Eagle Rock Neighborhood Council hosts tenants’ rights workshop

Aminah Williams addresses citizens at City Hall during the tenants’ rights meeting in Eagle Rock, Los Angeles. Thursday, March 21, 2019. Matthew VanBronkhorst/The Occidental

The Eagle Rock Neighborhood Council hosted a two-hour workshop in Eagle Rock City Hall educating local residents on their rights as tenants Feb. 21. The workshop was attended by Northeast LA residents and included several speakers who discussed issues ranging from rent laws and tenant harassment.

At the event, Chris Estrada, an organizer for the Los Angeles Tenants Union (LATU) who focuses on unionizing tenants, discussed the power of collective action that tenants can use to protect their rights when facing harassment. Estrada discussed his own experiences with unionization and holding landlords accountable. He used an example of his activism in Mariachi Plaza in 2017, a historic neighborhood in Boyle Heights, where tenants used collective bargaining to protest rent increases by their landlord. Unionizing tenants should be as important and common as the unionization of workers, according to Estrada. Through grassroots activism and bringing greater awareness to issues affecting LA tenants, Estrada hopes to bring about legal change.

The 1968 Fair Housing Act protects housing-related violations under federal law. With recent failures to pass housing measures like Proposition 10 during the 2018 midterm elections, members of LATU hope state and city laws and ordinances will instate some of those protections. Currently, the California State legislature is considering passing bill SB-529, which will confirm the rights of tenants to form tenant associations and unions. The ordinance was proposed by State Senator Maria Elena Durazo and protects a tenant’s right to collective organizing, according to tenant organization Tenants Together.

LATU member Jane Demian said it is important to educate tenants on the different forms of harassment that they may face by their landlords. At the workshop, Demian told tenants about specific types of harassment like “cash for keys,” where landlords give tenants a short amount of time to move out in exchange for money. According to Demian, the issue that is most apparent when residents attend meetings like this is harassment.

“Harassment is definitely one of those issues [LATU educates tenants about] because it’s very prevalent,” Demian said.

Demian talked of common situations where tenants would complain to landlords about inadequate living conditions, such as insect infestations, and landlords would ignore or even insult the tenants. Demian said landlords will often refuse to fix issues with the unit when tenants find problems with the quality of housing. What Demian finds most worrying is the lack of legal protections in place in LA to protect tenants from such forms of negligence and harassment.

“Tenants have no recourse. None,” Demian said. “Especially if they’re not protected under rent stabilization.”

LA tenants not protected under the 1978 Rent Stabilization Ordinance (RSO), which sets standards for allowable rent increases and legal reasons for eviction, are the most vulnerable when it comes to harassment and reach out the most frequently to organizations like the LATU for help, according to Demian. However, Demian is confident that the potential passage of the Anti-Tenant Harassment Ordinance by the LA City Council will hold landlords accountable in the future by giving tenants a legal platform.

The Anti-Tenant Harassment Ordinance, which was initially recommended as an amendment to the RSO by tenants with the support of the Los Angeles Housing + Community Investment Department (HCIDLA), would provide a clearer legal definition of harassment. Under current state and city law, the definition of harassment is subject to interpretation, which places barriers on tenants who may want to pursue legal action against their landlord.

“By educating tenants, they will learn how to document harassment, they will learn how to identify what constitutes harassment,” Demian said. “In that way, we’re educating [tenants] in preparation for when this ordinance actually takes effect.”

Aminah Williams presents information at the tenants’ rights meeting in Eagle Rock, Los Angeles. Thursday, March 21, 2019. Matthew VanBronkhorst/The Occidental

Victor Sanchez, a member of the Eagle Rock Neighborhood Council, said that providing resources like the workshop can create a space for tenants to connect to other residents who may be facing similar issues.

“People might feel that they may not have a lot of avenues by which to take action,” Sanchez said.

Taking action is not limited to tenants, Sanchez said. College students can still do their part to raise awareness of issues relating to housing equality. For Sanchez, this involves students becoming advocates for issues tenants face. According to Sanchez, LATU is a good way to start, which hosts monthly open meetings across LA.

Jesse Saucedo, who is also a member of the Eagle Rock Neighborhood Council, discussed via phone ways that new tenants can make sure they are protected from harassment, including getting to know the landlord. Regardless, being aware of the barriers many tenants across LA face in the fight for equal housing opportunities remains the center of attention for LATU and the city’s millions of tenants.