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Burlington’s Six Month Rent Strike Ends With ‘Mickey Mouse’ Repair Jobs, Roaches, and Sewage, Tenants Say

Members of Burlington Unidos meet with their lawyer, Elena Popp, outside the apartments to discuss whether to pay Sept rent. Photos by Warren Szewczyk.

[dropcap size=big]B[/dropcap]urlington Unidos, a union of tenants based at the Burlington Avenue Apartments in Westlake, collectively decided late Sunday night to end their six-month rent strike and pay September rent. The move comes even as the embattled tenants prepare for a possible class action lawsuit against the building’s owners.

After spending half a year in a chippy battle with their landlord, Lisa Ehrlich of FML Management, tenants described mixed emotions about the end of the strike. “We’re happy and sad at the same time,” said Jorge Juan, a two-year resident of the building who has a mouse infestation in his apartment.

Despite repairs made by management, roaches poured out this peeling wall on Saturday, September 8 at the Burlington Avenue Apartments/Animated GIF by Warren Szewczyk.
Despite repairs made by management, roaches are still part of daily life at Burlington Avenue.

About 87 of the complex’s units banded together to create Burlington Unidos after receiving crushing rent hikes in February. They voted to withhold rent based on years of appalling living conditions: major rodent, roach, and pigeon infestations, recurrent water penetration in units, and repeated sewage leaks in the parking garages. Under California law, tenants can withhold rent payments if a landlord does not maintain basic livability standards.

But after management made several repairs to mitigate sewage leaks and fix old water damage, the members of Burlington Unidos and their lawyer, Elena Popp of the Eviction Defense Network, are concerned they will not have a strong enough case in court to defend against eviction going forward.

While some units still face major individual problems -- Juan for example said he and his wife typically catch at least one mouse a day -- Burlington Unidos’ collective case has weakened. “We don’t feel safe, we’re not happy with [the mice], but then again there’s always a risk of getting evicted. Apparently it’s not enough to withhold our rent,” Juan told L.A. Taco.

RELATED: South Gate Community Fights Proposal for Housing Homeless Veterans on Downey Border

On Saturday, the Burlington parking garages still had pools of stagnant sewage water, which are breeding grounds for disease, mosquitoes, and roaches/Photos by Warren Szewczyk.
The Burlington parking garages have pools of stagnant sewage water, which are breeding grounds for disease, mosquitoes, and roaches.

[dropcap size=big]F[/dropcap]or tenants, that doesn’t mean the end of their fight with Ehrlich, which has seen them stage several large protests, including at Ehrlich’s neighborhood farmers market in the Palisades and at L.A. City Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell’s private residence. Their primary concern is that Ehrlich has only made the repairs needed to end the strike, but not to provide for tenants’ long-term safety.

“She just painted the walls and covered some areas where the wall was missing,” said Ray Estrada, one of Burlington Unidos’ leaders, who believes the “Mickey Mouse” repair job won’t hold for too long. “Give it about one year, two years, it’s going to start to deteriorate. And guess what? We go back to where we started.”

“We just need time to regroup and see what happens,” Luis Herrera, another leader for the tenant group told the L.A. Taco. “They have fixed [things], yes, but we also know how they fix stuff.”

Even with repairs, some issues are still obvious. Roaches infest the buildings’ parking garages, which have pools of stagnant sewage water and sewage pipes that leak from the ceiling. These lingering problems are why Popp has advised tenants to continue taking photos and videos of what they experience, perhaps to be used as evidence for a class action lawsuit against the building’s ownership.

“The tenants have decided not to withhold the rent, but we are still talking about suing,” Popp told the L.A. Taco. “So we’re continuing to document for that.”

On Monday, the Burlington apartments management said it is counting on tenants to make an effort to pay rent withheld during the strike.

"We are pleased that many of the tenants have decided to pay their September rent," Robert Thaler, a spokesperson for FML Management, said via email. "Back rent owed for March through August will be addressed case-by-case with each tenant, but the management company expects tenants will make good-faith efforts to pay what they owe over time."
Tenants collect water from a leaking pipe in a parking garage to test for bacteria.
Tenants collect water from a leaking pipe in a parking garage to test for the presence of dangerous bacteria.

[dropcap size=big]T[/dropcap]hough many tenants feel Ehrlich has gotten the best of them, Popp sees many reasons to call the strike a victory. For one, substantial repairs have been made. “While the building is not perfect, this place is very different from the place I walked into on February 10th,” she said.

Strikers will also be able to keep the rent money they’ve withheld during the strike, provided Ehrlich does not sue them to force them to pay. Popp says the savings can be used to pay the rent increases that sparked the strike in the first place. “She could sue them for [the rent, but] I doubt that she would,” said Popp. “They can use that to pay the increase, and it’s a victory in that sense.”

At the very least, many tenants are grateful for the community they’ve found over six months of protest.

“For everybody, the community, the friendship that was created is a [win]. Usually you don’t know who lives next to you. Now we know,” said Herrera, reflecting on the story of Burlington Unidos. “I think [that’s] a victory for everybody.”  

RELATED: Highland Park Rent-Strike at the Avenue 64 Apartments: ‘We Have No Other Place to Go’

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