A battle of tenants for the ages
When a landlord drops the “E-word,” overnight, your whole life changes. You realize that any Johnny-late-come landlord can uproot you and kick you out of your home and community. Laura Burns, quoted in The Battle of Lincoln Place
Passed with bipartisan support in 1985, the Ellis Act was rarely used until it was hijacked by anti-rent control judges a decade later. The courts rewrote the Ellis Act as a law the legislature would never have passed.
Ellis’ first terrible court ruling in 1997 involved Lincoln Place, a 700-plus-unit rental complex in the Venice neighborhood of Los Angeles. I still remember reading the Lincoln Place decision. The attorneys in my office were dumbfounded that a court could conclude that the Los Angeles Anti-Demolition Law was not a “land use” law under the Ellis Act.
A demolition obviously involves “land use”. Lincoln Place has opened the door to future court rulings turning the Ellis Act into an engine for tenant displacement.
I worked with then-state senator John Burton to pass an amendment to the Ellis Act that effectively reversed possession of Lincoln Place. But the battle to stop tenants moving to Lincoln Place continued into 2010. Thanks to Dennis Hathaway, the historic fight from 1987 to 2010 – possibly the longest tenant battle against evictions in the history of the California – is told in a fascinating book-turner, The Battle of Lincoln Place.
Power of building tenants
It’s hard to believe that residents of a 795-unit rental complex could face demolition and displacement of their homes. Most long eviction fights involve much smaller properties. For example, I tell the story in Off-price generation of the fourteen-year struggle to stop an eviction of Ellis in San Francisco’s SOMA neighborhood; the building was four units. Epic eviction fights like at the International Hotel in San Francisco were all about one building. That the law could authorize discretionary unit/demolition and eviction of 795 units is shocking, but it is the power of the real estate industry in “progressive” California.
Lincoln Place benefited from strong tenant leadership. Almost all of them were women: Sheila Bernard, Jan Book, Laura Burns were among them. Amanda Seward and Elena Popp provided essential legal services. All contributed everything they had for years to stop the outrage planned for Lincoln Place.
Hathaway shows how the only way for tenants to fight the threats of powerful landlord interests is to build their power. Fortunately, Lincoln Place had the kind of activists that all resistance movements need.
Hathaway’s book reads like a captivating novel. It’s a two-decade-long story with so many unexpected twists and turns that if it weren’t based on real events, its credibility would be in doubt.
The Battle of Lincoln Place is also the story of the battle for the soul of Los Angeles. A rapidly changing city had to make major decisions about its future. Lincoln Place has become a centerpiece of these struggles.
Hathaway shows political forces working to help tenants and those who oppose them. If you’ve ever doubted the importance of electing tenant-friendly local council members, Lincoln Place proves it.
We need more books about the struggles of tenants. Too many tenants across the United States feel helpless. They need to see the power of resistance. Hathaway commemorated a struggle that deserves to be recognized as legendary. To all who fought to save Lincoln Place, your fight is now written in history.
Filed Under: Book Reviews