As LA rents rise, tenants take the protests directly to their landlords

Image courtesy of Los Angeles Tenants Union

On a recent evening, about a dozen demonstrators gathered on what’s normally a quiet westside street. Carrying signs, bullhorns and a drum, they rallied in front of a large, two-story house, at one point chanting, “Steven Taylor, you can’t hide!”

Taylor, the owner of the house, runs a real estate company called Taylor Equities, which owns at least a dozen buildings around the city. It’s known for buying older properties, renovating them and raising rents.

Even five years ago, a protest like this would’ve been quite unusual in Los Angeles. But these days, as L.A.’s affordability crisis affects a growing number of renters, more and more of them are turning into activists. The three-year-old Los Angeles Tenants Union, which organized the demonstration at Taylor’s home, has put together similar protests outside different landlords’ homes and offices over the past year. The Tenants Union has also coordinated rent strikes — a tactic last popularized in the early 1900s — at buildings where they say landlords are imposing unfair rent increases.

These kinds of actions can help persuade landlords “to [think] about negotiating with tenants,” said Tenants Union organizer Jesenya Maldonado. Or, even if tenants end up moving out in the end, it can at least buy them time. By organizing, Maldonado said, “they are able to prolong their stay in their apartment… and a little more lightly on their feet, instead of it being an immediate eviction.”

The protest outside Taylor’s home was in response to rent hikes and evictions at one particular building in Silver Lake. Taylor took over the property about nine months ago and — in what’s become a familiar conflict around the city — tenants say he wants them out, while he says that’s not true.

One tenant, Melinda Peffer, said she’s lived in the building nearly 17 years. She and her husband pay about $1,500 a month for a one-bedroom, which they share with their seven-year-old daughter.

Peffer, who works in marketing, said it’s an affordable deal for her family.

“It enabled us to be able to survive on one income,” while her husband attended medical school, she said, “and not have to pay 40 or 50 percent of our income towards rent.”

Now she’s fighting to stay.

Peffer and other tenants say Taylor has tried to drive them from the building with notices to move out, rent increases and constant construction work.

Taylor, in an email, called the allegation of deliberately disruptive construction work “hurtful and entirely untrue.”

He also said he’s only given notices to move out to people whose apartments need major renovations, and that he’s tried to work with tenants. For example, agreeing to phase in new, higher rent gradually in some cases or helping tenants find cheaper apartments to move to in others.

Landlord-tenant conflicts like this have popped up all over Los Angeles in the past few years. A little more than half the homes in L.A. are rentals, the biggest share of any large American city. And most renters here spend at least a third of their income on rent.

The most rent-burdened tenants in Los Angeles are black and Latino. Most of the protesters at last week’s event, however, were white, with middle-class jobs. Melinda Peffer, the tenant with the $1,500 a month one-bedroom, works in marketing. Another neighbor is a cartoonist for the New Yorker and other publications. But even for them, finding a comparable apartment to move to without major financial sacrifice is hard.

This dilemma doesn’t seem likely to disappear any time soon. In 2018, rents in L.A. went up for the fourth year straight. The median price for a two-bedroom is now about $1,745 a month, according to the website Apartment List, which features rental listings and market research reports. That’s 40 percent higher than the rest of the country.