Farmers Market Becomes Battleground for Burlington Unidos

By CHRISTIAN MONTERROSA | Reporter

Another round of protests disturbed the Pacific Palisades Farmers Market on Sunday, June 24, as a result of a longstanding conflict between the tenants of deteriorating Westlake buildings and Palisadian attorney Lisa Ehrlich, who holds a stake in the properties.

Multiple tenants have lost their cases after an initial three-win streak. The residents have been withholding their rent from landlord Donald Crasnick after sharp rent increases and a refusal to pay for substandard living conditions.

The condition of the building has been much debated by attorneys and spectators, but an investigation by the Palisadian-Post found the tenants claims of insect and rodent infestations, mold, and sewage leaks to be true.

“The striking tenants have refused to participate in meaningful settlement discussions. They simply do not want to pay the rent … any rent,” Lisa Ehrlich said in a statement to the Post.

But the tenants on strike have been putting aside rent money for the last four months, according to documents obtained by the Post.

On Wednesday, June 20, Robert Hernandez, 82, lost his case against the landlord and now faces eviction. Hernandez said he joined the rent strike after being verbally notified by the building manager that he would receive a $400 rent increase.

Hernandez claims he once fell down a flight of stairs due to a non-operational elevator, but he was not allowed to discuss that during the trial and ultimately weakened his case. Ehrlich denies that the senior veteran from El Paso, Texas, was ever subjected to an increase and simply refused to pay his rent.

“The Rodriguez’s appear to have been caught up in the rhetoric of those advocating the rent strike without consideration as to the potential adverse consequences to the individual tenants,” said James Feffer, an attorney representing the landlord.

The current battle at Burlington is not the first time the complex has been in legal trouble, according to court documents. In 1996, Ehrlich’s investment trust, then owned by her stepfather Richard Ehrlich, sued the contractors that built the buildings, alleging that construction defects resulted in water damage and toxic mold. Three years later, tenants sued the owners and contractors alleging that they had “conspired to conceal the defects.”

A decision by the Supreme Court later ruled to keep all documents and evidence from the original lawsuit under seal and unavailable to the tenants who sought to prove the undisclosed defects.

Now, when asked about any connections between the old case and the new claims of substandard living conditions, Ehrlich denied any relevance.

“No case involves any of the issues raised in the previous construction defect litigation from more than 20 years ago. The buildings were emptied for over a year some two decades ago while complete repairs were made to the buildings. This story about two-decade-old litigation is a red herring.”

When the Post visited the buildings, mold could be seen permeating through the walls of some tenants as damaged areas had just been painted over. Air ventilation systems were riddled with mold and insects, and sewage water leaked from tiny holes in the pipes of the parking garages.

In the Palisades, the tenants have been continuously protesting and speaking to community members about their situation, asking them to continue reaching out to Ehrlich and urging her to stop the evictions. Local attorneys and mediators have offered pro-bono support to the tenants as farmers market shoppers pose for pictures holding signs that read “Lisa Stop the Eviction.”

As they negotiate to settle on an agreeable rent increase percentage, it remains unclear if poor infrastructure in the past is what is leading to the poor living conditions of the present.

Elena Popp, the tenants’ attorney, has vowed to appeal losing cases and to continue to fight for their homes. But for Burlington resident Antonio Llamas, who walks to the daily court hearings, the situation will set an example in the citywide fight against gentrification.

“Don’t be blinded by the percentage negotiations. What [Ehrlich] wants is to kick out the Latinx people,” he said, while pleading to his fellow tenants to keep fighting. “And where are we supposed to go? Palmdale? … San Bernardino? … Just to have to travel back to this area to clean the houses of the people who pushed us out?

“What we decide now is not just for us, but for future generations of Latinx people in the area who will continue to face this problem if we don’t stand up to it now.”