Hopefully it won’t take half of the city getting kicked to the curb to start mobilizing a critical mass of residents to action.
To anyone who lives in Los Angeles but has probably just been too busy #resisting to notice the failure of our local government, we have been experiencing two massive booms over the last few years. One is the massive increase in high price development. The other one of the nation’s most extreme housing and homelessness crises. In the face of all that, we’re simultaneously doing everything we can to disenfranchise and silence the voices of those suffering the most at the hands of developers. How the hell did we get here? And how can we really help the victims of this crisis?
Let’s start with the rash of new development that has done nothing to alleviate the housing crisis. Increasingly, the developments that break ground are luxury apartment and condo buildings (because apparently “luxury” is the only fucking adjective any real estate marketers know) owned by foreign investors with no stake in the daily goings on in the city. In addition to seemingly being in a competition with Soviet Khrushchyovka for most uninspired architecture, many of these developments are no more than speculative land grabs, which is why despite the increase in production, we still have so many vacant buildings and lots.
These buildings do nothing towards stripping away LA’s titles of largest chronic homeless population, populations of homeless youth (including LGBT youth), homeless veterans, and now apparently homeless community college students. Instead they sit empty in the hope that one day in the future clueless gentrifiers will be rich or desperate enough to pay the ridiculous rents the owners want to charge. Some of the units that do wind up purchased are bought by wealthy foreigners as a fast track to citizenship, while honest hard-working low income immigrants are forced to wait decades if they’re given the chance to become citizens at all, which seems reasonable enough (I mean, if my white ancestors could come here when there were no real restrictions on immigration or barriers to citizenship for them, I don’t see why anyone else would need to violate arbitrary laws to flee death squads in their home countries our government is funding). The construction of luxury lofts also gives the owners of older nearby buildings yet another excuse to raise rents on their existing units, even without making any improvements to their facilities (thanks Costa-Hawkins!).
Voters have gone to the ballots several times recently to try and alleviate these problems in a few different ways. Those without adblockers installed on their web browsers, and garbage billboard enthusiasts may remember Measure S. “S” sought to put a halt to nearly all development for two years to allow for some “breathing room” in this development boom. However, no grassroots tenants’ rights organizations were consulted in crafting of the measure. It was the brain child of a billionaire and was intended to stop the development of one specific high rise building that would have blocked the view from his office. Yes, our laws are really that simple and absurd. As such, the measure, in addition to stopping the rise of condos across our city, also would have largely prevented the building of low income housing, thwarting any attempt to house our homeless population. That’s the short version at least. I thank God for every day I don’t have to talk about that stupid fucking measure and I don’t want to re-hash it here. Please see the DSA-LA analysis if somehow you managed to avoid the Facebook arguments it spurred for months and you need more information.
In a more positive development, last November, LA voters passed measure HHH (pronounced “hhhhhhhhhh…”) which earmarked resources towards building some of the needed housing for our homeless populations. This March we also barely passed measure H. “H” is the partner measure to “HHH”. In addition to being 200% easier to say, Measure H will provide services for homeless. Even though it would accomplish two of rich white peoples’ favorite things (getting the homeless out of sight and making poor people pay for it), they voted against it. In part, it will fund the sort of programs you’d imagine would help the homeless. Stuff like addiction and mental health treatment, homelessness prevention programs, emergency services and the like. However, if notorious city budget cannibals the LAPD gets their way, this money will also fund homeless sweeps, beatings, arrests, and confiscation/destruction of property. You know, all the usual stuff that we’ve been doing for decades and has totally been an effective, reasonable, and lasting solution to homelessness.
While most of LA is patting themselves on the back for solving homelessness with a simple check at the ballot box, the fight isn’t even over on Measure HHH/H (the combination super measure algebra fans affectionately refer to as measure H squared). Activists must continue to fight for how exactly that money is allocated, as there is great potential for fraud and waste. Even if everything goes perfectly, we still have barely scratched the surface of a long-term solution to affordable housing and homelessness in LA.
Which brings me to Skid Row. Skid Row is at both the geographic and metaphorical center of LA’s homelessness epidemic. The land Skid Row sits on is potentially worth billions to developers looking to expand the borders of downtown’s commercial core. It also currently represents the end of the line for a large swath of LA’s homeless population. All the surrounding communities (save for Santa Monica and Long Beach) have a policy of pushing their homeless populations towards downtown.
If you want to see how this enforcement mechanism works, try to sit down on anything but an official park bench in Beverly Hills. The wheels immediately spin into motion. First the police intervene. Then, if you’re deemed worthy of more scrutiny there will be a search for outstanding warrants. If there’s nothing on the books then they’ll issue you a citation. But here’s the trick: if you’ve been cited previously and couldn’t afford to pay, you’ll get a quick trip through the county jail. Then, if you don’t have a place to go, you’ll be offered the potential for access at one of the missions, effectively depositing you in Skid Row. In addition to that mechanized judicial process, the consolidation of service providers, shelters, low-income housing, etc. on Skid Row has also de facto solidified the massive homeless population in the area.
Meanwhile, the value of real estate in the area directly surrounding Skid Row is soaring on all sides. White baby boomer fathers and other owners of The History Channel’s World War Two in HD Blu-Ray will recognize the strategy in effect on Main Street, Little Tokyo, and The Arts District as a classic pinscher maneuver of gentrification set to envelope Skid Row (just like the Wehrmacht did to the Red Army during the First Battle of Kiev, right Dad?! Please love me…)
The attitude of our mayors and city council members that has persisted for decades has proven that solving homelessness is simply not a priority for our local government. They’ve either used Skid Row as a containment zone, or flooded police in to perpetuate the cycle of punitive rehabilitation. Unchallenged negative views on the homeless expressed at many neighborhood council meetings in the city show that they too are no allies in addressing the crisis (except you Eagle Rock NC. You rock, Eagle Rock!). This means Skid Row has been almost completely bereft of a voice in local politics.
Cue the Skid Row Neighborhood Council (SRNC) Formation election. The problems Skid Row faces are vastly different than those of the rest of downtown. An independent SRNC would give the residents of Skid Row more of a voice in their own affairs. It would also provide them with a direct line to our local officials to amplify that voice, in addition to acting a buffer between the developers that seek to displace them and a community insistent on criminalizing them. Typically the approximately $40,000 budget allocated to neighborhood councils doesn’t mean much to most NCs. Often that money goes to things like paying the LAPD even more to conduct extra homeless sweeps (which they’re already paid to do by the way) or purchasing the LAPD’s youth league soccer jerseys (or probably just letting the LAPD set huge stacks of cash on fire. Pretty much whatever cops want.). That money would go way further in the lives of Skid Row residents. For example, the construction of just a few extra bathrooms would give residents almost as much access to one as in a Syrian refugee camp.
During the voting process, City Hall interfered to the benefit of the opposition: The Downtown Los Angeles Neighborhood Council or DLANC (strap in for some more acronyms). City Hall allowed the shadowy Department of Neighborhood Empowerment (or DONE, as in “we DONE fucked over poor people again!”) who oversees neighborhood council formation, to implement online voting just two weeks before the election was to take place (despite having a policy on the books barring this practice). Now, many of you may not know this, but a lot of homeless people do not have ready access to computers and the internet. Other measures were taken to effectively disenfranchise the (mostly black) residents of Skid Row (Imagine that?! Rich people finding ways to take the vote away from impoverished black folk!). Poor handling of the election also led to a great deal of confusion among SRNC proponents as to who was eligible to vote, and how they could vote. Many “yes” voters were told their online votes did not register. Some were also turned away at the polling location for not having a driver’s license, even though any photo ID was acceptable and not even required if one self-avowed to be homeless. In an incredibly narrow vote the SRNC was denied the ability to form.
This story is still developing and honestly has more twists than an M. Night Shyamalan movie, which is to say several, as usually those movies just have one big twist towards the end (*SPOILER ALERT* like when Bruce Willis’ character turned out to be dead the whole time in The Sixth Sense, or Samuel L. Jackson turned out to be villain the whole time in Unbreakable, or how The Happening just turned out to be a complete shit waste of time). A more thorough explanation of the election’s mishandling can be found in the series of articles by General Jeff over at City Watch. The most telling fact from this election is that the opponents were so disgusted and fearful of our homeless that only 19 showed up to vote in person at the James Woods Community Center on the day of the election, as opposed to the 189 who voted yes there.
An official advisory board reviewed the claims made by the SRNC Formation Committee about illegal and unfair practices conducted by the opposition. They advised to reverse the outcome of the election, or hold a completely new one. DONE said “LOL THAT’S CUTE”, and decided to ignore the recommendation and uphold the outcome. Currently the SRNC FC is pursuing a lawsuit.
Instead of addressing this and other housing problems, Mayor Eric Garcetti has had a fetishistic fixation on securing Los Angeles the rights to host the 2024 Olympic games. Why? Is it all an effort to trick the Kobe Bryants and Will Ferrells of the world into partying with him, giving him the adoration and validation he never received from his father Gil, who may or may not blame his son for his own inability to secure a guilty verdict during the OJ trial? Maybe. We’re not weighing in on that conclusively right now.
What we can say is that the Olympics would only further exacerbate the homelessness crisis. Without massive changes in our housing and police policies, an Olympics in LA would mean rent increases, more luxury development, increased homelessness, sweeps of the homeless by the LAPD, and most likely an accelerated gentrification of Skid Row. Thousands of homeless residents will be pushed even further from service providers. Most will either die out of sight from disease, drug overdoses, police violence, and exposure, or will be imprisoned (especially if they suffer from mental illness).
Even if LA doesn’t get the Olympics, this is still the trajectory the city is on. Raising rents, illegal evictions, and city ordinances that specifically target low income residents with onerous fines will mean a continued overall increase in homelessness. If wages continue to stagnate, soon middle-class Angelenos will be subjected to this kind of treatment as well. Without our leaders allowing the public to have a voice we’re in trouble. Are we saying that if matters like the Skid Row Neighborhood Council are denied a fair hearing, we’re looking at a future where gradually everyone in LA is displaced and dies out in the desert or expatriates to Mexico while the rich play a scale version of Monopoly with our lives (because they’re really just that fucking bored and insane), until one Howard Hughes like figure is left to rule a ghost city populated by robot servants? Pretty much, yeah.
Hopefully though it won’t take half of the city getting kicked to the curb to start mobilizing a critical mass of residents to action. What the denial of the SRNC in the face of a housing crisis should be a call to every Angelino: it’s time to demand more from our leaders.