A community uprooted
For the last few weeks, Robert Evans has been without a home. He’s moved from friend’s house to friend’s house with nothing but his work clothing, crashing only for sleep and then heading to his graveyard shift as a security guard in the evenings.
Evans’ life, like that of many residents along the 1100 block of Exposition Boulevard, has been uprooted. He and other former tenants were forced to leave their homes in August after losing a nine-month battle with the new owners of the buildings, who aim to renovate the units in order to rent them out to students, according to eviction notices that the Daily Trojan obtained.
Kim Chung Suk and Kim Hae Jung, who own a strip mall in Koreatown and other properties in Los Angeles, bought the buildings for $8.5 million in September 2017. They served tenants with eviction notices a month later, giving them 60 to 90 days to move out. The evictions are part of a pattern of displacement in the area surrounding USC, as developers appeal to University students who are typically able to afford higher rent than most local residents.
“Some of these investors, they’re going to renovate student housing, make it livable for the students,” said Evans. “But they’re not going to let you know how many families they put out, how many families they put on the streets in order to make your school and your experience at the university better.”
The Kims declined to comment on the evictions.
The University said it has been a longtime partner of the community. It provides referrals, information and representation to local community members who face housing problems through the USC Housing Law Clinic.
“The university has increased student housing by 35 percent in recent years to help reduce pressure on the local market,” the University said in a statement to the Daily Trojan. “In addition, USC has provided the city with $20 million to support affordable housing initiatives and established a housing law clinic to support members of the community who live around the University Park Campus.”
Searching for homes
Though some former Exposition Boulevard tenants have found new homes, others have been staying with friends and family or at hotels. Paul Lanctot, a caseworker for the South L.A. branch of the anti-eviction advocacy group Los Angeles Tenants Union, estimates that eight or nine families are still looking for a place to live, with some searching as far as West Covina and the San Fernando Valley.
Evans and his cousin Steven Baldwin are among those still searching. Evans and Baldwin initially lived in the same complex with Baldwin’s mother and a few other family members, but after the final day in their Exposition Boulevard home, the family of eight was forced to split up. Evans set off on his own, while Baldwin and his children began their temporary stay with his mom, who found a two-bedroom apartment on Crenshaw Boulevard.
Others like Jackelin Lopez, a tenant of six years and stay-at-home mom, and Tracie Pierson, a tenant of seven years who is disabled, have found new places to live in other regions of Los Angeles. After about six months of searching, Lopez’s family was able to find a new home in Mid-City, but insead of paying $1,600 a month for a three-bedroom home for the family of five, they now pay about $1,200 for a one-bedroom.
Pierson has found a home in Gramercy Park about six miles south of Exposition Boulevard. She now pays $1,790 for a slightly smaller home, about $400 more than she had initially, as well as an additional $268 for a storage unit.
“Close to USC, they aren’t renting to people like us,” Lopez said in Spanish. “They are exclusively preparing the buildings for the students of USC. I know that the students need somewhere to live while they’re here, but we also need a place to live.”
Lopez and Baldwin have children who go to school in the USC area. Baldwin’s sons have been taking Lyft between school and their temporary home every day. Lopez’s daughter also continues at the same elementary school.
“She cries because she doesn’t want to change schools,” Lopez said. “I tried, but she says she doesn’t like other schools — she likes her school because it’s the only one she knows.”
“It’s a losing battle”
The residents, with the guidance of the South LA Tenants Union, had initially attempted to settle the evictions with the owners as a group, offering to accept relocation compensation and a six-month grace period, Lanctot said. However, they were unable to settle and went to trial individually as 20 separate cases from April to July.
The tenants and the South LA Tenants Union were initially planning to pursue a lawsuit to win residents monetary damages because of the allegedly poor conditions the units were under and what they described as harassment from the owners, but were unable to get lawyers to represent them for the suit.
Though the majority of evicted tenants received relocation compensation from the owners as part of their settlement, most received between $1,000 and $5,000 per unit, which typically had to be split among family members.
Most tenants did not receive a trial by jury, and were tried by a judge instead, because the evictions were legal and the units were non-rent controlled units. The owners were not required to provide a legitimate reason for eviction to the tenants and were not required to provide special relocation fees, which typically range between $8,000 and $21,000 for buildings under rent control, according to the Los Angeles Housing + Community Investment Department.
Most tenants ended up negotiating settlements, which allowed them to stay until Aug. 31 with some compensation, and were able to keep the 10 months of back rent they did not pay while they were fighting the eviction.
Only Pierson received a trial by jury, but she settled rather than fight the eviction because of her Section 8 voucher, which she would have risked losing. About four of the units were under Section 8, a government-sponsored program that provides rent subsidies to landlords on behalf of low-income families, according to Lanctot.
“We didn’t really want to go to court,” Evans said. “In court, it’s a losing battle anyway because the laws are stacked against us. Our main goal was to get everybody on the block to have a decent amount of money [and the time] to be able to find a place.”
An uncertain future
The tenants who chose to fight the eviction spent the last 10 months protesting and spreading awareness of their situation. In April, several tenants and supporters visited the owners’ house in Buena Park for peaceful protest. They also showed up at a shopping mall in Koreatown owned by the Kims and at their daughter’s house in Fullerton, since she represented the Kims’ estate at Pierson’s trial.
“It’s [to show] this is what happens if you do this to people, and we’re not going to let you do what you want when you throw 80 [people] out on the street,” Lanctot said. “I think the process of these protests really opened a lot of people’s minds that you don’t have to accept what is and you can fight it even when the law is not on your side.”
Now that the tenants have left Exposition Boulevard, they no longer have a familiar community to call home.
“It was a good community,” Evans said. “Everybody knew everybody. If people needed help, they’d help each other … I’ve talked to a lot of people and they said they don’t think they [will] ever find a place that was like that.”
Since October 2017, Exposition Boulevard tenants have worked with the Los Angeles Tenants Union to extend their stay or receive compensation for their relocation.
A project plans to demolish 32 rent-controlled housing units to make room for a hotel, student housing and commercial space.