“Yo soy prueba de que los estados unidos es un país de oportunidades y libertad,” Antonio Villaraigosa declared in his inauguration speech in 2005. (“I am proof that the United States is a country of opportunity and freedom.”)
LA’s first Latino mayor in over 100 years, Villaraigosa electrified local politics with his charisma, inspirational personal story, and lofty rhetoric. From a poor family east of the LA River, a former labor organizer who climbed his way to the top, he was the personification of the American dream, with a City-of-Angels twist.
He was also, it turned out, extremely useful to LA’s ruling elites. In the war on public housing, Villaraigosa was able to accomplish what his predecessors could not: kicking off the process of handing over Jordan Downs, “one of the most vied-for plots of land in all of LA,” to private interests.
By 2005, his allegiances should have already been clear. After his failed mayoral run in 2001, Villaraigosa was kept afloat by some of the most powerful figures in LA. He earned a salary reported to be well over $10,000 a month by working for entities like the subprime mortgage lender Ameriquest and the private equity firm The Yucaipa Companies, controlled by local billionaires Roland Arnall and Ron Burkle, respectively.
Even as he received huge salaries and gifts from corporations invested in privatization, Villaraigosa was able to string progressives along seemingly on his vibes alone — keeping it vague when it came to the details of what he wanted and demonstrating a remarkable ability to be everything to everyone.
“He’s someone who cares about all the classes, rich and poor,” Sheila Kuehl, now a former county supervisor, gushed to the New Yorker in 2007, apparently without any hint of irony.
Villaraigosa did, however, have to pick sides — and almost always he chose the side of the rich. He increased the police force to over 10,000 officers, ushered through a number of major publicly funded luxury developments, violently cracked down on the population of Skid Row, appointed an investment banker as “economy chief” to make the LA “the most business-friendly city in the country” during the depths of the recession, and successfully pushed for the slashing of corporate taxes.
A “Latin [Tom] Bradley” was how Mike Davis described him — a “jaded booster” who quickly became “a non-threatening paragon of liberal accommodation to an unchanging elite agenda of pharaonic redevelopment projects.”
“Somebody’s got to be a grown-up” was how Villaraigosa justified his right-wing positions — in this instance referring to his scolding of high school students he told to go back to class rather than protest an anti-immigrant bill in Congress.
In September 2008, he finally took his shot at addressing the city’s most acute crisis: housing.
His “Housing that Works” plan was just like him: slick, focus-grouped, and light on substance. Villaraigosa’s major selling point was a supposedly historic investment in housing of $5 billion over five years, but this number was an illusion; it came from taking $1 billion of public funding from sources that already existed, combined with an estimated $4 billion in other public and private funding that could be attracted. In fact, from 2005 to 2012, from when Villaraigosa took office to the year before he left, LA did not commit any of its own general fund dollars to building or preserving housing.
The privatization and redevelopment of Jordan Downs was a core part of his plan: a glossy, big-ticket item that would please the thirsty investors looking for profits in South Central. Like the Housing Authority under Tom Bradley years earlier, Villaraigosa promised to make Jordan Downs “the center of the successful revitalization” of Watts. He even took it one step further, calling for the redevelopment of Nickerson Gardens in Watts and Ramona Gardens in East LA.
By 2020, “Freedom Plaza” had opened to the community as part of the first phase of redevelopment. Residents could now go just next door to shop at major retailers like Nike and Starbucks — or, even better, work for them at minimum wage.
It was just what Villaraigosa had promised about America when he took office: a “country of opportunity and freedom.”
Planning for Battle Behind the Closed Door
“There will never be any development that takes place in secret,” Maxine Waters, the area’s longtime congressional representative, promised the crowd that gathered at the Jordan Downs Recreation Center on March 15, 2008.
Still several months before Villaraigosa’s announcement made the privatization project official, Waters had organized a field hearing of the US House Committee on Financial Services. The purpose was to address the “rumors” circulating about redevelopment plans for the community. Rudy Montiel, the head of the Housing Authority, was brought in to clear things up, as were representatives for HUD, Mayor Villaraigosa, and Janice Hahn, then the local city councilmember.
The testimony of that day, however, only obfuscated the situation even further.
“We don’t have a plan,” said Montiel, speaking for HACLA. “We have a concept. We have a vision.” But this “vision” was supposedly “not focused on Jordan Downs.” He did admit that the Housing Authority was working on purchasing a vacant 21-acre parcel next to the complex — “the factory” (different from “the factories” at Pico-Aliso). But Montiel did not let on how far along this was. Just two weeks later, on April 1, 2008, the sale would be completed, with HACLA paying $31 million for the land.
Montiel insisted that there was “no definite plan” for Jordan Downs, a statement Maxine Waters asked him to repeat for emphasis. Yet he then ticked off a number of features that did in fact become part of the redevelopment scheme: one-for-one replacement of homes, phased relocation, a retail component, a goal of 2,100 units. “Will we involve the private sector? Absolutely,” he stated.
The statements from Villaragiosa’s and Hahn’s offices were similar, alternating between denying there was a plan at all and speaking of specific features that would end up being part of it.
Reading this testimony with the benefit of hindsight, it’s clear that the decision to privatize and redevelop Jordan Downs had already been made, completely behind closed doors. It was exactly what Maxine Waters promised would never happen.
At Least Their Reports Are Honest
In the fall of 2008, the Housing Authority tapped the Urban Land Institute (ULI) to advise on the redevelopment process. By February 2009 — before a single public meeting was held to solicit residents’ views — the ULI had produced a 51-page report providing a detailed vision for a privatized Jordan Downs.
The report, written by a “panel” of 10 authors — eight of whom were either real estate investors or developers — is notable for its articulation of the purpose of redevelopment. “New housing is not the end goal of the Jordan Downs endeavor but rather the actor to catalyze Watts,” the authors wrote. The new Jordan Downs could be a “truly revolutionary example of how to reinvent public housing developments in urban areas.” The report went on to recommend the redevelopment of all the public housing complexes in the area, which it argued was “long overdue” and necessary to “achieve major transformative change in Watts.”
This desire to privatize all of Watts’ public housing echoed recommendations released a year earlier by the Los Angeles Economy and Jobs Committee (LAEJC), a who’s who of corporate leaders convened by Villaraigosa and chaired by the CEO of City National Bank. That report, titled “Building a World-Class City for the 21st Century,” demanded that the redevelopment of Watts’ public housing be a “top priority” for the city. There is “no shortage of investment dollars available to target these areas,” it stated. Villaraigosa explicitly credited the LAEJC with impressing upon him the importance of revitalizing public housing.
The ULI report was far more detailed, and the blueprint its authors developed bears a striking resemblance to the actual plans that would be implemented at Jordan Downs. From the extension of Century Boulevard through the project, to the siting of different land-uses, to the way the plan would be phased, it again appears that major decisions were made completely without tenant input.
‘Community Participation’ and Increased Evictions
On February 28, 2009, with the project’s blueprint already in hand, the Housing Authority finally held its first public “brainstorming” session. Attendance was dismal: About 40 out of Jordan’s 2,300 residents were present. Numbers were similarly low at a subsequent meeting in August that year, with the Los Angeles Times writing that residents “were nearly outnumbered by the consultants and architects who showed up.” The reporter estimated that about “a dozen” families were consistently involved.
By that point, considerable yet seemingly unorganized opposition had arisen in the community. At a basic level, residents found it hard to believe such lofty promises would ever be carried out to their benefit. More problematically, many saw this entire process as a way to clear them out of Watts.
“The projects ain’t feeling this right now,” Fred Smith, a longtime resident, put it to the Los Angeles Times. Increased evictions were already a major issue. Smith “ticked off a string of tenants evicted for penny-ante transgressions,” including an elderly mother who was kicked out on suspicion that her son lived with her in violation of her lease.
The reporter dismissively referred to some tenants’ concerns as “conspiracy theories,” but then in the next paragraph cited HACLA’s planning director, John King, confirming that evictions had indeed increased — “a crackdown on lease violators,” in her words. “We’re just holding families accountable for what they should have been doing all along,” King stated.
He then explained that every tenant “in good standing” would be able to return to the redeveloped complex. What exactly this meant was left unclear and would remain a source of frustration and confusion for years.
The one thing that was clear: The battle was on.
The Rebellion After the Rebellion
“Give us the hammer and the nails, we will rebuild the city.” Thus concluded one of the most remarkable documents in LA’s history.
Immediately after the 1992 uprising, Watts’ Bloods and Crips sets continued their pre-rebellion peace organizing to rally around a comprehensive plan for their community. Demanding public investments of $3.7 billion annually, the plan called for public ownership of damaged and abandoned lots, to be replaced with new community centers; properly funded education and higher salaries for teachers; healthcare and childcare for all; more community control over the police, including a “buddy system” in which former gang members would be given cars and cameras to surveil every police interaction; and jobs for people out of work.
These demands came on the heels of the gang truce organized immediately before the rebellion began, which dramatically reduced violence in the community for years.
As is clear from the historian Elizabeth Hinton’s book America on Fire, the residents of Watts’ four public housing complexes were the nucleus of this movement. Gang members from Jordan Downs and Imperial Courts first formalized the peace pact on April 26, 1992, just days before the Simi Valley jury announced the acquittals of the police officers who savagely beat Rodney King.
The city’s establishment ignored such calls for state-led redistribution, turning instead to corporate voluntarism with the doomed Rebuild LA initiative, which tanked even on its own terms, failing to generate the promised level of private investment. The police, meanwhile, worked to sabotage the gang truce, harassing and jailing many of its leaders, dismissing it as a violent conspiracy, and doubling down on aggressive tactics despite the relative peace in the community. As just one example of many, LAPD deployed 75 armed officers to raid a unity barbecue at Jordan Downs in June 1992. Autonomous organizing would not be allowed.
By 1997, the most notable public investment in South Central was the new $30 million LAPD station on 77th Street. “It’s beautiful,” a resident of Nickerson Gardens mournfully told a Los Angeles Times reporter that year. “You see anything else in the community that looks better than that jail?”
One might say the same about LAPD’s current headquarters in downtown LA. Completed in 2009 at a cost of $437 million, the city spent almost as much money on that single building as it would cost to adequately repair its entire stock of public housing.
Despite the gangs’ best efforts at peace, all the city would commit to was war.
Community Policing or Counterinsurgency?
“We have ceded control of some of our public-housing projects to some of the worst criminals in the city,” then councilmember Eric Garcetti proclaimed at a council meeting in April 2004, responding to recent shootings at Nickerson Gardens. Janice Hahn added that the city must “completely redevelop [its] housing projects.”
Less than a year earlier, prosecutors and police imposed a gang injunction on the area surrounding Nickerson, the largest public housing project in the city, located about a mile southwest of Jordan Downs. The city now earmarked an additional $2 million for policing public housing communities. In doing so, the politicians ignored LAPD’s own numbers showing that the worst violence occurred in areas dominated by private housing and that violent crime at public housing had been falling for years.
Jordan Downs was targeted next, subjected to a crippling gang injunction starting in 2005. The impact on its residents was draconian. Even Janice Hahn criticized the police’s harsh and arbitrary tactics, as the Los Angeles Times published the accounts of multiple young people who were surveilled and arrested for major crimes such as walking home from school or using the project’s computer room for homework with friends.
LAPD then announced something special for Jordan Downs in the fall of 2005: It would become the first residential community in Los Angeles to have surveillance cameras feeding live video straight to the police department.
Naturally, the residents had zero say in this. Costing $2 million and funded in part by a donation from Motorola, the cameras would make use of “cutting-edge technology” that could be aimed by police like a joystick, sending live images to squad cars in the area. Years later, despite such technology, the cameras somehow failed to capture the police murder of a resident on Christmas morning of 2010. “Unfortunately, the camera wasn’t working that day,” one of the victim’s neighbors told the press.
The cameras were supposed to be part of a “carrot-and-stick twist” that would also provide free wireless internet access to the entire project — but that second part never happened. Years later, LAPD blamed a “funding snag” for its failure to deliver.
Similar surveillance systems have since been expanded to Imperial Courts, Nickerson Gardens, Avalon Gardens, Estrada Courts, Pico Gardens, and Mar Vista Gardens, and the Housing Authority is planning on installing new cameras at all remaining public housing complexes.
This intensified surveillance and repression of Watts’ public housing residents in the early 2000s can be traced, at least in part, to the renewed sense of legitimacy brought to the LAPD by Chief William Bratton. Under his leadership, behind the curtain of clever branding and propaganda, the city’s establishment continued its war against LA’s multiracial poor under the increasingly common guise of “community policing.”
“There is nothing new under the sun with respect to police work,” admitted LAPD’s South Bureau commander, describing a series of raids in 2003 on Nickerson Gardens and Jordan Downs. “But you can package it and sell it differently.” Despite interviews with residents revealing the same violent treatment as always, the Los Angeles Times gifted Bratton with the headline “LAPD Tries Softer Touch.”
The prevailing elite consensus on crime, policing, and public housing was captured in a 2004 opinion piece published in the Los Angeles Times by Constance “Connie” Rice, a prominent civil rights attorney with liberal bonafides who had transformed herself into an LAPD insider and close confidant of Bratton. Rice warned that the “hot spots of underclass Los Angeles” could “metastasize, and eventually pose a real danger to the larger region.” These zones, “often found in and near public housing projects,” are “intensely dangerous areas where nothing works.” She specifically cited Jordan Downs as one such “gang-dominated housing project.”
Just like in the 1981 “Marauders Prey on Suburbs” article, Jordan was again singled out as the source, not a symptom, of LA’s problems.
Though Rice vaguely insisted on the need to attack the “root causes” of such violence, she proposed nothing concrete on this front. The main thrust of her piece was rather to call for a “more sophisticated and aggressive” war on gangs. Rice bemoaned wasting LAPD resources on middle-class areas when they should be focused on public housing; agreed with Chief Bratton and Sheriff Lee Baca on the need for more cops, praising their promotion of “problem-solving policing” (a term she did not further define); and endorsed the increased use of gang injunctions and “mass evictions” by the city attorney.
“The instinct to check virulent violence with vigorous remedies is right,” Rice wrote. “Eviction, if it is done, must be a last resort.”
Rice would go on to become a crucial player in resuscitating the profile of the LAPD and working with Bratton to push the idea of “community policing.” Their signature program was the Community Safety Partnership — branded as the “Future of Suppression” by Rice’s nonprofit. It was first rolled out in 2011 at Jordan Downs, as privatization was moving forward and evictions were again increasing.
Very little had changed since the days when the city was run by the complementary fusion of Tom Bradley’s corporate liberalism and Daryl Gates’ white-supremacist repression. The way to deal with public housing remained the same: Police, surveil, cage, and, when the time was ripe, completely remove the entire community.
Although escalating the war against Jordan Downs would take the ruthless efficiency and political skill of Doug Guthrie (appointed to head HACLA in 2012), Antonio Villaraigosa dutifully fulfilled his role as the city’s commander in chief.
In 2018, facing irrelevance after being knocked out of the governor’s race in the primary, Villaraigosa solidified his loyalty to the real estate industry: He became the face of the Spanish-language advertising campaign used to defeat Prop 10, the ballot measure for expanded rent control that could have helped millions of Californians stay in their homes.
Read more of this 10-part series, LA’s War on Public Housing: The Era of Demolition and Privatization, here.