Housing: An LA Story | The Nation


Housing: An LA Story

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In the months before the April preliminary election, Housing LA invited every candidate to a series of housing tours that made tangible the city's grim housing realities, contrasting slums with well-designed affordable buildings sponsored by nonprofit developers in the same neighborhoods. "The tours were a major eye-opener for many of the candidates," explained Robin Hughes, executive director of the LA Community Design Center. "They saw families, including children, living in subhuman conditions--in garages and tiny apartments with rats, peeling lead paint and no hot water--some with rents as high as $1,000 a month."

This article is part of the "What Works" series, which explores effective strategies for improving people's lives through progressive social change.

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Kelly Candaele
Kelly Candaele is a writer, a founding member of the Peace Institute at California State University, Chico, and a...
Peter Dreier
Peter Dreier teaches Politics and chairs the Urban & Environmental Policy Department at Occidental College. His...

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"Our message was simple," Hughes explained. "There's the problem. Here's the solution. All we need is more money."

Some groups, led by ACORN, also engaged in civil disobedience at a luxury housing development under construction in downtown LA, to protest the lack of affordable units.

Eventually, all the mayoral candidates supported the concept of a municipal Housing Trust Fund. Former State Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa, the progressive favorite, embraced specific funding sources, including the controversial linkage fee. Hahn, who had served as city attorney for the previous sixteen years, beat Villaraigosa in the June mayoral run-off by a 54-46 percent ratio. When Hahn pledged in his July inaugural speech to make the Housing Trust Fund one of his early priorities, "we were ecstatic," explained John Grant, in-house counsel for the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 770 and a Housing LA executive committee member. "We knew we had put the issue on the front burner."

During the summer and fall, the coalition kept up a steady drumbeat of pressure--including weekly lobbying delegations to City Hall pushing a specific funding plan. But as the economy sank into recession and the city faced a budget deficit, compounded by September 11, the coalition had to face a new reality. The region's tourism industry was devastated and city officials redirected scarce municipal funds toward security at LA International Airport. "Under these new fiscal circumstances," said Alvivon Hurd, a tenant leader with ACORN, "we weren't sure if the mayor and City Council were still serious about the trust fund."

The coalition agreed to accommodate these conditions by revising its plan, encouraging city officials to phase in the trust fund so that it reached $100 million within a few years. But to keep the housing crisis in the news, Housing LA orchestrated a number of public events--including a slum housing tour for reporters led by Cardinal Mahoney, several rallies at City Hall and Christmas caroling at Mayor Hahn's home, with lyrics about the housing crisis--and issued a report that ranked LA's housing shortage as among the worst in the nation.

With a push from new City Councilman Eric Garcetti, Housing LA persuaded Hahn to announce a specific funding plan before Martin Luther King Day. At the press conference, held at a housing construction site, carpenters temporarily stopped hammering to allow the assembled reporters to hear the speakers' remarks. "Keep working," Hahn told them. "We need the housing."

Housing LA intends to keep the coalition together for the next battle--persuading city officials to adopt an "inclusionary zoning" law to require builders of market-rate housing to include low-income units in their developments.

In Echo Park, the site where Juan Pineda died is now a vacant lot, the ruins of the building cleared away. A church group wants to buy the parcel and build low- and moderate-income housing. "We'll know the campaign was won when the city uses the Housing Trust Fund to rebuild this site with affordable housing," said Breidenbach. "That would be a fitting memorial to Mr. Pineda and the others who suffered in that tragedy."

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