The Emoji House war: A neighborhood feud erupts in El Porto
by Mark McDermott
Susan Wieland had been away for a work conference since the end of May, but neighbors sent her the photo. Even so, upon returning to her home in the El Porto neighborhood of Manhattan Beach on the night of June 8, she wept when she actually saw her neighbor’s house.
The house, a two-level duplex just below Highland on 39th Street, had been painted shocking pink. That wasn’t, however, what particularly upset Wieland. It was the emojis that got her. On the house’s second story, a smiley face emoji had been drawn with comically large eyelashes, eyes pointing different directions, and a tongue lolling out of its mouth. Another emoji adorned the lower level, with the same crisscrossed eyes and pronounced eyelashes, only this one, instead of a smile, was drawn with a zipper for lips — common parlance, in emoji communication, for “Shut up.”
Wieland, who arrived by Uber from the airport, got out of the car and looked at the emojis for the first time. Just before leaving for her work trip, she’d gone to a local shop and had eyelash extensions put on. The emojis, which were drawn as if to look directly at Wieland’s home, seemed to be a message aimed specifically for her.
“My heart sank,” Wieland said. “What has this come to?”
Wieland went inside, looked out the window, and erupted into tears. The emojis were the latest act in a dispute that had arisen between the neighborhood and the owner of the duplex, Kathyrn Kidd, who lives a few blocks away on El Porto Street. She had purchased the property as a rental a year ago. After having long-term renters in both units, Kidd had decided to instead use the duplex for short-term rentals. Her neighbors, including Wieland, reported Kidd to the city; short-term rentals, such as VBRB and AirBnb, are illegal in Manhattan Beach. A city inspector found short-term renters in the property in May and Kidd was fined $4,000.
The emojis, with their zipped lips and big eyelashes, were Kidd’s response. Wieland pulled down the shades in her house the night she arrived home in June and has not opened them since.
“It just took my breath away,” she said. “I just came home and went inside. We still have the shades shut. It’s definitely directed at me. Every day I get up, I’m so depressed. I can’t look outside. I feel like I’m being bullied, frankly, by her. That word keeps coming up to me: she’s a bully, and she feels she is entitled. She just wants to make things uncomfortable for us.”
Kidd called the property “my happy house” and said the intention of the pink paint and emojis was to provide cheer in the neighborhood.
“The artist is kind of a friend of mine,” Kidd said. “Instead of everybody being so gloomy, always so depressed, always in other people’s business, I just wanted to send a message to be happy, be colorful, be positive, and enjoy. Everything doesn’t have to be gray. It can be full of colors. Life is full of rainbows. I get tired of looking at gloomy buildings so I do something that makes me smile and probably makes someone else smile, too. That was my inspiration.”
Kidd acknowledged she was fined for having a short-term rental at the house.
“I did a four-day short-term rental and got fined $4,000,” she said. “Now I only do long-term rentals. I didn’t realize it was illegal.”
Kidd said any resemblance to Wieland in the emojis is unintentional. She said she doesn’t really know what Wieland looks like and did not commission the art to look like her neighbor.
“I’ve never been that close to her, nor do I want to be,” she said. “She can think what she wants, but it’s not. She’s probably paranoid. She has some curious issues, to say the least.”
Wieland’s house is gray. She said that she and Kidd have indeed met, close up and that the eyelashes on the emoji cannot be coincidental.
“I feel like I’ve been directly attacked with my eyelash extensions,” Wieland said. “It’s definitely directed. I had them done here in Manhattan Beach, and they did them way too big. Now it’s painted on the house.”
“It’s mocking me. It’s heartbreaking… I mean, it’s literally staring right at me.”
The artist who drew the emojis, known as #ztheart on Instagram, posted a photo of the house on May 31. He created a hashtag, #theEmojiHouse, and wrote, “Are your neighbors constantly ratting you out? Have they cost you thousands in fines? Have you wanted to tell them off lately? Why risk a case, when you can hire me to paint them a pretty message? No verbal confrontations, speedy turnaround, open to photorealism and custom emojis. Hit the dm for a free quote today.”
Among the other hashtags, the artist included on the Instagram post were #Manhattanbeach, #eyelashextensions, #beachfrontproperty, #artcommission, and #exteriordesign.
The zipper-mouthed emoji isn’t unique. In fact, if you type “Shut up” into an iPhone, a zipper-mouth emoji pops up automatically in the text box. It does not, however, have eyelashes.
Wieland was not alone in feeling that the painting of the Emoji House was an act of retaliation. The neighborhood, in part owing to the close proximity of its houses, is tightly connected. At one point they had a Facebook group called the 39th Street Sunset Crew. A group ranging from 6 to 20 meet up outside their homes most days at sunset and take glasses of wine to the beach, which is just a block away.
“Of course it’s retaliation,” said Dina Doll, an attorney who lives on the street. “You are not even talking a small retaliation — you are talking a severe effront to the entire neighborhood we live in.”
“It just kind of makes your street look like a joke. We remodeled our home three years ago. We hired a professional decorator — you put that investment and time into your home, and then someone does that up the street, and it just makes it all look like a joke. Because that is what a pink house with emojis is, a joke. That’s not why we bought houses in Manhattan Beach, to be part of that… That’s not what I signed up for.”
Kidd insisted that the emojis were not intended for Wieland specifically.
“She’s just a mean spirited person and it’s too bad,” Kidd said. “Life is too short to be that way. She obviously doesn’t like my taste.”
The issue of short-term rentals was at the forefront of the City Council race earlier this year. The city had banned all rentals less than 30 days in duration in 2015, but the ban had proved all but unenforceable, and a field of seven council candidates steeply divided on many issues all agreed on this one: the ban needed to be strictly enforced. The foremost fear was that residential neighborhoods would lose their intimate character if short-term rentals further proliferated and more homes essentially became businesses for housing transient guests. Another frequently expressed concern was that if the city did not heighten its enforcement of the ban, neighbors would be forced to police each other, resulting in fractures within neighborhoods — exactly as has occurred with the Emoji House. Shortly after the March 5 election, council moved to strengthen the ban by hiring an agency, Host Compliance, that specializes in enforcing restrictions on short-term rentals.
Neighbors on 39th Street believed Kidd was utilizing her property for short-term since last year, after the long term tenant in the lower unit moved out. When she first arrived after buying the property in 2018 — in a Mercedes convertible with a plate holder that read, “Move Over Princess, The Queen Has Arrived,” according to Wieland — neighbors had already heard that she used her property on El Porto Street as an Airbnb.
“I did say, to her face, ‘I see you are getting ready for your short term renters,’” Wieland said. “I already knew about her from her neighbors on El Porto. I told her that she should consider long term renters, and that the neighborhood would be watching and photographing any short term rental activity at the house. She said, ‘Oh good, that will deter thieves!’”
Soon Ubers began appearing, dropping off people with suitcases. Cleaning crews would come in between short-term rentals, and reportedly, Kidd asked around the neighborhood, trying to rent additional parking spaces for her guests.
“One guy came cruising up in a very loud truck, unloaded beer, and let himself in with the code, and was out on the roof within minutes,” Wieland said. “He must’ve lived sort of local because a lot of friends came during that short term, two or three days.”
The neighborhood was growing annoyed. At least three people on the street were documenting the short-term rentals, taking photos when guests came or went in order to provide evidence for the city. Things boiled over when the other long-term tenant, a young Air Force airman who lived there with his brother, prepared to move out before his lease ended at the end of April.
According to a lawyer who represented the airman, Michael Molfetta, problems between his client and Kidd began last November, when the house became infested with bugs. The tenant asked Kidd to tent the building and fumigate it, and she allegedly refused. The tenant’s girlfriend happened to work for Molfetta, an Orange County attorney, and he offered to intercede. The threat of an attorney apparently made Kidd back down, according to Molftetta, and she paid for fumigation.
But in April, after the airman informed Kidd that he’d been reassigned and would not be renewing his lease, according to Molfetta, she began preparing the unit as a short-term rental even before his lease was up. Molfetta said she was unlawfully entering the apartment, with construction crews, without the tenant’s consent.
“She took stuff out of the apartment that belonged to the two brothers,” Molfetta said. “These are the nicest kids on the planet, and she throws their surfboards in the neighbor’s garbage.”
According to Molfetta, she also told the brothers that she would not be returning their $2,700 security deposit, so he decided to personally intercede. He’d discovered that she’d already listed the airman’s unit on Airbnb; the photos on the site’s listing showed several distinctive features of the apartment, including a stained glass window with a distinctive image of a surfer girl. He drove up to Manhattan Beach and found her at the property.
“She was just being a jerk so I drove up there and handed her my card,” Molfetta said. “She refused to take my card.”
He told her she had no grounds to keep the deposit, and further, what she was doing was illegal.
“I said, ‘Listen, it’s 2700 bucks. Cut him a check, or I’m going to kick your ass in court,’” Molfetta said. “She dialed 911 and told the police I threatened to beat her up.”
“I told her, ‘You are running an Airbnb, and that’s contrary to municipal code,’” he said. “‘You can’t do that. So we are going to expose you.’ The neighbors had sided with us and came out and spoke to her.”
Molfetta said Kidd eventually backed down and wrote the airman a check. But he believes his encounter with her, and the fact that both he and the neighbors reported the Airbnb listing to the city, spurred the emoji, which he believes is retaliatory and legally qualifies as a public nuisance.
“I had the misfortune of meeting her once,” Molfetta said. “My experience with her is she is a bully and she’s a liar…I dare for you to not think of the name Cruella de Vil when you meet her.”
Within weeks of Kidd’s encounter with Molfetta, a city inspector found and interviewed guests staying at the airman’s former unit, who confirmed they were short-term renters. The Airbnb listing was still up this week, and showed nine reviews for April and May (mostly positive, except for one man who had a late flight and was unable to gain entry to the unit). The host is listed as “Kay,” although some of the reviewers refer to her as Kathryn, and she is shown to have two units available; the other unit, listed a “2 Min Walk to Ocean at Famous El Porto,” has 69 reviews dating back to early 2018 and as recent as June. No reviews have appeared since the city fined Kidd for violating its short-term rental ban.
Neighbors have asked the city to intercede and force Kidd to remove the emojis. Mayor Nancy Hersman advised them to attend a July 10 Planning Commission meeting that included an agenda item regarding the regulation of murals.
That night, planning commissioner Richard Thompson inquired about the city’s ability to regulate murals that are potentially offensive.
“If there is a building that has objectiveable type of symbols or something like that, what is our ability to prevent that from happening?” Thompson asked staff.
Assistant City Attorney Micheal Estrada said little could be done.
“If it’s private property, no public funding or involvement, and it meets the definition of a mural and it is not a sign, we have very little if any ability to prevent it,” Estrada said.
“That includes offensive language or symbols?” Thompson asked.
“Now, those are difficult questions,” Estrada said. “There is a line there…I don’t know where we can draw that line.”
Community Development Director Anne McIntosh said that the city does not have the ability to regulate content, on either murals or signs.
“So another alternative would be to say the city, instead of creating a definition for a mural and allowing them, would be to say, ‘We’re going to prohibit murals. There is too much of a risk. We don’t trust that people are going to use good judgment,’” McIntosh said.
“Any attempt to regulate content, including the use of offensive words, is almost always turned over by the court,” Estrada said.
Residents from 39th Street pleaded with the city to take action on the Emoji House.
“This particular home we’re speaking about is clearly a sign,” Wieland told the commission. “It’s a sign directed at me personally as well as the people who live on my street. It’s also a sign in laughter at the city of Manhattan Beach because this resident was doing short-term rentals…This has been deliberately placed on our street to let us know that this person who lives in our neighborhood is very unhappy with the rules in Manhattan Beach and she doesn’t want to follow our laws.”
Greg Doll, who like his wife, Dina Doll, is an attorney, said he respected Estrada’s caution regarding the regulation of content but that some other avenues must be available to prevent intimidation.
“If this is something we can’t regulate to stop from happening, we’re going to be at a place where there is going to be rampant abuse,” Doll said. “There could be. I don’t think anyone would want this next door to them, and to say the city cannot do anything about it, I think it’s something that sells ourselves short. If you look at this, there is no artistic merit. This is an act of intimidation, zip your mouth, ha-ha…I wonder if there is something we can draft for egregious misuse of what is called art. This is an act of intimidation.”
The commission was flummoxed. Commissioner Gerry Morton suggested that the emojis could be seen to have the commercial intent of a sign.
“If it is in fact a short-term rental…it’s definitely intended to promote their short-term rental service by stifling dissent,” Morton said.
The matter was tabled, as staff indicated they’d need to do more research on the matter.
“I think this is an issue we should look into it. It’s obviously a current and hot issue, a sensitive issue,” McIntosh said. “I don’t think we should speculate on whether it can or should be considered a sign. We can look into what the city can do in this regard. If it’s a sign, it can be regulated and shut down.”
Kidd, who did not attend the planning commission meeting, said she is curious at what the eventual outcome will be but not particularly worried.
“I really don’t have any opinion, to be quite honest with you,” she said. “People are entitled to their own opinions. I’m not in violation of any laws.”
Kidd said she called the city twice and visited City Hall once prior to having her house painted and the emojis drawn, just to make sure everything she was doing was legal.
“I’m sorry, I’m trying not to offend anybody,” Kidd said. “I did it for the purpose of being happy, being positive, and I think its cute and quirky and kind of funny, and certainly was a time for the emoji. You don’t even have to write a word anymore to let people know how you feel. If you are sad you send a sad face, and if you are happy you send a happy face.”
She said she is contemplating having emojis drawn on her other home in El Porto.
“I’m thinking of painting my building I live in, and I own another in Hermosa — I’m thinking of doing those other two,” Kidd said. “If I do, I have to hurry up before they pass the ordinance.”