Beyond Baroque and “Where Has All the (Affordable) Housing Gone?” hosted a book reading on Saturday, May 27 for author Dennis Hathaway. His new book, The Battle of Lincoln Place chronicles the saga of the tenants of the Lincoln Place Apartments in Venice, and their fight to remain in their homes. Beyond Baroque Program Coordinator Ivan Salinas introduced the event. Housing rights activist Judy Branfman presented the speakers. Ms. Branfman has been leading “Where Has All the (Affordable) Housing Gone”, which is a community-based art project with workshops at Beyond Baroque, that examines the loss of affordable housing in Venice because of policies like the Ellis Act and the loss of rent control. She thanked Dennis Hathaway for writing this important book.
Dennis Hathaway was born on a farm in Iowa. He has worked as a newspaper reporter, construction worker, and building contractor. He was a director of low-income housing rehabilitation, and he worked with Youth Build at Venice Community Housing. Mr. Hathaway ran a non-profit group to fight billboards and visual blight. He has published a book of his poetry, he has a website of his blog posts, and he lives in Venice with his wife Laura Silagi.
Dennis Hathaway began the presentation by reading the book’s first chapter entitled, “Locked Out”. This chapter describes a chilling account of the Lincoln Place tenants seeing L.A. County Sheriff’s patrol cars pulling up in front of their buildings one morning in December 2005. Sheriff’s deputies knocked sharply on the doors, yelling for the tenants to open up. It was eviction day. Everyone had five minutes to gather whatever belongings they could and leave their apartments. Deputies filmed the action, and a maintenance man was on hand to change the locks. The tenants had paid their rent on time, but now they felt as though they themselves were just trash that was being thrown out.
The Lincoln Place evictions were the largest single day lockout in the history of Los Angeles. Corporate developer Aimco removed sixty-five adults and twenty-one children from their homes in one sweeping action, in order to demolish the buildings.
Dennis Hathaway then introduced a short film by Laura Silagi and David Ewing about the evictions entitled, “Evictions in Venice at Lincoln Place”. The film is a documentary that records the experiences of the Lincoln Place tenants and their fight to stay in their homes. It shows the multi-racial community of this garden style apartment complex in Venice. Many of the tenants grew up here. Seniors had lived here for thirty to forty years. And now they were being forced out of their homes so that the developers could drastically increase the rents. The film showed the solidarity of the tenants in their struggle against big money and government neglect. “Evictions in Venice at Lincoln Place” can be seen for free on YouTube.
After the film, there was a panel discussion moderated by attorney, activist, and researcher John Raphling. Dennis Hathaway was joined by Sheila Bernard and Amanda Seward. Ms.Bernard served as the president of the Lincoln Place Tenants Association for almost twenty five years. Ms. Seward is the attorney who represented the tenants.
John Raphling: In George Orwell’s 1984, one of the leaders of the party said, “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.” Right now, in this time we’re living, and probably all through the past, we’re living in a real battle over our history. And that’s going to determine where we go and what kind of future we have. So this book tells the history that might otherwise have been forgotten. You can drive by Lincoln Place and not know the battle that went on, and the heroes in that battle. And the villains of the story, and the politicians who mouthed some words and failed to stand up. Reading in today’s newspaper we had the story of Barrington Plaza which read like a chapter out of Dennis’s book. The same things that are going on, the same mass eviction, the same use of the Ellis Act, the same getting around rent stabilization is happening today. Understanding this history and learning the lessons from it is of critical importance. It’s a really important book. It sounds like a lot of you have lived the history of it. Sheila, you moved in in the mid/late 80s. What did you see there? What attracted you to Lincoln Place? And then, from there can you go and talk about what was your vision of a tenant-owned Lincoln Place?
Sheila Bernard: When I was looking for a place to live, I had some background in food cooperatives. And I had already developed the understanding that if we don’t have an economic democracy, our political democracy is just too fragile to withstand the predations of those who will just take more and more and more. I had an understanding of cooperatives, and I drove by Lincoln Place and said to myself, “The people living in that place would be members of a cooperative.” Because it’s not fancy. It’s not exactly uniform, but it’s uniform enough that these are folks who can understand the simplicity of doing a thing together in a big way. That was what went through my mind. And sure enough, and this battle ensuing, that was how the people felt. We were trying to do more than play defense. Because it’s not enough to play defense. You have to play offense. And how else can renters play offense except to own the place. So we developed the slogan which you saw in all the newsletters that Ingrid [Mueller] over and over again posted and delivered to people. Every newsletter and even in the windows of people’s houses we put this slogan. And that slogan was: Let’s Own It. Which meant to the people, we’re doing more than playing defense here. We want to control our destinies. That was the lifeblood of the movement. We were going to own that as a cooperative.
John Raphling: Amanda, can you explain a little bit about the historical value of the buildings themselves at Lincoln Place Apartments, and how they fit into the Venice of the 50s, 60s, 70s, and into the 80s?
\Amanda Seward: They’re a little bit apart from the Venice that people normally think of. It’s east of Lincoln [Boulevard]. We’ve always had a separate identity versus the west of Lincoln. And it’s huge. There’s no complex bigger in Venice, certainly. It was done in a garden city style movement that was founded in England to address the pollution of the cities at the time. The idea was that you would build out in the suburbs of England at the time. But you would build communities of maybe 25,000, and there would be a core center. You could grow your own agriculture in the area. There would be shops near. There would be theater. So it would be a combination of the things that we enjoy in urban city living. And also clean air and a new way of forming households. That idea translated to a lot of housing. People were looking at that in the U.S., especially after World War II, when there was this need for massive housing. They borrowed a lot of those ideas, and Lincoln Place represents the kind of evolution of that idea as applied to conditions in the U.S.and in California, post World War II. It’s a prime example of that. There’s no better example of that in this city. It represents a lot of things historically. It was financed under a federal government plan that really tried to address this need for housing. And they did it in a big way. It represents that history. Lincoln Place is the largest complex built under that program in California. It represents that. It represents this architectural interest in the garden city movement. It represented mid-century design. This idea that you would build simply but elegantly with simple forms. You’d move the buildings around to look a little bit different, so you’d know where your place was. It was built lower scale so that you would have a relationship with your neighbors. And it wouldn’t become too sterile, which is what you get when you have high-rise places sometimes, when people don’t know each other. Each unit was built beautifully, designed by Ralph Vaughn who not only was interested in Modernism, had been involved in the housing policy in Washington, D.C. Whose father had been an architect who had run with those people who were important in Roosevelt’s time. He knew that history. It was a design that was to be built for the common person. It was built to give them style and elegance and a feeling of being home. Landscaping around, but not as much landscaping as they might have had in England after World War I. But enough to create a park-like atmosphere in post-World War II L.A. It had all these elements. I think only one wall meets another apartment, so you had privacy. You had the ocean breeze. Someone thinking about the breeze that came through, so you didn’t really need air conditioning. Somebody who was thinking about the way you live, and a lot of built-ins. So to live simply, you can clean the place simply. You can even clean the windows, and give the place a family atmosphere. That was the idea I think beautifully executed at Lincoln Place. That’s why I think it’s important for that middle income person and the family person. That’s who it was really built for.
John Raphling: Sheila, if you’re hearing all that, can you connect that to your experience living there? Did it achieve all of those?
Sheila Bernard: Yeah. It was like that. People who lived there did not want to leave there. It captured you. But one thing I want to add to what Amanda said about the garden city movement. One element of the garden city movement was social ownership. It was intended that these buildings that were built in Europe and in the United States… The movement itself actually articulated that. And that’s why I want to say something else about this concept of social ownership. We have been giving away public funds to the private sector for decades. I mean trillions of dollars probably by now, in funding that has gone to the private sector. Because we subsidize the building of the housing, and then after a certain number of years, there’s no longer any requirements placed on the private builder that partnered with the government. And they can raise the rents as high as they want. They can evict people. They can stop accepting Section 8 certificates. We’re giving our housing money away. I want to mention, that a couple of weeks ago in the New York Times Magazine there was an article about the City of Vienna in Austria. They do not have an affordable housing problem in Vienna. The reason is, they own the housing. Vienna owns that housing and they don’t just have poor people living in the housing. It’s all income levels. It’s all kinds of people living in that housing. Rental housing is a respected and honored part of their culture in their city. And we really could emulate that. So if you haven’t seen that, look up Vienna. Yes, it was New York Times Magazine. They’re keeping the amount of your paycheck that you pay towards rent really low. They have a solution that we need to emulate in this country if we’ll just stop being so afraid of the term “social ownership”. We have such a cultural fear, maybe Not the people in this room. I have a feeling that people don’t feel that way. But I think a lot of the people who are not in this room do feel very afraid of the word “Socialism” or “social ownership”. And I believe that social ownership of housing is the only way we’re going to get out of the crisis that we’re in.
John Raphling: The owners of the building had endless money. They had political connections. They had high-priced lawyers. They had, in many ways, the law itself on their side. They had this deep-seated ideological belief, in this country, that values property rights over human rights. What did the tenants have?
Sheila Bernhard: Well, we had Ingrid and Abby and Steven, and there may be some other Lincoln Place folks here. And we had Amanda who saved our bacon; she saved our bacon totally. Had it not been for the ability to pivot from the affordable housing battle to the preservation battle I don’t think those buildings would be standing today. The sixty or so folks who managed to return to Lincoln Place, and some of whom are still living there today, and the financial settlement that other tenants received… None of that would have been possible without the preservation battle that Amanda spearheaded. She could not be bullied out of protecting that housing. And Laura Burns, who is not here today but whose name we really need to mention, who was a research assistant on this, she really discovered Ralph Vaughn the architect. She says that it’s not just the four walls, it’s the dignity that the design gave the people. We had the people, we had the architecture, we had the community. And we had the will to fight. And today, in our country, we’ve got to have the will to fight. Things are very serious up there. We can’t give up organizing. We can’t give up the idea that a group of people, a small group of people, with a clear idea and the will to fight can make an enormous difference out there. Everybody in this room has probably been part of a thing like that. Don’t ever stop, don’t ever stop.
Amanda Seward: I’d like to say a word about that as well. What Lincoln Place had was basically everything they [Aimco] had. We had P.R. people. We had a P.R. team that were professional P.R. people at some point in their history. Or wanted to be, so wanted to do it and could think of their own ideas and carry them out. We had photographers that took beautiful pictures. We had Laura Silagi and Preacher [David Ewing] doing this film that brought tears to people’s eyes every time they saw it. We had lobbyists. You had [Councilman Bill] Rosendahl, and you could talk to him. We had political connections that we were using. We had writers. We had fundraisers, who do this for a living, would organize a fundraising event for us. We didn’t have money, but we had expertise in various areas that you need for a campaign like this. We had people that were willing to dedicate themselves to it. We had a community that was supportive of it, a broad range of people. We had a lot. I always felt like it was almost pre-ordained. The exposure you had. The feelings you had about something. The motivation you had about something. Everything worked out the way it should work out. I worked at Hanna-Barbera, at one point, for a person who was a marketing genius. He brought the MTV campaign, “Give me my MTV.” He came up with one of the things: You have to define yourself as the first in the field, whatever it is. One of the marketing rules. And you had to come up with slogans. It was really my suggestion through him that every press release, everything we do, we’re going to tag it with “The Largest Lockout in a Single Day in L.A. History”. Who wants that associated with them? We used it every place we went. It was effective in the sense that it defined who the bad guy was. We didn’t have to do too much more of an explanation. And what’s the justification for that? I think we just had a lot. And in the end, it takes a lot. It takes a team of people, but we had a better team. Their people would drop off. They would fire a person who didn’t get the results. They went through law firm after law firm after law firm. We had one law firm. We had several lawyers too. We had John Murdock, who was a planning lawyer. We had Elena Popp, who was an eviction lawyer. We had Jan Book, who lived at Lincoln Place, who had been an accountant and a lawyer, and renewed her bar license to get involved. And organized the Latin families, made sure that they were included and knew what was going on. We had a lot of people doing a lot of different things. We had parties to keep up the morale. We had musicians playing. We had spouses who were supportive and families who were supportive. We just had a lot too. I would match our team up with theirs any day. And I think that’s why we won.
John Raphling: Dennis, any thoughts on the match-up between you and the good guys, and the bad guys? The underfunded and the largest corporate landlord in America?
Dennis Hathaway: Well, it was a classic David versus Goliath. It really was. I read all the court transcripts, what these attorneys were saying. But I think the most disturbing, appalling, outrageous thing on the part of the landlord was just their treatment of people. I’ll just give one example. This is in the book. A woman named Laura Ponce who lived in a building. It was a twenty-six unit building. They were gutting the building. She didn’t want to move. She had a chronic illness. She lived on a fixed income. She had no place to move. And they went ahead and started renovating this building while she was still living there. Actually gutting it, tearing off the roof, sandblasting. I think she was in her late fifties. This was the billion dollar company that owned something like 3,000 apartment buildings all over the United States. I still get angry about that. I think it’s outrageous. It came through, as I was researching and writing, that these people were willing to stand up to that. I don’t know how much Sheila wants to talk about it, but she was sued by the landlord.
Sheila Bernard: We had yard sales. They did not want us to have yard sales. So one time we were going to have a yard sale and they came along. And I told everybody, “Hey, go home.Let’s just do an exemplar out here. One yard sale.” So I had it out there and they sued me for having a yard sale. At the time, the lawyer that I had got sick and didn’t meet the deadlines. They succeeded in suing me. It was a long time I was paying them off. That’s what you do. It doesn’t matter; it washes off you. Because the bigger triumph of being able to have people prevail in a situation like that… Everything else just washes off you.
John Raphling: The book is infuriating and inspiring at the same time. Amanda, can you talk about the strategy around the historical preservation aspect, how that fit in with organizing for the affordability and for keeping the tenants in Lincoln Place?
Amanda Seward: The landlord was evicting the tenants under the Ellis Act. The Ellis Act is a state law that basically says that a city government cannot force an owner to stay in the rental business. They can permanently leave the rental business under the Ellis Act. That has been interpreted by the courts to mean that even if it’s a corporation that does apartment buildings all over the city and has ten others, they can get rid of one and go out of the rental business property by property. That’s what the owner here was doing. When I first got involved, it really was the architecture. Even Sheila and I had little fights about that sometimes, because Sheila looked at it like this is a commune. It’s uniform. There’s nothing special about these buildings. I walked into it not knowing the tenants at all. I didn’t know anybody at Lincoln Place at the time. It was only from the preservation side. Me and my husband were involved in the Los Angeles Conservancy, the Modern Committee that is into mid-century places. A person that lived at Lincoln Place was the head of the L.A. Modern Committee of the L.A. Conservancy. And he asked in a meeting whether there were volunteers who would help with a nomination of Lincoln Place. Me and my husband had just been going on the tours mostly. We hadn’t really done any work, so to speak. But we decided, “Oh, why don’t we help out. We live near Lincoln Place. We’re into mid-century. We can do it. We can figure it out and we can help.” They looked at us a little skeptical because they didn’t really know us. But there was a tenant who was supposed to have all this history. And that was Laura Burns. I contacted her. She was suspicious. Everybody was suspicious, like, “Who is this? Is she a spy for the owner? Never heard of her before.” It was that kind of attitude. But slowly we got to know each other. She had all this research. We worked on that. We got all of that going. I slowly got more involved in the tenants. But that was not my initial interest. It was to do this designation and just get out of it, just get rid of it. Basically, write it out, do the research. Fortunately, the research was done through Laura Burns. She had just so much information, and getting it out of her… I think we had to go to Kinko’s together and make copies together because she didn’t want to let it out of her sight. And she didn’t know who this was. Finally, we got going on it and we worked well together like sisters actually. She was a wealth of information and she went through every detail. Really, all I had to do was read what she gave me. I was really only interested in that and didn’t really want to mingle too much in the tenant issues for a number of reasons timewise. I didn’t want the preservation issue to look like a strategy to keep the buildings. Because they always say that. “They don’t really think those buildings are historic. They just want to keep their low-cost housing. It has nothing to do with historic. Look at her. She’s representing the tenants.” That’s why I didn’t want to have that label. I was trying to stay away from you guys a little bit. But I would explain to people, “Look these buildings can save you. So you’d better start loving them and never talk about them looking like the project or anything else. You need to try to find a way. We’re going to go through the history of it to try to find a way to appreciate it. And if you’re interested in history, if you’re an intelligent person, if you’re interested in architecture, Lincoln Place tells a story that is an important story to tell. So even if it’s not your thing, your design, you have to recognize the history of it.” That’s what we were pumping and talking about. There were architects who lived at Lincoln Place. There were landscape people who lived at Lincoln Place. People who volunteered to help me put it in a more architectural language when I describe the buildings, so I learned a lot about it in that way. My husband was very helpful. He knows how to read details of maps and plans, and helped me and tutored me in it. He would read everything that I wrote. Laura and I would go back and forth on things. But strategywise it was a perfect thing to do. Because if the buildings had to stay… They’re historic. What is a corporation going to do, saying they’re permanently going out of the rental business? They can’t redevelop it. Because it’s historic. You can’t tear the buildings down. Anything you do is going to have to be consistent or compatible with the buildings that are already there.So what are you going to do with it? You’re just saying you’re going out of the rental business. You’re not an individual owner who’s just going to let this property just sit. You’ve got to bring the profits to your investors. You’re not letting it sit and you can’t tear it down if it’s historic. So what do you want to do with it? That’s basically what the judge said to them finally after a lot of battles with them. But the seniors and disabled got to stay longer. I started representing them, expanding a little bit more. By that point, Lincoln Place was designated. They sued me as well. The owner did. We were past all that. So I started representing the seniors and disabled who were there, because the Ellis Act gives them longer to find a relocation or to move. That was a key to defeating the Ellis Act. The judge had made a preliminary ruling against us, saying that under the Ellis Act you can’t challenge your motivations or whatever. Well, yes you can if you raise a legitimate argument against it. They can’t tear it down. If they don’t tear it down, it’s under rent control. The tenants get to stay. And whatever redevelopment happens they’ve got to keep these buildings, even if they can change them to some extent. The judge finally said, “Yeah, what are you going to do with the buildings?” I remember that. She shifted all of a sudden. And it was good. We’re getting somewhere. Then they were arrogant: “We don’t have to have a reason or tell you what we’re going to do with the buildings. We have the right, under the Ellis Act, to say we are going out of the rental business. And if we say it, we get to redevelop the property the way we want. All we have to do is say we’re going permanently out of the rental business.” And the judge said, “I don’t think so. I think that’s a jury question to decide who they believe and what you really want to do with the property.” That was a win for us. Because if we had a trial… Meanwhile, the tenants are still in the buildings. The seniors and disabled who are still there are still in their units. And Aimco doesn’t want a jury trial on this. What are you going to do? All the seniors and disabled come in the courtroom and you know you’re going to take away their homes. There’s just no no way. So they just kept prolonging it and continuing and continuing. And I was happy to continue it because I didn’t know whether we were going to win or not ultimately. I didn’t know a lot about landlord/tenant law. I had to catch up and read and get tutored myself from people or other lawyers. That’s how it worked. And that’s why the historic designation was important for the tenants, whether or not they were going to like the architecture or understand it.
John Raphling: Sheila, we just talked a little bit about the legal side of it. Can you talk a little bit about some of the challenges with organizing within the building and getting people, people within the building and in the surrounding community? And maybe maybe even talk about some of the people that were pulling against you, within the building and the surrounding community.
Sheila Bernard: At the time, I did not know what a spreadsheet was but Ingrid did. It was very important in the technology of organizing that place. The buildings were set up in blocks so that you had entryways of four people. We were able to set up a spreadsheet where we could keep track of all the people. And we knocked on those doors over and over and over again, every single door. We had building representatives. A building that would have a dozen to two dozen units in it might have a representative who would be responsible for helping keep those folks in contact. It’s very much reaching everyone. Out of the 795 households, we had the support of about 550 to 600 of those households. People who believed in what we were trying to do, some of whom would get on a bus and go to City Hall, or they’d come to a demonstration or they would come to a steering committee meeting to help distribute flyers. And then there was a small group of folks, maybe about a dozen people, who really drank the Kool-Aid, who really believed that the landlord was going to help them get a better place than what they had now and would actually be on their side and was doing the right thing. And these buildings are old and they’re decrepit. We need to be rebuilding. There was about a dozen folks who took that line, and were taken to places on buses by the landlord, taken to City Hall. They had their tags; we had our tags. But I think it’s very important to know that there is a technology to organizing, and it’s very much tied to knowing your people. Meeting them over and over, knowing what they want, knowing what they need, knowing what their aspirations are. And the aspiration to own their housing but not have to buy housing that was out of their reach economically or physically. The possibility of being the owner of a cooperative unit. We have someone here today. We have Lois Arkin here today who’s the founder of L.A. Eco Village. At Eco Village they have a cooperative there where people who are renters are members of an organization that owns the housing. Even as renters they have a stake. And the people have that aspiration. I think anyone in this country would join in that aspiration. I think that the technology of knowing everybody and connecting to that aspiration of the people… That’s the basis of the organizing. And you’re always going to have some opponents. Even at the very end of the battle we ended up in a kind of factional fight with a group of our own folks who broke off and wanted a better settlement than what we were able to get. There were about 180 households in the settlement. There were nine families in the break-off group that wanted a better settlement, and they actually got a slightly better settlement by being able to hold things up and sort of be the fly in the ointment. But in terms of John’s question, organizing is an art and it’s a science. There was a time in Camarillo where my husband and I live now where I was hoping to knock on every door in Camarillo and get neighborhoods organized like this. It was delusions of grandeur. I should never have attempted it in the first place. But I went to somebody in the Ventura County Democratic Party and explained what I was trying to do. And he said, “No. Don’t do that. Nobody wants to know what their neighbor’s politics are. You’re going to disrupt neighborhoods. You’re going to have people fighting each other. You don’t want to go door to door and do all that.” I’ve thought about that for years and I really still disagree with the guy. I still believe that by us knowing our neighbors, where you work, where you shop, wherever you show up over and over again… The restaurant you go to, the barber shop… There’s always a way to connect to people and to organize around some issue with people whose face you see, whose hand you shake… You hug somebody, you have personal contact with… it’s not all Twitter and Facebook and the internet. We cannot rely on those spaces to organize for us. We’ve got to organize in the flesh.
John Raphling: Dennis, can you talk about placing the struggle for Lincoln Place in the context of the changes that we’ve seen in Venice over the past thirty to forty years?
Dennis Hathaway: I’ve lived in Venice for forty-five years. I have a thing about neighborhoods. You can tell what’s going on in the neighborhood by the cars on the street. If you go someplace and there are a bunch of inexpensive cars, maybe some big old American cars, you know you’re in more of a working class kind of neighborhood. And that’s how Lincoln Place was when my wife and I moved there. If you walk through there now, what do you see? You see Teslas. Tesla has become the iconic automobile of Venice now. Lincoln Place is there. There were some buildings torn down. They were replaced. The buildings that were built were supposed to be replicas of the old buildings, which they’re really not. Everything’s there, kind of like it was. But it’s totally different. It’s kind of a microcosm of Venice. There has always been a struggle. There are working class people. Poor people have lived in Venice. They can’t anymore. This is the change that has come. Through the efforts of Amanda and Sheila and Ingrid and a bunch of other people Lincoln Place was preserved. But nobody’s done that in Venice. Venice has become street after street of little bungalows torn down and replaced with McMansions. To use a 60s word, the “vibe” has changed in Venice. Part of the settlement was that the buildings had to go back under rent control. It will become more affordable over time. If there are people who live there a long time, they will be paying low market rents. And somebody’s going to come along. Aimco is going to try to pull some levers. Or they’re going to try to sell it to somebody else. They’re going to try to do something about that. And they’re going to say, “Lincoln Place is going to become an outlier in this affluent community.”
Sheila Bernard: And then we’ll just start all over ain. We’ll do it again.