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Pico-Aliso: We Shall Not Be Moved

How the tenants at Pico-Aliso, the largest public housing complex west of the Mississippi, fought the Housing Authority to a draw.

An orange, yellow, and black illustration depicting tenant protesters outside of a public housing complex
(Illustration: Kira Carlee | Knock LA)

“They’ve lied to us,” declared Manuela Lomeli, a 20-year resident of the Pico-Aliso public housing complex in Boyle Heights. “Where are they going to put everyone who wants to come back? They can’t.”

It was the summer of 1997, and the tenants’ battle with the Housing Authority was at a decisive moment, with each side striking blows and daring the other to retaliate. HACLA had given a large group of families an ultimatum: Sign a move-out agreement within a week, or get evicted and never return. That deadline came and went, and over 65 families still refused to leave their homes.

The tenants had been given “Certificates of Guaranteed Return.” But they knew these were meaningless, not even worth the paper they were printed on. HACLA officials themselves acknowledged, in the words of the Los Angeles Times, that the certificates “may entail being placed on a long waiting list for an open apartment if, as expected, the new Pico-Aliso is filled to capacity.” Yet another dirty trick. 

By this point, the Housing Authority had already started tearing down units at Pico-Aliso, the largest public housing complex west of the Mississippi River, built in the early 1940s and housing 1,262 families in Boyle Heights. The first phase of redevelopment would eventually reduce the 577 units of Pico Gardens and Aliso Apartments to just 421, with only 296 of those being maintained as public housing. The 685 units at Aliso Village would be targeted later in the decade.

Determined not to be casualties of this war on their community, and building on years of organizing against police violence, hundreds of tenants, led by women, formed their own organization in the first months of 1996: Union de Vecinos (UdV), which translates to “Union of Neighbors.” They learned quickly not to trust the Housing Authority, even as seemingly everyone else — including the politicians, the press, and supposedly progressive nonprofits — was fully supportive of the redevelopment plans. 

UdV, still around today, provided just the vehicle that residents needed to resist their displacement, at least in this first phase of the battle, and represents arguably the most successful and durable example of organizing by public housing tenants in the city’s history.

A photograph of the public housing complex, Pico Gardens, boarded up before its demolition
Pico Gardens is pictured with its windows boarded up pre-demolition. (Photo: Union de Vecinos)

‘Nothing in Life Is Guaranteed.’

As residents fought back, the Housing Authority remained unapologetically on the offensive, claiming that it was doing the tenants a favor by removing them from their homes. “Research shows that when they go out to those areas [with Section 8 vouchers], they don’t come back,” said one HACLA spokesperson, responding to the families who refused to leave. “They like the lifestyle, they make new friends.” Residents countered by pointing out the flaws in this logic: If the new complex will be as great as the officials are claiming, why wouldn’t they want to stay? 

Xavier Mendoza, the main HACLA official in charge of the project, provided a slightly different justification for removal, telling the Los Angeles Times that redevelopment “gives us an opportunity to deal with the problem, which is too many people in one place.” 

What he likely meant was too many poor people. This line would be used in support of HACLA’s actions again and again — including by the vaunted Father Gregory Boyle, the founder of Homeboy Industries, who for years worked closely with Pico-Aliso residents as the pastor of the nearby Dolores Mission Catholic Church. Yet as the artist collective Ultra-Red has argued, density was never the problem: “after all, no one ever complains about the rich living in luxury towers.”

Within a month of these 65-plus families making their stand in June 1997, tenants with UdV staged a protest at HACLA’s headquarters in MacArthur Park. Their demand remained the same: legally enforceable agreements that they would not have to leave the development during construction, but rather could move straight into one of the newly built units.

“Nothing in life is guaranteed,” was the response from the authority’s spokesperson, George McQuade. According to the Los Angeles Times, Don Smith, the executive director of HACLA, also sent a letter to residents stating that those involved with the protests would be permanently displaced. 

The battle-hardened tenants of UdV kept fighting throughout the second half of 1997, ultimately forcing the Housing Authority to wave the white flag and capitulate to their demands. Although essentially everyone else was permanently displaced — at least 300 households — the approximately 250 families who refused to leave Pico-Aliso never had to. Eventually, they were able to move directly into the new homes at the redeveloped Pico Gardens, still maintained as public housing. According to Leonardo Vilchis and Elizabeth Blaney, two nonresidents who helped the tenants found UdV and fight the Housing Authority, this victory was entirely attributable to the tenants’ organizing. 

“After 11 months of protests and negotiations, residents of Pico-Aliso declare they have triumphed in their fight to be guaranteed a home at the end of construction of their residential complex,” began a story in La Opinión from December 14, 1997. “The residents plan to hold a party today to celebrate their victory.” 

Poor People, Valuable Land

Boyle Heights, a poor, heavily Latine and Spanish-speaking neighborhood, had long been neglected and abused by the local government. This was dramatically illustrated by the uprooting of over 10,000 residents for the construction of freeways in the decades following World War II. 

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the upper class’s view of Boyle Heights started to shift. Rather than being a dumping ground for freeways, prisons, polluting industries, and the occupying army of the LAPD, the land underneath this poor community was becoming a commodity with huge potential for profit, thanks to its location just east of downtown LA. According to scholar Alfredo Huante, this shift became visible under the reign of Mayor Tom Bradley, whose administration “prioritized Boyle Heights’ exchange value, or its potential to extract rents or profit, as central city redevelopment became viable.” 

The Housing Authority took a similar view. In its 1996 application for federal funds for the second phase of redevelopment, HACLA wrote that a revitalized Pico-Aliso would be “immediate to downtown Los Angeles and will positively impact the City’s overall image. A major revitalization of East Los Angeles will further stimulate and create interest in the City of Los Angeles on the part of the international community.” The Bradley vision of a “world-class city” for the rich continued to be pushed under his successor, Richard Riordan. 

The 1,262 families at Pico-Aliso thus presented a problem. According to HACLA, the “demographics” of the residents, as an “unskilled workforce in a high crime area,” was harming business development and property values. Their homes, their poverty, their skin color, their culture, and the gang violence within the community all served as barriers to the gentrified Boyle Heights desired by the ruling class. 

For a while, it had been acceptable to contain the community with aggressive policing, similar to the official strategy for Skid Row. Ultimately, though, the families at Pico-Aliso simply had to be removed. The federal government arrived just in time with tens of millions of dollars to make this happen. 

The desire of the Housing Authority to remove the poorest residents was explicit from the jump. A summary of its first application for federal funds stated that a major goal of the project was to “promote a broader range of incomes for new post-revitalization families,” targeting those earning between 50% and 80% of the county’s median. This came after noting that Pico-Aliso families were significantly poorer, with 95% earning below 30% of the median. 

The application was successful. In August 1993, it was announced that the federal government had awarded $3.7 million to HACLA to begin planning for the demolition and rebuilding of Pico Gardens and Aliso Apartments, described as “gang-ridden” by the Los Angeles Times in the first sentence of its story. Shortly thereafter, in December 1993, HUD granted HACLA an additional $46 million to go through with the project.

Officials were ecstatic, telling the paper that this represented “one of the most ambitious and socially significant urban redevelopment efforts in the city’s history.” But they also admitted — in a severe understatement of what was to come — that relocation of residents “will be one of our larger problems.” 

As the process moved forward in 1995, as far as the residents were hearing, the plans were vague and the promises grand. Some were skeptical, but nobody was yet under imminent threat, or so it appeared. The Los Angeles Times pitched in to project the strengthening consensus among elites onto the families themselves: “Pico-Aliso Residents Hopeful Over Renovation Plans.”

Pico-Aliso Tenants Decide to Fight

The Housing Authority’s offensive began in January 1996 with the posting of pieces of paper on the doors of 36 families, notifying them of their impending removal. This first shot immediately shattered any tranquility that might have existed at the complex, sparking intense organizing and resistance by the tenants. 

These residents were given 60 days to sign move-out agreements so that the first buildings could be demolished and an expanded park built in their place. Assuming the tenants would simply go along with their removal, the Housing Authority organized a celebratory public event with various elected officials for the day these documents were supposed to be signed. 

What happened was something else entirely. According to Leonardo Vilchis: “Gabby Castillo [a resident] stands up [at the event] and says, ‘Excuse me, before you give your presentation, we want to tell you something. The 36 families got together, and we’re not going to sign any paper, we’re going to save you your time.’ The whole group stood up and left the room, and nobody knew what to do.”

“They were quite in shock,” said Elizabeth Blaney, the other UdV founding organizer. “After they spent so much time talking about how great Section 8 was, they expected [the tenants] to buy it hook, line, and sinker. And people just walked out.” This swell of tenant organizing did not receive any major media coverage at the time. By May 1996, a reader of the Los Angeles Times would have gotten the impression that things were moving along seamlessly.

Photo of the Los Angeles Times headline reading, "Housing Project Brings Hope to LA's Eastside."
One Los Angeles Times headline read, “Housing Project Brings Hope to LA’s Eastside. (Source: Los Angeles Times)

“Housing Project Brings Hope to L.A.’s Eastside,” the headline read, with the story detailing the latest plans for the “gang-plagued” complex. “It is more than just a housing project,” said Xavier Mendoza, the HACLA official. “We’re trying to upgrade the whole area.” The project’s “aggressive social agenda” included mixing in homeowners with the renters and providing various social services to residents. 

Not until 38 paragraphs down was the escalating confrontation referenced. One element the tenants took issue with was the proposal for a privatized senior complex, which would mean that elderly individuals would be separated from the rest of their families. “Virtually all Pico-Aliso residents queried oppose it,” according to the reporter. 

HACLA was determined to hand over a portion of the development to The East Los Angeles Community Union (TELACU), a close ally of then-councilmember Richard Alatorre and a powerful player in Eastside politics — a “brown bourgeoisie,” in the words of the radical scholar Rodolfo Acuña. Making money off public housing was by then a pattern for TELACU, whose first major real estate deal was redeveloping the Maravilla housing project in unincorporated East LA. Despite resident opposition, the privatized 75 units of senior housing would ultimately remain as part of the plan. 

Of even greater concern was the problem of mass displacement. “They just lie to us,” Gabby Castillo told the Los Angeles Times. The main goal of redevelopment was to get rid of the poorest residents, she insisted, offering as proof the fact that HACLA would not guarantee families a place in the rebuilt complex. Rather, officials were reducing the number of units and pressuring tenants to accept Section 8 vouchers to move elsewhere. 

Castillo was right about the lack of guarantees; the problems were already obvious. When Xavier Mendoza was confronted by a reporter about the holes and inconsistencies in the relocation plan, he “seemed at a loss to explain [it]. He later admitted that it still needed some work.” 

A half-baked relocation plan notwithstanding, removal of tenants was set to begin in July 1996, and demolition in November.

Urban Renewal 2.0

Since January 1996, UdV — the organization created by those first 36 families — had grown to encompass many more residents. In September of that year, they were able to further delay the beginning of demolition. Thirty minutes before the symbolic bulldozing of the first buildings was to begin, HACLA decided to call it off, having learned that more than 100 residents organized with UdV had filed an official complaint with the federal government arguing that the Housing Authority had failed to adequately consult with them on the project.

HACLA’s idea of community participation appeared to be very narrowly concerned with the design and layout of what would be constructed, denying residents any say on more fundamental questions such as whether redevelopment should occur in the first place, or how many units would be rebuilt. “Aesthetically, we like the units,” said one resident organized with UdV. “There just aren’t enough of them.” Mendoza, completely missing the thrust of the tenants’ concerns, defended the Housing Authority by arguing that certain designs had already been changed due to the input of residents.

A photograph of two white buildings and one pink building next to a playground. It is a picture of the public housing complex, Aliso Extension
Aliso Extension was part of the development that was demolished by the city in the first phase in the 1990s. (Photo: Union de Vecinos)

In October 1996, the Los Angeles Times published a blistering critique of the project written by UCLA professor of urban planning Jacqueline Leavitt, titled “Urban Renewal Is Minority Renewal.” Leavitt, who had been working with UdV for months and was following the situation closely, wrote that “the proposed demolition of two public housing developments in the Eastside L.A. neighborhood of Boyle Heights recalls the discredited tactics of urban renewal [in the 1950s], otherwise known at the time as ‘Negro and Hispanic Removal.’” She accused HACLA of deception on important issues, writing that “the same buildings considered suitable for rehabilitation were declared fit only for demolition.” Tenants, meanwhile, had been “stonewalled” when it came to the details of relocation, and even HACLA’s own surveys showed that what families really wanted most were jobs, not new housing.

“It’s not too late,” Leavitt concluded. The city could still “renounce the urban renewal mentality” and instead “demonstrate that people are more important to them than bricks and mortar.”

The Housing Authority would not let the objections of the tenants or Leavitt divert it from its attacks. That same month Leavitt’s article was published, it was announced that the Clinton administration had provided an additional grant of $7 million to begin the relocation of tenants from the rest of the complex, in the neighboring Aliso Village. HACLA had committed to demolishing and rebuilding the 685-unit development. Again, the plan was to replace the project with far fewer units.

Like a Tree, Planted by the Water

Even as many families continued to refuse to vacate throughout the summer and fall of 1997, the Housing Authority was able to get others to agree to move out. According to federal records, 176 families agreed to move temporarily off-site with the option of returning, likely unaware of how weak their guarantees really were. 

As organizers with UdV recounted in a recent interview with Knock LA, the relocation-and-return plans sounded fine when explained verbally to tenants by officials. Anything in writing, however, contained all sorts of caveats and conditions that would make it difficult, if not impossible, for families to actually return: credit checks, background checks, arbitrary qualifications, having a family size that matched the size of the available units, having to accept whatever unit was offered in a certain time frame, and so on. 

So tenants with UdV decided on a strategy that was as powerful as it was simple: They would refuse to leave the complex. The vacant units of those who left allowed those who stayed to be shuffled around on the property during construction, until the moment they would be moved into their new homes.

“When you keep a tenant there, they have rights,” Blaney explained. “That’s what we were using at Pico-Aliso. If a tenant is not there, they have no rights.”

A photograph of a man, Leonardo Vilchis, and a woman, Elizabeth Blaney, sitting on a blue and red porch in front of a red and blue  building (the Union de Vecinos office)

Leonardo Vilchis and Elizabeth Blaney sit on the steps outside the office of Union de Vecinos, 2023. (Photo: Jacob Woocher | Knock LA)

In 1999, families began to move into the new public housing units that were rebuilt. The Los Angeles Times covered this development with a story titled “Reviving Pride in the Projects,” profiling a number of families that were able to stay in the complex. In 2001, the paper reported on the nearly completed privatized senior housing, “another manifestation of a long-awaited neighborhood renaissance.” 

Ignored in both post-demolition stories were the 300-plus families permanently displaced by the redevelopment, as well as the intense battle that those who were able to stay had to wage against the Housing Authority. 

While UdV was able to salvage a victory for its members, HACLA and the elites mostly got what they wanted, too: a “revitalized” property with more aesthetically pleasing buildings; a higher-income mix of residents, including homeowners (about 40 homes were sold at market rate); and a portion of the land developed and managed by a well-connected private developer. 

Meanwhile, the plans for Aliso Village were speeding ahead, thanks to a sudden emergency declaration by the Housing Authority in the summer of 1998. This time around, HACLA would fight tooth and nail to expel as many families as possible. Pueblo del Sol, which was to become a literal case study on “how to use the HOPE VI apparatus to rejuvenate inner-city residential neighborhoods,” would be built upon the displacement of not just hundreds, but thousands of individuals. As the tidal wave of gentrification hitting LA in the new millennium swelled, so too did the Housing Authority’s willingness to wage an even more aggressive war on the tenants of Pico-Aliso.

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