Helping tenants know their rights in Boyle Heights

Maria Rodriguez has lived in her sunshine-yellow Boyle Heights duplex for ten years. With her first landlord, rents stayed relatively stable over time. But when he sold the building, subsequent owners have raised prices suddenly and dramatically.

It was when one owner requested an additional $500 or face eviction that Rodriguez began to panic. “In the beginning, I thought it was a joke,” Rodriguez said. “But then I got very nervous and was afraid that I had to leave this house.”

A friend put her in contact with the community organization Union de Vecinos, who intervened with her landlord on her behalf and had the rent lowered back to a more affordable rate.

Based largely in Boyle Heights and Maywood, Union de Vecinos describes their organization as a “network of neighborhood and building communities” where residents can come together to observe problems in their neighborhoods, reflect on some of the root problems and then come together to enact change.

Rodriguez has become a more active member of the organization over time. She cites graffiti removal and stop sign installations as ways the group has made her neighborhood a more pleasant place to live.

But things still aren’t perfect. Now that her rent is more stable, she’s more concerned about safety issues inside her home: mold in the upper corner of her bathroom that refuses to go away, a gaping hole in her ceiling from when a fire alarm was swapped out for one of a different size and a kitchen window with only heavy plastic for a pane.

Every time she tells her landlord about these problems, he sends someone out to fix them, but the work is quick and rudimentary at best. She finally got real windowpanes for her kitchen, but only after waiting more than a month with the plastic substitutes.

She’s not alone with her concerns about repairs. Around her neighborhood, the quick fixes are known as “Mickey Mouses.”

“Supposedly they come and fix the house, but they really don’t do a good job, just apparently it looks fixed, but it’s not really fixed. It’s all appearances,” Rodriguez said.

Laura Cuadros from Union de Vecinos works on community organizing related to tenants’ rights in Boyle Heights. She said the problem is not only the shoddy repairs, but also the equipment and trash inspectors and repairmen leave behind.

“It’s unsafe just to have this stuff lying around,” she said, pointing to a pile of twisted scrap metal and plywood in the yard of Rodriguez’s neighbor.

Rodriguez is happy to have her home and the support of Union de Vecinos. But she can’t help but worry about her kids. One night while she was sleeping, part of her ceiling began to crumble and fell onto her bed.

She motioned to her toddler sleeping soundlessly in a crib placed in a small walkway between her kitchen and living area. “What if the same thing were to happen again? How could I protect them?”

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