The Rent Strike That Sparked a Movement

At a time when L.A. rents are becoming increasingly unaffordable for the working class, a landmark victory for tenants in Boyle Heights’ Mariachi Plaza provides a framework for other tenants to organize—and win.

Art by Erik Adams

On a cold night in late 2017, a group of Boyle Heights tenants and their supporters showed up at their landlord’s home —a modernist mini McMansion adorned with seasonal Christmas decorations—in the wealthy Westside neighborhood of Rancho Park, some 14 miles away from their own neighborhood.  

Some of the tenants brought hot chocolate. Several of the protesters—including members of the L.A. Tenants’ Union and the L.A. chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, where, full disclosure, I’m a member—camped overnight in front of the house. They yelled at the landlord, Frank “BJ” Turner, to do the right thing and meet with them. They called him immoral for forcing poor people out of their homes while he lived in a mansion. When neighbors came out to gawk, ask questions or complain, it became clear that none of Turner’s neighbors knew him, or even each other.

Exactly one year earlier, six of the tenants—including mariachis renting in a building on 2nd Street in Boyle Heights, a few blocks away from Mariachi Plaza—had been served with a rent increase notice from Turner. He  proposed an 80 percent rent increase in an attempt to evict the tenants and their families. None of the six tenants, some of whom had lived in the building for decades, could afford the new rate.

Turner had made some superficial changes, adding a horizontal slatted fence (known as “flipper fences”) and a couple of potted succulents, but did none of the renovations the actual tenants needed for their units. Actions were held in front of the 2nd Street building, and the mariachis who lived in the building showed up to each one in full costume, playing music to begin and end the rallies.

Posters explaining the situation were put up in the windows of the building. One poster had a cartoon drawing of Turner, the giant blonde landlord, trying to stomp on several small cute mariachis cowering in fear. After a couple of events staged in front of the apartment building, Turner still refused to meet. Eventually, the tenants and their supporters decided to bring the issue to his own turf. He’d gotten wind of an earlier attempt to protest in front of his home and evacuated, but this second surprise protest caught him off guard.

Jose Sanchez has lived in the 2nd Second Street building for 22 years and works as a handyman at another apartment building nearby. Although he was not one of the tenants originally served with the rent increase or threatened with eviction over it, he chose to join the rent strike because he felt it was the right thing to do. He knew nothing was stopping the landlord from serving them all rent increases and eviction notices eventually.

“I was talking to my wife,” Sanchez recalls. “I said, ‘You know I think it’s better if we can join them, you know, because sooner or later we’re gonna receive the same increase.’” I ask him if he thinks the landlord was hoping to divide the tenants by only serving six of them with the original rent increase. “Of course! That’s his goal. That was his goal. He say I’m gonna divide them, gonna try to maybe get rid of six or seven and I’m gonna give another few months and then boom, there you go. That was his plan. Because he just wanted to get rid of us here, one way or the other.”

In response to the Christmastime action, Turner filed a SLAPP injunction—a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation— aiming to block the protesters from protesting and force the rent strike to end. Two days after Christmas, the Mariachis packed the Stanley Mosk courthouse in downtown Los Angeles with supporters from DSA, LATU and the building, all of whom wore red. The injunction was meant as an intimidation tactic, but the lawyered-up mariachis were prepared to fight.

Boyle Heights tenants protesting the rent increase. Photo by Molly Lambert.

With an outdoor temperature of almost 80 degrees, the overly warm courtroom was a reminder that it had not rained since that March. The Thomas Fire, tearing through Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties, was still burning, as it had all month long. At the time, it had been declared the largest wildfire in modern California history. Last winter’s Camp Fire in Northern California now holds that title.

Two hours into the day’s docket, the lawyers for the tenants of 1812 E. 2nd Street and Turner’s Crescent Canyon Management were called up. The tenants and their league of supporters stood up when the case was called. Judge Lisa K. Sepe-Wiesenfeld, who resembles Heather Locklear, listened as lawyers made the case that a rent strike is a free speech issue. Whether the mariachis are forced out of Boyle Heights is an issue of public concern, the lawyers argued, as demonstrated by the 60 people who showed up in court to support them.

“Is the expression of unwillingness to pay rent an expression of free speech?” one lawyer said. The landlord, the tenants’ legal team argued, was attempting to punish his tenants for protesting. Turner served them first with the rent increase, but when they started protesting, he directly upped it to a three-day eviction notice. Judge Sepe-Wiesenfeld called it a “complex issue” and then heard the opposition. Ultimately, she said there would  need to be another hearing, and picked a holding day.

Mariachi Plaza is the entryway to Boyle Heights, over a bridge from downtown Los Angeles. It’s a small version of Mexico City’s Plaza Garibaldi, where mariachi musicians gather seeking work. Since the 1930s, L.A.’s mariachi musicians have gathered at the pedestrian plaza and old timey bandstand plying their freelance trade. Vans park around the square advertising mariachis with phone numbers taped on the side. The mariachis signify their trade by wearing the costumes modeled after traditional Mexican charro horsemen outfits, with embroidered suits and matching sombreros.

Boyle Heights mariachis. Photo by Molly Lambert.

Mariachi music is a cultural fusion, but one mostly forcibly shaped by European colonialism. Spanish colonizers in Mexico introduced the European instruments that replaced traditional native ones. The folk music style called “son” (meaning sound) is the result of the introduction of Spanish baroque string instruments into Mexican music, which was fused with African musical elements and indigenous Huastecan musical traditions like percussive dancing. Sones vary widely from region to region, but are broadly defined by its syncopated meter vocal harmonies and generally major chords. “La Bamba,” the folk song adapted into a rock ‘n roll hit by Ritchie Valens in 1958, is an example of the Veracruz iteration, son jarocho.

But it was a variety called son jalisciense that developed into modern mariachi when brass horns were added to the traditional string instrument ensemble. The Spanish also pushed the idea of musical ensembles organized like formal orchestras, and the sounds of European musical forms like opera, polka and the waltz.

Originally on retainer at haciendas as in house orchestras, mariachis became traveling musicians after the Mexican Revolution. In Los Angeles, mariachis are part of the inherited Mexican culture that predates the American annexation of California. On weekends, the sound of mariachi music floats through the city, from public parks and backyard parties. Mariachis stroll the aisles of vinyl- boothed family restaurants, proffering serenades.

Stores around Mariachi Plaza sell costumes and instruments. It’s a gig economy; a customer hires mariachis for the day to play a party or gathering, building a band of whatever size suits their needs and budget. Some bands come together as a package deal, or a mix-and-match combo can be constructed out of the traditional mariachi elements: violins, guitar-like string instruments, trumpets, accordion and vocalists. For the mariachis, whose profession is both creative and commercial, to choose the life of a musician is to give up certain stabilities in favor of art. A stable place to live is vital.

After the Mexican-American War, Irish immigrant Andrew Boyle, who fought for Mexico in the Texas Army, moved to Los Angeles and purchased land east of downtown. Then known as Paredon Blanco, or white bluff, it was redubbed Boyle Heights in the late 1800s and came to define the neighborhood. A diverse ethnic enclave, Boyle Heights housed a large Jewish population and immigrants from Japan, Mexico and Eastern Europe. A shared tradition of leftist politics connected the Jewish and Mexican American residents of Boyle Heights in the ‘40s and ‘50s, until the Jews assimilated into whiteness enough that they were allowed to move into previously forbidden-to-them L.A. neighborhoods like Fairfax, which has since been gentrified by skate brands and sneaker shops. Freeway building and forced “redevelopment” during the mid- century uncoincidentally targeted L.A.’s poorest and most diverse communities, including Boyle Heights.

Los Angeles is governed by a web of inconsistent restrictions on rent control. Any building built after 1978 is not subject to rent stabilization, and landlords can increase the rent at any time for no real reason. Because the building where the mariachis live was built in 1983, there was no rent control. Six tenants of the building, several of them mariachis, were given the rent increase. Rather than move out, they organized and protested. Knowing they would eventually be served with the same rent increase, the other tenants in the building agreed to stand with the six, and together they all went on a rent strike, one of a half- dozen in L.A. over the last two years.

Mariachis performing outside the 2nd Street building. Photo by Molly Lambert.

Proposition 10, which was defeated in the November midterm, would have ended a state law known as the Costa-Hawkins Rental Housing Act that prevents rent control in cities and counties for buildings constructed after 1995; While it earned nearly 50 percent of the vote in L.A. County, a region plagued by a rent crisis, it lost statewide. Rent strikes like the mariachis’ are a more radical way of demanding rent control in the city, and one that may become increasingly popular in the wake of Proposition 10’s defeat.

The cost of renting in L.A. has gone up each year, as wages have stagnated. At 54 percent, the proportion of renters in L.A. is the largest of any major city, according to U.S. census data. L.A.’s is  also one of the most expensive rental markets in the country. A 2017 Harvard University study showed that the majority of renters in Los Angeles pay at least 30 percent of their income towards rent, and black and Latinx residents are hit the hardest. Meanwhile, homelessness in L.A. County has spiked 42 percent since 2010.

Boyle Heights is ground zero for these issues in Los Angeles: Like many other neighborhoods east of downtown, it has seen an influx of art galleries and coffee shops, businesses considered to be harbingers of coming gentrification by residents who have already seen it play out that way in surrounding neighborhoods such as  Silver Lake, Echo Park and Highland Park, where working-class residents were priced out as property values skyrocketed.

Knowing Boyle Heights would be the next neighborhood hit by gentrification due to its close proximity to downtown, a group of young residents in late 2015 formed Defend Boyle Heights, a community activism group whose mission is to preserve Boyle Heights for its lifelong residents. The movement comes as landlords increasingly price out long-term tenants and dangle hastily redone apartment complexes towards a rich, predominantly white “hipster” clientele. The artists have themselves been priced out of other formerly artist-friendly neighborhoods, like downtown’s Arts District, which is now wildly unaffordable for most artists.

Even artists are prone to looking at living breathing neighborhoods as a blank canvas for their fantasies of live/work lofts and home ownership. Neighborhoods are whitewashed, but first they are “artwashed.” Galleries that open in supposedly fringey neighborhoods tend to legitimize those neighborhoods as “safe” and “desirable” for white colonizers testing the waters. Silver Lake and downtown L.A. have employed this strategy, using events like monthly art walks to market these neighborhoods to outsiders. Often,  what gentrifiers think of as good for the neighborhood is at odds with what actually serves locals, especially in the era of ICE raids.

Defend Boyle Heights’ militant brand of activism is the only tactic that has proven successful in resisting the gentrification that has already swept and whitewashed other Eastside neighborhoods. The saga of the 2nd  Street tenants is the story of what kind of city Los Angeles is becoming at a crucial point when it has one of the highest concentrations of billionaires of any city and some of the most inhumane poverty conditions in the world.

The history of Los Angeles is that of land being cut up repeatedly, of developers and politicians attempting to pave over entire communities and those communities’ cultural memories always somehow managing to persist. Famously, the Mexican-American neighborhood of Chavez Ravine was razed to build Dodger Stadium, which opened in 1962. Around the same time, East Los Angeles and surrounding neighborhoods became the setting for the blossoming of the Chicano civil rights movement. It culminated in 1968’s high school walkouts—where students demanded bilingual education and better conditions—and the Chicano Moratorium: anti-Vietnam War protests that took place from 1969 to 1971. During a 1970 march down Whittier Boulevard, one of East L.A.’s major arteries, cops raided the march and murdered four civilians including Rubén Salazar, the first journalist to cover the Chicano movement in the Los Angeles Times.

For decades, East L.A. and the East Side have  been the heartland of L.A.’s Latinx population. But in the past 15 years, it has seen the creeping spread of gentrification, a new wave of colonialism that threatens to displace the working-class Latinx population. A larger pattern emerges whereby upper- middle class artists move into poor neighborhoods and price out existing residents. The textbook example is New York’s Lower East Side, where in the 1970s and ‘80s artists forced out the existing Puerto Rican residents of the neighborhood. What began with artists squatting in warehouses, turning abandoned buildings into artist lofts, ended in a wave of real estate speculation fueled by the cultural cachet of the gallery scene that helped price the artists themselves—as well as the greater working class—out of Manhattan forever.

Gentrification is directly the result of the development process that starts with art galleries and coffee shops and turns into displacement. The new residents of working-class neighborhoods of color across the country also tend to call the cops on any kind of public activity, reporting innocuous events like block parties. In New York, there is tension around the West Indian Day parade in Brooklyn neighborhoods; in Oakland there’s the woman who called the cops last May because she objected to black men having a barbecue in a park. Gentrifiers do not move into neighborhoods and respect the way the neighborhood already exists. They move into it and force their will. A larger police presence in a neighborhood may comfort the privileged, but it terrifies marginalized people—people who are at risk of eviction, deportation, criminalization or violence—when the police arrive.

When artists moved to Boyle Heights, some claimed it was because they’d been forced out of other cheap L.A. neighborhoods. Gentrifiers often do not come into communities and participate by frequenting local businesses. Instead, they  open new businesses with higher prices, which drive local, lower-priced shops out of business. When Defend Boyle Heights protested a third-wave minimalist coffee shop called Weird Wave Coffee last summer, the white male owner called the cops on the protesters, proving their  suspicion that he was not interested in communicating or interacting with the existing community in any real way.

A protest against the rent increases in Mariachi Plaza. Photo by Molly Lambert.

Now, generations of tenants, including mariachis, who have lived in modest L.A. apartments and homes are being forced out in favor of wealthier, and primarily whiter, tenants. It’s part of the whitewashing of many large American cities that has been occurring over the past few decades due to gentrification, which privileges wealthy developers and upper-class potential tenants over the working class. In New York, San Francisco and Chicago, cities have “improved” at direct cost to longtime residents. Often, public projects are proposed as beneficial to residents, only to end up displacing them by making their neighborhoods newly desirable to a wealthier clientele.

The L.A. Metro is a particularly egregious example of how supposedly useful development leads directly to working class displacement. The subway line expansions put in place by former mayor Antonio Villaraigosa led directly to developers buying up land around neighborhoods they expected to become desirable. After the Mariachi Plaza Metro stop opened in 2009, land owners seized the opportunity to raise rents, anticipating a gold rush of new tenants who would be willing to pay more for the same units. As journeymen workers who depend on a close proximity to their place of work, the mariachis cannot afford to move.

It’s often been said that L.A. is the place where they cut down the trees and name the place after the trees (a la Thousand Oaks or Woodland Hills), but it is jarringly literal in the case of the mariachis, whose very livelihoods and traditions are threatened by the development of Mariachi Plaza into an extension of the now gentrified core of downtown Los Angeles. Tellingly, the real estate vision for the future of Mariachi Plaza does  not include the mariachis for whom the plaza is named; The Crescent Canyon-owned building on 2nd Street was advertised to new potential renters as “Mariachi Crossing,” despite that this rebrand would force the very mariachis who lived there to vacate.

A glimmer of hope came at the beginning of 2018.  After over a year of avoiding meeting his tenants in person, of threatening them with eviction, of going through the management company instead of directly communicating with them, Turner agreed to meet and settle. The two parties  negotiated a deal that amounted to a sort of self-imposed rent control, with another guaranteed opportunity to meet after a few years.

The deal was a landmark victory for grassroots tenants organizing in L.A., providing a potential template for other tenants to organize and win.  The agreement is as follows: a three-and-a-half year contract, which LA Tenants Union spokesperson Elizabeth Blaney says “is pretty good for a building that’s not under rent control. You don’t get contracts that long.” And a rent increase that tops out at 15 percent, rather than 70 percent in the first year and 5 percent in the two years following that. The tenants are allowed to use the owed rent from the rent strike to pay for the new rent increase, and they don’t have to pay back rent. Turner also made a commitment to fix repairs to the building, and to meet with the tenants after three-and-a-half years to discuss any future rent increases.

Though residents get evicted from buildings like this all the time in L.A., the mariachis’ eviction battle proved unique: Because they fought it in innovative ways (protesting in wealthy neighborhoods as well as their own, holding backyard fundraisers in Boyle Heights) and because the eviction battle involved the mariachis, whose presence or absence in Mariachi Plaza says everything about the direction of L.A.

The fear that landlords work to instill in tenants, and the larger culture of fear around neighborhoods with immigrant populations, can feel insurmountable. But the story of the mariachis proves there are possibilities beyond the big blonde boot of capitalism attempting to crush culture and history in Los Angeles, a place that so often attempts to roll over its own culture and history, to create an illusion of no history at all. L.A.’s revolutionary political traditions still hum underneath the city like fault lines.

Blaney says she hopes the message will transmit to other landlords who are forcing tenants out in identical situations in other gentrifying neighborhoods like Westlake, South Central, and Exposition Park. I press Blaney on what she thinks made the landlord cave on meeting and then agree to bargain. Was it showing up at his house? The day in court? The social media blitz? Blaney thinks it was probably a combination of all of those factors, and the realization that the tenants would not back down and had people behind them. She also suggested the appeal to Turner’s morality may have worked.

“Maybe after the initial meeting that he had with us, he realized that the tenants are not so scary,” she says. “He had kind of I think been afraid to meet with the tenants before and when he realized they’re just people looking for housing, wanting to stay in their homes, and I think when he heard some of their stories, that dialogue then happened.”

On Avenue 64 in Highland Park, a rent strike directly inspired by the mariachi strike’s victory has been underway since July 2018. Organizer Julian Smith-Newman says the 2nd  Street tenants “did something that attracted a lot of attention for others to see the possibility of actually pushing back.” He thinks “there are victories in every one of these cases that have in one way or another used the Mariachis as a model.” Several of the oldest tenants in the buildings have successfully negotiated to stay in their homes without a rent increase as the strike continues.

Ave. 64 rent strike. Photo by Daniel Tovar.

Smith-Newman points out that L.A.’s real estate crisis is not really one of supply and demand, but speculative investment gone insane. The Avenue 64 building was bought by a Silicon Valley firm because it was “below-market rate,” meaning affordable. “The post-Prop 10 moment forces us to get more militant,” says Smith-Newman. “Rent strikes are one obvious way that that’s gonna continue to happen, and I do think the mariachis are a blueprint for that.”

Sanchez, the longtime 2nd Street tenant, isn’t sure what exactly might have changed Turner’s mind about meeting with the tenants, whether it’s even possible to chalk it up to any one specific tactic or whether it’s necessarily because so many tactics were combined in innovative ways. Or maybe it’s because he realized the court battle was going to cost him more than he wanted to spend. A face to face conversation could have happened at any time, or he could have kept battling the tenants for years. Why would he come to the table now? I ask Sanchez if he thinks it was the protest coming to the landlord’s front door that  freaked him out.

“I think he got scared,” he says.

“Do you think he got scared cause you guys were naming him publicly?”

“Yes. That’s the key to it. He was so embarrassed at the end. Because people know him now in the neighborhood…That’s why he got afraid. Because his image is he’s a good guy, he’s a good Christian, you see? So his face is like ‘They discovered me now. Neighbors know me that I’m abusing these tenants.’ You know?”

I ask Sanchez if he felt anxiety about striking, whether he worried they wouldn’t win.

“Yes. Of course we were afraid. Because we don’t know. Nobody can guarantee you that you’re going to win this battle. Not even in court. You know the court might just say, ‘This guy has the right to increase whatever he wants.’ That’s the law. Yeah it might be right for them, but it’s immoral. This is not right. I’m talking about ‘How about us?’ You know? That’s why we were scared all the time, believe me. Sometimes you want to go to sleep and you feel like, ‘Jeez, am I doing the right thing? Why did I have to do this? Maybe I should look for another place? Maybe I should look for a better…’ But where? Everywhere is expensive because slumlords, you know, they have them everywhere. Why should [we] have to be kicked out this place? You know? This is my home. This is where I’ve lived for so many years. My daughter was here until she got married. I said ‘Why? Why should we give him the pleasure of saying ‘I wanna kick you out.’ No, we’re gonna stand up and give him a fight. A legal fight.”

It seems important that the face-to-face meeting changed the dynamic, finally. It showed the necessary minimum level of respect. “That’s the word that was missing, respect. Cause he had no respect. So that’s the feeling we get from him, like he don’t care. He don’t have to like us but at least give us a fair deal,”  Sanchez says. He also agrees with something Blaney said earlier –; that the tenants in the building didn’t really know each other before the rent strike, and now feel like a family. Sanchez also successfully organized his own workplace, where he was underpaid, using the skills he learned organizing as a tenant.

I ask Sanchez if he thinks the landlord’s weakness was that he so grossly underestimated the tenants. “Yeah. They never thought for a moment, you know, he never believed that we were gonna get to the others and fight…And let me tell you, we’re gonna send the message to the real estate developers,‘You can find another place, maybe go to Alaska somewhere, ‘cause Boyle Heights is not for sale!’ You gonna plan to invest money here we’re gonna give you hell.”

Sanchez is relaxed for the first time in months. “I’m telling you man, I’m going to sleep like a baby tonight.”

We go downstairs for the party. The sun starts to set on 2nd  Street as the mariachis start playing out front, parading inside the building. Turner is invited, but he doesn’t show. He sends flowers and pizzas to the tenants, who hold a party in the central court that functions as an open-air garage and hangout spot. The mood is fizzy with excitement. All the tenants, kids and grown-ups, are hanging out in the building they are now safely staying in. The mariachis are warming up on their instruments.

They will all remain in Mariachi Plaza, at least for now. The organizers will hold similar actions at other buildings in gentrifying neighborhoods, attempting to push back on forces that may seem insurmountable but are just unchallenged. As per the agreement, the protest posters are torn down from the windows of the building and ripped up in a central pile, mostly by the building’s kids. The sunset is orange and purple as the mariachis launch into a jubilant “Cielito Lindo.”