This is a story about an old two-story brick building in a working class neighborhood in northeast Los Angeles called Highland Park. For several decades the building’s top floor has been home to the Highland Hotel, a 28-unit residential hotel for low-income men. The bottom floor was a “swap mall” where mom-and-pop vendors sold discounted goods.
I first encountered the building about a year ago, walking through the neighborhood with a real estate agent who, like many of her colleagues, was peering through the windows, imagining what it could be, now that the area was attracting a wave of new investment. Her verdict: the space divided into "cute boutiques." She said that would likely happen soon.
Ever since then, I have wondered what did happen.
But before I tell you that, let me introduce you to some of the people inside this building. Because there was more to the place than what you could see when you peered in through the dusty windows or read the real estate brochure about it being a Prime Highland Park Mixed Use Opportunity.
John Piper, who spent much of his childhood in Highland Park and came back as an adult to live in the hotel for almost a decade, described some of his most memorable hall-mates.
“There was Crazy Ralph — big, huge, bald Ralph,” Piper says. “He was tone deaf, but he’d crank up his music and sing like a bird.”
"And there was Crazy Tony,” Piper says. “Walking up and down the streets talking to nobody on his cell phone.” This, Piper says, was a mode of self-defense to keep people from bothering Tony in what could be a rough neighborhood.
And there was “Rodney the Kool-Aid guy,” because he always drank Kool-Aid.
Piper, 52, is a character in his own right: an artist and former welder and former air force guy and former heavy-metal drummer who used to perform at the Excalibur Hotel in Las Vegas. He moved to the Highland Hotel right around the time he became disabled, after he collapsed during a pulmonary embolism and lost most of the movement in his right hand.
“It's such a good place to live for guys. We can't help but like the place,” Piper says. His rent was cheap — $500 a month, including utilities. He loved the view he had from his room, which looked out over the main drag in Highland Park, Figueroa Street. “I could watch the parades and watch Santa Claus go by. What's not to like about that?”
There were definitely some things not to like about the place though, Piper says. It was a building where people without a lot of other options came to stay. Some struggled with mental health issues or addiction. Some just struggled. There was a morbid joke around the building, Piper says. “Once you come in there you leave in a bag.”
During the eight-plus years Piper lived at the Highland Hotel, he says one resident died of a gunshot wound. Another guy hanged himself. Another died of lung cancer. But Piper says there was also an accidental, if slightly chaotic, community that formed among people on the edge who looked out for each other.
If a hotel resident was in trouble, Piper says, they could often find dinner and Kool-Aid from Rodney the Kool-Aid guy. Piper says he used to go with another neighbor, who had a brain injury, to a food pantry at a local church once a month.
“I was broke and trying to figure out how I was going to eat,” Piper says. “And he needed somebody to help him out.”
When I first went in to the building last fall, around the time that real estate agent was scoping it out for a couple of potential cute boutiques, a bunch of tenants, including John Piper, were shooting the breeze downstairs in the Swap Mall. They were well aware of the attention their building was getting. What might happen if the building was sold was, in fact, a big topic of conversation.
Carlos Valdez, who ran a little computer repair shop at one of the Swap Mall kiosks, made the point that a new owner could mean upgrades to the building, which had suffered from years of deferred maintenance. That could be good for his business.
“If you had landlords that would care about their building and go, ‘Hey, look, we got to improve for our tenants,’ I'm pro for it,” he said. “I’ve seen other buildings up the street that were a mess, and now they're making money.”
But Frank Valenzuela, another residential hotel tenant, saw it differently. If the building was bought, he said, “everyone would get evicted and the building would get refurbished in to something else.” Valenzuela argued that whoever bought it would want to clear out the tenants and put the building to a more lucrative use to make the most of their investment.
“I really doubt that's renting rooms to crazy people,” Valenzuela warned his neighbors.
John Piper sat back and listened in on the debate. I asked him what he expected if the building was sold. “I'd probably go live at my brother's house in Redondo Beach,” he said, thinking for a moment. “It'd probably be good for me.”
That was almost a year ago. Since then, the building has been sold for $3.6 million. John Piper did not end up in Redondo Beach.
Instead, he ended up in Van Nuys, a working class neighborhood in the San Fernando Valley, in a two-bedroom apartment he shares with two other people. I visited him recently on a sweltering summer day. We retreated to the doorway of his air-conditioned bedroom.
“My room’s a wreck still,” he apologizes.
Piper pays $100 more for this room than the unit he had to himself in Highland Park. But unlike his old unit, he has his own bathroom.
The last few months have been a scramble for Piper. He says he was informed back in February, right after his birthday, that the Highland Hotel had been sold. He says the building manager and the new property manager arranged a meeting with him to explain the new owners had plans to renovate the building — maybe turn it in to offices.
“’And everybody's going to need to move,’” he remembers one of them telling him.
“I said, ‘Really, everybody? Me and everybody that lives up here and the whole Swap Mall and everybody?’ He goes, ‘Yeah.’ And I'm, like, ‘Wow. That really sucks.'”
It took Piper two weeks to find a new place to live. In the meantime, he says he stayed in a motel for $70 a night. He says he looked for another place to rent in Highland Park and neighboring areas, but couldn’t find anything he could afford. When he finally found the room in Van Nuys, he took it. But he didn’t like the fact that it would be a 45 minute drive from his old community.
“That's where I had all my connections and everything, right there in Highland Park,” he says. “I kind of miss living there. Now for me to do anything, I got to drive all the way back over there.”
The silver lining, Piper says, is he received some money from the building's new owners. He used some of it to buy a car, which he needs now since his new place is so far away. The money came out of a series of negotiations with the new property managers, Piper says.
“They said ‘You have to move, here's $8,000.’ And I said ‘No, thank you.’ And then they raised it to $10,000 and I said ‘Nope, sorry.’”
Piper had done some research online about rent control laws. He says he told the property manager, “I know what I'm entitled to. That is the amount that I will get.”
The amount Piper had in his head was a little more than $19,000. According to Los Angeles rent control laws, that’s how much relocation money a tenant who is disabled and has lived in an eligible unit for more than three years is entitled to under a “no-fault eviction.”
Piper says he figured rather than fight for that amount, which might require a lawyer, he would agree to less. He says he agreed to a little more than $14,000. Between all the moving costs, staying in a hotel while he found a new (more expensive) place to live and buying a car, most of the money is already gone.
“The money definitely helped,” Piper says. “But look what it’s taken me. Now I’m down to $1,500.”
But there was something that Piper did not know. Residential hotel units like the one he used to live in have special protections in Los Angeles. Landlords have to get city approval in order to convert them to another use — approvals the city says the new property owners have not applied for yet. In the meantime, Piper was under no obligation to leave his old unit. He could have told the new owners he wanted to stay.
When I told this to Piper, he was surprised. “I never knew that I could have stayed. They never even mentioned it.”
“Tenants, they often don't know their rights,” says Raphael Bostic, a housing expert and professor of public policy at University of Southern California. He says these kinds of negotiations happen all the time.
“Most of these folks are not skilled, seasoned negotiators, whereas the developer is going to have a team of folks where this is what they do.” Bostic says there's a distinct possibility in negotiations like these “for the tenant to agree to a worse deal than they might have otherwise been able to get.”
I tracked down one of the new owners of the building, Tom Majich, president of RedCar Properties, a real estate investment company in Los Angeles. He says he wasn't involved himself in the negotiation with John Piper, but that in general, it's up to tenants to know their own rights.
“I'm not ... and this is like a derogatory word, but I'm not their babysitter, and I'm not their parent,” Majich says.
Majich says some of the residential hotel’s former tenants did not pay rent, had firearms or were using or dealing drugs on the property. He says he paid tenants to leave the property because cares about the neighborhood. He wants to clean it up.
“Can I support everyone's challenge? Absolutely not,” he says. “But I very much care about this part of town, and it's because I care that we made the investment so it isn't an area where people are overdosing in our driveway. We're going to prevent that.”
I ask him if he knows where any of his former tenants went, and he says he only knows of one, who moved in to his sister’s in Highland Park. I ask if Majich wonders where the others went.
He pauses for a moment. “I don’t.”
A note pays tribute to former occupants of the hotel.
Here is what I was able to find: One man moved in with his mom and used the buyout money to start medical technician school. Another purchased a house out by the Salton Sea. Another is currently working for the new building owners.
And of course, Piper lives with two roommates, farther away from his old stomping grounds in Highland Park than he would like.
“My life is OK,” Piper tells me. “But I'm not as happy as I was when I was living where I was.”
As for Crazy Ralph, Crazy Tony and all the other former tenants, Piper doesn't know where they went. But when I walked through the halls of the old hotel a few weeks ago with Majich as workers were clearing out some of the units, I saw something: little green post-it notes on the doors to some of the rooms, with names of old tenants and the letters R.I.P.