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The Sacking of Dana Strand

In the early 2000s, the city’s war continued with the mass removal of families from the Dana Strand public housing complex in Wilmington.

An illustration of a smirking man wearing a suit and cutting a ribbon in front of a building
(Illustration: Kira Carlee | Knock LA)

“The old development was a magnet for crime and actually housed one of the most violent gangs in the area,” City Councilmember Janice Hahn boastfully told a crowd in 2007. She was speaking at the opening of 120 privatized “affordable” units in Wilmington, where Dana Strand’s 384 units of public housing once stood, before its demolition began in 2003. 

“We will never be able to tolerate gangs in this community again.” 

The day had implications beyond this one neighborhood — Hahn, heir to LA’s “most important political dynasty,” hoped the city’s triumph in Wilmington would set off a wave of redevelopment affecting all of LA’s public housing. 

The Hahn dynasty began with Kenneth Hahn, who for 40 uninterrupted years, stretching from 1952 to 1992, served as one of LA’s five county supervisors. His politics were liberal, but far from liberatory. In 1961, he was the only area politician to greet Martin Luther King Jr. when the reverend came to the city, yet in 1968 he forcefully denounced the Black Power movement as “nakedly designed to foment racial hatred, violence and civil disorder.” 

James Kenneth Hahn, Kenneth’s son, served as LA’s city attorney from 1985 to 2001, during which time his office pioneered the use of gang injunctions and played a major role in intensifying the war on gangs, as recounted by Ana Muñiz in her book, Police, Power, and the Production of Racial Boundaries. Elected to lead the city in 2001, he became the first mayor since 1933 to lose reelection after only one term. In their 2005 contest, his race-baiting, tough-on-crime attack ads on Antonio Villaraigosa failed to give Hahn the boost they had the first time around. 

Then there’s Janice Hahn, daughter of Kenneth and younger sister of James, who now occupies her father’s former seat as a county supervisor. From 2001 to 2011, as city councilmember of Council District 15 — home to a large portion of LA’s public housing complexes, including the four in Watts and the three near the port — Janice Hahn played a major role in leading the city’s privatization efforts, in addition to being a reliable supporter of aggressive policing and the war on gangs.   

Though the Hahns generally boast a reputation of being on the more progressive end of the spectrum of mainstream LA politics, on public housing and policing, the younger generation has been practically indistinguishable from the most reactionary conservatives in the city. Dana Strand residents experienced this firsthand. 

Janice Hahn stands next to then-Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa at a podium while speaking at a groundbreaking event for Phase 1 of the Dana Strand redevelopment.

Janice Hahn, next to then mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, speaking at a groundbreaking event for Phase 1 of the Dana Strand redevelopment. (Source: Antonio Villaraigosa | Flickr)

History Written by the Victors

By no means is this to suggest that Janice Hahn is solely to blame for the demolition of Dana Strand. Its 384 families had long been viewed as internal enemies by local elites looking to change the character of their mostly working-class neighborhood, bracketed by oil refineries and the port. 

Dana Strand was “having a negative effect on the surrounding neighborhood,” HACLA wrote in its successful 2001 application for HOPE VI federal funds. A program of demolition and redevelopment “could capitalize on the positive trends” in the area and “also have a positive impact on property values.” This was the third year in a row the agency had applied — the 1999 and 2000 applications were effectively blocked by tenants organizing in opposition. 

LA’s city planners described the situation similarly: the complex was “desperately in need of redevelopment in order to arrest the spread of decline to the adjoining areas.”

In 2004, with all the residents removed and their homes demolished, the city then placed a harsh gang injunction on the neighborhood. “Wilmington Starts Pulling Itself Together,” read a Los Angeles Times headline, crediting these two recent developments as contributing to the area’s revitalization. The president of the local Chamber of Commerce boasted that “Wilmington’s headed toward a renaissance.”

Not until 14 years later would the number of new units — 512 in total, built and managed by the nonprofits Mercy Housing and Abode Communities — match or exceed the original 384 demolished. To legitimize the meager net addition of only 128 units over two decades, the developers and politicians, along with their willing partners in the media, have resorted to assassinating the character of the community they helped destroy. In a representative 2018 press release, one of the nonprofit developers described Dana Strand as “a community ridden with crime [and] gang activity” and “a truly sad and dangerous place to live.” Councilmember Joe Buscaino, Hahn’s successor, declared that redevelopment had “removed the criminal element” from the neighborhood and “replaced it with families who want to raise their kids in a healthy and safe environment.” 

Such derogatory statements would have been relatively easy to make given that any former residents who may have provided a dissenting opinion had been conveniently removed from the scene. As is often true in war, the history of Dana Strand has been written by the victors.

HACLA again has no records on how many of the 384 Dana Strand families — numbering over 1,400 people in all, mostly Latine — were permanently displaced. The evidence, reviewed below, suggests it was the vast majority.

‘This Is a War.’

“15 nabbed in major drug sweep,” read the Daily Breeze headline on April 19, 1986, as the war on gangs intensified and the LAPD imposed Operation Hammer–type sweeps on communities across the city. One hundred police officers in 40 squad cars raided the “drug-plagued” Dana Strand complex, “the first [raid] of its kind in the harbor area in recent memory.” 

Later that year, a local grouping with the simple and class-clarifying name of “Wilmington Home Owners” organized a march to demand a “police crackdown” in the neighborhood. The Dana Strand complex was one of two stops on the route of the march, which was provided free advertising in the form of a news story a week beforehand by the Daily Breeze, letting readers know where to meet and what type of signs to bring.

“This is a war,” Peter Mendoza, the head of the homeowners group, told the paper a week later. The march was a resounding success, winning the deployment of 30 extra police officers to focus on Dana Strand and other “crime-ridden” areas nearby.

Hostilities between the community and the police escalated in 1990 with the death of 25-year-old resident John Santos, who died as he was being chased by LAPD officers through the complex. The police claimed he choked on an item he swallowed, implied to be drugs, while residents told the media that the cops physically beat Santos and then failed to provide him with medical attention.

In response, the young people of Dana Strand vowed to defend themselves against the police, covering the walls of their complex with messages like “Harbor Officer Wanted” and “LAPD: No. 1 Enemy.” 

The police doubled down on its occupation of the neighborhood, deploying an additional 20 troops from LAPD’s “elite” Metropolitan Division, including special weapons and tactics (SWAT) officers. 

The Daily Breeze then did something it wouldn’t do for the rest of the decade: it published a story that was critical of police actions at Dana Strand. Residents of the complex recounted being subjected to frequent stops and searches by the cops, often detained and questioned at length for simply existing in their neighborhoods. 

Most degrading and upsetting was LAPD tailing the funeral procession for Santos with three squad cars, following the group from the church to the cemetery. Police in Torrance further harassed Santos’ friends and family as they gathered at a nearby mall, shutting down the arcade they were in and photographing the individuals for over an hour. “They were just playing games and having a good time,” the manager of the arcade reported. 

Finally, LAPD officers toting shotguns barged into an apartment complex where Santos’ friends gathered later that day, proceeding to question residents and search vehicles. “If you belong to a gang, you associate yourself with criminal elements,” an officer told the reporter, justifying this intense day on the battlefield. 

Toward the end of 1990, the LAPD capped off its violent year with a 200-officer early-morning raid of Dana Strand and its surrounding neighborhood. “The massive display of force surprised Dana Strand housing project residents,” the Daily Breeze wrote, “many of whom stood in their bathrobes and slippers as officers lined up the bare-chested and tattooed suspects before carting them away.” 

A black and white map of the gang injunction territory, which covers essentially all of Wilmington, from the city’s court filings. Dana Strand is located in the bottom-left corner of the area.
A map of the gang injunction territory, which covers essentially all of Wilmington, from the city’s court filings. Dana Strand is located in the bottom-left corner of the area.

That the poor, mostly Latine residents of Dana Strand were subjected to harsh treatment that would never be forced on LA’s wealthier and whiter communities was of no importance to elites. On the contrary, then city attorney James Hahn, writing an editorial in the Los Angeles Times, claimed the city was being too gentle: “The continued protection of gang activity under the guise of upholding our Constitution is causing a deadly blight on our city.” 

While the Daily Breeze decided to stop reporting on the policing of Dana Strand for the rest of the 1990s, the court filings submitted by the city attorney’s office in 2001 arguing for a gang injunction show that the war on Dana Strand continued. In their sworn declarations, multiple LAPD officers recounted making liberal use of Los Angeles Municipal Code Section 42.13 — which makes it a crime to trespass on Housing Authority property — in order to detain and arrest anyone thought to be a gang member. [Interested readers can find these declarations throughout the city’s documents, linked in the previous sentence.]

In early 2004, the courts granted “the toughest permanent gang injunction in Los Angeles,” in the words of a Los Angeles Times reporter, covering a vast area of Wilmington, including Dana Strand. Police were gifted even more authority to criminalize anything and everything, and traffic citations and arrests quickly reached record highs. According to the head of the local Chamber of Commerce, the gang injunction was “one of the best things that ever happened.”

Janice Hahn was similarly pleased. “This is a success story,” she said of the gang injunction and the increased policing. “We are making Wilmington a livable community and we are going to give Wilmington a waterfront.” Construction would soon begin on the Wilmington Waterfront Park, located across the street from Dana Strand, recently emptied of 1,400 of the area’s poorest residents.

Dana Strand Stands Up

“I remember being in a room with like 40 or 50 people, in fold-up chairs,” Sabrina Williams recounted recently during a phone interview, doing her best to conjure what it was like to work with the tenants of Dana Strand over 20 years prior. “People were scared, because anything about their organizing that became public could get them booted from their housing.” 

But this fear didn’t stop them from successfully resisting their displacement at least for a few years. According to Williams, organizing by residents against the demolition of their homes was the major reason that HACLA’s applications for federal funds in 1999 and 2000 were denied

As an organizer with the Center for Community Change based in Washington DC, Williams worked with tenants across the country as the nationwide war on public housing was ratcheting up. She recalls how residents at Dana Strand began to fight back as they got wind of the privatization plans and saw for themselves how the Housing Authority would completely disregard their input. They worked with legal aid lawyers to document and challenge HACLA’s practices, and exercised enough power to persuade their congressperson to advocate on their behalf to HUD.

“The key approach for residents [was to] show that they did not have input on these plans,” Williams said. “The congresswoman helped shine a light on it as well. … So when residents started to make a stink, that was instrumental in the application not going through.” 

Williams also remembers the Housing Authority resorting to intimidation and disruption tactics, similar to what we saw at Pico-Aliso, such as having police officers surveilling meetings and selectively using eviction threats and housing vouchers to break up the organizing. 

Unfortunately, HACLA’s battle tactics worked, and as the organizing fizzled out, the Housing Authority was awarded $3 million for demolition in 2001. Beyond a 2003 article written by Williams, essentially no publicly available evidence remains of these years of resistance by the Dana Strand tenants.

A Blueprint for Erasure

“Obsolete” and “severely distressed” are two terms that show up again and again to describe pre-demolition Dana Strand, most notably in HACLA’s HOPE VI application and in subsequent press releases by the nonprofit developers.

The record again indicates otherwise. Although the project was nearly 60 years old, having been constructed originally for war workers in the 1940s, a 1998 federal report described the property as being in “fair condition.” “OK, not great, but OK,” was how one tenant described the conditions in 1992 to a reporter, who explained that the complex was “a place to live at a reasonable price,” making it a “godsend” for its residents.

A photograph of white apartment buildings visible through a chain link fence
A photograph of one of the redeveloped properties at Dana Strand. (Photo: Jacob Woocher | Knock LA)

Certainly repairs were needed, as is always the case with neglected properties. These repairs could have easily been funded if, for example, the city had not decided to pass a package of corporate tax cuts in 2004 that took $100 million away from the public each year. 

HACLA’s 2001 application to demolish Dana Strand lays out the blueprint for gentrification we see again and again. 

“The neighborhood surrounding Dana Strand is stable and is in the process of changing and improving,” it wrote. To the south was the waterfront, for which redevelopment plans were in place; to the east was a new “attractive” affordable housing complex; the main commercial district was just northeast of the site; and to the west were single-family homes. “New Dana will become a positive part of the larger neighborhood rather than an isolated concentration of low-income families.”  

The HOPE VI application stated that displaced residents would have “priority” to return to the newly built development, but also cited the Aliso Village process — where the vast majority of tenants never returned — as its model. The application further described efforts to counsel tenants on the “advantages of moving to low-poverty neighborhoods” and help them “overcome mental barriers” to leaving their longtime homes. 

Media reports and official statements give the impression that there simply was no option for residents to return. According to a Daily Breeze reporter, one HACLA official “said most of the residents will take the voucher since most of them do not have enough money saved to apply for a home loan and would not be accepted into other public housing projects.”

HACLA officials had implied to the media that there was no option to return. Given that the equivalent number of public housing units at Dana Strand were not built until 2018 (whereas demolition began in 2003), it seems reasonable to conclude that the vast majority of residents were permanently displaced.

‘You Could Easily Be in Irvine.’

The removal of over 1,000 of the area’s poorest residents delighted the usual suspects. 

“I think it will really improve the area,” said Donna Ethington, who at various points served on Wilmington’s Neighborhood Council and as the president of the Wilmington Boat Owners Association. She understood that residents for the new development would be “thoroughly screened.” 

The media predictably fawned over the first units that opened in 2007. The Daily Breeze ran the headline, “High hopes for Wilmington housing,” and the Los Angeles Times gave us a nice redemptive arc: “From bleak housing to gleaming apartments.”

A “beaming” Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa declared, “You could easily be in Irvine” (a city with a Latine population of less than 10%). Meanwhile, as with the redeveloped Normont Terrace, residents were already complaining to the press about strict rules enforced by the private landlord.

Eric Garcetti and several families stand in front of blue apartment buildings. Garcetti is cutting a large red ribbon
Then mayor Eric Garcetti (center) and others at a ribbon-cutting ceremony for new, privatized Dana Strand apartments. (Source: Eric Garcetti | Flickr)

Ten years later, in September 2017, the fourth and final phase was near completion, and applications had just opened up for the units. Thousands of families would apply — paying a fee of $30 per adult — for just 174 apartments.

The least desirable residents were weeded out through a variety of requirements. Tenants had to have a “clear credit record for the last five years,” pass a strict criminal background check, and “meet the documentation requirements of citizenship or eligible immigration status.” 

Moreover, like the other phases and developments we’ve seen, the very poorest are excluded through the income brackets used to determine eligibility. Like most privatized “affordable” housing, this development allows for families with incomes significantly higher than that of the average public housing tenant, and even higher than the median Wilmington resident. 

Citibank financed this last phase through a $34 million loan, with the bulk of that coming from tax-exempt bonds issued through the City of Los Angeles, and U.S. Bank invested $27 million through its purchase of tax credits. The Housing Authority also provides project-based vouchers, allowing the developers to collect market-rate rents for each unit, up to $2,735 per month for the largest. 

“War” — as the ex-Marine Smedley Butler famously wrote — “is a racket.” 

In September 2018, as a gaggle of politicos and local property barons gathered to cut ribbons and celebrate the opening of the final units, Janice Hahn was nowhere to be found. She had moved on to bigger and better things, namely US Congress and then the LA County Board of Supervisors. 

But before any of that could happen, Hahn had to help take care of something those in her clan’s circle had wanted to do for a long time, but couldn’t: flatten Jordan Downs and turn it over to a private developer.

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