A Victory for Burlington Unidos and the Largest Rent-Strike in LA History

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Burlington Unidos jamas será vencidos!

(Burlington United will never be defeated)

By the VyBe Local of the Los Angeles Tenants Union

Last Friday we got the news that Lisa Ehrlich has decided to dismiss all remaining eviction cases against the rent-striking tenants at Burlington. We want to be as clear as possible what exactly this means, why it happened, and what we think lies ahead for Burlington Unidos.

This struggle is not over, but this is surely a massive victory that deserves to be celebrated. We hope this victory will even further add to the infusion of energy and militancy that Burlington Unidos has already given to the tenants’ movement in Los Angeles and beyond.

The Burlington tenants, a group of over 200 Latinx individuals, most of whom are immigrants, courageously stuck together and have for the moment beaten back a white property owner worth tens of millions of dollars. This victory is a testament to both tenants exercising their collective power and an aggressive legal strategy — led by Elena Popp of the Eviction Defense Network — that is firmly rooted in the tactics of the movement itself. And they did this even as their City Councilmember, Mitch O’Farrell, totally refused to help, and even admonished them for having the gall to withhold their rent and fight for what is just.

Lisa had filed evictions against every single one of the 80+ families on rent strike. Nine actually went to trial, with the tenants winning six and losing three. In the cases that were won, the juries ruled that the families were justified in withholding their rent because of the deplorable conditions of the buildings, and awarded rent reductions (for the months that rent was withheld) ranging from around 5% to 99% — one jury ruled that the conditions were so poor, Lisa was only justified in charging $1 in rent. Of the three families that lost, one was evicted and is now staying with a family nearby, one negotiated a deal to leave, and one remains in their unit still, an elderly couple, in a state of uncertainty as they wait for the sheriff to arrive.

There were still over 70 cases to be tried, and Lisa knew she’d likely lose the vast majority of them. She was thus staring down the barrel of losing over $1 million, since the losing side is forced to pay for the victors’ attorney’s fees. So she dismissed the remaining cases in order to protect her wallet. This is a clear admission of guilt to the detestable and near uninhabitable conditions of the Burlington buildings.

We must make it perfectly clear that this was NOT done out of the goodness of her heart. But Lisa now has an opportunity to turn a self-serving economic decision to drop all the cases into a one that results in justice for the Burlington tenants.

If Lisa had just negotiated in good-faith with the tenants from the start, she would never have been in this position. Instead, with the combination of the lost rent from 80+ families for several months, and her 14-lawyer legal team, we estimate that she spent roughly $200,000 per month trying to evict these families. That’s potentially over $1 million already down the drain. And that’s not including the money they surely paid for this new, fancy website meant to spew her blatant lies.

With these eviction cases dismissed, Lisa is essentially giving up on collecting the withheld rents. It’s possible that some of this will be paid back to her if she and the tenants can reach a long-term deal, but we can’t predict the future.

Which brings us to what’s next for Burlington Unidos.

The unfortunate truth is, once Lisa makes repairs to the building, it’s possible she can again unjustly raise rents to unsustainable levels, or simply evict the tenants. Ironically, the tenants were only protected in court because of the slum-like conditions of the buildings. Without rent control, there are very little protections for renters. (Vote Yes on Prop 10!)

However there are still methods of collective struggle we will be engaging in. There are different strategies we are discussing to provide leverage for negotiations with Lisa. You can bet that we’ll continue to work alongside and organize direct actions with Burlington Unidos to support this struggle directly, and fight for universal rent control more broadly.

As we have been since the beginning, we are still fighting for a long-term deal that provides the tenants 1) repairs to the building, 2) respect from the managers, and 3) reasonable rents. We are hopeful that Lisa Ehrlich will now come to her senses and negotiate a fair deal. If not, we’ll continue to fight n ways she hasn’t yet imagined.

Originally published at knock-la.com on September 5, 2018.

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