Hillside Villa tenants fight to stay in homes via eminent domain

By Giuliana Mayo

Longtime residents of the Hillside Villa apartments took to the streets outside Mayor Karren Bass’ house to protest the lack of movement towards an affordable housing solution with their building’s owner. Photo courtesy of Hillside Villa Tenants Association.

The Hillside Villa apartments in Chinatown were under a city covenant to provide affordable housing for 30 years. “[Hillside Villa] was built in 1988 and that [covenant] agreement expired in 2018 and very quickly tenants in the building, many of whom had lived there all their lives … received huge rent increases almost immediately. Rent increases that were doubling and tripling their rent in some cases,” says Jack Ross, who has been covering this story for Capital and Main.

Tenants are fighting for a way to stay, asking the city to buy the building or seize it using eminent domain. The owner of the building, Tom Botz, is fighting back. After 30 years of low rents, the building is now very valuable, with great views overlooking downtown, and Botz has made it clear he does not want to sell. The LA City Council is in the middle. Members voted in May 2022 to “explore” a purchase, but nothing more has happened.

In 2019, tenants formed The Hillside Villa Tenants Association, banding together to try and stay in their homes. They followed their then city council representative, Gil Cedillo, around for three years, showing up at his office and events. 

“They were pressuring him to get the city to buy their building and pressuring specifically for eminent domain,” Ross explains. Three years in, Cedillo seemed to join the cause. 

“They got him to submit a motion for the city to appraise the property and perhaps even make a bid. … When this happened, I was in council that day and everyone around me burst into tears. I was surrounded by five rows of people weeping with relief that they were going to be able to keep their homes. Now a year later, those same tenants are getting eviction notices. And that's because very, very, very little has happened since the city directed the housing department to appraise the building.” 

He notes that the appraisal has yet to happen, as Botz has blocked city appraisers from entering the building. “[Botz has] been very clear in saying, ‘I am not selling this building.’ And the housing department has gone back and forth with him, trying to convince him in various ways to sell it voluntarily,” says Ross.

Cedillo is gone, replaced by Eunisses Hernandez. “Councilmember Hernandez said that she supports using eminent domain to buy the property ‘if necessary and feasible.’ So I think tenants are concerned about those last two words ‘and feasible,’” Ross says. “On Halloween, mayoral candidate Karen Bass, when she was just running for office still, actually visited the property and told tenants that she looked forward to working together and that she liked the idea of eminent domain, but that it takes a lot of time.”

Ross, having followed the tenants for so long, doesn’t see them giving up any time soon. “I think that to the tenants, they feel that they have come this far through pressuring elected officials, and if it takes more of that to …  get to the promised land of true community control of their building, well, that's what they'll do.”