Vandalism Is Latest Hit For Tenants Fearing Eviction In Pandemic
Sniffing fumes of spray paint that had wafted inside her apartment last Sunday, Khinn "Kim" Ung walked outside her building on the edge of Chinatown and was shocked by what she saw.
From top to bottom, the six-unit apartment complex at 920 Everett Street had been tagged with giant pink hearts and the money bag-carrying mascot of the Monopoly game, the face obscured by a hot pink face mask.
There was an American flag, and the words "For Rent" and "Welcome."
"The whole apartment looked so ugly," Ung said. "Oh my God, it looked like a ghost house."
No one saw who tagged the complex. A cleaning crew has left little trace of the graffiti.
But the incident raised plenty of questions for the tenants, mostly immigrants from Southeast Asia. Ung said she saw the landlord, Victoria Vu of VF Developments, on the premises that day. Vu has been trying to force the tenants out during the pandemic. According to Ung and activists helping the tenants, that's the first time Vu's been spotted at the building.
It's the latest chapter in the tenants' quest to stay in their apartments. With three owners in the last year, few renters have been caught up in the churn of L.A. gentrification as dramatically as the people at 920 Everett Street.
We first reported on them in the fall of 2019. Their building had been sold by their long-time mom 'n pop landlord to a new owner, American Collateral, which had given them 60 days to leave. The tenants, who include 71-year-old Vietnamese grandmother Dieu Pham, traveled to Brentwood looking for the landlord's home, protesting along tree-lined, monied streets.
American Collateral then sold the building to VF Developments this past January.
The tenants' joy of escaping eviction was short-lived. In February, Vu gave the tenants 60 days to leave so she could renovate the building. (Her Instagram bio reads: "I Enjoy Collecting Properties & Transforming Dirt to Diamonds.")
Pham, who has diabetes and high blood pressure, worried about having nowhere affordable to go during the pandemic.
"I'm scared of getting sick," said Pham, who shares a $1,250/month, 2-bedroom apartment with her daughter and two grandchildren. "I just want to live peacefully."
At the moment, the tenants can't be forced to move. That's because the state's Judicial Council -- which sets policy for the courts -- has suspended all eviction proceedings during the pandemic.
But the possibility of eviction still looms large. The Judicial Council's order freezing eviction proceedings expires on Aug. 14 -- and the panel hasn't yet said whether it will extend it.
Meanwhile, Vu refuses to accept rent checks from Ung and the other tenants; doing so would void her order that they leave.
The tenants have not given up and, month after month, have tried to pay the rent.
Last Saturday, the day before the tagging episode, Ung joined other tenants who tried unsuccessfully to personally deliver the rent to Vu at her house in Costa Mesa. The tenants were joined by activists with the Chinatown Community for Equitable Development.
As heavy metal blared from Vu's house, Bryan Sih, a volunteer with CCED, spoke through a megaphone.
"She wants to flip a house," Sih said of Vu. "Six affordable housing units for people who already faced the worst displacement, through war, through American imperialism."
Another volunteer, Isabella McShane, blasted Vu for her role in displacing other Vietnamese people.
"I'm ashamed to know you are Vietnamese," McShane said. "This is not why we came to this country, to evict our own people!"
An older woman Vu referred to as her mother verbally sparred with the group and called the police to complain that the group was taking video of their interactions. The police, as shown on the video taken by CCED, said the group was within its right to assemble.
The next afternoon, the graffiti appeared on the apartment complex.
Ung said she recognized the blonde Vu at the Everett Street property from seeing her at her house in Costa Mesa the day before. A passerby told a CCED volunteer that he saw two blonde women and a Tesla.
Asked about the graffiti incident, Vu's lawyer Linda Hollenbeck said, "I am not going to confirm anything about her or the properties."
In an Instagram post, CCED accused Vu of being behind the vandalism.
A couple living at another property managed by Vu say she has a history of harassing tenants she wants to leave so she can rent out units at higher rates.
Amanda Lyons lives with her boyfriend Brian Shaw in one of five rent-stabilized units at a Silver Lake building Vu has managed for several years. They claim there have been a number of attempts to worsen their living situation. Water and gas, they said, are regularly shut off, often without notice. At times their rent checks have been returned for no apparent reason, they added.
Lyons said in April, Vu gave them about one day's notice before crews were to enter their apartment for two days. The notice said updates were needed -- including replacing floors that Vu's attorney described as reeking of animal feces and urine. She said Vu backed off after they complained to the city about being made to leave their home in a pandemic.
Vu sent a notice to the couple in 2018 threatening to evict them under the state's Ellis Act, which allows landlords to withdraw rent-stabilized units if they're being taken off the rental market or if the building is being demolished. Months later, Vu informed the couple that she had cancelled the Ellis Act filing, they said.
Hollenbeck declined to comment on the Silver Lake property.
Because Lyons' and Shaw's unit is rent-stabilized, they cannot be ordered to move out like the tenants at Everett Street, which was built in 2000 -- too late to be covered by the city's tenant protection law.
"I feel terrible for them," Lyons said. "I've been there. They just need to keep their heads up, stay strong."
Over on Everett Street, Ung said all she wants is to know she has a safe place to stay as COVID-19 continues to stalk L.A.
She has been out of work since the pandemic shut down Hollywood Park Casino, where she dealt cards. But Ung, who came to the U.S. as a refugee from Cambodia, has saved up money to keep paying the rent on the 2-bedroom apartment she shares with her 20-year-old son.
"We work every day so hard," Ung said, growing tearful. "But no -- they push you. It looks like a nightmare."
CCED volunteer Craig Wong says the tenants have demonstrated strength by banding together to fight for a stable place to live.
"It doesn't guarantee they're going to win," he said. "But what it does do is it positions them so they have a real shot at it."