UCLA real estate instructor Eric Sussman stayed in the center of his business school classroom, smiling at his students and trying, for as long as he could, to ignore the picket signs and angry faces just outside.
There, under the watchful eyes of UCLA police officers, Debora Barrientos, a 43-year-old single mother, stood with about 35 other tenants who had been bused to the campus from their Echo Park complex. Actually, it's Sussman's complex, where he wants to raise the rents, and that could leave Barrientos with no home.
Barrientos said that after she saw Sussman's red, sheepish face, she felt a little sorry for her landlord. But not sorry enough to stop her group from publicly presenting him with a ceramic piggy bank that proclaimed him the city's greediest landlord.
As rents keep rising around the region, tensions between landlords and tenants are increasingly common.
Morton Avenue has become the latest battleground, and the fight there centers on whether Los Angeles landlords whose buildings are subject to the city's rent control laws can opt out of a federal program that subsidizes rent for low-income tenants.
The question has implications not just for the 22 families in the complex whose rent is partially paid by the Section 8 program, but also for nearly 40,000 families in Los Angeles who hold vouchers.
Sussman, who owns the complex with several partners, and his lawyer think the owners have the right to get out of the program -- especially because the government's idea of fair market rent is hundreds of dollars and in some cases more than $1,000 less than what the apartments can fetch on the open market, essentially forcing landlords to further subsidize the poor who are already getting government subsidies. Last year, he served the Section 8 tenants with eviction notices.
City officials and tenant advocates, however, say that the city's tough eviction rules should cover the units. Wanting to rent apartments for more money is not one of the narrowly defined reasons allowed for eviction.
The tenants filed a lawsuit in federal court challenging the evictions. The tenants can stay until a judge's decision. But regardless of the decision, which is expected in August, both sides predict the case will be appealed to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.
Meanwhile, tenant advocates decided to use Sussman to "send a message to all landlords," as Larry Gross, executive director of the Coalition for Economic Survival, put it to tenants as they stood in the chilly evening air under the curious eyes of UCLA's Anderson School of Management students.
Sussman, who along with other partners bought the gray buildings in the hills of Echo Park last year, is not just any landlord. He teaches real estate at one of the nation's preeminent business schools. Advocates say he should have known when he bought Morton Gardens that Section 8 tenants lived there and it is unethical of him to try to evict them just to increase his bottom line.
And then there is the complex's location. Near Dodger Stadium in the hills above downtown, it sits in a neighborhood that many consider ground zero for the gentrification sweeping Los Angeles. The rents tell the story. Some tenants are paying $1,200 for two- and three-bedroom units that are worth more than $2,000, Sussman said.
"Echo Park is hanging on to being one of the last remaining mixed-income communities in Los Angeles," said Councilman Eric Garcetti, who represents the area.
On Tuesday, the tenants took their anger to Sussman's classroom. Advocates rented an old yellow school bus and drove about three dozen tenants and supporters to Sussman's class.
As her neighbors took seats around her, Barrientos, who came from El Salvador and works as a nurse's aide, sat next to her friend and neighbor Norma Pena, an immigrant from Mexico. Both women are single mothers who raised their children in the building with the help of the federal subsidies. The daughters of both women are now in college.
Barrientos bit her lip. She said she was nervous. She had never participated in a protest before, but she said she felt desperate. "I love this place I live," she said, gesturing at her building, which is framed by tall trees and offers a panoramic view of Los Angeles. If she had to move, she said, she feared she'd wind up in a dangerous area where gangs and gunfire would threaten her daughter's safety.
Once at UCLA, the tenants put on bright red T-shirts and hoisted signs telling Sussman he should be ashamed. Then, holding the piggy bank, they marched toward Sussman's class. They carried with them a letter asking UCLA's chancellor to review Sussman's business practices.
UCLA police refused to let them in the classroom, so they stood outside the windowed door. Sussman stayed inside, lecturing in front of an overhead projector that displayed bar graphs and charts.
Finally, at the request of a university official, Sussman went out. As his tenants chanted "Shame on you," he reluctantly accepted the pig. (His students later dropped coins into it, he said.)
The protesters went home. On the bus, tenant organizers told them they had done a great job and that this was only the beginning.
Sussman took a different view. He said he thought it was inappropriate for the tenants to attempt to "harass and intimidate me."
He also said he understood their plight -- but his tenants were "pointing the finger at the wrong guy."
"This is a real issue. Los Angeles has a housing problem, across all spectrums," he said. "My MBAs can't afford a home."
But he added that government must do its share, such as increasing subsidies.
The lecturer, who has won a number of teaching awards, also said he used the protest as a teachable moment for his class.
"Being a landlord is very political these days," he said. "It was a real life lesson."