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CES In The News

The Tidings
The Tidings is the weekly newspaper of the Los Angeles Archdiocese
Friday January 18, 2008

'Our Workers Can't Afford to Live Here'

Two Veteran Community Organizers Tackle L.A.'s Burgeoning Rental Housing Crisis

By R. W. Dellinger

AGENCY LEADER - Francesca de la Rosa brings together constituents and communities impacted by the city's shrinking affordable rental housing. photo by R. W. Dellinger

When Francesca de la Rosa was a wet-behind-the-ears Los Angeles community organizer working on food security and hunger issues, struggling families would tell her they just couldn't afford fruits, vegetables and other healthy food because they were paying too much for rent.

"Everywhere I went, it was about housing," the 34-year-old native Angeleno recalls, holding out her arms, palms up.

Today, working for the Southern California Association of NonProfit Housing (SCANPH) as coordinator of Housing LA, promoting the building and preserving of affordable housing has, in fact, become her job.

Eighteen months ago, de la Rosa was hired to revitalize the citywide organization, which was started in 1999. Her daunting mission was to bring together the growing number of constituents and communities that found themselves severely impacted by Los Angeles' shrinking affordable rental housing market.

In the last five years, the city has lost more than 13,000 affordable housing units to condo conversions and demolitions, while the sub-prime mortgage loan fiasco has driven hordes of home owners back into the rental market, jacking up local rents in the process.

Housing is considered affordable when it costs 30 percent or less of a household's income. During 2006, 57 percent of renters in the City of Los Angeles and 56 percent in L.A. County spent 30 percent or more on housing, according to the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey.

"It's not just housing advocates or housing legal attorneys who are saying, 'We need to do something,'" de la Rosa points out. "We have unions saying, 'Our workers can't afford to live here.' The faith community is saying, 'We have people in our churches who are living out of their cars on our grounds.'"

Three-point plan

Housing LA has proposed a three-point plan to put the brakes on the local crisis:

---Take the Housing Trust Fund out of annual budget wrangling by dedicating permanent sources of funds.

---Construct mixed-income housing, where developers have incentives to build moderate- and low-income home units.

---Preserve what affordable housing is left in residential hotels and apartments by stopping demolition and conversion to condominiums and luxury apartments. In addition, enforce rent-control laws to make sure tenants aren't forced out of their homes illegally.

De la Rosa, who says her sense of social justice was fostered by teachers at Mount St. Mary's College, is passionate about what the rental housing crisis is doing to Los Angeles.

"The cultural diversity and the uniqueness of our neighborhoods that's made Los Angeles Los Angeles, we're losing through gentrification and displacement of longtime residents of the city," she stresses. "So, first and foremost, we're losing the culture of L.A.

"We are quickly becoming a city of those who can afford living here and the majority who cannot. So we're losing our workers. Economically, we're losing our base of service employees. And there's such a high turnover rate among students at LAUSD [Los Angeles Unified School District], our district is losing money when families have to move.

"We're having increasing traffic problems because people are commuting from all over the place," she explains. "We are seeing the health consequences of people who are living in slum housing conditions who can't afford to buy food and other basic necessities. And then there's the stress of living on the street or on the verge of being displaced. I mean, the ripple effect just continues."

In short, de la Rosa says the housing crisis is nothing less than a moral dilemma.

"What kind of city are we if we're a city of people living on the street and a city that is comfortable with single mothers with children sleeping in cars or a city that's comfortable losing teachers because they can't afford to live here?

"A lot of people don't want to hear that housing is a human right. But I think on a basic level we all believe that people should be able to buy food, send their kids to school, hopefully have some sort of health care and, at least, have a home to call their own."

After a moment, the affordable housing advocate and community organizer says, "Everybody I think gets that. We get that, but we're falling way short in insuring that that's actually happening."

Less commitment

Even in the late 1970s - when Larry Gross and his
Coalition for Economic Survival
was fighting for rent control in Los Angeles, which became the Los Angeles Rent Stabilization Ordinance in 1979 - the rental housing crunch wasn't as bleak as it is today.

"I think the housing crisis is more severe right now," the native New Yorker reports. "I think even back then in the days of rent control fights when people were being evicted, you could still find something affordable. You could still find a place in your community.

LESS COMMITMENT - Larry Gross believes "there's less commitment to build affordable housing and there's less funding for it" in Los Angeles. photo by R. W. Dellinger

"Today, that's almost impossible. And, you know, the existing housing is dwindling rapidly as we speak. The other thing is there's less commitment to build affordable housing and there's less funding for it."

Gross says people have the conception that L.A. has developed a pretty progressive government. But he thinks the City of the Angels is actually more conservative now than in the past. And he believes the culprit is term limits.

Politicians, well aware they're only going to be in a certain office a short time, are constantly planning their next campaign and election, which takes mega bucks. So going up against developers means going up against the hands that feed their political ambitions.

Moreover, he says local leaders are wrongfully hiding behind the state's Ellis Act, which allows landlords to evict tenants to "go out of business." He points out that the act states that apartments can't be re-rented, except at the same rent the evicted tenants were paying, for five years after the evictions. But most Ellis evictions have been used to convert rental units into condominiums.

"Soon it's going to be two years since we raised the issue that the city should be restricting condo conversions and old apartment demolitions," he notes. "And City Hall has refused. They've said it's illegal, but they're getting bogus information from the city attorney. Meanwhile, cities up and down the state have enacted housing laws to protect constituents."

Gross points out that 64 percent of Angelenos rent their homes, which is the highest ratio of renters to home owners of any big city in the United States. And these folks, especially those living in rent-controlled apartments and rooms, are terribly vulnerable.

Bull's-eye on your back

"If you live in a rent control unit and you're a long-term low-rent tenant, you're walking around with a bull's-eye on your back, literally," Gross says. "Because your landlord is going to do everything that they can to try to get you out through whatever means - legal or illegal."

Under Los Angeles City law, there are 11 legal reasons for evictions. Seven have to do with the tenant, such as failing to pay rent, causing damage, using the unit for illegal purposes and refusing the landlord reasonable access.

The rest concern the landlord seeking in "good faith" to: move himself or his wife, children or parents into the building; demolish or perform work on the building or rental unit; remove the rental unit permanently from the rental market; and comply with a governmental agency's order to vacate the building.

"Most evictions center around condo conversions and demolitions," Gross reports. "A lot of it is legitimate. But underneath that there's a lot of landlords who are using conversions and demolitions as cover to get out of long-term low-rent tenants so they can jack up rents.

"There's also a huge trend by landlords who are prepaying their HUD mortgages in order to get out of Section 8 [federal government subsidized] housing, so they can upgrade their apartments and make more money."

During the
Coalition for Economic Survival's 30-plus years in the Southland, there have been some major housing victories, including winning rent control in the cities of Los Angeles and West Hollywood. CES
has also helped four tenant associations buy their HUD subsidized housing complexes, conducted campaigns to get laws passed combating slum housing and organized thousands of renters into tenant associations to stop evictions and rent increases.

Last December, after a lengthy grassroots struggle spearheaded by
, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa signed into law significant increases in tenant relocation assistance. For example, renters who have lived in their apartments more than three years now get $9,040 when forced to move, while seniors, the disabled or parents with minor children receive $17,080.

Still, Gross says on many days he feels like the little Dutch boy running around sticking his fingers into the ever increasing holes in L.A.'s rental housing dike.

"Organizing people and putting more pressure on city council members is what it's about," he says. "The elected officials have to be held accountable, 'cause we've seen they're not going to do much about affordable housing on their own. They're hearing from the development and landlord communities, who give them big contributions and have access to them.

"We can't counter that," he acknowledges. "But we have the numbers. And our numbers are more than the developers' dollars."

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