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LA’s War on Public Housing: An Introduction

A first attempt at telling the story of the era of demolition and privatization.

An illustration of buildings made of stacked dollar bills that are blowing away into the sky. The buildings and dollar bills are red and orange. The sky is yellow and orange.

(Illustration: Kira Carlee | Knock LA)

Gates Says ‘Blow Up’ Projects,” read the July 23, 1981, headline in the Los Angeles Sentinel. Daryl Gates, the infamously racist chief of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD), had just enraged many in LA’s Black community with his comments on a local radio show about the Jordan Downs public housing complex in Watts, home to 700 of the city’s poorest families, almost all of them Black. 

“[Gates] said something to the effect that ‘If I had my way I would blow all those projects up and scatter them throughout the city,’” according to the reporter who interviewed him. 

Although the LAPD quickly clarified that he was simply referring to the need to reduce concentrated poverty, Gates’ language made perfectly clear the disdain he felt toward both the program of public housing and the families that lived there

As one resident wrote to the paper: “it sounds as if he’s advocating violence.” 

Yet in hindsight, the most worrying part of this controversy was not that Gates would say something so extreme — it was that the rest of LA’s elites felt the same way.

A black and white image of the Los Angeles Sentinel headline that reads, "Gates Says 'Blow. Up' Projects."

An image of the Los Angeles Sentinel headline, “Gate Says ‘Blow Up’ Projects” (Source: Los Angeles Sentinel)

Gates was responding to a lengthy front-page article in the Los Angeles Times titled “Marauders From Inner City Prey on L.A.s Suburbs,” in which Jordan Downs featured prominently, labeled as “the center of a subculture of crime.” In response to the article — called the “most objectionable news story” of the year by the National Association of Black Journalists — the paper’s editorial board weighed in with an opinion strikingly similar to that of Gates.

“Public housing, a spawning ground for the marauders, should be dispersed around the city in single-family units, not piled one on top of another as in Jordan Downs and Nickerson [Gardens],” the editorial board wrote. “That land would be better used as sites for much-needed industry in the inner city.”

By the end of the 1980s, this anti-public-housing consensus had consolidated, and the forces pushing it had begun to act. The City of Los Angeles declared a full-scale war on public housing — against the program, the physical buildings, and the people themselves — that continues to this day. 

The era of LA’s ongoing demolition and privatization of its public housing has been told only in bits and pieces. This series marks the first effort — but hopefully not the last — to provide a full account of this history.

A black and white photograph of LAPD chief Daryl Gates seated at a swearing in ceremony. Gates is wearing a black uniform and is surrounded by other attendees in formal wear.

LAPD chief Daryl Gates at his swearing-in ceremony in 1978. (Photo: UCLA Library Special Collections)

Land Grabs, by the Numbers

Since 1995, the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles (HACLA) has demolished, or is in the process of demolishing, over 3,000 units of public housing, according to my compiled data of public housing privatization within Los Angeles. This includes the 1,750 units that have already been fully torn down at Normont Terrace, Pico Gardens, Aliso Apartments, and Aliso Village (collectively referred to as “Pico-Aliso”), and Dana Strand Village. There are an additional 1,282 units that are currently undergoing demolition and privatization at Jordan Downs, Rancho San Pedro, and Rose Hill Courts. 

In all cases, while the Housing Authority still technically owns the land, long-term leases of up to 99 years mean that the private-sector developers are the ones in charge. 

This represents at least 182 acres of prime real estate put in the service of for-profit interests. That’s bigger than the Staples Center, LA Live, and Bunker Hill combined — making these collectively the most significant land grabs in Los Angeles in the modern era.

An image of a chart tracking the demolition of LA's public housing units and the estimated displacement of tenants.
A chart tracking the demolition of LA’s public housing units and the estimated displacement of tenants.

Prior to HACLA’s first demolition in 1995, the city maintained 8,264 units of public housing spread across 17 developments, each of these built between the years of 1940 and 1955. With the completion of the current privatization processes, this will be reduced to just 5,236 units, representing a decrease of over one-third in just a few decades. William Mead Homes, with 415 units on the northeastern edge of Chinatown, appears to be next. And the Housing Authority’s recently published 25-year plan lays out a vision in which 2,400 additional homes are privatized and redeveloped, leaving fewer than 2,500 units of truly public housing.

Thousands of residents, almost all of them Black or Latine, have been displaced. It’s difficult to know exactly how many, as HACLA has conveniently not kept records for the demolitions that have occurred. My best estimate, based on the evidence available and reviewed in the following articles, is that between about 1990 and 2003, a minimum of 4,000 people were removed from their homes, without the ability to return to the privatized units. This does not include any estimates for the ongoing privatizations.

Winners and Losers

The losers from demolition and redevelopment are the same as always: the poorest of the poor. The winners of these vast transfers of land are the capitalists, both major and minor, as well as the politicians who hitch their careers to the creation of a “world-class city.” 

The mass removal of poor families benefits local property and business owners, who see public housing communities as constituting a “negative effect on the surrounding neighborhood,” as HACLA put it bluntly in its application to demolish Dana Strand. Years later, it concluded that redevelopment was “exceptionally successful in stimulating private investment.” With Pico-Aliso, in Boyle Heights, the Housing Authority boasted that “neighboring property owners [would] benefit from the significant investment in the neighborhood.” 

Another group that profits even more directly are the private developer-landlords who build the housing and collect the rents, always generously subsidized by public money. This has included massive firms like Related Companies — the lead developer in three separate privatization schemes — and The Michaels Organization, the largest private “affordable housing” landlord in the country. Nobody except for the developers knows exactly how much money they’re making, but the fact that they keep coming back for more indicates healthy returns.

And last, but certainly not least, there are the financiers and investors, including major financial institutions like Citibank and Bank of America, who receive tax credits and interest payments on loans that can be worth tens of millions of dollars. Bank of America, for example, has invested over $100 million in the ongoing privatization of Jordan Downs, with another $30 million on the way. Needless to say, these institutions are not investing out of the kindness of their corporate hearts.

A map of public housing developments in the city of Los Angeles

Map of public housing developments in the city of LA. (Map: Camille Kaplan | Knock LA)

This is what the big picture looks like. But we can also zoom in and examine the forces driving demolition in each particular case of this brazen commodification of public space. 

As downtown LA was undergoing intense state-supported redevelopment in the 1990s, the city prioritized the privatization of Pico-Aliso, a 1,262-unit development located just across the river; the idea, according to the Housing Authority, was to create a new “Gateway to East LA.” The development was “lowering property values” and “creating a disincentive to business development.” Given its proximity to downtown, the Housing Authority stated that redevelopment would “stimulate and create interest in the City of Los Angeles on the part of the international community.” 

Jordan Downs has also been targeted by the highest echelons of LA’s business and political elite as essential to the broader project of “revitalizing” South Central. Under Tom Bradley’s leadership, the city first attempted to sell off Jordan Downs in 1989, but the scheme was quickly defeated by a surge of tenant organizing. Twenty years later, responding to the renewed demands of corporate leaders, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa made redeveloping Jordan Downs a core part of his housing plan for the city, getting the current process of demolition and privatization rolling.

At the three developments near the Port of LA, things look a bit different. Normont Terrace, in Harbor City, and Dana Strand, in Wilmington, were both targeted primarily by local property owners — who occupy a relatively low position in the citywide hierarchy but wielded enough power to get what they wanted in their neighborhoods. At Rancho San Pedro, a highly organized, but still very local, capitalist class that had pushed for the complex’s demolition for decades was finally able to get the city to act once development-friendly Councilmember Joe Buscaino took control of the 15th District in 2012.

In most cases, the homes have been replaced by a similar number of privatized “affordable” and market-rate units. But as we shall see, even the “affordable” ones can serve populations with significantly higher incomes — families making $60,000 a year, for example, compared to the average family in public housing in LA that earns just over $21,000.

A War Against the Poor

Throughout this series, I use the language of war to describe the era of demolition and privatization so we can more accurately understand the true nature of this ugly history. This is not a story of technocratic and neutral policy decisions, but one in which the city’s most powerful institutions and players have relentlessly attacked public housing communities from all angles, using violence, deception, slanderous propaganda, and abandonment as their weapons. 

The language of war also echoes and connects this history to the war on gangs and the war on drugs. Public housing residents have been primary targets of these repressive and racist campaigns. The same organs of LA’s ruling class that have forced poor Black and Latine people into the largest system of human caging ever built — referring here to both LA specifically and the United States as a whole — came together to rip these public housing communities apart.

There are many facilitators of this war. The police, primarily the LAPD, are key players. Just as the leading solution for homelessness today is criminalization and incarceration, police violence and repression have comprised the city’s chief strategy for managing and maintaining the deep poverty that exists in public housing communities — that is, at least, until the families can be removed entirely.

The judicial branch and local prosecutors have also provided a massively important weapon: the gang injunction, which has either preceded or closely followed demolition and privatization at every single development profiled here, with the exception of Pico-Aliso. These extreme legal measures serve, in the words of one organizer with the Youth Justice Coalition, as “prisons without walls.” They give the police even further license to harass and remove residents for any behavior deemed to be associated with gang activity, including simply hanging out in public with certain friends or family. As with other neighborhoods in Los Angeles, perhaps most notably Echo Park, gang injunctions in the context of public housing have functioned as tools of racial and class cleansing.

“From the start, settlers in the U.S. have occupied land by policing it,” explains the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition in their recent report on policing and real estate, Automating Banishment. “Under settler colonialism, everyone and everything existing on that land must be dominated, managed, or eliminated to make way for the needs of white supremacy and capital.” We can see this analysis play out clearly in LA’s approach to public housing. 

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Propaganda and ideology have also served a crucial role in this war, with major papers, especially the Los Angeles Times and the Harbor-area Daily Breeze, fulfilling their function as mouthpieces for property owners. Reports would repeatedly label and stigmatize entire communities as “gang-infested,” and then uncritically praise what was built upon their displacement. Joe Buscaino captured the dehumanization of public housing residents that has greased the wheels of demolition when he justified the displacement of hundreds of families from Dana Strand Village as having “removed the criminal element.” 

The Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles, of course, is perhaps the main character here, aside from the tenants themselves. HACLA — which also administers Section 8 vouchers in the city, among other housing-related activities — is the institution that owns and manages LA’s public housing and partners with private developers to carry out the removal of families and replacement of buildings. The record will clearly demonstrate a pattern of sacrificing, mistreating, and lying to the families that the agency is supposed to serve. 

Finally, we cannot overlook LA’s elected officials. The mayor has the power to appoint HACLA’s Board of Commissioners. City Council, on the other hand, doesn’t have much legal authority over the agency — unless it were to choose the nuclear option and completely take it over, which it briefly did in the early 1980s. Limited levels of formal control notwithstanding, the politicians set the agenda, using their platforms to lobby, propagandize, and overall prime the public for the war on public housing. On the issue of public housing, the playbooks of liberal and conservative politicians have been virtually indistinguishable from one another: Violently repress the poor families, raze the projects when the opportunity arises, and gentrify everything. 

One last feature to note is the importance of budgetary decisions at the city level, especially given that the lack of federal funding for maintaining the projects is almost always presented as one of the main justifications for privatization. At every point in this history, the city has affirmatively chosen to abandon public housing while devoting enormous sums to policing and corporate development downtown. 

This is no less true today: With capital needs of $533 million over 20 years, the city could fully modernize its public housing stock with less than 1% of the LAPD’s $3 billion annual operating budget.  

Making a Better World

Despite this powerful coalition bent on redevelopment, this has not been a one-sided war. Again and again, public housing tenants — particularly women tenants — have fought back to protect their homes and communities. As the scholar Edward Goetz, among others, has argued, public housing worked, and still does. Nobody knows that better than the tenants who have struggled to defend it.

Public housing has provided stable homes for millions of families across the country, and tens of thousands in Los Angeles. It continues to serve as a haven of truly affordable housing as rents in the private market skyrocket. 

Amazing things are possible when housing is owned and operated in the public interest — such as when public funds subsidized the creation of Resident’s Voice, a citywide, tenant-run newspaper that for years produced articles in English, Spanish, Cambodian, and Vietnamese. The COVID-19 pandemic has also exposed another way that public housing is truly unique, as housing authorities have been allowed and encouraged by the federal government to effectively cancel rent.

An aerial photograph of Mar Vista Gardens. LA’s public housing developments are made up of two- or three-story garden apartments, like those pictured here.

An aerial image of Mar Vista Gardens. LA’s public housing developments are made up of two- or three-story garden apartments, like those pictured here. (Photo: Wikimedia)

Public housing tenants in LA have aggressively battled the Housing Authority, the politicians, the police, and the profiteers. They have defended public ownership, demanded city resources, and constructed community-built alternatives to criminalization and incarceration. Through the darkest and most suffocating years of neoliberalism, brave tenants have kept alive alternative visions of a city that works for the poor rather than the rich. Ultimately, public housing has served as a crucial breeding ground for radical organizing in Los Angeles. 

Unfortunately, it has been the struggle against public housing in LA that has so far most profoundly shaped the city. 

In the 1950s, real estate interests and the Los Angeles Times waged their first war on public housing, stopping the continued development of the program in its tracks. The idea that the state should build and own decent homes was derided by the right-wingers as “the creeping cancer of socialism,” and anyone that supported it was branded a communist. This capitalist coalition succeeded in canceling a contract with the federal government to build 10,000 units of housing — this is why LA has a relatively small stock of publicly owned homes compared to other major cities

This triumph of the city’s business elites, which ensured that no public housing was built after San Fernando Gardens was completed in October 1955, was a major turning point for Los Angeles. Instead of hosting thousands of units of public and low-income housing, the centrally located neighborhoods of Chavez Ravine and Bunker Hill would respectively become Dodger Stadium and a series of ultra-luxury office towers, art museums, and apartments. 

As the late historian Don Parson wrote in his book, Making a Better World, the political assassination of the city’s public housing program “marked the exit of the Left from the politics of the city” — from which we still have yet to recover. 

With the housing crisis comprising the single most glaring contradiction in 21st-century Los Angeles, the time has come to make a battle over public housing a turning point for the city yet again.

Read more of this 10-part series, LA’s War on Public Housing: The Era of Demolition and Privatization, here.