By NATHAN SOLIS
HIGHLAND PARK — In August, Carlos Valdez was told not to bother paying the rent on his two-bedroom apartment. The building on Avenue 57 had been sold and the new landlord wanted everyone who lived in the 18 units out in 90 days. “I was shocked and heart broken,” said Valdez, who was paying $850 a month – a steal in now hip Highland Park. “If they would have raised the rent, I would have paid,” said Valdez, 27, husband, father of two and self-employed.
The same story played out at a short walk away on Avenue 55, where a now empty 12-unit apartment building along the Gold Line tracks is undergoing renovations. The mass exodus of tenants from these and other large apartment buildings has caught the attention and raised concern of residents who fear they will be pushed out from gentrifying Highland Park.
The sight of the now empty buildings and the fate of the former tenants played a role in igniting last month’s gentrification demonstrations on York Boulevard and Figueroa Streets. A posting and photos of the empty buildings stirred up heated commentary on the Highland Park neighborhood council’s Facebook page. Photos of furniture, barbecues, kids’ bikes and other items abandoned by departing tenants have popped up on Flickr.
Valdez grew up in Highland Park with his mother and grandfather in the same apartment that he left for good on Halloween. The last night that the tenants were allowed in the building at 226 N. Avenue 57, the driveway was full of cars packed with belongings, Valdez said. People, mainly working class Latinos, walked in a daze. Valdez and his family moved into the Highland Hotel.
“To experience that – It didn’t feel like America to me.”
The two buildings were built in the late 1980s and early 1990s, which means the tenants were not covered by the city’s rent control laws that apply to apartments built before 1978. In addition, the two buildings changed ownership during the summer. Valdez’ building on Avenue 57 sold in August for $2.4 million, according to online county assessor information. The new owners of the Avenue 55 building paid more than $2 million.
“Unfortunately this is legal,” said Larry Gross with the Coalition for Economic Survival. “Tenants have very little rights in non rent controlled buildings.”
A representative from the city’s Housing Department’s rent division also said that it appears that the Highland Park landlords did not violate any laws.
“We were devastated, because of the upcoming holidays,” says Aguilar. “I went crazy. I couldn’t stop thinking about where we were going. How we were going to deal with my kids and my mom.”
Aguilar and her husband did manage to find a new home in Highland Park at a higher rent, though Aguilar has yet to find a reliable way to get her special-needs daughter to school in a different part of the neighborhood.
Valdez, the tenant who was forced out of his Avenue 57 building, says he loves Highland Park, and doesn’t put all the blame on new residents moving into the neighborhood. His computer repair business is tucked away in the Highland Swap Mall on Figueroa Street, where some of his family’s belongings are now stored. He dipped into his savings in order to move his family. His old building is tagged up now, gated and locked.
He also hears that the Highland Swap Mall might be sold in the coming year to new owners. He lets out a laugh, because it’s all a bit too much.
Nathan Solis is a Highland Park resident who writes about and photographs the L.A. music scene. You can find more of Solis’ stories, reviews and photos at Avenue Meander.