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‘Mad-as-Hell’ Resistance Swings Affordable Housing Pendulum toward Renters


DEEGAN ON LA-In less stressful times, the relationships between tenants and landlords were ruled by the market economy of supply and demand. Lately, however, affordable housing has entered a state of crisis, as space is needed to squeeze in more people who want to live here or park their money in real estate investment. A third wheel has been attached to the landlord-tenant equation: developers eager to make their profits in a booming upscale housing market is leaving many renters in the dust. 

We see construction cranes everywhere in the skyline, signaling a massive expansion of housing, although not much of it is worth anything to middle income tenants, the very people who are being routinely evicted to make room for bigger, more expensive housing. 

The new normal has nothing to do with landlord-tenant relationships. But it has everything to do with financiers, some from out of town and often not from the neighborhoods they seek to transform as they back new housing developments, evicting tenants and tearing down existing housing. Tenure of residency is worthless -- a day or a decade as a tenant makes no difference, except possibly in the payout to leave. 

Every tenant is a target for a developer with a bankroll prepared to use the Ellis Act to evict tenants and give their victims “cash for keys.” Most vulnerable are those in rent stabilized housing, a cousin of affordable housing. 

I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take this anymore!” shouted Peter Finch, reacting to the news that he was losing his job, in the 1976 movie, Network.”

That’s how lots of people paying rent have been feeling over the past couple years as they lose their housing while the city accelerates its ambitious housing expansion -- paradoxically by removing affordable housing, replacing it with expensive “lifestyle accommodations.” 

The affordable and/or rent-stabilized housing (RSO) is being replaced by luxury and “market rate” housing. Unfortunately, “market rate” can end up being double what a tenant evicted from RSO or “affordable” housing has been paying. Not only is this a “there goes the neighborhood” situation, but it’s also a “there goes the neighbor from the neighborhood” in search of affordable housing -- but who knows where…and who knows who’s next? 

No wonder tenants are “mad as hell.” 

Fortunately, there are a couple of tenant activist groups, one old and well established, and another that could be called “the new kid on the block.” Both are providing lots of support and solutions to increasingly angry tenants. 

The upstart is the 2-year old Los Angeles Tenants Union which, in the words of Susan Hunter of the LATU’s Hollywood Local, is a fusion of “activism, outreach, and advocacy…showing tenants they are not alone, not isolated.” Hunter explains, “We need to be more aggressive stopping landlords with protests and rallies. We will do that by uniting so many people and economic groups. Our goal is to unify tenants. We have been hugely successful.” 

They appear to be guerrilla-like and nimble, once forming a human chain between bulldozers and a targeted building in Boyle Heights to prevent demolition. 

If you want a “large” organization, the encyclopedia database of resources offered by the 44-year-old Coalition for Economic Survival offers help with what they describe as “Tenants’ Rights” that include the basics of help with protecting tenants by offering:

  • Assistance on Evictions
  • Help on Getting Repairs
  • Rent Control Information
  • Tenant Organizing Assistance 

They do this through a twice-weekly Tenants' Rights Clinic.   

Unlike LATU which focuses on a narrow band of services and advocacy, the CES has a long history rooted in a wide range of grassroots campaigns since it was formed in 1973. This has included “transportation, utilities, affordable food, and employment issues,” with campaigns that “successfully held back bus fare and utility rate increases, lowered milk prices and fought for the rights of the unemployed.” Tenants' rights, rent control and preserving affordable housing became CES’ priorities as rents skyrocketed during the mid-1970s, they say, always with “focuses on educating low and moderate income tenants about their rights to affordable, decent and safe housing, to train and empower them to take action to protect and advocate for their rights, and to build powerful, participatory tenant organizations of low income and working class people to work together toward these goals.” 

Today, unlike the radical seventies, it’s not just “low income and working class people” that need help with their landlords: it’s the vast middle class of moderate-income tenants that are on the knife-edge of not knowing if they will suddenly be swept out of their housing by the continued abusive use of the Ellis Act by landlords. Today, multi-media social messaging is part of the advocacy mix, as this just released brief video coupled with a petition drive from LATU demonstrates. 

“The Ellis Act and the Costa-Hawkins Act, both state laws, make an unfair and un-level playing field except for developers. That is why we are advocating for legislative action to reform the Ellis Act and Costa-Hawkins,” says LATU’s Hunter. 

Anyone curious about the impact of Ellis Act evictions can look at this map created by the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project in collaboration with the Coalition for Economic Survival. 

“We want to see some real reform. We have teamed up with “Tenants Together” that is lobbying in Sacramento. People think those two Acts are for rent-control protection, but Costa-Hawkins is the cause of such escalated rental rates. It took ten years by landlords lobbying to get that one in place. Education is needed to make people know reform of these two is important,” said Hunter. 

“The goals should be same for tenants and landlords, which is market stability. That's what's beneficial to both parties,” stresses Hunter. Pressuring the state legislature to reform the Ellis and Costa-Hawkins Acts may help toward that end. The Tenants Together Statewide Renter Assembly”  in Sacramento September 23-24, 2017, will be a good place to heat up that legislative priority, and swing the pendulum further in the direction of preserving existing affordable and RSO housing for tenants.


(Tim Deegan is a long-time resident and community leader in the Miracle Mile, who has served as board chair at the Mid City West Community Council and on the board of the Miracle Mile Civic Coalition. Tim can be reached at [email protected].) Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.



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