LOS ANGELES — Chinatown resident Rene Alexander has called the 124-unit Hillside Villa apartment building home for two decades. Dozens of tenants live in the building, but he says everyone feels like family.

“We all know each other’s kids. We go to each other’s parties, weddings, quinceañera’s and this is where we do it,” he said. “We celebrate here all the time together.”

He’s part of the Hillside Villa Tenants Association and said many residents are celebrating something else — the city of Los Angeles taking the first step to buy the building. At a May 27 meeting, City Council members voted 12-0 to prepare a financial offer hoping to buy the building and keep it as affordable housing. This comes after a 30-year affordable housing covenant with the owner, Tom Botz, expired in August 2020.

What You Need To Know

  • Tenants in a Chinatown apartment building claim victory after the city of LA took the first steps to purchase their building in an effort to keep rents affordable

  • This comes after a 30-year affordable housing covenant with the owner expired and some residents claim they had massive rent hikes

  • The owner has said the building is not for sale

  • The Hillside Villa Tenants Association says it wants the city to use eminent domain to force the owner to sell if a deal cannot be reached

Alexander said many residents are low-income and worried about becoming displaced since they cannot afford rent hikes.

“I’m on disability,” Alexander said. “So my niece — one of my nieces — she is just barely out of COVID and most 18, 19-year-olds kids still can’t get jobs yet. So we are working on two-and-a-half incomes and that’s still not enough.”

He said he pays $1,430 for a two-bedroom apartment that he shares with four adult family members and claims his rent went up to $2,666 at the beginning of June.

At the May 27 meeting, the LA City Council approved the city administrative officer to prepare a proposal of up to $45.695 million to purchase the building. However, the owner has said the property is not for sale.

In a letter from Botz’s attorney, Michael Leifer, to the LA City Council, states that the building is worth “more than $90 million” and “for this amount of money to be spent or financed by the City, without a single new affordable housing unit being built and for essentially the private benefit of a very few, would be grossly wasteful.”

Alexander said the tenants’ association wants the city to use eminent domain to force the owner to sell. But this strategy may not be successful according to Gary Painter, a professor in the Sol Price School of Public Policy at USC.

“The bar for eminent domain means that there needs to be a social interest and you can’t just do because you have a very narrow purpose,” he said. “So for me, I would be surprised if this doesn’t immediately get thrown into courts.”

Painter said building more affordable housing is a better long-term plan.

If a deal is reached between the city and the owner, the Housing Authority of the City of LA, or HACLA, would operate the building as affordable housing for 55 years, according to Doug Guthrie, president and CEO of the agency. He said HACLA would subsidize rent through Section 8 vouchers.

“There is already a number of Section 8 voucher holders in the building, but those that don’t have vouchers, we can put project-based vouchers on their units as long as they are income-qualified for that Section 8,” he said. “And that would cover most of the tenants in the building that way.”

Alexander said the tenants’ association will continue to fight for residents to stay housed because he’s worried about what will happen if they are ultimately displaced and forced to leave the area.

“Their jobs are here. Their kids’ school are down the street,” he said.