LOS ANGELES — When Louise Myers moved into her apartment building near the corner of Fairfax Avenue and Eighth Street in 1970, she fell in love with its convenience: it was just around the corner from her job, a few blocks away from LACMA, and just down the street from the Original Farmer’s Market, at Fairfax and Third.

She used to tell anyone who’d listen that, if anything happened to the Farmer’s Market, she’d pick up and move. Then when the 1990s and 2000s brought a redesigned market and The Grove, Myers stuck around.

“Little did I know, I survived the Farmer’s Market changing,” Myers said. “But then I’m the one that’s going to have to move anyway.”

What You Need To Know

  • Residents of the Fairfax Gardens apartments, including 50-year tenant Louise Myers, face an uncertain future as their landlord seeks to redevelop their two-building, 40-unit complex

  • Plans for the new development indicate an eight-story tall, 209 unit mixed-use project, including commercial and restaurant space

  • L.A. City Councilmember David Ryu suggests that the organized tenants association negotiate with the developer to win a right to live at the new building at their same rental rate, using an existing "Tenant Habitability Plan" framework

  • The developer has hired a communications firm to encourage residents to "move on with their lives," even house-hunting new apartments and paying for moving costs

Myers, 93, is the longest-tenured resident of the Fairfax Gardens Apartments. Still, she’s only one of more than two dozen people who have organized to figure out what’s next for their home, as owners of the property plan to demolish and redevelop the site with a mixed-use, transit-oriented complex featuring more than 200 apartments.

One added complication: the Fairfax Gardens Apartments, owing to its age, is subject to the city’s rent control ordinances, and subsequent stronger legal protections against evictions.

Myers, a native Kansan born in 1926, moved to Los Angeles in 1960. For eight years, she worked for Prudential in Long Beach, “just pushing a pencil,” before being transferred up to Prudential’s Wilshire Boulevard office.

Then she found her home: the Fairfax Gardens Apartments, at 800-830 S. Fairfax Ave., next to Tom Bergin’s Irish pub.

“When I retired in ’84, I just stayed on," Myers said. "I had no place else I wanted to be.”  

An uncommon care package

Last December, Chris Clifford, a representative of Colliers International — the real estate firm that owns the Fairfax Gardens Apartments — filed plans for new construction with the city of Los Angeles.

Those plans would require the demolition of Fairfax Gardens’ two buildings, which hold a total of 40 apartment units, all of which are subject to the city’s rent stabilization ordinance. (Clifford did not respond to a request for comment.)

The existing buildings would be replaced with a new, eight-story, 209 unit mixed-use project. The development would include 2,653 square feet of new commercial space. The Bergin’s pub building, which has protected landmark status, will be incorporated — but its parking lot will be part of the redevelopment.

The initial filings seek to take advantage of city ordinances for density bonuses and affordable housing provisions (providing 29 units for extremely low-income tenants) to maximize the project's density.

Then the pandemic struck. Now the development is in something of a “holding pattern,” according to Austin Cyr.

Cyr is a principal of Ground Up Communications, a firm that is, effectively, the middle-man between property owners seeking redevelopment, like Colliers, and community members or tenants who are most immediately affected by those plans. On its website, Ground Up touts engagement statistics, including protests against petitions for historic building status.

“We believe that the housing crisis that we’re in and people’s inability to find housing that’s affordable and fits is one of the core issues our city faces,” Cyr said. “If you honestly care about improving our housing situation in this city, how do you handle displacement when a housing crisis occurs?”

To Cyr, that's building relationships with tenants — and finding ways to get them out of the building eventually, and into housing that they might otherwise prefer.

Pre-pandemic, Ground Up representatives took an office in the Fairfax Gardens complex, essentially assuming the role of a building superintendent or on-site manager. Ground Up also provided a communications through-line from the building owner to residents — “anything we can do to assist,” Cyr said.

For Myers, that was puzzles and coloring books, and COVID-19 care packages with gloves and masks.

They also tried giving her a new place for her to live.

Earlier this year, Myers said, Ground Up offered her a new apartment, not far from the intersection of La Cienega and San Vicente boulevards — little more than a mile away from Fairfax Gardens.

Myers said that she told Ground Up to put her on the list for a new apartment, hearing them out. But she also turned it down without visiting the property.

Ground Up found the property, Cyr said, through a network of property owners looking to fill units. When Myers declined, Ground Up continued down its list of renters, coming upon the Alaniz family.

Buying in

Gabriela Alaniz is in her 30s, and lived at Fairfax with her senior citizen-age parents from 2013 until June. When they found out the building had sold to its new owners last April, other building residents began to organize as the Fairfax Gardens Tenants Association, asking Alaniz and her family to join in.

Before long, she found there were two viewpoints — those who sought to stay in their apartments for as long as possible, and those who sought to negotiate with the property owner for a buyout of their lease, often known as "cash for keys.”

Such “cash for keys” deals occur when a landlord is seeking to rent out a unit at a higher price than a current tenant pays. In cases like this, it also avoids landlords having to prove either at-fault evictions or going through Ellis Act not-at-fault eviction procedures.

According to city of Los Angeles documents, Ellis Act evictions require a landlord to pay relocation assistance, between $8,750 and $21,900, depending on income level and length of tenancy.

Alaniz initially participated in Fairfax Gardens Tenants Association organizing but eventually became disillusioned with their efforts. She said that some of her neighbors were seeking payouts, but that's not what she and her parents were interested in doing. They decided to hear out Ground Up and see what they could offer.

She and her parents applied for the new apartment shortly before the COVID pandemic stay-at-home orders took effect in March. Three months later, they got word that they were accepted.

According to Alaniz, Ground Up said that the family’s expenses would be covered — a portion of their deposit, moving costs, and “even offered to have someone come in and pack everything.” In exchange, they had three weeks to move out and into their new apartment.

“I get that they’re hired by the building owner to move us out,” Alaniz said. “But at the same time, my experience with them saying ‘hey, we’re trying to get you guys the best thing that you can be offered.’”

Cyr said that Ground Up tries to offer “what an individual needs to move on with their life. If it’s a rent-controlled apartment and getting a truck and hiring movers, that’s what it takes.”

No other place

Daniel Schoorl is a member of the Fairfax Gardens Tenants Association and has lived in his apartment with his wife for nearly eight years. He’s been party to several discussions and actions among the community. 

He points out that the tenants have received a letter of support from the Mid-City West Community Council, which pointed out that the new building’s 28 extremely-low-income units “would not make up for the loss of the existing (rent stabilization ordinance) units.”

“By demolishing these apartment homes, the proposed project would cause irreparable harm to the families who have no interest in leaving,” Mid-City West CC’s letter states.

The tenants also received advice from the office of L.A. Councilmember David Ryu. Ryu’s letter included two significant points, including a rough formula for a fair tenant buyout, as well as a negotiation framework for the tenants and developer.

Ryu’s framework suggested an agreement similar to a Tenant Habitability Plans. The city’s Tenant Habitability Program was established in 2005 to protect tenants from self-evicting amid uncomfortable living conditions caused by construction on their buildings or units. It’s commonly used when landlords look to redevelop apartments seismically.

An agreement based on THPs, Ryu suggests, could help a tenant temporarily move into a similar nearby apartment during the redevelopment process, then return to a similar unit at their original rate. Ryu argues that the process would also benefit the developer by helping them avoid costly buyouts or evictions.

Tenant’s rights attorney Claudia Medina was skeptical upon reading Ryu’s letter. 

“What makes him think that the developer is going to agree to not ‘Ellis’ residents, to temporarily relocate them? Has the developer already agreed that they’re willing to do this? Otherwise, why consider this?” she said.

A representative from Ryu’s office said that, in initial talks, the developer found the framework “potentially feasible.” Ryu’s office also stated that the project is on hold for the time being, according to the developer, and that no residents will need to leave this year.

Medina has seen residents win concessions from developers in the past when they’ve chosen to organize, building leverage against low-ball “cash for keys” offers and eventually challenging the project on legal grounds, like with California Environmental Quality Act lawsuits.

That might be an issue for the Fairfax tenants. Schoorl noted there are 27 occupied units of the 40 in the complex, and that residents have trickled away.

“It seems that one of the secondary effects of this — the longer the developer delays things, the pandemic, the economic crisis — the greater the likelihood that other residents will leave and self-evict,” Schoorl said. 

That doesn’t seem likely for Myers. The complex has grown closer over the last year, and she has neighbors who do her grocery shopping for her, so she doesn’t have to put her health at risk. Three weeks ago, her neighbors even threw her a socially-distanced party to celebrate her 50th anniversary in the complex’s common area.

Given her druthers, she’d stay in her apartment until she had to be carried out of the place.

“I can’t imagine being anyplace else,” Myers said. “I’ve been here longer than any place around here.”