spending a lot of money on housing in the way that other cities do. Contrary to popular belief we’re not increasing density… in any meaningful way yet,” Lens said.
Jeff Schaffer, the vice president and market leader for Southern California at Enterprise Community Partners, also believes density is one solution to the city’s problem.
“If it’s done along the newly emerging transportation corridor, people have access to transit and don’t have to increase the traffic on our roadways and freeways,” Schaffer said.
While Downtown LA is one location seeing newer housing construction, most people earning median incomes cannot afford these new rental units.
“Everything is totally geared toward the upper end,” said Maria Norris, a Realtor with the Rental Girl Realty. “They are not building a lot of lower income housing.”
The Rodney building in Los Feliz is fighting an Ellis Act eviction.
For new residents to Los Angeles the sticker shock can be surprising. Jessica Stevemer recently moved to Los Angeles from Atlanta.
“I was living in a three-bedroom condo where I paid,” said Stevemer of her housing in Atlanta, where she paid $750 per month. “I was looking at $1,500 a month for a one bedroom or a studio,” she said about looking for housing in Los Angeles.
With unceasing demand for rentals and rising prices, Los Angeles leaders are looking for new solutions to tame the rental market.
Vanessa Rodriguez, press secretary for City Council President Herb Wesson, explains the gravity of the situation.
“Absolutely, it’s a housing crisis,” Rodriguez said. “You’re looking at the City Council who is trying to find a variety of different solutions to try to help stop some of the hemorrhaging.”
What does "affordable" mean in your neighborhood?
Modernizing LA’s zoning regulations is a top priority for the city.
“Los Angeles is just really the base of the creative economy... Los Angeles zoning rules are not in a place to fit in with this creative economy,” Rodriguez added.
LA is trying to adjust to the city’s new population and growing needs. The city’s affection for single-family housing has waned. Nine out of 10 new homes are multiunit developments.Bonds, tax credits and discounted land are just some of the ways cities are enticing developers to invest in affordable housing. Nonprofit developers focus on specific communities and high-risk populations.
Senterfitt and his neighbors haven’t given up just yet. They hired a lawyer and are fighting the eviction. So far they have managed to postpone their eviction until next year. Senterfitt’s ultimate goal is to provide evidence of the landlords’ unlawful eviction and continue living in his Los Feliz apartment. In the fight for justice, he’s formed an organization for tenants’ rights and is passionate about spreading the word and activating the community.
In an effort to spread awareness about eviction in LA, Senterfitt and his friends rally on the corner of Vermont Avenue and Sunset Boulevard every Friday evening. They hand out fliers and encourage commuters whizzing by to honk for affordable housing in support of their cause.
“Affordable housing is a human right,” Senterfitt said.
“If trouble-making is what’s necessary to confront injustice… then trouble it is.”