Housing: An LA Story

Housing: An LA Story

Two years after a tragic accident, activists are celebrating a major victory.


On December 8, 2000, just after 8 am, 31-year-old Juan Pineda, a father of two children from Guatemala, was crushed to death when a two-story slum apartment building in Los Angeles’s Echo Park neighborhood collapsed. Another thirty-six low-income tenants–mainly immigrant garment workers, day laborers and their children–were injured. More than 100 residents were left temporarily homeless.

For years, tenants had complained about the building’s numerous health and safety violations, including a faulty foundation, but city housing inspectors allowed the absentee landlord to get away with only minor repairs. The tragedy put a human face on the city’s severe housing crisis and the failure of the city’s political leaders to address the problem.

The outrage inspired by the Echo Park building collapse helped to galvanize a movement for decent affordable housing that had come together the previous year, spearheaded by Housing LA, a broad coalition of labor unions, community organizations and housing groups. On January 17, 2002, when Mayor James Hahn announced plans for a $100 million annual Housing Trust Fund–the largest in the country–to expand the city’s supply of affordable housing, it was the crowning achievement of Housing LA’s two-year grassroots campaign. State Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg, a former LA city councilwoman, called the fund “the most important progressive victory in the city since the living wage law was adopted” in 1997.

During the past decade, as the federal government cut funds for construction of low-rent housing and as housing prices spiraled upward, LA has faced a deepening shortage of affordable housing. In a city of 4 million people–more than one-quarter of them below the poverty line–the median house costs more than $249,500. The city’s homeownership rate–39 percent–is the lowest in the country except for New York City. But unlike New York, LA has few government-subsidized apartments.

Rents are so high that a family needs to earn almost $20 an hour to afford the typical apartment. About one out of seven apartments–more than 125,000 units–is substandard. Many families live in overcrowded housing, and an estimated 40,000 live in garages. Just to keep pace with population increases, LA needs to add at least 5,000 affordable units a year, but last year the city added only 1,200 units.

During the eight-year regime of Mayor Richard Riordan, a moderate Republican who was term-limited out of office last year, tenants groups, nonprofit housing developers and homeless advocates had little success getting city officials or the local media to make housing a priority. The city used none of its own funds to subsidize affordable housing.

How did activists manage to produce a dramatic turnabout in the city’s political priorities?

“We knew we had to broaden the coalition for housing beyond the ‘usual suspects’ of housing developers and tenants groups,” explained Jan Breidenbach, executive director of the Southern California Association for Non-Profit Housing, the campaign’s key strategist. “We had to engage the unions, especially those that represent the working poor, who bear the brunt of the housing crisis, as well as the building trades, whose members would build some of the housing. We also reached out to the religious community and to community organizing groups.”

Breidenbach recognized that the June 2001 municipal elections–the open mayoral seat attracted six candidates and the six open seats on the fifteen-member City Council attracted several candidates each–provided a strategic opening to inject housing issues into mainstream political debate.

Cardinal Roger Mahoney and LA County Federation of Labor head Miguel Contreras agreed to serve as Housing LA’s co-chairs, solidifying a labor-community alliance forged by the city’s key activists over several years. Labor, religious and civic leaders agreed to serve on the steering committee but, more important, to raise the issue among rank-and-file members and make affordable housing a key part of candidate endorsement interviews. Housing LA distributed 10,000 copies of a pamphlet summarizing candidates’ views on housing. Its constituents showed up regularly at candidates’ forums sponsored by unions, churches, the Progressive Los Angeles Network and such community organizations as ACORN, Coalition LA, LA Metro Strategy and POWER, to ask officeseekers their views on housing policy ideas.

To gain the support of LA’s fragmented business community, the coalition pointed out that many major employers faced problems recruiting workers because of the region’s high housing costs. Two influential business lobby groups endorsed the general idea of a trust fund but opposed the coalition’s proposal to fund part of it with a “linkage” fee on commercial developers.

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.”

“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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