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A Housing ‘State of Emergency’

Dave Ransom  |  Issue: February | March 2016
Protestors at a march Berkeley, CA

Protestors at a march and rally against a proposed law that would criminalize homeless people in Berkeley, CA.
PHOTO: Sarah Menefee


Corporate landlords push millions into the streets, but a movement rises to confront them

As the number of people that landlords are driving into the streets rises to crisis levels, the cities of Los Angeles, Portland, and Seattle — and the whole state of Hawaii — have declared housing emergencies.

The politicians are taking this step, not simply because of the rising numbers, but because people are awakening to the deep crisis we face and demanding that something be done.

In L.A. alone, some 13,000 residents are being driven out of their homes by job losses, rent raises, and evictions every month, and the number ending up in shelters or on the street has increased by 20 percent in just a year.

But the people in shelters or on the street are only the most visible part of the crisis. Today millions of others across the country are sleeping in their cars, on someone else’s couch — or doubled up, as families open their doors to take in friends and relatives.

That is particularly the case for Latinos. While 40 percent of the visibly homeless are white and another 40 percent black, only 11 percent are Latino. “Mi casa es tu casa” is more than just a saying.

Yet the situation is likely to get worse. Apartment complexes that were once owned and managed by small local landlords are rapidly being bought up by big regional and national real-estate speculators backed by deep-pockets investors.

To maximize their profits, they are raising rents, evicting tenants, and converting what were once affordable working-class complexes into high-rent apartment “communities” meant for well paid young professionals, the new wealthy.

As Silicon Valley moves south to Los Angeles, this gentrification is particularly true on the city’s west side, where rents now average $3,200 a month. But gentrification is also happening in smaller, once suburban cities throughout California and beyond.

As well, almost all of the new apartments built by big corporate developers in recent years are the high-rise, luxury complexes now spreading through center-city neighborhoods that once housed the working class.

In New York, for instance, Toronto-based Brookfield Asset Management — which has accumulated 42,000 units since it moved into rental housing just five years ago — is building two huge apartment towers in the once solidly working-class borough of Brooklyn.

Across the United States, millions are being dispossessed of their homes in this process. The mayors of Los Angeles, Seattle, and Portland are all “progressive” Democrats. But whether they follow up their declarations of a state of emergency with any serious action remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, two smaller cities in the San Francisco Bay Area have thrown down the gauntlet to the big landlords and said “enough” to the rent raises and evictions that are putting people on the streets.

In Richmond, a multi-ethnic coalition put together over more than a decade, has wrested control of the city council from Chevon. The oil giant has major operations in the city and had dominated its politics for a century or more.

But when the coalition passed an ordinance controlling rents and banning unreasonable evictions, they faced a major counter-attack from the California Apartment Association, dominated by the state’s major landlords. Now the issue will go on next November’s ballot, and the campaign will surely be fierce.

Then, with gentrification pushing working-class people rapidly out of Alameda — where the majority rent — the city council passed an emergency moratorium banning big rent hikes and no-cause evictions.

It did so after renters descended on council meetings in large numbers and pooh-poohed lesser measures. When the California Apartment Association packed the council chambers with landlords’ agents, the renters noisily demanded to be let in, and police waded in and bloodied one renter on the floor.

The council passed the measure unanimously. Three days later, a landlord used a loophole to evict 31 more families. The battle is joined.

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