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Union De Vecinos: 25 Years of Impact on LA’s Tenants Movement

If there were a single organization without which LA’s tenants movement would not be the same, it would likely be Union de Vecinos.

Residents protest evictions in Boyle Heights in 2017.

There is no way that the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles (HACLA) could have grasped the far-reaching consequences of their actions in January of 1996: that their planned evictions of 36 public housing tenants at the Pico-Aliso projects would set off a wave of militant tenant organizing that is still around, and more powerful than ever, 25 years later.

As the Housing Authority attempted to carry out the first evictions on the road to demolishing and privatizing the housing projects, tenants decided to fight back. But they were abandoned by supposedly progressive nonprofits, including Dolores Mission, the nearby church that had organized with residents for years.

Dolores Mission is grounded in liberation theology, an approach to Christianity that emphasizes working for and with the most oppressed groups in society. The church’s social justice arm, Proyecto Pastoral, included many residents of the Pico-Aliso projects.

When Proyecto Pastoral held a vote on whether or not to support the redevelopment of Pico-Aliso, the project’s residents stood opposed. However, they were outvoted by the nonresident board members, who naively trusted HACLA’s vague promises that tenants would be able to return to the newly built units. The organization officially committed to supporting the Housing Authority’s plans.

The tenants who were in that meeting walked out, and decided to form their own organization: Union de Vecinos (in English: Union of Neighbors). 

“From the perspective of liberation theology, the poor are the subject of their own history,” said Leonardo Vilchis, an organizer who left Proyecto Pastoral to help the residents form Union de Vecinos. “The work of Dolores Mission was good. People said ‘yes, we are the subject of history.’ So when the institution tried to flip the script upside down, it was too late. The people understood that leadership belonged to them.” 

Pico-Aliso residents had already been organizing for years through Comité por Paz en el Barrio (Committee for Peace in the Neighborhood), an organization against police abuse and the racist War on Gangs being carried out by the LAPD under Chief Daryl Gates. In the early 1990s, the mothers of the community started out by holding various public events and “peace marches,” determined to occupy public space in order to reduce open conflict between local gangs. They rejected the demonization of gang members and the massive levels of violence and incarceration being used against them — these were their sons, members of the community who deserved to be approached with love and understanding. 

By the time that LA exploded in rebellion in April of 1992, the mothers of Pico-Aliso had developed a sophisticated cop-watch program featuring a phone tree and nine teams that would monitor the police. It was this experience, taking the community’s problems into their own hands, that set them up to wage a new struggle on their own behalf when their homes were suddenly put in jeopardy.

Starting in January of 1996, the residents organized with Union de Vecinos (UdV) waged a several-year uphill battle against a Housing Authority that was intent on permanently removing them from Boyle Heights. By 2003, the neighborhood’s 1,262 units of public housing had been reduced to just 296 units, in addition to a few hundred more privatized “affordable” homes. Thousands of people were almost certainly displaced in the process — organizers cited in an LA Weekly story estimated that only about 25% of the 1,200-plus families were able to return. (HACLA has not kept any records on this question.)

A huge portion of those who were able to return did so because of their organizing with Union de Vecinos. Using a combination of tactics — protesting the Housing Authority, refusing to leave their homes when told, filing a federal complaint about the plans, and waging a war in the media — the residents were able to delay the first wave of demolitions and guarantee a right of return to almost all of their members at the time.

“It was clear that HACLA didn’t want a Chavez Ravine situation,” Vilchis said, referencing the infamous forced evictions of Mexican-American families to make way for Dodger Stadium.

Thanks to UdV’s fight, more than 250 families were able to return to the rebuilt, and still publicly owned, Pico Gardens. Perhaps most importantly, Union de Vecinos had established itself as a powerful force in the tenants movement.

It’s doubtful that even those involved in the organization’s creation could have had any idea that this small group, rooted in the very poor, very immigrant, very Spanish-speaking community of Boyle Heights, would leave the mark that it has. But if LA’s current tenants movement could be traced back to one organization, it would likely be Union de Vecinos.

Mariachi Plaza tenants protest against evictions (Source: Timo Saarelma of the LA Tenants Union)
The Mariachi Rent Strike: An Introduction to the Movement

I first encountered Union de Vecinos and the LA Tenants Union (LATU) almost immediately after moving back to LA in the fall of 2017. (UdV recently merged with the LATU’s Eastside Local chapter, after playing a major role in founding LATU and working together closely for years.)

At that time, I was living in Westwood and organizing with the Democratic Socialists of America, Los Angeles (DSA-LA), and we had heard that some tenants from Boyle Heights were coming to protest at a landlord’s mansion on the westside. I was immediately intrigued by the story and struggle of The Mariachis, as the tenants were calling themselves, since many of their members worked as mariachis in Boyle Heights. They were using aggressive tactics to fight massive rent increases and evictions: a combination of a building-wide rent-strike and disruptive protests right at the landlord’s home.

Along with other members of DSA-LA, I got in touch with Elizabeth Blaney of Union de Vecinos — another former Proyecto Pastoral organizer who left to help create UdV. Together we hatched a plan to sleep outside of developer BJ Turner’s house for a night in solidarity with the tenants.

The tenants held a few more protests in Turner’s neighborhood, and eventually this direct action, combined with pressure in the press and on social media, forced Turner to relent

Through pure tenant power, backed by their community, the Mariachis essentially won themselves rent control and staved off eviction. They did this even as the law was not on their side, facing a situation in which other organizations (and certainly most tenant lawyers) would have told them to negotiate the best possible deal to move out. 

But Union de Vecinos helped them organize and fight back. Because of this, the tenants from that building are still there today, many of them currently on rent strike again since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Almost always, people are more ready to take risks than many nonprofits think they are,” says Blaney. She explains that it’s not up to nonprofits, or even volunteer organizers, to decide what to do, but rather those who will actually be impacted. “They are the ones who are living this. They have to decide. Our job [as organizers] is to bring people together, to look at the different options out there and the different paths, to bring information about risks and how we can take risks together, and to encourage people around what is possible.” 

LAPD is called on residents picketing outside MaRS art gallery in Boyle Heights in 2018
Residents picket outside MaRS art gallery in Boyle Heights in 2018. (Source: Anti-Eviction Mapping Project)
¡Gentrifiers Fuera!

UdV has also made a name for itself with its organizing against gentrification as part of the coalition Boyle Heights Alliance Against Artwashing and Displacement (BHAAAD). 

For decades, LA policy makers have been priming Boyle Heights — right across the river from downtown’s always “up-and-coming” Arts District — for real estate investors and wealthier consumers. In the 2010s especially, many residents noticed the proliferation of art galleries in the neighborhood as an early sign of displacement soon to come. So they fought back, staging all sorts of protests and social-media campaigns to get the galleries out of Boyle Heights. 

They did so even though it meant going directly against some community nonprofits they previously had relationships with. Critics often dismissed their protests as vulgar and too aggressive. Others criticized the organizing as unnecessary, arguing that art galleries have nothing to do with rising rents. 

But UdV and their collaborators in BHAAAD carried on. Their tactics again proved to be remarkably successful, gaining national recognition and causing the LA Times to note an “art gallery exodus.” 

Much of UdV’s other work often goes unrecognized. They’ve successfully fought for clean water in Maywood, a small city in East LA; they have completed various mutual aid projects targeting alleyways, crosswalks, and streets in Boyle Heights; they’ve organized rent strikes and taken other actions to protect their members during COVID-19; and they have done all of the various day-to-day, block-by-block work that organizing a movement entails.

A Resurgent, Citywide Movement Emerges

Over the past several decades, there has never not been a tenants movement in Los Angeles, kept alive particularly by public housing tenants and organizations like UdV, LA CAN, ACCE, and CES. But today’s movement is larger than it’s ever been, and feels qualitatively different. This is perhaps best represented by the emergence of the LA Tenants Union, with over 15 autonomous “locals” across LA and hundreds of active (unpaid) members. 

The fingerprints of Union de Vecinos are all over today’s resurgent movement, especially when it’s at its best and most militant. One lesson UdV has taught the movement is to trust the analysis and expertise of the poorest people, even if that means going against the grain.

Just as UdV fought for the preservation of public housing when privatization was all the rage in policy-making circles, the tenants movement today insists that the capitalist market is the problem, despite mainstream “experts” insisting that profit-seeking developers will build housing for everyone with proper deregulation. Today’s movement plays a major role in countering this neoliberal, pro-capitalist consensus, producing its own narratives and intellectual work based in the expertise of its members.

Another landmark is UdV’s method of spatial organization at the neighborhood and sub-neighborhood level. UdV is primarily rooted in Boyle Heights, and within that community are multiple semi-autonomous neighborhood committees that constitute the backbone of the organization. Such a structure, seen in only a few other organizations in Los Angeles, is closely mirrored by LATU, but on a larger scale that encompasses the whole city.

Yet another feature is a rejection of the conciliatory respectability politics that characterize the work of so many “progressive” nonprofits. Time and again, Union de Vecinos has acted with the knowledge that power for poor tenants does not come from having good relationships with politicians, nor from persuasive letters and analyses. Rather, it comes from the community’s unity, their ability to disrupt, and their potential to embarrass powerful people and shape narratives. 

Above all, UdV’s legacy is an uncompromising commitment to fight for what people need, not for what may seem achievable. “We will not negotiate our own evictions,” as members of the LA Tenants Union are fond of saying. 

Stick to these principles, and bigger wins will follow. In fact, they already have: as Vilchis pointed out, there’s no way California would have some of the strongest COVID-19 eviction protections in the country if not for the strength of the current tenants movement.

As the tenants movement grows, UdV faces new questions about how best to tackle the larger systems that fundamentally structure our community’s lives. How do we fight against one neighbor’s eviction while also staying focused on the deeper roots of these problems, like capitalism, US imperialism (particularly relevant for an organization rooted in a heavily immigrant neighborhood), white supremacy, and patriarchy?

These are some of the most difficult questions for organizers to answer, but one thing is clear: building a deeply radical movement to challenge these systems requires building and wielding the autonomous power of the poor. That’s how the galleries were kicked out of Boyle Heights; it’s how the Mariachis remained in their homes; it’s how 250 families at Pico-Aliso were able to return to public housing. 

This may sound simple and obvious — but the truth is, it’s rare. I’m grateful that many parts of the tenants movement have learned from the path walked by Union de Vecinos over the last 25 years. Here’s to 25 more.