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A Stand-off in Defense of One Wheelchair Accessible Bathroom in Gentrifying Echo Park

[dropcap size=big]I[/dropcap]t’s a cold Monday morning in February and long-term Echo Park resident Cassandra Tang and her aging mother are facing the prospect of displacement again. Her new landlord has repeatedly threatened to demolish the only working, wheelchair accessible bathroom in her unit. A week prior, workers showed up and almost began tearing down the bathroom before frantic phone calls and protest halted the demolition.

Now, tenants-rights activists are rallying to their defense. They've stood between her home and demolition crews to prevent her bathroom from being destroyed.

According to Cassandra, the bathroom in question was built before she moved into the apartment, 20 years ago. She is paraplegic and uses a wheelchair at all times. But in late August 2018, Cassandra’s apartment complex on Portia Street, near Dodger Stadium, was sold for 1.35 million dollars, according to Zillow. Within months of the sale, Cassandra’s new landlord, told her that the city deemed her only wheelchair accessible bathroom an illegal unit and claimed that they couldn't afford to renovate it.

Cassandra’s landlord acted as if the city was forcing him to demolish the unit. It's been a struggle ever since.

Cassandra is so worried about the idea of being displaced, she keeps a copy of her lease on her at all times “just in case.”

Sandra Mendoza, a public information officer with HCID – also known as the department of housing – confirmed to L.A. Taco via email that the organization is in contact with Tang. Mendoza explained the add-on is considered illegal because Tang’s former landlord built it without first obtaining a structural plan and building permits. The construction also doesn’t meet building code standards.

HCID considers itself to be a neutral party in tenant vs. landlord disputes. According to Mendoza, in situations with people with disabilities, the city takes into account “reasonable accommodation requests.” Generally, the legality of the bathroom is less important than if the bathroom works for someone with a disability.

In Tang’s case, the agency initially called off the demolition and extended the order to comply time because they felt that the demolition would cause “unnecessary hardship to Ms. Tang,” and didn’t leave her with enough time to become “properly informed about her rights.”

RELATED: Inglewood Approves ‘Emergency’ Rent Control

In a Facebook live video shot by Tenants Union member, Paul Bowers, we see members of the union mediating between the city, Tang’s landlord, and construction workers. In the video, construction workers come to a standstill when they find out the demolition is not permitted. It eventually took someone connected to the city on speaker phone to get the landlord to stop that day.

A week later the landlord tried to resume the demolition. Within two hours of that one, members of the Tenants Union, neighbors, and press gathered outside of Tang’s house again. Tang received word via text message that the demolition had been called off again, “until further notice.”

That Monday no demolition crew came. The landlord didn't show up either. Tang seemed relieved, for a moment. She also seemed worried. This wasn't the first time that Tang’s landlord has threatened to demolish her bathroom and then called it off. It could happen again at any time. Cassandra addressed a small but supportive group outside of her partially demolished bathroom and thanked everybody, while also acknowledging her fears.

'I’m Scared'

[dropcap size=big]C[/dropcap]assandra’s situation is common for long term residents struggling to continue living in rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods like Echo Park. For a developer looking to flip a property, Cassandra represents a downside to an otherwise lucrative business opportunity.

In Paul Bowers Facebook live video, Cassandra’s new landlord claims he purchased the property without knowledge of the unpermitted construction.

An expired listing on Zillow that matches Cassandra’s address contradicts the landowners claim.  The listing reads, “There are very very few quality income properties available in Prime Echo Park, but here is one for you! On the downside, there are two low rent tenants, one of whom (the 3/2) will probably not be leaving for some time. But the other one is on a waiting list for low income housing and will likely be gone within the year.”

The listing also refers to non-permitted building and incomplete construction throughout the complex.

“There is a half renovated two bed two bath basement (unpermitted) unit that is waiting for you to complete it. Without the basement unit, you are looking at a total of $7k/mo income right this minute. When the low income housing person moves out and you renovate that one, that will be another $1800/mo of income. The basement unit represents an additional $2500/mo of income (!) once you complete those renovations. The location is fantastic and there is plenty of parking. Come get it!”

It appears from the listing that Cassandra’s new landlord knew exactly what they were getting into.

While the city has several agencies that oversee renters, there’s little to no oversight when it comes to landlords.  This allows landowners to plead ignorance or use tactics like saying they can’t afford to make repairs, fumigating excessively so tenants are forced to move in and out of their apartments multiple times a month, threatening deportation, serving unlawful eviction notices, and straight up paying people to hand over their keys and "vacate without consequences."

In many cases, tenants would rather move out of their apartments rather than endure the stress and anxiety that these situations can create or figure out their rights. And so the landlord flips the units to a much higher rent.

The two main bodies that govern apartment rentals in Los Angeles are Building and Safety and HCID. Cassandra’s story shows how these two branches of housing can be at conflict with one another. On one hand, Building and Safety is telling Cassandra’s landlord that her bathroom is illegal and needs to be demolished because it was built without a permit, and on the other, HCID is telling her landlord not to demolish the unit.

'This is just the tip of the iceberg.'

Cassandra’s options are limited if in fact she has to relocate. As a disabled tenant and cancer patient living with her elderly mother, wheelchair accessible apartments that fall under affordable housing are rare. A single step can make it extremely difficult or in some cases impossible for a disabled person to safely access an apartment.

No End in Sight

[dropcap size=big]W[/dropcap]hile research on how gentrification and displacement affects public health are inconclusive, Cassandra’s situation is evidence of how it can affect people on a personal level. Cassandra is conscious of how the stress from this ongoing process might exacerbate her thyroid cancer and well being. Her advocates have encouraged her to trust the system and focus on her health while things play out.

Early one Tuesday afternoon last month, Cassandra told me that she hasn’t heard from anybody regarding the status of the demolition. “Feeling relief, everything is okay now,” she told me via text, followed by a warm smiley face. That evening, a day after Cassandra’s only working bathroom was suppose to be demolished, HCID told L.A. Taco that it "has stopped the demolition from proceeding any further."

"In addition, HCID has referred Ms. Tang to the Housing Rights Center, a City contractor, who can provide Ms. Tang with the necessary legal representation regarding her rights as a person with a disability. For now Ms. Tang can continue to use the illegal bathroom addition until such time that she, with legal representation, and the property owner work out a lawful remedy to the situation,” the agency said.

On the last day of February, I meet with Cassandra at her apartment. She is in good spirits again given, what she had been through over the previous weeks. Within a few minutes of my arrival Cassandra received a call from a representative with the Housing Rights Center, followed by a call from a lawyer that she met at a disability conference. The lawyer told Cassandra that she has a lot of people on her side but also to prepare for what could be a long battle.

“This is just the tip of the iceberg,” the lawyer warned. On Friday, Cassandra said she had retained the lawyer to help in the case.

RELATED: Subprime Redux: How a Mom From Van Nuys Is Taking on the Biggest Real Estate Corporations in the Country

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