Photographs by Arlene Mejorado
Text by Haley Cohen Gilliland
Audio edited by Maria Murriel
Over the two decades she has lived in her Los Angeles apartment, Alba Arévalo has gradually covered most of its surfaces. Five well-loved teddy bears—gifts from her daughter—sit smiling atop her vivid Salvadoran bedspread. Above the stove, she has arranged mugs from Seattle, Las Vegas, Paris, Oregon, El Salvador, and other places she has traveled. Her daughter’s college diploma, a photo of her son in his Marines uniform, and a black-and-white print of her parents’ wedding hang on her walls.
In January, Arévalo received notice that her landlord was increasing her family’s rent by $320 to $1,750. The increase was frightening. Her husband works as a carpenter, and Arévalo stays home to care for their 25-year-old son, who has special needs and lives in their apartment in a room full of angel statuettes. They simply could not afford more rent.
The news also enraged her. For years, she says, the landlord had failed to properly maintain the buildings, allowing mold to fester, ceilings to leak, roaches to scuttle around unchecked, and pipes to spew sewage onto cars in the underground garage. More than 200 of Arévalo’s neighbors felt the same. In February, they organized into a group they called Burlington Unidos, selected leaders, and voted to withhold rent until conditions improved. And for six months, they didn’t pay a cent, costing the owners $120,000 a month and becoming the largest rent strike in Los Angeles’s history.