Matthew Lee
May 17, 2018 · 7 min read
Robin Line visited a tenant rights clinic a few months ago in an effort to push back on her rent increase. (Photo: Matthew Lee)

Ten years ago single mother Robin Line and her two children moved into a low-income apartment building in South Los Angeles’s Vermont-Slauson neighborhood. Over all she said living there, and the stability it provided, has “been very beneficial to help my children get educated and be a part of a community.”

The building Line lives in recieves Low-Income Housing Tax Credits (LIHTC) for providing reduced rental rates for low-income families — but Line said she’s witnessed otherwise. After a decade in the same apartment, the security she felt has recently been derailed.

“I got a $150 a month rent increase,” Line said and it seems she’s one of the luckier residents — she said others received increases upto $300. “So, you know, how are you to live if you are on a limited income and you keep getting the increase?”

In addition to her own economic worries, Line is also preoccupied about her 77-year-old neighbor who also received notice her rent would be going up by more than $100.

“She’s gotta buy food, gotta pay electrical, she’s gotta have water. Where is she gonna go?” she said, acknowledging she’s facing the same questions, “Where am I gonna move, you know? Where am I going to move two boys?”

Financial anxieties like Line’s and her neighbors’ are intensifying throughout South LA as gentrification spreads across the city. Its negative effects are especially being felt by people already living in what developers call “up and coming” neighborhoods where property is less expensive — an economic boon in a city dealing with a drop-off in available affordable housing and a more than 20 percent rise in homelessness last year.

Just west of the University of Southern California, on the other side of the 110 freeway, LA’s rise in tenant woes is being felt first-hand at Strategic Action for Just Economy (SAJE).

“Now what we’re seeing is a lot more situations where landlords are trying to evict people,” SAJE Executive Director Cynthia Stratmen said. “There’s a lot more displacement pressure, and there, when you see buildings defect, a lot of times it’s so that they can push the tenants out.”

According to their website, the nonprofit has focused on “tenant rights, healthy housing and equitable development” for more than 20 years. SAJE hosts weekly tenant clinics to council residents in the community with housing and landlord issues.

“Sometimes landlords will just issue illegal rent increases,” Stratmen said, “and unless someone really pushes back like, ‘Hey I know that you can’t do that,’ they will get away with it.”

Line visited SAJE’s clinic a few months ago in an effort to push back on her own rent increase. She was one of a handful of people holding folders and manila envelopes of paperwork sitting in a circle along with two SAJE staff members and a lawyer. While the group addressed the tenants’ questions someone’s little girl was running in and out of the building, occasionally stopping to do some homework and a young boy lay on the ground playing on a cellphone.

The meeting functioned as equal parts support-group and clinic. Most of the concerned tenants were Latino. They took turns sharing their concerns with the group, ranging from eviction notices to rent increases. Issues raised in Spanish were translated to English, then the lawyer would provide legal advice, it would be translated back to Spanish, and more questions would then be asked.

“Some landlords have been threatening to call ICE if they think that people might not have papers,” Stratmen said. “A lot of evictions are just illegal evictions.“

Many Spanish speaking tenants approach SAJE with eviction notices in hand. In one case recently brought to the nonprofit, a building was “basically trying to get rid of all of their Spanish speaking families and replacing them with English speaking, wealthier tenants,” Stratmen said. “And so they serve people with illegal evictions notices, and those people hadn’t known their rights, and understand that for themselves, and have just been pushed out of their apartment.“

In 2017, 600,000 LA residents were considered heavily “severely rent burdened,” according to a report from the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University. The research arm of real estate website Zillow found an average rent increase of about 5% in the city would result in another 2000 homeless residents in Los Angeles.

Over the last two years, a good amount of policy has been passed to help slow and alleviate the unsheltered crisis and create more affordable housing in Los Angeles. Proposition HHH passed in the November 2016 election. It provides more funding for nonprofits to build 10,000 units for people experiencing homelessness. Voters also approved Measure JJJ on the same ballot to help mandate employee rights and support opportunities for residents of communities where affordable housing is being built.

Stratmen said although Measure JJJ won’t directly benefit SAJE’s mission, “what is really great about JJJ is that it includes a lot of the visions that we fought for, for a very long time.” The visions met by the new policy include offering incentives for developers to hire locally and train job applicants in the area.

Other recently added LA policy includes Measure H which allocates sales tax in the city to help combat homelessness. Then there’s SB3 and AB 1568, which fund affordable housing development by giving $250–300 million to the issue, half of which is given to local government, while also allocating 20% of property tax. SB 167 makes it difficult for local government to deny affordable housing development contracts.

Even with the significant increase in financial support provided by these new policies, the LA real estate market is still strained, expensive, and displacement numbers are still rising.

“The biggest challenge for all of us has been that, although we are building more housing for the homeless than ever before in our history, the unfortunate fact is that every day we’re seeing more and more people become homeless.” said Fred Ali, president of the Weingart Foundation.

The private organization was founded in 1951. According to their website, it provides funding and grants for nonprofits that are “delivering quality services in the areas of health, human services, and education for people and communities who face the most obstacles to opportunity.”

The Weingart Foundation has been an integral part of supporting homeless and affordable housing issues in the city, by investing millions over the years, according to Ali. The initial focus of the funding was investment in the shelter system but that changed over over time.

“What appears to work better than anything else is the housing first or permanent supportive housing model,” he said. “Particularly where you take the most chronically homeless — put them in housing, surround them with services: mental health, job and other case management services that hopefully allow them to get back on their feet.”

There are suggestions for how to make things easier for affordable housing developers in the city but LA’s housing market is quite reactive to almost any countermove, according to real estate professor Robert Bridges at the USC Marshall School of Business.

Even where there is statewide agreement on the need for more affordable and homeless housing, there is then the encompassing challenge of getting effective policy passed. Last month a massive housing bill was rejected in the California State Legislature. Senate Bill 827 would have required cities to allow more compact, taller developments around public transit.

The bill failed, in part, because of local opposition to development. Ali said his organization has seen this directly.

“People resist housing for the homeless coming into their communities out of fear for a variety of reasons,” he said.

Resolving the housing and homeless crisis in the state, or even in one city is not an easy process. Ali would like to see a better way to ease the pressure, including expediting the entitlement system and eliminating roadblocks in the way of producing more housing as quickly as possible.

“This is a long, lengthy, expensive project so change is not going to occur overnight,” Ali said. “This is a heavy lift for everyone. And it’s going to require some system change if we’re going to get it done, and get it done right.”

He acknowledged this may be unpopular with some people but, “it’s going to require more money than we’re currently allocated for the problem.” He believes a combination of private and government efforts is the ticket to resolution.

That’s not much consolation for Line, who has to worry about the unaffordable housing market impacting her family right now.

“Rent increase, and gentrification — it’s huge, I’ve been seeing it happening a lot, all over,” she said. “It seems that they are trying to push your buttons so you’ll either react and you’re gonna say, ‘I’m gonna move and not take this anymore,’ or they are just going to try and push people out.”

Part of SAJE’s vision for LA is to help people like Line and “to have safe, stable communities where everybody has a right to the city,” Stratmen said. “I’m not actually anticipating that happening super soon, but you know, we just keep working towards it.”

Limited housing and a rise in homelessness are representative of growing inequality in LA. Ali believes these issues are holding the city back from its potential.

“We all want where everyone shares in a growing economy. We just have to keep focused on it,” he said. “You know whatever our motivation is — if it’s human compassion, and if it’s just simple self-interest — everyone wins if we solve this problem.”

Intersections South LA

News and views from South Los Angeles.

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