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Lament of Los Angeles’ working-class poor in housing crisis: ‘Very sad the way I live now’

LOS ANGELES, Calif. (The Tidings) - At half-past six on a late fall Thursday evening, mission-style St. Odilia Church at 53rd and Hooper was bursting with Latino families plus a scattering of black men and women. They weren’t here for some special weeknight liturgy or even a holiday concert, but to address what is arguably Los Angeles’ number one spreading social quandary — the housing crisis for poor and working class people.

CHARGED UP - Congregants show their support for affordable housing at St. Odilia Church rally in South Los Angeles. (R.W. Dellinger)

CHARGED UP - Congregants show their support for affordable housing at St. Odilia Church rally in South Los Angeles. (R.W. Dellinger)


Mercedes Marquez, general manager of the Los Angeles Housing Department, and Jan Perry, City Councilmember of the 9th District, were seated at a banquet table covered with a purple cloth smack in the center of the altar.

To their left was a blown up “Housing Pledge” placard on an easel asking city council members to commit to work toward four goals: a citywide mixed-income housing policy; a dedicated permanent revenue source to fully fund the Housing Trust Fund; a real effort to preserve existing affordable housing units; and a comprehensive tenant education campaign.

On their right was a red LA-VOICE-PICO sign that proclaimed “Putting Faith Into Action Through Social Justice.” The grass-roots community organizing group, with 25 congregations in Greater Los Angeles, was sponsoring the St. Odilia housing action and others around the city.

Guadalupe Arroyo, a short woman in a powder-blue sweater, walked wearily to the wood pulpit. For 10 years she’d lived comfortably in her tiny apartment, but then her building was sold and the new owner ordered all tenants out so he could remodel the units, she explained in softly spoken Spanish. The landlord, who simply said he couldn’t give them any relocation money because he was broke himself, had tenants sign a paper she didn’t understand.

“I haven’t been able to find a place where I can live like I used to,” she testified. “I found a little bedroom, but I could not live there any longer because there were people who were drinking and they wouldn’t let me sleep. Later on, another family from my church adopted me. I pay $450 but I don’t have any privacy. It’s so small I had to get rid of so many things that my children have given me.

“Honestly, I’m so depressed, my heart aches not only for me but many people that I know who live like me. I know people who live on the street where I live, where they rent only a bedroom but they have children, too. That makes me so sad that children have to live like that.”

Wiping her eyes and struggling to finish, Arroyo added, “It’s very sad the way I live now. I earn minimum wage. I cannot pay $700 for rent. It’s too much. Too much!”

Political promises

When it came her turn to speak, Councilmember Perry, in alternating rapid-fire English and Spanish, said she understood the congregation’s concerns about housing because she represented the largest number of homeless people in Los Angeles County on skid row. And she promised there were “thousands of housing units coming on line” in her District 9.

“I support advocacy for renters’ rights and the development of much more affordable housing citywide - and especially in areas of the city where people have done next to nothing,” she pledged. “I will continue to encourage the development of affordable housing in my district and the housing trust fund.”

Marquez, the housing department manager, likewise declared that City Hall was deeply concerned about the local housing issue and had already taken action. In the last four years, she boasted that her department had inspected nearly 800,000 rental units cited for different offenses. Moreover, she and her colleagues had “completely rebuilt” the City of Los Angeles’ rent division.

“We have funded over the last four years now over 5,000 affordable housing units throughout Los Angeles,” she stressed. “This represents in four years a total now of over $1.3 billion of total investment to build those 5,000 units. We’re also over $40 million in city dollars in helping families buy their homes. If I were to count that in terms of the values of their homes, we would well be over $2 billion in investment.”

City of renters

But other speakers on the agenda weren’t buying all this happy housing news. Larry Gross, longtime head of the Coalition for Economic Survival, pointed out that Los Angeles as a city of renters faced the nation’s worse housing crisis.

“More people are paying a greater percentage of their income for rent, wages are not keeping pace with rising rents, families are forced to double-up and triple-up because they can’t afford the rent - creating one of the nation’s most serious, overcrowded conditions here,” he declared in English, which was translated into Spanish. “And if you’re forced to move, it’s unlikely that you’re going to find any housing in your community that you can afford.

“There’s a desperate need for a real commitment to produce substantial numbers of new affordable housing units,” the community activist said, his voice rising. “But even that is not enough because we can’t simply build ourselves out of the affordable housing crisis we’re in. Because for every affordable housing that we build, we’re losing an equal number of units.”

Just over the last five years, Gross reported, Los Angeles had lost 13,000 rental units to condo conversions and the demolition of aging apartment buildings. He praised the City Council for finally raising, after a 1 ½-year debate, relocation assistance to evicted tenants.

However, he also observed, what good was relocation help if there’s no affordable housing to move into?

“So we must build new affordable housing, but also we must protect existing housing,” he urged. “And we must do that by restricting condo conversions and limiting demolition. We must insure slum owners fix up their buildings. We must strengthen and enforce our rent control laws. And we must guarantee tenants know their rights.

“Without this real action, we will be left with a city where only the rich and the wealthy can afford to live. We can’t allow this to happen, especially for the children. And our challenge is to take action right now. We look to our leaders to lead, but if they won’t lead or can’t lead, then we have to unite.”

Gross encouraged the people to organize and hold city officials accountable.

“And so tonight my message to all of you is that together let us rise and preserve our existing affordable housing, secure needed affordable housing and, most importantly, win economic justice for all,” he declared.

Twofold strategy

Francesca de la Rosa, coordinator of Housing LA, a broad coalition of community groups, agreed with Gross that a twofold strategy is needed to not only build more low-cost housing but also to save what affordable housing is left in Los Angeles.

Then the young woman delivered the night’s zinger.

Without glancing over at stone-faced Councilmember Perry and housing department manager Marquez, she matter-of-factly pointed out, “In 2006, just last year, 14,000 new housing units were built,” also in translated English to Spanish. “That sounds like good news. Unfortunately, almost 13,000 of those units went to those earning $135,000 or more. So what that means is nine out of 10 units built last year went to those earning more than $135,000.”

After pausing a beat for this to sink in, she said, “So let me ask you all a question. How many earn $135,000 a year?”

People looked around at each other, shaking their heads, making faces and chuckling when not a single hand went up.

De la Rosa said there were two ways the current financially skewed picture could be changed. First, it was time to fully fund the Housing Trust Fund, established in 2000 to finance housing projects for middle-income residents and pay for housing and services for the homeless.

Secondly, she said, “it’s time and long overdue for the City of Los Angeles to have a strong citywide mixed-income housing program. What this means is that every time a new development is being built, a percentage of units would be set aside for low-income residents.

“More than 130 cities in the state of California, including San Francisco, Pasadena, San Diego and Sacramento, have mixed-income housing programs. If they can do it, so can we.”

After the applause died down, the affordable housing developer and community organizer asked people to raise their hands to show Councilmember Perry they would support her in getting a mixed-income housing ordinance passed.

Hands went up from mothers and fathers, senior citizens — even kids.

“We recognize that there’s a lot of hard work to be done and Councilwoman Perry can’t do it alone,” said de la Rosa. “So I want to ask all of you again, ‘Are you ready to go to City Hall and encourage your neighbors to organize, too?’“

One last time, a forest of hands shot up in the little church.

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This story was made available to Catholic Online by permission of The Tidings (www.the-tidings.com), official newspaper of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

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