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‘To Really Strike Gold’

Under the sophisticated and savvy leadership of new HACLA head Doug Guthrie, the city has finally been able to put Jordan Downs at the service of more profitable objectives.

Illustration of a bulldozer sweeping up  bricks.
(Illustration: Kira Carlee | Knock LA)

By 2017, the Los Angeles Times was heralding a “real estate gold rush” in Watts, likening the house flippers who were descending on the neighborhood with all-cash offers to boomtown speculators. Home values had increased by 24% in just that year, and in 2019 it was reported that prices had more than doubled as compared to 10 years prior. Before a single unit had been built, the redevelopment of Jordan Downs was already having its intended effect. 

Jenny Scanlin, HACLA’s chief strategic development officer, has also used the gold rush analogy to describe investing in Watts, crediting the agency’s actions at Jordan Downs as the crucial ingredient. “To really strike gold in any of these underserved communities … you have to have a catalytic project,” she said. “You have to have a big bang. … That’s one thing we have been able to do with Jordan is really provide hopefully that catalytic moment.”

Tenants warned about this exact situation 30 years ago when they defeated the first privatization scheme, and in the 21st century they again would fight to stop the elites from extracting wealth from their community. In 2010, a citywide movement of public housing tenants, not seen since the prior struggle to defend Jordan, came together to fight privatization writ large. Soon enough, they entered the fray of the low-intensity warfare taking place at the 700-unit development in Watts.

A Resurgent Citywide Movement Again Defeats Privatization

Just as had happened in 1989 with the previous battle over Jordan Downs, public housing tenants in 2010 brought down a dictatorial chief executive of the Housing Authority bent on privatization. This time, however, it wasn’t just one development in the crosshairs; in its draft Agency Plan for 2011 (released in 2010), HACLA proposed privatizing its entire public housing stock.

The Human Right to Housing Collective protests at City Hall in opposition to then Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s nominations to HACLA’s board. A group of community members in orange shirts hold up signs. One speaks at a microphone
The Human Right to Housing Collective protests at City Hall in opposition to then mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s nominations to HACLA’s board. (Photo: Los Angeles Community Action Network)

In late 2009, a coalition formed calling itself the Los Angeles Human Right to Housing Collective. The coalition was convened by a number of organizations including the Los Angeles Community Action Network (LA CAN), Union de Vecinos, and People Organized for Westside Renewal (POWER, a partner of Ground Game LA, Knock LA’s parent organization). The collective made organizing public housing tenants a priority and soon created tenant committees at eight of the developments across the city. They were ready to spring into action when the shocking privatization plans were announced.

After attending official HACLA meetings and voicing their opposition for months, in September 2010, the residents decided an escalation was needed. On the night of September 26, 2010, up to 100 public housing tenants and their supporters showed up in protest at the home of HACLA Executive Director Rudy Montiel. 

The Housing Authority responded by attempting to evict nine of the leaders involved. Montiel’s retaliation quickly backfired — his exploits made headlines and he found himself being harshly criticized by both tenants and members of City Council. 

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“I am not a threat,” said Victoria Mendoza, a mother from the Rancho San Pedro complex, responding to the eviction notice she received and the allegations made by Montiel about the demonstrators. “He is a threat to Housing Authority tenants.” 

The collective’s protests — which also included showing up to the home of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa on Halloween — were successful, at least for the time being. By the end of the year, the Agency Plan had been changed to list only three developments as candidates for privatization. And in March 2011, Montiel was fired by HACLA’s board. Tenants had again come together to drive a stake through the heart of the Housing Authority’s privatization fantasies. 

But it wouldn’t last long. Since 2013, as the citywide movement lost steam, HACLA has returned to listing all public housing developments as candidates for privatization in its plans..

In 2012, as the threat to Jordan Downs tenants became more acute, the collective shifted its focus. In addition to increased evictions, big trouble for Jordan residents was signaled by the arrival of two players: HACLA’s new head, Doug Guthrie, and The Michaels Organization, the developer chosen to lead the redevelopment process. 

Fighting the Profiteers: Doug Guthrie and The Michaels Organization

Doug Guthrie was the most dangerous person that Mayor Villaraigosa could have chosen to head the Housing Authority. One might get that sense just looking at him: Tall and thin, with a thick white mustache to match the white hair on top of his head, Guthrie looks more like a Texas oil baron than a housing bureaucrat.

But Guthrie is not an outright, in-your-face reactionary who boasts about wanting to get rid of poor tenants. On the contrary, he has been identified by organizers as an unfortunately skilled, sophisticated, and smooth promoter of privatization — a keen and efficient political actor who knows exactly how to work the system and who says all the right things.

Headshot of an older white man with white hair and a mustache. He is smiling and wearing a suit and tie
Doug Guthrie is president and CEO of HACLA. (Photo: HACLA)

Guthrie’s history of profiting off the displacement of poor Black tenants, however, made it clear where he stood for those bothering to pay attention. Prior to being appointed to run the Housing Authority in April 2012, Guthrie served as president of Kimball Hill Urban Centers, a private, for-profit development firm selected by the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) to redevelop the massive Cabrini-Green complex. That is viewed by many as one of the quintessential examples of destroying public housing to gentrify a community living atop valuable, centrally located land. 

Despite vigorous protests by the project’s residents, thousands of families were removed from Cabrini, and only a very small fraction were able to return. The redevelopment scheme “transformed a Black neighborhood to a predominantly white one.” This was exactly what organizers in LA were afraid would happen to Jordan Downs — although, by this point, Jordan was not just made up of Black tenants, but increasingly Latine families, too

The summer of 2012 was also when the Housing Authority selected the lead developers for Jordan Downs: the for-profit Michaels Organization and the nonprofit BRIDGE Housing.

The largest owner of privatized “affordable housing” in the country, boasting an abundance of experience in destroying public housing, Michaels had a history at least as worrisome as Guthrie’s. Again, the most troubling events occurred in Chicago, where Michaels was involved in the demolition and privatization of the 4,300-unit Robert Taylor Homes. Michaels also has since drawn the ire of tenants in Los Angeles; the Kingswood Apartments tenants in Hollywood had to fight the landlord to withdraw massive rent increases at their “affordable” housing complex. 

With Michaels and Guthrie — both harshly criticized by the Human Right to Housing Collective in the pages of LA CAN’s newspaper, Community Connectionthe war on Jordan Downs finally had its generals. Yet more important than their distasteful history was what they quickly began to do at the complex. 

HACLA’s Cleansing Campaign

2012 and 2013 were busy years at Jordan Downs, and ones filled with contradictions. As the privatization planning moved forward, the Housing Authority flooded Jordan Downs with social services as it simultaneously used threats and evictions to remove unwanted families.   

According to an NPR story, an “army of ‘life coaches’” descended on Jordan, offering a variety of services ranging from GED courses to grief counseling. As summarized by the Los Angeles Times, however, the current residents were not the only intended beneficiaries: The influx of social workers was part of a “campaign to transform the Watts project from a long-standing hub of violence and poverty into a safe and appealing community that can draw in wealthier residents.”

Families surely benefitted from the programs, but organizers and many tenants were rightfully skeptical. Why was Jordan Downs now being showered with resources when the other developments continued to be ignored? They interpreted this as an intentional strategy by the Housing Authority to make organizing in opposition to privatization more difficult. 

“We can have a critique as to why they did that, but it’s not a winning argument to tell people, ‘actually, these are bad for your community,’” Becky Dennison, who was involved with the collective’s organizing as part of LA CAN, told me during a recent phone interview. “So it gets a little difficult in messaging. And that’s on purpose.”

At the same time, evictions were again on the rise. “HACLA recently admitted that in the first half of 2013 it disproportionately evicted more residents from Jordan Downs than any other public housing development under its purview,” wrote organizers Thelmy Perez and Leonardo Vilchis for Community Connection. They recounted an example of an elderly woman facing eviction for being $0.73 short on rent, and asserted that the Housing Authority still would not explain to residents what it meant to be in “good standing,” which was necessary for families to return to the redeveloped complex.

A representative of one of the social service organizations described the uptick in evictions as “new enforcement of old rules,” listing as an example families who were evicted for not keeping their homes clean enough. In another instance, Sarah Martinez, who lived at Jordan with her five children, was convinced by HACLA to sign a “voluntary” move-out agreement under the threat of eviction — meaning at least some evictions at the complex would never show up in official numbers.

Part and parcel of the campaign to clean up Jordan Downs has been the Community Safety Partnership (CSP), introduced in 2011 and increasingly under fire today from scholars and community organizations. As a 2015 memo from former LAPD Chief Charlie Beck explained it, CSP allows police officers to be “intimately involved in all community activities and concerns, as well as [to] monitor and control criminal activities.” For example, a recent CSP document from Jordan Downs shows the cops pushing for more cameras and closely surveilling “problem locations” where “potential” gang members congregate. Even a recent UCLA study funded by the corporate promoters of CSP noted that its officers “do not hesitate to enlist more traditional law enforcement strategies and suppression to stabilize the CSP site.” Despite this reality, CSP has been passed off in official propaganda as a kinder and gentler type of “community policing.”

While many of the tactics were essentially the same, this was not the Housing Authority of 30 years ago that attempted to quickly push through a sale of Jordan Downs, nor the agency of a few years prior that tried to evict tenants for protesting at the home of its chief executive. The new regime under Guthrie pursued exactly the same ends, but now provided much-needed services, built real relationships with residents, and more slowly and selectively evicted unwanted families — a drip-drip-drip of removal, rather than a tidal wave. 

This sophisticated program of counter-organizing made it extremely difficult to build an effective opposition — that is, until the toxic contamination of the complex became a major concern for residents in the second half of 2013.

The Poisoning of Jordan Downs

Perhaps nothing better demonstrates the Housing Authority’s and the city’s lack of concern for Jordan Downs residents than their insistence on doing the bare minimum to deal with the toxic contamination of the complex. This has been another feature of the war: official neglect as tenants are poisoned and their lives cut short. 

Much of the contamination has come from “the factory,” the 21-acre plot that runs through the middle of Jordan Downs, purchased by HACLA in 2008. It is so named because of its industrial history: The land had been a steel mill until 2000 and then was used for trucking operations and waste storage. 

In 2011, the factory site was tested by the state Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC), which found extremely high levels of toxins. For example, lead was found to exist at 22,000 parts per million (ppm), far exceeding the supposedly safe threshold of 80 ppm. 

An aerial photo of Jordan Downs showing the cleanup area (the factory), which is also the first phase of the redevelopment.
An aerial photo of Jordan Downs shows the cleanup area (the factory), which is also the first phase of the redevelopment. (Photo: South Coast Air Quality Management District)

HACLA knew for years that the site was contaminated, demonstrated by internal memos obtained by organizers with the Human Right to Housing Collective. Privately, as early as 2009, high-level executives expressed concern that toxins had spread beyond the boundaries of the factory to infect the homes of Jordan Downs. Nevertheless, HACLA decided against spending the estimated $10,000 it would have cost to test the soil of the residential portions. 

Publicly, throughout 2013, as they created a remediation plan for the factory that involved completely removing the toxic soil, HACLA and DTSC assured residents that “current site conditions do not pose an immediate health risk.” The hope was that they could replace this soil at the factory — the site on which the first phase of 250 residential homes, as well as “Freedom Plaza” (the retail portion), would be built — and be done with it. 

Tenants, increasingly organized with the collective, criticized the plan on two points: It ignored contaminated groundwater that had been detected, and it did not deal at all with the land on which 700 families were already living. By the end of 2013, residents — supported additionally by organizations including the Natural Resources Defense Council, Physicians for Social Responsibility, Los Angeles, and the Center for Public Environmental Oversight — were calling for a complete halt to the redevelopment plan and for the entire complex to be tested. 

The organizing worked: In June 2014, the state ordered the Housing Authority to test the soil of the residential portions to determine if the contamination had spread.

The results showed elevated levels of lead in half of the samples tested. Yet because the average across all samples was just below the safe threshold, DTSC made a “No Further Action” determination, meaning HACLA was cleared of any further responsibility to clean up the residential areas. Doug Guthrie was “delighted,” but many residents were more concerned than ever — the testing had confirmed that much of the soil around their homes was poisoning their families.

Then, as thousands of tons of dirt were being hauled away and replaced at the factory site, came a racist emails scandal at the DTSC involving the senior official who signed off on the determination at Jordan Downs. “What little reliability that determination may have had … was completely destroyed by this revelation of rampant racism,” Alexander Harnden, a legal aid lawyer, told KPCC the following year. 

In 2016, a coalition of organizations came together as the Better Watts Initiative and paid to have their own testing done of the residential portions of Jordan Downs. Again, half of the 100 samples taken showed lead levels above the safe threshold

Then Councilmember Joe Buscaino, Then Mayor Eric Garcetti, City Engineer Gary Lee Moore, and HACLA CEO Doug Guthrie celebrating the groundbreaking for Phase 1B of the Jordan Downs redevelopment. The four white men are wearing button-down shirts and ties. They stand in front of Jordan Downs with their arms around each other and smile
Pictured, from left to right: Councilmember Joe Buscaino, Mayor Eric Garcetti, City Engineer Gary Lee Moore, and HACLA CEO Doug Guthrie celebrate the groundbreaking for Phase 1B of the Jordan Downs redevelopment in 2018. (Photo: HACLA)

For example, the front yard of Emma Cortez, a mother at Jordan Downs, showed lead levels of 196 ppm, which to her explained the difficulty she’d had breathing and myriad other health problems in her community. According to Bryce Covert of ThinkProgress: “Her two daughters, who were very young when she moved to the housing complex, both experience frequent nosebleeds… One friend has two children with autism. Two of her friends at Jordan Downs have died of cancer.”

Officials were having none of it. Jenny Scanlin of HACLA denounced the results as “continued misinformation spread by unregulated tests conducted by the advocacy community.”

Demolition of the first residential buildings began in the fall of 2016, worrying residents that toxic dust would further be spread around the development. (Like at Pico Gardens, the developers were using a phased relocation plan; the first buildings to be demolished had been emptied by moving residents to vacant units in other parts of the complex.)

Another bombshell dropped in March 2017 when the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) — which operates Jordan High School, right next to the development — sued the Housing Authority to recover its own cleanup costs. LAUSD accused HACLA of explicitly indicating it would not investigate the spread of contamination because it was “close to securing millions of dollars in federal grants for its housing development” and would not “put its application for grant funds at risk.” The case quietly settled in 2018 with HACLA paying LAUSD a sum of $2.5 million. 

Construction on the first phase finally began in the summer of 2017. Although many residents continued to demand a pause until comprehensive testing was done, no state authority was willing to put a stop to redevelopment at that point. City Council and then mayor Eric Garcetti were also completely absent on the issue.

A recent photo of shopping center, "Freedom Plaza," built atop the former factory site. It is a photo of the parking lot featuring a sign for Smart & Final grocery store and First Citizens Bank
A photo shows “Freedom Plaza,” built atop the former factory site, 2023. (Photo: Jacob Woocher | Knock LA)

Despite all the soil at the factory site having been replaced, state testing continued to show elevated levels of harmful toxins, likely from the contaminated groundwater plume that activists raised concerns about four years prior. Curbed LA concluded bluntly: “The city’s 17-month effort to clean up the property had failed.” 

The state continued to require certain minor mitigation measures, based on estimates of risk done by private contractors paid by the developers. These, too, were criticized by activists and experts: “They might be right [in their estimates]. But I wouldn’t bet my kid’s health on it,” one said

None of these concerns would stop a host of important people from coming together for a “jubilant” groundbreaking ceremony for the first phase. 

Since then, demolition and redevelopment have continued apace. Residents continue to face the same dilemma as they have for years. They can leave and move to potentially healthier homes where their families will not be poisoned; or they can stay, as construction kicks up contaminated dirt, and (hopefully) move into newly built homes in their community. 

A building at Jordan Downs slated for demolition, backed by one of the new developments
Pictured is a building at Jordan Downs slated for demolition with one of the new developments in the background. (Photo: Jacob Woocher | Knock LA)

Funding and Relocation: The Devil in the Details

As the fight over toxic soil was raging, elites kept their eyes on the ball: getting the cash necessary for the redevelopment project to move forward. 

The Los Angeles Times quickly grew tired of thinking about poor people being poisoned, and in August 2015, it shifted its coverage to focus on the problem of financing. The paper published an opinion piece by then city councilmember Joe Buscaino, giving him a platform to scold HACLA’s “mismanagement and mistakes” that were supposedly to blame for its losing out on federal grants for the redevelopment two years in a row. Buscaino even called for “new leadership” at the authority. 

A few days later, the editorial board followed up with a piece of their own, coming out in strong support of the project and similarly chiding the Housing Authority for its unsuccessful attempts at applying for federal funding. “City officials can’t afford to keep missing such opportunities,” they wrote, encouraging the city to begin construction as soon as possible. 

The funding did eventually arrive — and continues to — for the privatized Jordan Downs. Generous state support has come from tax credits and tax-exempt loans from major banks, as well as from various state sources, including a $35 million grant awarded in 2018. HACLA finally won the big pot of federal funding it was vying for in 2020, receiving $35 million from the Choice Neighborhoods Implementation program. 

Bank of America so far has been the most significant private financier, investing over $100 million through tax credits and loans in the first phase, in addition to more than $30 million lined up for a later phase. Like most privatized “affordable” housing, each development mixes together a complex patchwork of state and private funds. Some of the other major financial institutions involved so far include Chase Bank, CIT Bank, Berkadia, and Greystone

A photo of a boarded-up home at Jordan Downs set to be demolished.
A photo of a boarded-up home at Jordan Downs set to be demolished. (Photo: Jacob Woocher | Knock LA)

The developers, Michaels and BRIDGE, who are ultimately the ones building the units and collecting the rents, have also been able to rely on the Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) program, a federal scheme to enable privatization that was created under the Obama administration, then expanded under Trump. RAD essentially allows housing authorities to swap regular public housing funds for project-based voucher funding; this matters because only the latter can be used to subsidize privatized developments. With RAD, a formerly public complex can take on debt — very concerning to some advocates — and utilize other private and public funding sources. The “affordable” units at Jordan are benefiting from either RAD vouchers or HACLA’s own project-based vouchers, meaning the developers will be pocketing rents at market rate.

Though there will be some market-rate units and owner-occupied homes — together making up about 350 of the 1,569 currently planned — most of the units are “affordable,” with those split between ones designated for current residents and ones for new residents. Due to the formulas that govern “affordable” housing, new tenants will likely be significantly wealthier than the current ones. For example, families making up to $64,300 per year are eligible for the first phase, and some future phases will be open to families making up to $100,000 or more

In Phase 1, relocation of current residents to the new units seems to have gone relatively well. There were 157 units designated for current tenants (out of 250 total), and it took HACLA making offers to 182 families to fill those units — meaning 86% of families chose and were able to stay in the development, whereas the rest were either given vouchers to rent in the private market or transferred to another public housing complex. According to a source familiar with the process (who has asked to remain anonymous), these results were made possible only by intense efforts on the part of staff members to navigate the multiple layers of complexities involved in order to properly match families with units. 

The numbers are far more concerning for the next round of relocation: Out of 92 residents given the option to move into the next phase, fewer than half accepted, according to numbers published by HACLA in September 2021. 

These poor results demonstrate the variety of issues with the relocation process. One particularly notable concern is finding units for families with mixed immigration statuses, as placing them in certain units, depending on their funding sources, would cause their rents to spike dramatically. Moreover, if a family is offered a unit that doesn’t suit them, they would have to negotiate with the Housing Authority for a change within 90 days, and it’s not clear how flexible HACLA and its staff will always be, as shared by the anonymous source. 

The process also seems to be ripe for abuse of a more transactional sort. The relocation process is run by Del Richardson Associates (DRA), the namesake firm of the wife of Councilmember Curren Price, which was given a lucrative contract by HACLA. (Price was recently charged by the district attorney in a 10-count criminal complaint with alleged crimes related to his wife’s business.) DRA has come under fire from tenants in Hollywood organized with the Los Angeles Tenants Union for harassing them out of their rent-controlled building. At Jordan, then, too, it’s possible — though there have not been reports of this — that similar abuses may occur with tenants being pressured to accept vouchers to leave the development. 


Although the LA Human Right to Housing Collective is no longer active, and some of the nonprofits that had previously taken an oppositional stance have been brought into HACLA’s fold, tenants at Jordan Downs continue to fight for their homes. Some residents have joined with the South Central chapter of the Los Angeles Tenants Union to oppose the redevelopment process, making enough of a fuss to warrant an explicit mention from the Housing Authority in a recent quarterly report

Other residents, meanwhile, surely support the redevelopment to various degrees, and may genuinely benefit from the new homes being built. But we should be clear: Improving their lives has never been the primary goal. Fifteen years ago, the Los Angeles Economy and Jobs Committee did not make the redevelopment of all of Watts’s public housing as the very first plank of its “Vision South LA” platform, because these corporate titans cared about the residents.

Despite declarations to the contrary, conquest is never meant to benefit the conquered.
Former councilmember Joe Buscaino has ominously declared victory: “The change coming to the Watts community is no longer in first or second gear. We are in third gear and we are ready for FULL. SPEED. AHEAD!”

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