Rob Rhinehart, the founder and CEO of food-substitute drink startup Soylent, which is valued at $100 million, is facing criminal charges after placing a shipping container on his Flat Top hill property in Los Angeles without first obtaining the proper permits. Rhinehart planned to transform the big red corrugated metal container into a minimalist "experimental living facility" with solar panels and panoramic views of the city, but it sat vacant and became a vandalized eyesore, inspiring ire from his neighbors, and eventually city officials.
Rhinehart bought the 8,422-square-foot plot of land overlooking downtown Los Angeles in January for $21,300, the Los Angeles Times reports. Shortly after the purchase, Rhinehart placed the container on the property with big plans to make it into a sustainable and minimalist abode. But Rhinehart did not go through the city permitting process, which made the container an unlawful structure. Rhinehart did not live on the property and the container became a place that attracted vice, neighbors told the Los Angeles Times. After Rhinehart allegedly refused city mandates to remove the container, the city took action.
On Thursday, July 28, Los Angeles authorities removed the red, graffiti-strewn shipping container from Rhinehart's property and city prosecutors charged Rhinehart with unpermitted construction and other violations, the Los Angeles Times reports.
Over the last week, there have been news reports regarding my shipping container project on Flat Top Hill. I have since removed the container, and brought the land into compliance with city building and safety codes. I would like to offer my sincerest apologies to my neighbors who I upset.
As a first time property owner, the container was meant to be an experiment in sustainable housing. In the future, I will ensure that I do my due diligence with regard to all city and neighborhood regulations. Flat Top Hill is a gem of Los Angeles, and I intend to make only positive contributions to the neighborhood and community going forward.
The apology is a little too late. Rhinehart now faces criminal charges. Officials alleged that he unlawfully erecting the structure without permits and for refused to remove the building when ordered by city authorities. Rhinehart is set to be arraigned on September 7. If convicted, Rhinehart could face up to two years in prison and a $4,000 fine, prosecutors tell the Times.
"Unpermitted structures pose a safety risk," says City Attorney Mike Feuer in a statement. "They also can be unsightly and erode the quality of life in a neighborhood."
In a statement to the Guardian before being charged, Rhinehart explained how he spent thousands improving the land, removing trash, and "cutting grass not just on my land but the whole hilltop."
Rhinehart blames others for the container's being vandalized: "My home was graffitied and the windows were smashed," Rhinehart told the Guardian. "That's my fault? Where are the police?"
The anger against Rhinehart and his structure has been brewing for months. Back in April, Rhinehart posted a picture of the shipping container before it was covered with graffiti on Instagram and a person claiming to live in the neighborhood left a comment that sums up the community's sentiment against gentrification and Rhinehart in particular:
"Go back to where you came from. So tired of all these LA transplants who come and think they can spew their trash all over," Instagram user reversengineer writes in a comment on one of Rhinehart's photos of the container. "No one likes your stupid 'experiment' that's been an eyesore and an invitation for derelicts such as yourself to stay and trash the place. Just leave dude we don't want you nor your distorted Eco experiments [sic]."
Eva Fierro, who has lived in the hilltop neighborhood of Montecito Heights for the past 56 years, summed up the resentment in a more subdued way:
"I'm not objecting to development up there," Fierro told the Times. "But why can't we have open land and respect it?"