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Burlington rent strike is over, but tenants continue to organize

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“Now we are all friends, and we do everything we can to help each other”

Ray Estrada leads Burlington Unidos and activists in a chant outside of the Westlake apartments on Wednesday.
Photos by Christian Monterrosa

The sun was low on the horizon Wednesday morning in Westlake as protesters wrote signs, the squeak of permanent markers filling the air. Nearly 30 tenants and activists known as Burlington Unidos interlocked arms in front of the apartment complex where they live.

They were preparing to interfere with sheriff’s deputies scheduled to carry out a court-ordered eviction of tenants Robert and Maria Rodriguez.

Burlington Unidos ended its rent strike three weeks ago, when landlord Donald Crasnick announced he would drop all remaining unlawful detainer cases against tenants who had refused to pay rent over the course of six months. But Crasnick had not agreed to allow tenants who had already lost their eviction cases in court, including Robert and Maria Rodriguez, to move back in.

In response, members of Burlington Unidos, who initially organized to protest rent hikes, continue to fight for each other.

They formed a “human chain,” and Los Angeles Tenants Union organizers put together an “emergency response team” to deal with deputies, who, as of today, still have not shown up. (Tenants chose the first day after the eviction deadline to formally protest the eviction, but lockout dates are not previously announced.)

Robert Rodriguez will be evicted from an apartment in Westlake after participating in a rent strike.

Robert Rodriguez, 82, says he joined Burlington Unidos because he was fed up with building conditions and management. When a broken elevator required him to take the stairs, Robert says he fell and broke his hip, resulting in hip replacement surgery that still requires him to use a walker.

“When they told me the rent was going up to $1,400 I said, ‘Nope. No way,’” said Rodriguez. “After everything I’ve been put through, I won’t do it.”

Four months later, the Rodriguez family lost their case in court, unable to use the broken elevator and occasional lack of hot water as evidence of unlivable conditions.

“We’re here because the Rodriguez couple has not been able to find [affordable] housing,” said Elena Popp, the tenants’ attorney.

Popp says the elderly couple was dealt a blow in court, but she says six other families were found to be legally withholding their rent.

Robert and Maria Rodriguez attend a Burlington Unidos rent strike meeting on June 25.

Crasnick and Lisa Ehrlich, his attorney who also owns a stake in the building, deny ever increasing the Rodriguezes’ rent and blame their inability to find another apartment on bad advice and the Burlington eviction on their record.

He says the tenants got bad advice “to stop paying rent, which put them at risk of eviction. Now, as the evictions happen, the LATU... [is] encouraging tenants to break the law and risk arrest,” Robert Thaler, a spokesperson for Ehrlich, said in a statement.

Rodriguez says he didn’t intend to be in the middle of a showdown with law enforcement. He’s making arrangements to stay with a family member and is considering moving to Mexico with his wife.

“It’s too late for me, I’m getting out of here,” he said. “But if I can help the others, I will.”

Tenants who were on strike have paid their rent for September and accepted payment plans to return money they had withheld, but many say building repairs have not been sufficient.

“Just wait until it rains,” said Cutberto Camero, 58, in Spanish, who lives on the top floor of his building. “All of this is going to get flooded even though, according to [the landlord], he has fixed everything.

“I feel like this isn’t over, and something else will come up to try to get us out,” Camero said.

Others are proud of their efforts, as dozens of tenants who were on strike never had to appear in court and wound up accepting only a fraction of the initial rent increase.

Tenants say that even though the rent strike is over, they’ve become a tighter community.

When all of this started nobody would talk to each other, and we all just went about our lives,” said tenant Alba Arevalo, speaking in Spanish. “Now we are all friends, and we do everything we can to help each other.”

The strength of the union might be tested in the coming days. The building manager sent notices to tenants to report the names of everyone living in each unit, as many are suspected of hosting unauthorized occupants.

Some tenants, and Popp, predict this will now be used as a new tool for eviction.