Jaime Colindres’ third-floor bedroom at the American Hotel, Los Angeles, was small, but he used salvaged wood to paint expansive scenes of the American West. Guitar music filled the hallways, and neighbors left their doors wide open. The city’s brutal rental market forced some residents to move there, but they soon absorbed the creative spirit that echoed, hummed, and rattled throughout the hotel.
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The American, a boutique hotel in downtown L.A.’s Arts District, is now a tourist destination. Nearly all its long-time residents were replaced. Gentrification is not the problem. The city still needs to enforce its housing laws.
In 2008, a city ordinance was passed to protect residential hotels like the American. Many residential hotels offer one-room apartments and are often the only affordable housing for elderly, disabled, or low-income individuals. Capital & Main and ProPublica discovered 21 of these buildings, including The American, that offered rooms to travelers.
According to the ordinance, owners of residential hotel rooms who convert or demolish them must either build brand-new units or contribute to a housing fund for the city. According to Housing Department documents, all 21 hotels have not received clearances proving they have done either. The news organizations discovered that the agency cited four hotels for violations related to residential hotels, even though some buildings had undergone obvious renovations and advertised rooms publicly on travel websites. The American was not one of the hotels that were cited.
The city announced this week that it would investigate all 21 hotels to determine if they violated the law and assess the resources required to enforce it better. Zach Seidl is a spokesperson for L.A. Mayor Karen Bass. He said, “We want a report to explain what happened and recommend how we can prevent this from happening again.”
The city’s response needs to be more timely for many. The American’s conversion to guest rooms and suites, which was unhindered, has impacted the lives of tenants who once called it home. These stories show the devastating impact of L.A.’s failure to preserve affordable housing on low-income residents.
Verge, who previously claimed he did not know about the law on residential hotels, said that “we’ll figure it out” if the Housing Department’s investigation revealed violations. In an interview, he denied the claim that his former tenants were in a difficult situation due to the conversion. He noted that he had allowed tenants to stay on during the remodel. Verge stated that the hotel was in a state of disrepair. “I literally transformed them into the best hotel and place to live.”
The 118-year-old hotel was a hub of creativity, partly because the low rents allowed artists to concentrate on their art. Most tenants could rent rooms that needed to be more significant for their beds and bathrooms at the end of the hall. When people had nowhere else to go, they turned to the hotel. They joined a community, which many people embraced, once they arrived.
Christiaan Pasquale, singer, and guitarist at the hotel during the 1990s and in 2010s, said: “It was a flophouse. “You could almost get stuck at the American because it was fun and cheap.”
The American was unique because its residents created a community and served as a cultural center in the Arts District. Al’s Bar was a graffiti-splattered dive bar on the hotel’s ground floor. It was a landmark in the L.A. music world. The club closed in 2001 but was still a popular hangout for many locals. The Bar was awash with a punk rock attitude. The Bar hosted “No Talent’ nights, displayed the work of major LA artists, staged live theatre events, and hosted big-name acts such as Beck, Ry Cooder, and Husker Du.
Colindres had lived in the hotel for five years at the beginning of the 2010s. Arturo Nunez was also a trucker who lived at the American in the 1990s and again for five years during the early 2010s. Bedbugs forced him to leave the hotel, which he claimed occurred before Verge started the renovation. Nunez would rush home from Denny’s to be with the American’s neighbors and avoid gatherings with Teamster coworkers.
He said, “We spoke the same language, music, poetry and painting.”
Arturo Nunez, who lived at The American, said he would rush home from gatherings of his fellow truckers to be with neighbors.
Jomar Giner was a transplanted Utahn, aged 20 or so, who moved to New York City in 2013. She said that the American was her only option for housing. A potential landlord refused Giner a lease because she received disability payments at the time. She was delighted to discover that the punk band she had listened to in her teens played only a few floors beneath her room.
She said that, more importantly, no one at the American cared about her income. She quickly found a job at a coffee shop located across the street.
She said, “I made many good friends.” They were very proud of their place.
Jomar Giner, who moved out of America, earned a Master’s degree in Social Work, partly to help solve the homelessness problem, after seeing the extremes of L.A.’s Arts District. Credit: Kristina Barker, ProPublica special
Verge, an LA-based entrepreneur, purchased the hotel as the area gentrified and intended to renovate it. He told the residents to stay if they could tolerate the dust, noise, and intrusions. Some did. According to eight former and current residents interviewed, Verge also offered tenants incentives to move. He would show them anywhere between $2,000 to $19,000 depending on their age, how long they had lived in the house, and how long it took to get rid of it. Verge made many offers to the American residents, according to them.
Pasquale explained that “we were all desperate at the moment,” and the money was attractive. We all worked long hours at our jobs — I was touring with a band. “Any money like that was an important chunk of change.”
Several tenants said that as the American tenants left the hotel, they found it challenging to find housing as cheap as the amount they paid in the hotel.
Giner, the painter, said she received a $3,000 check and, with help from her boyfriend’s parents, could scrape together enough money for the couple to move into an apartment in Koreatown. Colindres said he had negotiated for a $19,000 buyout but could not find housing due to a previous eviction two decades ago. He joined a mass exodus of artists who fled to the desert near Joshua Tree National Park (140 miles east of Los Angeles), where a friend offered him a room.
After a few months, Colindres became tired of the heat and loneliness. He claimed he returned to L.A., where he slept in his vehicle.
The hotel had been advertised to guests every night by then. In 2016, tourists began reviewing the American hotel on Yelp. One wrote, “All in, a decent experience for very little money.”
The American is home to only a few long-term residents today.
In the years following the conversion of the hotel, it has become harder for former residents to replace the housing they had there. Many former residents moved out of the state to be nearer to their families or find more affordable housing.
Colindres, who shares a studio with a friend today, makes a living by painting signs for business, faux finishes, and movie sets for independent movies. Sometimes he sells a painting.
Colindres told me he didn’t know how long he could stay home and had nowhere to go in L.A.
A truck driver, Nunez lives with his two cats, T.K. T.K. (for tiny cat) and Orangey. He uses a propane-powered stove to cook his red chile and pork. He pays $100 monthly from his Social Security check to park in a spot marked with orange cones just a few streets away from the American.
Nunez, a long-time practitioner of ancient Chinese arts like tai chi, greeted Colindres with elaborate gestures reminiscent of tai Chi on a windy afternoon in March.
Nunez pulled out battered chairs in his van as the two sat down and discussed their time at the American.
Nunez pointed to the hotel and said, “This is where I live.” “I would move in right now.”
Moving in is not an option. According to the American hotel’s webscanuests up today, more than 21 days.