Fri, Jun

Los Angeles’ War on Working People

1937 View looking northwest from City Hall tower over the Hall of Records. Bunker Hill is covered with multiple dwellings.

HOUSING CRISIS - I usually write about homeless intervention program performance, but in this article, I’m returning to the broader issue of what and where the housing crisis is, as I did in a previous post

When I was a kid growing up in the OC during 1960’s, my grandmother had an apartment in Echo Park on Laguna Ave., across the street from St. Athanasius Episcopal Church, which has since been swallowed by the offices of the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles. Our drive from Anaheim to L.A. took us through an increasingly industrial landscape.  The first sign we were getting close to the city was Firestone’s huge pseudo-Assyrian tire factory in Commerce.  A little farther up the freeway, the Lever Brothers factory gave employees in its parti-colored cafeteria a great view of the traffic (and vice versa) through huge picture windows.  When we hit the I-5/101 transition, a plain six-story building, its western wall no more than 10 feet from the freeway and painted with the words “Japanese Retirement Home” on its top level, reminded commuters of Boyle Heights’ Pre-World War II Japanese-American roots.  After we drove out of the tunnel onto the eastbound 101, the Brew 102 brewery was churning out its vile--yet classic working-class--version of beer, as it had since the 1880’s.  A huge gasometer stood behind the brewery. 

What I saw through a child’s eyes was a city that lived as much by its brawn as its brains.  Factories lined Alameda south of downtown nearly to San Pedro. There was an auto plant in Van Nuys. You could find working-class housing almost anywhere in the city.  The simple houses surrounding Paramount Studios weren’t built for movie stars, but for the tough men who wrestled huge sets and the women who sewed elaborate costumes.  Even in the tony West Side, Westchester sprang up after World War II to house blue-collar Hughes and McDonnell-Douglas workers. 

Perhaps no other area epitomized working-class L.A. more than Bunker Hill.  Any Angeleno past their mid-50’s may remember it pre-redevelopment. Once a district of fashionable mansions and luxury apartment buildings, by the mid-20th century, the mansions had become boarding houses and the apartments were decidedly quotidian. A working man between jobs could count on finding a low-rent room until the factories started hiring again. Seedy as it was, Bunker Hill provided thousands of workers a place to sleep and a cheap meal.  Bunker Hill was also the area where the city’s war on working people hit full stride.  

One could say the opening salvo in the war was the displacement of hundreds of mostly Latino families from Chavez Ravine, to make way for the Dodgers’ new stadium.  Peter O’Malley wanted the site for his team, and the city, backed by cadre of Sheriff’s deputies armed with eviction orders, was happy to oblige. That infamous episode displaced hundreds of people.  Bunker Hill’s “redevelopment” displaced thousands.  

In the 1960’s, city planners, allied with avaricious developers, eyed the rundown mansions overlooking the original downtown core and envisioned a new corporate center of gleaming skyscrapers and apartment towers full of young executives. 

Nobody seemed to care much what happened to the workers who depended on low rents and proximity to the city’s anemic public transit system to get to work, because the work was moving out anyway. By the 1960’s, L.A. was starting to lose its industrial heft.  Factories began relocating outside the city’s congested core as the Information Age devalued human labor. Even Brew 102 closed in 1972. In place of ramshackle boarding houses, gleaming glass towers like the Hotel Bonaventure and U.S. Bank sprang up. By the 1980’s, nothing remained of Bunker Hill’s gritty past, and nobody knew—or cared--where the working stiffs who lived there went.

Thus was the beginning of the city’s self-manufactured crisis in affordable housing.  In the years since, city policies that favored large-scale high-end development squeezed more people out of the housing market.  Technology, economic forces, and offshoring erased thousands of good-paying labor-intensive jobs. 

Unfortunately, the city’s appetite for cheap labor never really diminished; it merely switched gears from factory work to semi-skilled labor—the jobs that support the lifestyles of the middle and upper class.  Now, the only housing the working class can afford is squeezed into a band running from the northeast in Boyle Heights/East L.A., south below downtown, and west into Pico-Union.    

When I say the working class can “afford” housing in these areas, I do not mean neighborhoods where a person making decent money can rent a studio apartment or buy a starter home. I mean places where families of five or six live in one-bedroom apartments, while both parents commute long distances to work. Places where laborers rent couches for $500 a month, giving them a place to sleep, and giving the single mothers who provide them money for food for their kids.  As a result, the areas with working-class housing are some of the most overcrowded neighborhoods in the country, as brilliantly reported by the L.A. Times

Even these areas are not safe havens for the working class.  For the past several years, Boyle Heights has dealt with the tension between economic stagnation and gentrification. New stores with new owners bring needed business to the community, but many are owned by people outside the area, and viewed with suspicion, and often opposition, by long-time residents.   Farther south, where L.A. and Inglewood share an amorphous border, SoFi Stadium and the major retailers it attracts have brought job opportunities to the area, along with increasing rents. It seems every effort to bring new businesses to distressed areas also brings higher housing costs. 

Part of the problem is that we, as a society, associate economic success with location. It is easy to find stories of people who began life in a working-class community, but who worked hard and were able to buy their way into more “desirable” areas. The goal is to “move up and move out”, leaving poorer areas and their residents to fend for themselves. Society, as well as government agencies, do little to incentivize economically successful people to stay in working-class areas, and spread their wealth locally. 

In Los Angeles, society’s biases have been codified into government policies. When L.A. finally enacted affordable housing ordinances, it adopted a milquetoast approach, offering major developers’ incentives to include a percentage of low-income units in larger projects. The idea was that allowing owners to offer market-rate apartments would make the low-rent units financially viable.  In reality, these projects tend to increase rents in the surrounding area, as other owners raise their rents to match newer developments. 

Los Angeles has the remarkable ability to create policies intended to help low-income people, but that actually make things worse.  An excellent example is a recent development policy the city adopted, then rolled back, for the downtown area. 

In its mania to build more housing, the city adopted a downtown plan to encourage mixed-use (housing and commercial) development.  Unfortunately, it forgot to consider the people who work in the area, specifically garment workers.  Bowing to developers’ demands, as it usually does, the Council originally approved a plan to allow mixed-used developments with as little as 5,000 square feet of “productive” space.  Developers insisted this was the most a project could devote to commercial space and still be profitable. 

According to the garment workers’ union it would have also made it easy to build luxury apartments and condos, pushing out factory workers who need to live near their workshops. As many as 20,000 people, mostly Latin American immigrants, work in the garment industry, and many would have lost their jobs to the development plan. In a rare win for workers, the City agreed to modify the plan to require 10,000 square feet of commercial space in a mixed-use building.         

The downtown development plan is the latest example of how the city, in the name of expanding affordable housing, actually shrinks the market. In 2020, Los Angeles, like most other cities, adopted an eviction moratorium to keep people in their apartments during the pandemic.  The ordinance was one of the most onerous, and the most long-lasting, in the country, finally being revoked in February 2023.  While it may have seemed like a good idea at the time, it had the practical effect of removing hundreds, if not thousands, of rental units from the market. 

According to the National Association of Realtors, almost 80 percent of small apartment complexes (four or fewer units) are owned by mom-and-pop landlords.  Many of these owners lacked the deep pockets to pay their properties’ costs month after month without rental income.  As the city piled on one restriction after another, (for example, prohibiting landlords from asking for credit reports for prospective renters, and allowing tenants to stop payment with no notice to the owner), small landlords began to leave apartments vacant, rather than risk renting to tenants they couldn’t evict for non-payment.  There have been several media reports that, instead of risking their livelihoods, small landlords are selling to large corporate property owners that have the capital to ride out the moratorium, keeping the units vacant until they can be rented at market (or higher) rates, or converted to condos.    

When housing for working people clashes with the priorities of the homeless industrial complex, workers almost always lose. Even though hundreds of thousands of workers can benefit from affordable housing, nearly all government-sponsored housing construction is dedicated to the homeless.  Quite often, projects presented to the community as affordable housing for working people suddenly morph into permanent supportive housing for high-acuity homeless. 

Even transit policies seem to punish the working poor.  L.A. has never had great public transit, with spotty schedules and inconvenient stops.  When the pandemic hit, Metro’s leadership thought it would be a great idea to open stations and trains to the unhoused as a way of keeping them out of crowded encampments. Unfortunately, many of these people have mental or substance abuse problems, and crime in stations and on trains increased alarmingly.  While planners espouse the virtues of dense housing near transit hubs, Metro use continues to plummet as potential riders avoid unsafe conditions on trains and buses. The working poor, who depend on public transit, are forced to share space with fentanyl addicts and people tortured by unseen demons. 

Economic forces and bad policy, combined with neglect, have created a vast underclass of the housing-insecure, people who are not homeless technically, but who have no home of their own.  At the high end of this spectrum are workers who live with friends or extended family, often in overcrowded conditions.  They have fairly stable housing but cannot afford to live on their own.  At the lower end are people who shift from couch surfing to living in cheap motels as their income permits. They are truly one medical bill or missed paycheck away from living on the streets. 

So much attention has been given to homelessness, that the plight of working-class people, plagued by a shrinking housing market and narrowing job opportunities, has been ignored.  Worse, the government agencies that should be advocating for them often works against them. 

Homeless advocates and city leaders see the housing crisis as a zero-sum game, where Housing First must be the only solution, even if it means leaving hundreds of thousands of low-wage workers on the precipice of homelessness, and the homeless themselves languishing on the street for years.  We are dealing with an affordable housing crisis created by the very policies and leadership that should have never allowed it to happen; and we are dealing with a homeless crisis perpetuated by those same leaders. These two crises require different solutions, and neither can come at the expense of the other. If they are not, eventually, Los Angeles may find itself unable to sustain middle-class and wealthy lifestyles, as the low-wage workers who make those lifestyles possible are unable to live near the people they serve, and even more people will be left on the streets.

(Tim Campbell is a resident of Westchester who spent a career in the public service and managed a municipal performance audit program.  He focuses on outcomes instead of process. )