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Westlake tenants form homeless encampment to protest rent hikes: ‘The prospect of becoming homeless is real’

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Tenants say they are living with mold and rodents and can’t afford rent increases

Burlington Avenue tenants sit in their tent as part of their latest protest against their landlord.
Photos by Christian Monterrosa

It’s a warm Friday night in Westlake, and more than 50 tenants living in apartments on Burlington Avenue are crowding sidewalks, huddled around tents and cloth banners that hang from orange and yellow apartment buildings.

The tenants, who call themselves Burlington Unidos, have formed a “homeless encampment” outside their apartments at 131, 143, and 171 Burlington Avenue as part of an ongoing protest over rent hikes.

Those who couldn’t afford to buy tents improvised with chairs and blankets. Guatemalan chuchitos and arroz con leche were made in bulk to to help the self-made activists continue what the LA Tenants Union—which has helped organize rent strikes across Los Angeles—has deemed its largest yet.

“I didn’t know I had rights. That makes me feel strong now,” tenant Alba Arevalo, 56, says in Spanish. “And my objective isn’t just for the Burlington Unidos to be successful, but that our efforts and our strike can help wake up other people and to help them feel that ‘Si, Se Puede.’”

The tenants say they can’t afford rent increases set by the landlord at the start of the year, and have refused to pay since March. They say they are living in mold and rodent-infested apartments with ongoing sewage leaks.

Sophie, 8, tip-toes across cockroaches after her family’s unit at Burlington Apartment was fumigated.
Christian Monterrosa

The three Burlington Avenue buildings were built in the 1980s and are not subject to the city’s Rent Stabilization Ordinance, which applies to units constructed prior to October 1978.

Tenants are demanding the right to collectively bargain a new lease agreement with their landlord, as residents of an apartment building near Mariachi Plaza in Boyle Heights did earlier this year.

“It’s like if the owner doesn’t want an agreement at all,” says Cutberto Camero, 58, in Spanish. “We accepted her [incremental percentage increases] which came out to be close to what she originally wanted, and even then she didn’t accept our conditions.”

Landlord Donald Crasnick and his attorney Lisa Ehrlich did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Aside from securing an affordable rent increase, the tenants want adequate repairs to the buildings and a guarantee that they will not be evicted shortly after the lawsuits end.

Camero, who has lived at Burlington for eight years, says he suspects the rent increases are designed to get rid of unhappy tenants and welcome new renters, who are unaware of the building’s problems, at a higher price.

The idea to form a “homeless encampment” came from the tenants themselves, says LA Tenants Union organizer Trinidad Ruiz.

“The prospect of them becoming homeless in light of the rent increases, the lawsuits and the unlawful detainers in court was a real specter for them, it was a total possibility,” he says.

The courtyard at Burlington Apartment, 131 South Burlington Avenue.

Arevalo has lived in the Burlington buildings more than 20 years. She says her unit has extensive water damage. Mold growing on the walls, she says, has only been painted over, and a new carpet sits unattached to the ground.

“My son started telling me, ‘Mom, these things aren’t normal,’” she says. “But I just thought, ‘Oh well, it’s the building’s problem, they’ll fix it.’ I never thought that those things could be affecting my health.”

The Salvadoran native now considers herself an activist, and she says she wants to inspire others to fight back too.

“To see so much injustice and mistreatment on people like us who are the minority, that makes you feel like you don’t deserve anything just for being Latinx and that you have to live how they want you to is not right,” she says.