Winning the Home Front

Los Angeles
March, 2002

The collapse of an Echo Park apartment house last winter was, in a sense, propitiously timed. More than 100 low-income tenants had lived there amid rats and creaking timbers, proof that Angelenos will endure a lot for a roof that comes with a monthly rent they can handle. Their discomfort turned to misery when 1601 Park Avenue buckled one morning in a pile of plaster and rotted lumber. Juan Francisco Pineda, the provider for a family of four, died.

Coming just before Christmas 2000, televised images of the newly homeless reinforced the message of a persuasion campaign that was already striving to convince Los Angeles's leaders that a shortage of affordable rental units exacts a high cost, socially and economically.

Not that the case is hard to make once people pay attention. Rents here, among the nation's highest, keep soaring, while the apartment dearth worsens. Developers pocket more profit erecting townhouses and homes, so only about 2,000 rental units a year are built while while the population rises by about 66,000. To get by, families share space with vermin or bed down in unheated garages; workers suffer draining (and traffic-clogging) commutes to distant jobs.

The trouble has been getting enough people in power first to recognize this quandary in a sea of competing problems - and then to agree to do something about it.

Since the Echo Park collapse, progressive activists -- working with developers and business groups -- have elevated the housing issue to the A-list of city hall priorities. Through deft lobbying and community organizing, they've fashioned a consensus for an "affordable housing trust fund" that will reserve money in the municipal budget to go toward low-rent apartments.

In last spring's mayoral clash, both the victor, Jim Hahn, and the vanquished, Antonio Villaraigosa, rushed to endorse devoting $100 million a year to such a fund (enough, optimistically, to help finance 2,500 to 3,000 units). Almost every candidate for city attorney, controller and city council signed on, too.

How this came to be -- how activists to the left of most of L.A. turned subsidized housing into a semichic cause -- offers an illuminating insight into post-millenium coalition building. Success shocked even the campaign's architects. "A year and a half ago, if someone had said that housing would be a big issue and we would have the mayor and every member of the city council supporting a $100 million housing trust fund, I would have said you were nuts," says Occidental College professor Peter Dreier, who, along with housing advocate Jan Breidenbach, helped spearhead the effort.. "But things have changed dramatically."


If the tale's outline feels vaguely familiar, there's a reason. The emergence of affordable housing resembles the rise of living wage laws in the 1990s. Indeed, the Housing L.A. campaign could be called Living Wage II. Both causes hovered for years at midlist on the local left's agenda before finding the right mix of message and friends in high places to go mainstream.

Housing L.A. shares personnel with the earlier movement and also has borrowed from its strategy. One effective tactic: sitting down with selected opinion shapers and appealingto them to join in. For the housing cause this was necessary because the usual suspects who lobby year after year -- tenant groups, anti-poverty organizations -- lack the clout to win battles over limited city dollars. "We needed to find allies who had a self interest or a moral interest in affordable housing," Dreier says. Getting both mayoral runoff candidates aboard helped enormously, as did Hahn restating his support for the $100 million trust fund in his inauguration speech last summer.

Another campaign coup was signing up Cardinal Roger Mahony as Housing L.A cochair. He often supports the poor and has selectively lent his name to progressive causes dating back to the farmworker marches of the 1960s, so he didn't take much convincing. "We just had to get on his schedule," says Jan Breidenbach, a longtime activist who runs an association of nonprofit developers. Mahony underlined his endorsement when he told civic leaders at his annual policy breakfast last October that "addressing the housing crisis cannot be postponed any longer -- the city must act now."

The campaign's other co-chair delivers clout of another kind. Miguel Contreras is executive secretary of the AFL-CIO's county labor federation, which makes him the region's most powerful labor official. His involvement shows that housing has joined wages and health care as a top workers' concerns and represents a further melding of Los Angeles' unions and the city's political left, the impact of which could be seen in Villaraigosa's campaign organization, which drew volunteers from both camps. Several Housing L.A. leaders -- including Breidenbach, a former Service Employees International Union organizer - have labor chops and campaigned for Villaraigosa.

It's no accident that the rest of the Housing L.A. steering committee is a model of political diversity, Los Angeles style. Listed together are Hahn and Villaraigosa backers, Valley rabbis and pastors from black churches, delegates from Little Tokyo and the Eastside, activists for the environment and for seniors. Significantly, there also are representatives from financial giant Washington Mutual and Kaiser Permanente, the state's largest HMO. Kaiser fears losing nurses and other hard-to-replace workers who can't afford to live near its hospitals. Business groups such as downtown's Central City Association and the Valley Industry and Commerce Assn. also endorse the trust fund, calling the lack of affordable housing a threat to prosperity.

In L.A. this kind of unity for using tax dollars to build apartments is striking. Popular support for subsidized housing has ebbed everywhere since the days when Jimmy Carter was president; it had been meager here long before that, even as large urban projects went up in the East. The Los Angeles Times, in its pre-Otis Chandler years, railed at any municipal expenditure that smacked of socialism; to the paper, spending tax money on renters surely did. Times editors even bristled at post-World War II Quonset-hut villages erected for needy GI families in Griffith Park and Pacoima, complaining they were infested with communists.

Ambivalence about subsidized housing runs deep. Giving property owners $60 billion a year in income tax interest deductions is widely viewed as good policy, but using a pittance of that to build apartments for the poor is controversial. When he was mayor, Richard Riordan so disliked the idea that his office diverted the city's federal housing grants to other areas. Since his departure last year, momentum has shifted, thanks largely to Housing L.A.

"We've shown that it was a real need," says Dreier, a housing officaial in Boston for nine years before immigrating to Occidental College in 1993. The 53-year-old politics and policy professor retains some of his Eastern flavor -- referring to members of the city council as "councilors" in a slight Jersey accent -- but he has become a force in his adopted hometown. He contributes to the Times op-ed page and cochairs the Progressive Los Angeles Network, which operates out of the Eagle Rock campus.

Dreier's reputation as a housing advocate made him a natural to take a lead spot in the campaign, which grew out of discussions with Breidenbach in 1998. The two political soul mates knew that housing trust funds were becoming common -- more than 100 exist around the country. They thought the concept would fly in Los Angeles if given a chance.

Breidenbach, executive director of the Southern California Association of Non-Profit Housing, secured the backing of her board -- which includes Dreier. They were frustrated by city hall's past refusal to invest in affordable housing, having seen other cities use trust funds, tax credits and favorable loans to construct attractive, well-maintained projects for families.

The campaign is work that Dreier and Breidenbach, both inspired to activism in the 1960s, had hoped to do. He's written extensively on housing shortages as social injustice and as an organizing opportunity for labor and advocates for the poor. Neither does she shirk from confessing she has a larger agenda. "I don't see this as the answer to poverty, but I see it as one important answer," says Breidenbach, 56, an Echo Park resident and veteran of the women's and anti-Vietnam War movements.

Many of their allies, especially those from business groups, aren't embracing an agenda so much as trying to relieve a pressing community problem. Even so, it's a sign of the campaign's credibility that the numbers activists derived to illustrate the crisis have become the de facto official statistics, repeated by Mahony, the Times and others: A worker in Los Angeles must earn $19.73 an hour -- almost triple the $6.75 minimum wage -- to afford the average two-bedroom apartment rent of $1,000. A husband and wife who both make the minimum wage - and more than a million people in the Los Angeles area do - must work 117 hours a week between them to support that kind of rent. Instead they make do, often in substandard housing like the structure that fell in Echo Park.


Knowing the emotional tug of firsthand observation, activists devised a simple strategy that targeted last spring's elections. Since term limits would bring a new mayor and other fresh faces to city hall, they decided to exploit the turnover and invite all the candidates on a tour to see conditions for themselves.

Most accepted the invitation. They saw the ugliness -- overcrowding, high rents, filth -- and also what could be built with a little help. Around the region, attractive projects of 10 to 20 subsidized units (or more) have been going up. By showing the soon-to-be masters of the city purse that public housing does not necessarily mean gang turf and graffiti, the campaign won new converts and neutralized a potential counterargument. Organizers followed up the tours with press conferences and lobbying visits.

Last July, the newly seated council signaled its support for the trust fund and ordered up a study of how to finance it; the current budget also includes about $10 million in seed cash. Left undecided was when to move to $100 million and from which existing pots of money (or new sources like fees on developers) the balance will come.

These are more than details. They form the essence of the commitment, since a trust fund without deposits is worthless. The debate over those points, already politically charged, became more complicated after September 11. With a recession and a national war on terrorism depleting revenues, the city faces a possible budget shortfall of $22 million. So it's not an easy time to be asking for a big new dedication of money.

Also, whose hide the bite comes out of is controversial: Business groups want less of the burden to fall developers and property owners, for example, and their voice will be heard. Council members also can be expected to protect their favorite programs - or to keep their best campaign contributors -- from being dunned.

At a November rally organized by Housing L.A. to keep up the momentum, busloads of volunteers marched on city hall wearing bright yellow buttons that demanded "$100 MILLION NOW!" Greeting them on the Spring Street steps, councilman Eric Garcetti vowed in English and Spanish to secure the trust fund. Inside, Breidenbach told the council that "we need it for the housing, we need it for the jobs and we need it for the morality of this city."

In December, Housing L.A. hired political adviser Kelly Candaele to ensure that Hahn and other city hall newcomers don't backslide. Another task for Candaele, who is also a Los Angeles Community College District trustee, was to soothe lingering wounds from last year's mayoral scrap.

The activists were forced to lower their sights, at least for the coming year. Even getting $40 million for the trust fund might look good if the deficit grows, so long as the trust fund idea is written into law. Without that commitment, spending for affordable housing will be subject to electoral wrangling and an annual dance over budget priorities, and in that arena the poor usually lose out.

After an anxious couple of months waiting for city hall to act, Housing L.A. finally claimed victory in January. At a Central City Association lunch, Hahn told business leaders of his plan to infuse the trust fund with $42 million the first year and reach a goal of $100 million in three years -- with no new developer fees. Said the mayor: "It is important for everyone to have a safe, healthy place to live."

©Kevin Roderick 2002
Not for publication without permission