This Vietnamese Grandmother Went From Chinatown To Brentwood Looking For The Landlord Trying to Evict Her
On a recent Sunday in Brentwood, as luxury cars zipped along a quiet, narrow street between multi-million dollar homes, a white-haired grandmother named Dieu Pham went looking for the landlord who had given her and other tenants 60 days to move out of their apartments on the outskirts of Chinatown.
She was joined by about 40 other protesters brandishing anti-eviction signs and lining up folding chairs among the lush trees, ready to demonstrate as long as it took that day. Pham, 70, carried in a plastic bag her pillbox filled with medications for her high blood pressure and cholesterol, in case she arrived home late.
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"I feel like I'm fighting for my rights, for my home," Pham said in Vietnamese through an interpreter.
Immigrants from Southeast Asia and China have settled in and around Chinatown for more than 150 years. But over the last decade, gentrification has been squeezing some of them out.
However, a growing number of tenants, like the Brentwood protestors from 920 Everett Street, are refusing to leave quietly.
The Everett Street tenants, who are immigrants from Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, held their first protest in August in front of their building -- a stucco two-level on the edge of Chinatown and Echo Park.
They've so far gathered nearly 1,200 signatures in support of their bid to stay in their homes.
Activist Craig Wong of Chinatown Community for Equitable Development said Pham and other tenants, as immigrants, have a "fighting spirit."
"I'm seeing a lot of the older generation really inspired by the younger folks and getting out there...because they know it's right and they know it's important," Wong said.
Soon Pham would find out if her persistence would pay off.
"NEVER SEEN DEVELOPMENT LIKE THIS"
LA's Chinatown, as we know it, was created by displacement. Residents and businesses were evicted from the old Chinatown in the 1930s to make way for the construction of Union Station.
But over the last decade, the neighborhood has become one of L.A.'s trendiest zip codes.
"I've been around Chinatown for like 40 years and I've never seen development like this," Wong said.
Wong said developers are buying up properties and raising rents or, in the case of 920 Everett Street -- ordering tenants to move out to presumably replace them with higher-earning tenants. (No representative of the building's owner, American Collateral Buyers, LLC or the management company, Envoy Properties would comment for this story.)
Meanwhile, affordable units are vanishing as agreements between developers and the city that kept rents low expire.
Displaced tenants will struggle to ever find as affordable a place, Wong said. New construction in Chinatown is mostly market-rate or luxury. One new development named College Station does not include any affordable housing, which has prompted CCED to sue to overturn the city's approval of the project.
Because many tend to be located in or near downtown areas, Chinatowns across North America are being targeted by developers, from San Francisco to New York, from Vancouver to Montreal.
Landlords are perfectly within their rights to turn a profit on their buildings, Wong acknowledged.
"But there's legal rights and there's justice," Wong said. "And to us, the market and the laws don't provide for sufficient decent housing for people in the community. We will do what it takes to keep the community together."
60 DAYS AND $3,000
At 920 Everett Street, the tenants' troubles started in late July when their landlords Robert and Rosa Chow sent a notice that they had 60 days to move out.
It became clear that the Chows were selling the building to a company called American Collateral Buyers, LLC. On September 12, a new management company Envoy Properties delivered a letter to tenants reminding them they had to leave by Sept. 24, and adding an offer of $3,000 if they were to abide by the notice. They were also warned against speaking to the press or posting on social media.
The $3,000 would barely cover a couple of months' rent. The tenants decided they wanted to stay. But Dieu Pham said she became very frightened as the mid-September deadline loomed. She wondered where she and her family would go.
For the last five years, the two-bedroom Pham shares with her daughter, a nail manicurist, and her two adult grandkids has been home at a manageable monthly rent of $1,250.
They're near familiar food, doctors who speak their language and jobs. Pham said she used to work a few days a week handling take-out orders at a Vietnamese restaurant.
Everett Street itself has been a magnet for Southeast Asians for years. Pham's sister and sister-in-law, in fact, used to be renters in two different buildings on this very street.
Pham's grand-niece Charisse Pham, a real estate agent, stepped in to help her relatives after they called her, despairing.
"They're like 'Oh my God, we have to move,'" Charisse Pham recalled. "No, you're not moving anywhere. Let's see what I can do."
She felt that her grand-aunt, whom she calls "Grandma" was being exploited.
"Most landlord think: 'Oh, we're Asian. You know, Asian not going to fight back," Charisse Pham said. "If I give them a notice and they're just gonna leave because I don't speak English. No one going to help them."
Charisse Pham reached out to Chinatown Community for Equitable Development, which was created in 2012 to protest the arrival of a Wal-Mart store and has stayed active ever since, advocating for low-income residents of Chinatown.
This has meant helping tenants facing eviction, or living in dilapidated units, stage protests outside their buildings in Chinatown or nearby Lincoln Heights and Echo Park.
In the last year, the housing activists and tenants have also been driving to the Westside to protest landlords at their residences.
This is what tenants at Hillside Villa in Chinatown did to voice their displeasure with their landlord Tom Botz. The developer is seeking to raise the rent on formerly below-market units, as the affordable housing covenant covering them has expired. In July, a busload of protesters from CCED and the L.A. Tenants Union showed up in front of Botz's Malibu home.
AT THE DOOR WITH RENT CHECKS IN HAND
The Malibu protest has not resulted in any relief for the tenants at Hillside Villa. But the tenants of 920 Everett Street hoped their Brentwood protest could convince their new landlord to let them stay in their homes and keep rents affordable.
By the time of the Sept. 29 protest in Brentwood, tenants still hadn't gotten their eviction notice and were anxious about their futures.
They had gathered outside the home of Lalit Kothari, who's named as a principal of American Collateral, the owner. They chanted "Landlord Kothari, open the door! Landlord Kothari, open the door!"
A group of tenants and activists went to Kothari's front door, saying they were hoping to drop off their rent checks.
"Just please open the door for us? Just come talk to us, please?" asked Khinn Muy Ung.
Ung, a refugee from Cambodia, works at a casino as a dealer. She's been living at 920 Everett for 15 years.
"We not come here to harm you, ol' guy, we just come here to pay the rent for next month. We mean no harm," Ung said.
Minutes later, the police were called. Kothari came out to meet the tenants, accompanied by his wife and two police officers.
Kothari told LAist/KPCC that he didn't want to be recorded. But he said that he had nothing to do with 920 Everett Street, and that it was his estranged son who bought the property.
LAist/KPCC asked Kothari to pass a request for comment along to his son, but there has been no response from the family or the property management company.
After a brief back-and-forth, the tenants left the property, checks in hand. Dieu Pham said she didn't buy Kothari's story.
"It is ridiculous," Pham said. "What the landlord is doing is not right and is unkind."
But she added "I feel very happy to join my community today to fight together for this cause."
And their efforts may have paid off. A few days later, tenants received a letter in the mail from the building's management company, Envoy Properties, with instructions on how to pay their rent.
This past Saturday, Pham and some of the other tenants drove to Envoy's offices about 20 minutes away to drop off their rent checks. The checks were accepted.
That means eviction has been averted -- a victory for the tenants, at least for now.
We have an update. Since this story ran, Dieu Pham and the other tenants of 920 Everett Street were informed they can stay in their homes. Their landlord, American Collateral Buyers, sent word through its attorney last week that eviction is currently off the table, according to housing activist Craig Wong, who's been assisting the tenants.
Wong, who is with Chinatown Community for Equitable Development, said tenants were not given a reason for why the quit notice was withdrawn. But he said the fact that tenants went to Brentwood last month to protest and look for their landlord was a factor.
"We have to make it clear to developers that we will follow them wherever they go," Wong said. "We will demonstrate at their businesses and their homes. We will not let them off the hook." -- Josie Huang, Oct. 15
This article was originally published on Oct. 7.