Occidental purchases properties for veteran housing, tenants displaced

Julia Galdo, a tenant who is being evicted from her house, stands on her porch at 4520 Toland Way in Los Angeles on Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2018. Spruce Bohen/The Occidental

Occidental finalized the purchase of two residential properties on Toland Way in Eagle Rock Nov. 3, 2017, according to Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Amos Himmelstein. Himmelstein said the buildings, which are two blocks south of York Boulevard, will house future student veterans and their families. This move is part of an effort by the college to attract veteran enrollment.

Eight months before Occidental purchased 4512 and 4518 Toland Way, Bill Madder, his wife, Olga Martinez and Martinez’s mother moved out of their house at 4512. According to Madder, he learned that his family would have to leave when they received a 60-day notice to terminate their tenancy in the mail.

4512 Toland Way, the former house of Bill Madder, his wife Olga Martinez, and her mother. The family was displaced by the Whitelock Trust before Occidental College bought the property Nov. 3.

“On Jan. 5 of last year, we got a notice that we had to be out in 60 days,” Madder said. “Now, understand that it’s me and my wife and her mother who’s 92 years old. I was in that house for 17 years.”

Madder’s family moved out March 21, 2017. The family is one of three families that were displaced from their homes by the Whitelock Trust, which sold two of five properties to Occidental. The properties include four single-family homes and one duplex.

In a month-long investigation, The Occidental reviewed dozens of legal documents, including eviction and termination of tenancy notices, as well as email correspondence between tenants and lawyers of the Whitelock Trust.

Himmelstein said that lawyers of the trust told him that the tenants were not evicted, but instead were on month-to-month leases that expired.

Although Madder said that he was evicted, he was served with a 60-day termination of tenancy notice. Eviction, under California law, requires a lawsuit to be filed.

Madder said that during the displacement process, he was harassed by the trust’s lawyer, Cynthia Juno.

“I thought their lawyer, Juno, Cynthia Juno, I think she was very hard-handed, you know, to the point of being rude,” Madder said. “I think I was harassed by Juno. I think she was trying to harass me.”

Other Toland Way tenants also alleged harassment during the displacement process from lawyers of the trust.

All but one of the Toland Way properties is now vacant. Madder, 68, said that his grandchildren attend Toland Way Elementary School across the street.

“My daughter — my grandkids go to school across the street — and she passes the house every day, and she’s like, ‘What was the rush?'” Madder said. “There’s nothing being done with the place.”

After evicting a tenant from one side of a duplex unit on March 13, the trust is now in the process of vacating the other side of the duplex. If the last duplex unit is emptied, the Whitelock Trust will own two empty houses and a duplex directly adjacent to the two new Occidental properties. According to Himmelstein, the college is interested in the other Toland Way properties. Himmelstein said that what makes the properties attractive for veteran housing is the attached nature of the units, which would allow for a community environment.

“We were looking at that whole area, actually. We only currently purchased the two, but there’s the other two lots as well,” Himmelstein said. “I think we would consider it, again, because of its contiguousness. That’s the thing that made it attractive, is the fact that we could have a community of veteran students in the same location.”

The Principle Working Group for Occidental College Neighborhood Development is an on-campus working group composed of students, faculty and community members. It formed after Occidental’s 2014 purchase of a commercial property on York Boulevard and is drafting a set of principles to govern the college’s future purchases of commercial and residential properties, according to Valerie Lizarraga, program coordinator for the Office of Community Engagement and a member of the working group. Lizarraga said the group has been in contact with Himmelstein and some of the Toland Way tenants.

The story of the changing ownership on Toland Way begins with the death of the former owner, Loran Whitelock, May 27, 2014. Whitelock was a renowned botanist who was a collector of and expert in ancient and rare species of plants called cycads. He devoted more than 50 years to curating Cycad Gardens, over an acre of private gardens in his backyard that contained one of the largest and rarest collections of cycads in the world, according to a PBS “Victory Garden” special. He willed his plants and all his properties to the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens, a botanical gardens and collections-based research center in San Marino.

Julia Galdo and her husband, Dane Johnson, moved out of 4520 Toland Way, March 13, 2018, following an eviction notice. Their duplex sits immediately in front of the gardens and the building that was Whitelock’s personal home. Their duplex neighbor at 4522 Toland Way, who wished to remain anonymous, is a 68-year-old woman who is also being evicted but has until November to move out because of her age. Unlike the two houses next door, Occidental did not purchase the duplex, but is a potential buyer, according to Himmelstein.

Julia Galdo, a tenant who is being evicted from her house at 4520 Toland Way, describes her experience during the eviction process in her living room in Los Angeles on Friday, Feb. 23, 2018. Spruce Bohen/ The Occidental.

Galdo said that Whitelock also owned the three houses to the right of her building, in addition to his own house. Altogether, Whitelock willed four houses and one duplex to the Huntington.

According to Galdo, immediately after Whitelock’s death, the Huntington began excavating the plants from the properties, individually micro-chipping them and transporting them to the gardens.

To handle the sale of the properties, the Huntington set up The Whitelock Trust. According to Galdo, the Trust consists of two trustees, Jim Folsom, director of the botanical gardens at the Huntington, and Mark Smith, an optometrist based in San Diego. In an email to Galdo that The Occidental reviewed, Folsom stated that the Huntington is the beneficiary of all funds raised from the sale of the Toland Way properties.

The lawyer that represents the Trust and has facilitated the sale process is Cynthia Juno of Juno Law Offices. Galdo said that Juno has been the primary person communicating with tenants, and Himmelstein said that she has also been the person communicating with the college, through himself and the college’s real estate lawyer, Dina Tecimer.

According to Galdo, after the two-year plant excavation process ended, Juno started harassing her and her husband in an effort to get them to leave their rent-controlled properties.

“The second that the plants were gone, we started getting harassed,” Galdo said.

On April 3, 2017, Galdo said she walked out of the shower naked and found herself face to face with a man who was painting her house outside her second-story bedroom window. He said he had been hired by the Huntington. Galdo said that she was not informed ahead of time that the painter was coming. California Civil Code Section 1954 states that landlords must give tenants 24-hour notice before entering their property to respect their privacy.

Juno said via email to The Occidental that she was unable to do an interview but could provide a statement on behalf of the Whitelock Trust.

“The Trust sold two properties on Toland Way in 2017 which were previously rented. The Trust has dealt with all tenants, past and present, in a way that is not only consistent with the law, but also is respectful and forthright,” Juno’s statement read. “For any areas of dispute, the Trust makes every attempt to reach a reasonable resolution, and has never sought an adversarial relationship. Not only has the Trust complied with the letter of the law in all respects, but it has gone above and beyond on numerous occasions.”

According to Galdo, Juno came to her house May 17 and offered her and her husband $20,000 if they moved out and signed a confidentiality agreement.

Galdo said that while $20,000 seems like a substantial amount of money, she has been unable to find as good of a deal for rent elsewhere. According to Galdo, her and her neighbor’s properties are rent controlled, so she was paying $1,000 a month. Galdo said that rent for the new property she has moved into is three times as expensive.

According to Galdo, she and her husband met with Juno June 23 to discuss the offer. Galdo said that Juno quickly indicated that she was willing to use whatever means necessary to get them to leave the property.

According to Galdo, Juno said that she would use an Ellis Act eviction if they did not accept the cash-for-keys offer. The Ellis Act is a state law (Government Code Section 7060-7060.7) that gives landlords that are attempting to get out of the rental market business the unconditional right to evict tenants and take their property off the market for specific reasons: to demolish the unit or remove it permanently from use as rental housing.

Juno made the same offer of $20,000 in the meeting and said that the property would be converted to affordable housing, according to Galdo. Galdo said that Aug. 1, she and her husband sent a counteroffer of $60,000 to leave in four months or $30,000 to leave within a year.

According to Galdo and correspondence from Juno, the trust made six cash-for-keys offers over a five-month period before the trust filed an Ellis Act eviction, with the highest offer being a combination of cash and free rent worth around $23,000. According to Galdo, Juno came to her house Nov. 30 and served her an Ellis Act eviction notice. The Occidental confirmed by reviewing the documents that Galdo and her husband received at least three Ellis Act eviction notices, as well as at least one three-day to quit eviction notice upon failing to pay their rent by Dec. 1.

Galdo said that she emailed Juno asking if she could buy the duplex, but Juno responded saying that the property was not on the market.

Galdo also emailed Occidental administrators explaining the situation and the harassment she alleged. According to Galdo, she knew Occidental was a potential buyer based on her conversations with Huntington employees. Danita Maxwell, director of human resources, forwarded her first email to Jim Tranquada, director of communications and community relations, who responded five days later asking if she had made her position clear to the trust.

“Since Oxy isn’t your landlord, I’m not sure it would be appropriate to insert the College into the conversation. Have you made your position clear to the Trust?” Tranquada wrote to Galdo.

According to Galdo, she sent six or seven more emails to Tranquada and received no further response. Tranquada confirmed receiving these emails and said that he ultimately responded, but not to each individual email.

Galdo also emailed Himmelstein with her concerns, copying the trust and Juno, Feb. 9. She described in detail how the purchases and evictions had affected her and her neighbors’ lives.

Juno responded to this email Feb. 28 saying that she believed the trust had complied fully with the law throughout the negotiations and eviction process.

Galdo said that the displacement and alleged harassment have had a profound effect on all of the tenants and former tenants at Toland Way.

“You’re talking about four — one, two, three, four, five households that all got either uprooted or [are] being uprooted and very heavily disturbed,” Galdo said.

The working group has been meeting with tenants and local tenants’ advocacy groups, including LA Tenants Union and Northeast LA Alliance, to find a solution that benefits all parties, according to Lizarraga. According to Galdo and Lizarraga, the group wants to negotiate a deal with Himmelstein to buy the duplex and allow Galdo’s neighbor to stay. According to Himmelstein, if the college purchases the other properties, it would be open to the idea of allowing the last tenant to remain in her duplex unit.

According to Galdo, if these negotiations are unsuccessful, she is planning on taking civil action against the Huntington for the alleged harassment as a result of the preparation for the sale to the college.

“I would like to hold the Huntington Gardens responsible for these actions that have affected not just my husband and my life very greatly but everybody else’s that lived within these properties,” Galdo said. “And the Huntington is to blame because they’re the beneficiaries of this.”

Galdo said that she believes Occidental bears some responsibility for the evictions, even if they are not directly evicting tenants.

“Occidental isn’t holding the people that they do business with responsible for bad action,” Galdo said. “It’s just not ethically right to allow the people that you’re doing business with to treat people in the community in an unpalatable way, or without any sort of respect whatsoever.”

In a statement, the Associated Students of Occidental College Diversity and Equity Board stated that it also believes the college bears responsibility.

“It would appear, given the means in which the previous tenants of the two purchased properties were evicted, that Occidental College was able to take advantage of a third party’s willingness to remove tenants in order to purchase a property which they wished to convert for a different purpose,” the statement read.

Ellen Hee (junior) has been a member of the working group for two years and is also a member of Occidental Students United Against Gentrification (OSUAG).

“I do hope that they do something about these tenants that are being evicted because it’s really important for them to mitigate the damage that they’ve already done,” Hee said. “The way that they’re justifying is that these properties have already been vacated and so Oxy themselves didn’t evict the tenants, but I do think that Oxy has a pretty big purchasing power and they shouldn’t be getting into this mess of tenants that are being displaced and have been displaced.”

Galdo said that she now lives in a home that rents for $3,100 and has been trying to settle in.

Madder said that, after being displaced, he is less happy in his current living situation.

“It was distressful, it was stressful, I mean, and I’m angry about it, and I’m living in a place I don’t like, cause I really didn’t have the time to really look for a place,” Madder said.

He said that Whitelock raised his rent only $50 over the 17 years he lived there, from $850 to $900.

“Mr. Whitelock would have never, ever have done anything like that,” Madder said. “Look at that — I just told you — he raised my rent $50 in 17 years. That says something about the man’s character.”

Madder said that it was hard for him to move out in 60 days, and that he had to temporarily stop working.

“You know I had to get all that together, man. I had to get the boxes, pack it up. I’m 64 years old, I’m no spring chicken,” he said.

According to Madder, the eviction has also been difficult financially for his family.

“It’s a big thing, because it’s not like I’m made of money either,” Madder said. “It’s a struggle monetarily to have to move out. I had to get loans and stuff, you know, it’s not a pretty picture.”

Max Harrison-Caldwell contributed reporting to this article.