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4/10/02: The following ran in the April 15th
edition of The Nation Magazine that members might be interested in. Perhaps the
energy of LA could be transported to South Florida.
Housing: An LA Story
By Peter Dreier & Kelly Candaele
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
How did activists manage to produce a dramatic turnabout in the city's political
"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
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."