via Knock LA

by Jacob Woocher

As the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic spread across the United States, something kind of amazing happened with public housing: The federal government quietly encouraged local housing authorities to cancel rent.

That’s not the exact terminology the government used, but that’s effectively what happened. For tenants who lost income, local public housing agencies like the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles (HACLA) were given the authority to retroactively apply “income reexaminations.” This would allow a family’s rent to be reduced to account for any loss of income — even to as low as $0 per month — and could be applied back to the date when that loss of income occurred. Rental debt, and future rent payments, could be reduced or made to disappear.

That doesn’t mean this always happened in practice. As we’ve seen, the Housing Authority has a long history of acting in direct opposition to the interests of its residents. But even still, many tenants were able to get their rents significantly reduced by HACLA, as shared by Elizabeth Blaney and Leonardo Vilchis of Union de Vecinos. This is almost unheard of in the private market. And the same unfortunately goes for privatized “affordable housing,” where the reliance on for-profit financiers who are owed regular debt payments constrains the decisions of even the most well-intentioned owners.

In public housing, rents are generally set at no more than 30% of your income, which can be reevaluated on a regular basis. Under this model, the loss of your job does not have to lead to eviction or homelessness — if your income goes down, your rent can go down, too.

Nearly 10 million families lost their homes in the years surrounding the financial crisis of the late aughts. While many consider the COVID-19 pandemic to be over, the most recent census surveys indicate that nearly 280,000 households in LA County alone remain behind on rent. With another periodic crisis surely to come in the not-too-distant future, we would all do well to understand something that many of its residents have long realized: Public housing is essentially unique in its ability to provide decent and stable shelter outside of the capitalist sphere.

The Next Rounds of Privatization
As we’ve seen, public housing tenants in Los Angeles have fought again and again to defend their homes from private interests. This happened at Rancho San Pedro (RSP) in 1987, at Jordan Downs in 1989, at Pico-Aliso throughout the second half of the 1990s, at Dana Strand in the years leading up to 2001, at housing developments across the city in 2010, and at Jordan Downs again in the last decade.

Even HACLA’s own survey numbers decisively show that tenants favor rehabilitation to privatization, demolition, and redevelopment. This holds true for every single public housing complex except for RSP.

But, like most institutions in this country, the Housing Authority fundamentally answers to the elites, not the residents. And there are additional neighborhoods to be gentrified and more valuable land to be made profitable.

Rose Hill Courts, a 100-unit development in Northeast LA, is currently being demolished and handed over to Related Companies — who else? — who will build and manage 185 “affordable” units on that land, collecting market-rate rents thanks to vouchers already committed to the project. Union Bank is the project’s chief financier, investing over $30 million through tax-exempt loans.

HACLA also recently won $450,000 from the federal government to begin planning for the redevelopment of William Mead Homes, a 415-unit development on the eastern edge of Chinatown. The site “has long been a prime candidate for redevelopment, given its proximity to the city center,” HACLA noted in 2020.

Beyond these two complexes, in its 25-year “Vision Plan,” the authority lists six additional sites as priorities for redevelopment in the coming decades. That leaves only four developments that would be kept as public housing (including the units that remain public housing at Pico Gardens).

In late 2020, LA City Council approved a motion by then councilmember Mike Bonin on the topic of expanding public and “social housing” — the latter a broad term that encompasses a range of models where the property might be owned by nonprofit organizations rather than just the state. But nearly three years later, none of the requested reports from the various city departments have been completed. In April 2023, a group of councilmembers including Eunisses Hernandez, Hugo Soto-Martínez, and Nithya Raman introduced their own motion in support of social housing, which was adopted by the full council and signed by the mayor in July. Unfortunately, it is completely toothless. The motion does not allocate any funding for social housing, nor ask for any reports or plans to be drawn up, nor commit the city to do anything concrete in any manner whatsoever.

The War Rages On
The Housing Authority will continue waging its war, almost certainly with all the deception, backdoor dealmaking, and abuse of residents that these privatization schemes have always entailed.

The LAPD’s war against public housing communities shows no signs of letting up, either.

The use of surveillance cameras, piloted at Jordan Downs, has expanded dramatically. Installed at or planned for every single public housing complex, soon all 21,000 residents will have footage of their daily lives streamed directly to nearby police officers.

And the LAPD now operates the Community Safety Partnership (CSP) at eight separate developments, with HACLA set to contribute almost $9 million to the program from 2021 to 2025. Described by scholar Ruth Wilson Gilmore as “the velvet glove [that] sheathes a centralized and high-tech iron fist,” CSP is such an effective model of intrusion and repression that the ultrarich themselves are paying to expand it beyond the confines of public housing. Goldman Sachs provided a grant of $250,000 for a CSP pilot targeting a public park in South Central; the Ballmer Group has donated $750,000 of its own to the initiative; and billionaire developer (and former mayoral candidate) Rick Caruso, among others, funded a glowing UCLA evaluation of the program.

If anything, LAPD’s occupation of public housing communities has only deepened, making use of sophisticated technologies and “community policing” tactics to infiltrate and exercise control like never before.

The driving force behind today’s land politics remains the same as always: profit. With major cash at stake in LA real estate, liberals and conservatives have united yet again to wage a violent war against the most vulnerable. Now it’s unhoused people — rather than those branded as gang members — who are the primary obstacle to the sanitized “world-class city” that the establishment has craved for decades, and thus the targets of unrestrained state violence. This renewed hostility will surely impact the city’s orientation toward public housing; as long as local politics are dominated by an escalating war on the unhoused — along with its racist, anti-poor, blame-the-victim ideologies — public housing will continue to be demonized and underfunded.

Like in the previous decades of LA’s history, a new leader at the top has continued the war waged by her predecessors. Mayor Karen Bass, a self-styled “progressive,” flatly stated on the campaign trail that under her rule, “the bottom line is people will not be allowed to live on the streets.” Bass quickly began to make good on this threat with her “Inside Safe” program, a plan — in the words of the Los Angeles Times — to “aggressively target large encampments that have been a constant source of frustration for [housed] residents.” Recent reporting has revealed that out of the roughly 1,500 people that have been moved indoors as part of this program, mostly to motels, only 120 have found permanent housing. This is out of an unhoused population in the city of over 46,000.

Meanwhile, the more routine types of sweeps, not connected to press conferences nor offers of even temporary shelter, continue unabated, often with dozens occurring across the city on any given day. Bass’ project is to continue, perhaps even escalate, the war on the unhoused, but with a whiff of plausible deniability. Yet at an event celebrating an “Inside Safe” sweep with the newly elected, hyperconservative Westside councilmember, Traci Park, the mayor made her priorities clear: “What is most important is that the community of Venice can reclaim those streets!”

It’s often tempting to view LA as exceptional; in some ways, maybe it is. But the best method for understanding its politics is a materialist one, foregrounding the dominant private interests that exercise power in capitalist cities across the world. Both liberals and conservatives in this city work for the landed elite. They are thus united in driving property values and rents as high as possible — the poor people standing in the way be damned.

How We Move Forward
I want to end this series with some thoughts that might help us move toward a city where every person is decently housed. My objective is not just to interpret the world, but to change it.

We can and should fight for the mass expansion of public housing.

We do not have to apologize or be on the defensive in this struggle. On the contrary, anyone who says public housing has failed must answer the question of why, again and again, when residents’ homes are threatened with demolition and privatization, they have organized to defend them.

Public housing in LA has provided decent and stable shelter to tens of thousands of families who would otherwise have no chance of being housed by the private market, and who would likewise be too poor for most privatized “affordable housing.” Of course, we should also push to make public housing better — we are not demanding an underfunded program where residents are surveilled and repressed by police. On the contrary, just as advocates did in pre–Red Scare Los Angeles, we can fight for beautiful public housing that is connected to health centers, recreational facilities, communal child care, public transit, and other spaces and institutions that contribute to making a better world.

Ultimately, we should take our cue from the brave tenants whose struggles are detailed in this series and wholeheartedly push for more and better public housing.

LA can fully fund the rehabilitation and expansion of public housing.

LA’s elites have consistently chosen not to spend any of the city’s own money on public housing, funneling tax dollars instead to luxury developments and the bloated LAPD. Cuts to the police budget and taxes on the rich could fund not just repairs, but expansion — whether that means building new units or buying up existing properties and holding them under public ownership, similar to what the Hillside Villa tenants in Chinatown are fighting for.

It would be nice for the federal government to come in with billions of dollars for public housing, but we don’t need to wait.

The fundamental test to determine if a politician is serious about reducing homelessness should be whether they are willing to redistribute resources that are currently being hoarded by the rich and the LAPD in order to build public housing. Technocratic half-measures will not get it done, nor will they inspire the mass movement we need to make this a reality.

The barriers are political, not legal.

Speaking of making things complicated, liberal politicians and policy types love to talk about the legal barriers supposedly limiting our ability to build low-income and public housing.

Former mayor Eric Garcetti, for example, pointed to Article 34 of the California Constitution as tying his hands when it came to housing production. There’s some truth to this: Article 34 is a racist relic from 1950 (pushed by the real estate industry) that requires local governments to get approval from voters before building new low-income housing. But here’s the thing: LA already has the authority to build thousands of units, thanks to a 2008 ballot measure approving the potential for over 52,000 units across the city. And City Council could put another measure on the ballot if they wanted to build more.

Then there’s the Faircloth Amendment, a federal law from the 1990s that sets limits on how many units a local housing authority can build or maintain using federal funds. Here, too, Los Angeles still has room for 1,934 more units. When we need to move beyond that limit, it can be done with state and local funding.

These laws are bad and should be repealed. But they are not barriers to building more public housing right now, and they should not be used as an excuse for inaction.

“A breeding ground for communists.”

This last thought is perhaps the most important one: Some of the most effective and visionary organizing in recent LA history has come from public housing tenants. Expanding public housing would not just provide decent shelter; it could also provide a crucial material base for the next generation of radical organizing.

In the suffocatingly neoliberal 1990s, the young people of Watts’ public housing communities organized a lasting peace movement and kept the flame of redistribution alive. Just a few years later, the mothers of Pico-Aliso created Union de Vecinos to fight the Housing Authority, building an organization that is still thriving today that has been instrumental in growing and shaping the current tenants movement. Mothers Reclaiming Our Children, an important abolitionist organization also organized in the 1990s, was started in Imperial Courts in Watts, as detailed by Ruth Wilson Gilmore in her book Golden Gulag.

When we seriously move toward a world where everyone is decently housed, it will be because militant social movements and political parties have led the fight. History has shown that public housing tenants will be a core part of this struggle.

The rabidly reactionary Senator Joseph McCarthy warned that public housing would be a “breeding ground for communists.” Perhaps, despite all his apocalyptic bluster, on this front he will be proven right.

Read more of this 10-part series, LA’s War on Public Housing: The Era of Demolition and Privatization, here.

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