A flickering exit sign illuminated a narrow hallway at 2919 N. Broadway in Lincoln Heights. It was Feb. 21, roughly four months after the building's residents were first told they would have to leave their homes. They shuffled their way to the second floor and into the apartment of Martha Ponce.

The 66-year-old woman, a tenant for over nine years, considers this winter as one of the worst of her life. She remembers standing outside in brisk weather watching families as they exited the building. They had recently accepted buyout agreements to vacate, and instead of Christmas decorations, they carried mattresses, lamps, and toiletries.

"It was a horrible sight," Ponce said. "The Christmas season is very important to Latinos. It's not a time to be worried about where you're going to spend your next night. It's a matter of having family around. And you can't even have a chance to think about that when you have someone holding an eviction over your head."

Over the past 16 years, thousands of residential tenants have been displaced due to the Ellis Act, a California state law that allows landlords to leave the housing market and evict tenants. According to the Los Angeles Housing and Community Investment Department, over 19,000 units have been removed from the market in the past decade. The tenants huddled in Ponce's apartment represent only a small percentage of the estimated thousands who are facing displacement in Los Angeles.

To many Los Angeles landlords, the act provides liberty from buildings they no longer want. But for tenants who don't know their rights, the act signifies a jarring loss of stability.

Eviction cases didn't spike in the primarily Latino neighborhood overnight.  In 2014, rent prices in Lincoln Heights began to climb, with data from Zillow showing that monthly rents have risen by 23 percent. Ponce and fellow residents fear full-fledged gentrification has arrived.

Agents from NBK Realty Management, hired by the building owner, started coming by Ponce's building in late October. They started knocking on doors, arriving in the evening unannounced, pressing residents to accept their cash offers. They repeatedly told them to leave by Dec. 15 or be locked out. The company plans to remodel and resell the apartments on behalf of the owner, tenants said.

"Once they remodel the place, the rent will go sky high," Ponce said.

Many families accepted the "cash for keys" transaction, signing voluntary agreements to vacate quickly in exchange for money. Three-fourths of the tenants moved out in the span of two months. Many were afraid that they wouldn't get a better offer and would be evicted anyway. Most moved out just one month before the Los Angeles Housing and Community Investment department released an ordinance requiring landlords who plan on accepting a buyout to notify tenants of their rights.

Tenants facing eviction are eligible to receive between $10,000 and $19,000 in relocation assistance, according to the January ordinance. But NBK Realty Management offered Ponce a $2,500 buyout, just a quarter of what she's legally due. Other tenants said they are also being "low-balled."

A spokesperson from NBK Realty Management did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

It's common for frightened tenants to bow to the pressure of imposing authority when they aren't familiar with their property rights, tenant rights advocates say.

"The management companies specialize in this. This is what they do. They harass them, they intimidate them, threaten them. It's not unique to here. I've seen it in multiple places. Unfortunately, too many residents sign those agreements," said Kenwood Jeung, a member of the Chinatown Community for Equitable Development (CCED).

Jeung is working as a community organizer to fight for a fair deal for the few who remain in the building. Fred Nakamura, the tenants' appointed lawyer, has partnered with Jeung and meets with the tenants to address their concerns and help them decide on a plan of action.

In Ponce's apartment — one of the five occupied units remaining in the 20-unit building — about 12 people, plus some of their children, gathered in the living room. As they waited for Jeung to begin a strategy session, the neighbors passed homemade cookies and exchanged soft greetings.

Jeung began to speak, his translator lagging seconds behind. A faulty alarm rang out in the hallway every few seconds.

"For those who want to stay, we can drag it out until we get what's just," Jeung said. "Those that accept the offer and take the settlement, good for you, if you feel good about the amount you're getting."

But NBK has worn some tenants down. Maria Elena Bodadilla and Jose Viramontes confess they don't feel much like fighting anymore.  Bodadilla, 84, said she's contemplating returning to Tijuana, Mexico and Viramontes, 75, believes for someone with as little as money as he has, the struggle against authority is futile.

"Mexicans have a saying: 'tanto tienes, tanto vales, nada tienes, nada vales, (the less you have, the less you're worth)," Bodadilla said.

"Money is what matters. Those people have all of the means to manipulate the situation for money. They're worse than animals," Viramontes said, rocking back and forth in a red-velvet armchair.

Still, Jeung pressed on.

"From my own experience, the longer you stay, the more leverage you have. That's been proven," he told the residents. He was met with hesitant nods as the tenants glanced around the cramped apartment.

Yet some of the remaining families said they want Jeung to help them stay, if possible.

"My kids lives' are here. Both of their schools are five-minute walks from our apartment. If we moved, I would have to buy them bus passes and pay for many other expenses," said Arce-Lopez Ambrosio, a tenant of three years with a family of four.

Ambrosio leaned against a wooden dresser and in his native Spanish said it clearly: he won't uproot his life for the sake of another person's business interests. Like other tenants, he knows that one-time cash benefits are often not enough to sustain a household.

"No amount of benefit would last me long.  I won't let these people decide my family's future," Ambrosio said.

Cindy Rodriguez stood next to Ambrosio and nodded, her two sons fidgeting at her feet. Of the remaining residents, only Rodriguez isn't sure whether she'll stay or not, she said.

Throughout the conversation, Jeung looked out earnestly from under salt-and-pepper eyebrows. He listened intently, nodding and interjecting advice.

"Our fight is to, at minimum, get them what they have a right to: the relocation benefits," Jeung said in an interview. "If they want to stay, we're going to fight for them. Because they have a right to stay, a right to temporarily relocate while the building's remodeled, and a right to come back when it's finished."

Jeung dismissed the tenants and they filed out of the room, one by one. Ponce watched her neighbors leave the apartment. She took a moment to look around the pastel-colored room, filled with pictures and memories. Her fingers traced and pinched the decorative flowers on her bedspread.

Two months from now, a wealthier stranger could be sitting here in her place. But all Ponce can do for now is hold on.


Reach South L.A. Editor Daniela Silva here.