By Ashley Orona
BELL GARDENS — Residents from a local tenant organization organized a car caravan outside City Hall July 24, presenting their elected officials with demands for more protections and assistance for renters.
Residents from Union de Vecinas de Bell Gardens, which is Spanish for “Neighbors Union of Bell Gardens,” a chapter of the statewide organization California Latinas for Reproductive Justice, organized the caravan.
Tenants first met at City Hall to voice their concerns and their four demands to the Bell Gardens City Council.
The demands include instituting citywide rent control; fines for landlords who harass tenants and do not make repairs; a ban on evictions for unpaid rent during the pandemic; and reallocating funds away from the police budget for tenants, unhoused neighbors and other community services.
Representatives from Union de Vecinas presented the demands during previous City Council meetings. Council members, however, have yet to respond.
Almost 78% of Bell Gardens residents are renters and pay a median rent of $1,190, according to Census data for 2018. In addition, almost 30% of the city’s population lives below the poverty line. With the COVID-19 pandemic, many residents have lost their jobs or have had their hours cut, making it harder for them to pay rent.
During a special meeting June 29, the Bell Gardens City Council approved a city budget for fiscal year 2020-21 that reduced the police department budget by almost $800,000.
The city also allocated $400,000 to provide COVID-19-related assistance to residents, including a temporary rental assistance program with a July 29 application deadline. The program will grant $1,500 maximum over a three-month period at a rate of $500 a month and is expected to help out 200 households in the area.
The money will be awarded by a lottery that will take place this month. The city will pay the assistance directly to the tenant’s landlord or management company.
Lucia Veloz, an organizer with Union de Vecinas, said the program is not distributing enough money to those who need it and that $500 a month is not enough to cover monthly rent.
California Latinas for Reproductive Justice, of which Union de Vecinas is a part, also pointed out that almost half of the city’s budget still goes to the police, and called for more to be reallocated.
While many L.A. County cities have approved eviction moratoriums to protect renters, Bell Gardens does not have a local measure of its own. Statewide protections from the Judicial Council of California, which has suspended court actions on evictions and foreclosures during the COVID-19 state of emergency, could expire as early as Aug. 14. A Los Angeles County moratorium on evictions expires Sept. 30.
Despite existing state regulations for rent increases, evictions and landlord abuse, Union de Vecinas organizers said that local landlords are still trying to illegally evict tenants by locking them out or harassing them, necessitating more local protections.
“My husband lost his job as a consequence of COVID. I already lost my job,” Veloz said in Spanish. “My landlord started harassing me. She started to increase the rent where I could not pay it, she wouldn’t hear excuses anymore.”
The experience motivated Veloz to join Union de Vecinas de Bell Gardens.
“I started to hear about this movement, began getting involved, I called help hotlines and spoke to a lawyer to see if this person had the right to harass me and I saw that she didn’t,” she said. “I saw that I had rights, I have a voice and I have a vote.”
At the start of the caravan, members of Union de Vecinas de Bell Gardens gathered in the parking lot to put the finishing touches on posters and car decorations. The leaders gave speeches about the importance of community unity and holding elected officials accountable.
The group then exchanged a few chants before getting in their cars to form the caravan, which went through the streets around City Hall.
This action is just the beginning for the group in showing the city that tenants need more protection.
“Our principal purpose is for our city authorities to listen to us,” Veloz said. “There needs to be more support for the community.”