Tag Archives: housing

Don’t Evict Gustavo Garcia

I saw a post on the Lambeth Housing Activists list asking for support in a protest to the council not to evict a vulnerable tenant recovering from a stroke. So I protested. we were hoping to speak with someone in charge but they said that wasn’t possible.* What doesn’t seem possible to me is that they will send this human being back to live on the streets when he needs a home and he needs care. In fact this story would once have been quite impossible, but the changes of the past few years means that Lambeth Council has been selling off social housing rather than building it, even as the waiting list for homes rises and rises — because we all know rents are rising and rising some more. As a citizen of this country, not its customer, I really hate the term ‘Customer Service Centre’. Lambeth Council has made their service centre look as impersonal as a bank, and when we went in we saw it was full to overflowing with people in need. This physical reality is as much a part of the neoliberalisation of space and services as their capacity to kick Gustavo Garcia back into the streets unless we can stop them.

* UPDATE: Needed because after I left the manager came out to speak to them. Apparently they were supportive and said that the eviction notice is suspended until further notice while they review his case. A small victory, and not yet permanent the way it needs to be for Gustavo’s health and well-being, but nice all the same.

The below is a description of Gustavo’s circumstances from the folks working to give him support:

2014 has been a tough year for 54 year old Gustavo Garcia. He suffered a stroke, causing him memory loss and physical weakness, and has also led to severe depression. He now faces his 55th birthday next month with the threat of life on the streets, as Lambeth have given him notice they will be evicting him.

Gustavo became homeless in June when he had to stop work after a stroke. After numerous unsuccessful attempts to get Lambeth to accept that he was actually homeless, the Council finally agreed to assess his housing need and give him temporary accommodation. The stroke he suffered means the right side of his body is now numb and much weaker. He cannot do the things he used to. His previous job as a window cleaner fills him with fear as he doesn’t have grip in his right hand, so climbing ladders and working at great heights is dangerous for him. He is shaky. This in itself is hard enough to cope with, but his memory loss has also caused him much distress and disorientation.

Gustavo came here from Ecuador eighteen years ago, and is now a British citizen. He spoke fluent English prior to his stroke, but the memory loss caused by the stroke means he has forgotten a good deal of the language.  Before the stroke Gustavo was self-employed, but memory loss means he also cannot remember his customer base. Nor can he remember friends that he had before the stroke. “I feel so alone. I can’t sleep at all. I’m always worrying, afraid of being put on the street” he tells me in broken English. As his stroke was caused by stress, Gustavo’s greatest fear is that the mental stress he is now suffering will provoke another one. “I think of suicide often. I’m finished” he shrugs, with an unbearable look of sadness and despair.

The council now accepts that Gustavo is homeless, but say that he is not sufficiently vulnerable to deem him a priority case for housing. They say that although they accept he suffers numbness in one side of his body, because he doesn’t need a walking aid, he would be okay on the streets.

Join us in protesting at Lambeth’s Homeless department in Olive Morris House, Brixton Hill at 9am on Wednesday 8th October in solidarity with Gustavo to let the council know it is unacceptable to treat vulnerable people in this way.

Freund’s Colored Property

Colored PropertyColored Property: State Policy and White Racial Politics in Suburban America starts with a simple question about white people in Detroit within a concrete period: the time between the formation of two distinct white mobs coming together around the prospect of sharing their neighbohood with a stranger of colour – the first in 1925 (the infamous Sweet case on Garland street) and the second in 1963 on Kendal Street.

In short, we know that between the 1920s and 1960s both the geographical and intellectual settings for white homeowner vigilantism had clearly changed. The mob that descended upon Kendal Street represented a new generation of white resistance to racial integration–ethnically more inclusive, predominantly home-owning and suburban. And postwar whites organized to maintain the color line at a time when it was impolitic, at best, to announce one’s racism out loud. Nonetheless, the similarities between the Garland and Kendal Street episodes, and the apparent continuity of white hostility to integrated neighborhoods, raise a fundamental question that this study seeks to answer: If most northern whites had disavowed racism and supported the principle of racial equality, why did so many continue to oppose residential integration? What motivated postwar whites to exclude black people from their neighborhoods? [5]

So it looks at the articulation of changing ideas of race and changing patterns of property ownership and the private and public policies that shaped these.

Most commentators treat white racism as something unchanging and as conceptually separable from other variables that fuel conflict between groups (including racial groups). Scholars generally portray white racism as a static, though ill-defined, sentiment, an irrational and misguided antipathy toward nonwhites. … Largely missing from this important scholarship is an investigation of how whites’ racial thinking itself changed during the years that the United States became a predominantly suburban and home-owning nation. Like many studies of the postwar metropolis, this book argues that race did matter- that whites’ racial views and preferences continued to shape struggles over housing and neighborhoods in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. But unlike most studies, it argues that whites’ ideas about race were undergoing a fundamental transformation during these years. It explores an important facet of that transformation, by showing how whites grew deeply invested in new ideas about the relationship between race and property. And it argues that this new racial thinking was decisively shaped by the powerful new institutions and private practices that fueled postwar suburban growth while also successfully excluding most black people from its benefits. Rather than describe how other variables interacted with a presumably static white racism, I argue that white identity and white racism were being remade and that these changes were inextricably linked to a revolution in metropolitan political economy.

It’s quite an interesting, and exceedingly pursuasive argument about racial formation

As whites abandoned theories about biological difference and hierarchy, they embraced the argument that racial minorities simply threatened white-owned property. This shift occurred as a majority of whites became property owners for the first time, and as the politics that facilitated this process encouraged whites to view property and property ownership through a powerful but distorted racial lens. New ideas about race were largely born in and sustained by the politics of metropolitan change itself. [12]

This revolution in the metropolitan political economy is extensively documented here:

the huge influence of the real estate industry and the open racism of early theories about zoning

The most enduring legacy of developers’ involvement was zoning’s new focus on protecting the value of residential property. Originally framed as a panacea for a wide range of practical urban problems, by the mid- l910s zoning was portrayed in NCCP sessions primarily as a tool for shoring up real estate markets, especially for “high class” residential subdivisions.

– the community builders and huge expansion of the suburbs incorporating racial covenants and discriminatory zoning — there is not so much on covenants but

Most studies treat zoning ordinances and racially restrictive covenants as discrete if sometimes complementary legal instruments of exclusion because zoning law addresses the right of public bodies to regulate the uses of privately owned property, whereas covenant law addresses the right of private persons to regulate uses of their own property. Zoning ordinances established and defined public powers, while covenants governed interactions between private individuals.86
Largely unexamined, as a result, are the ways that zoning and racial covenants shared an intellectual, cultural, and even legal provenance, a shared history documented by the courts’ defense of both. [92]

-the rise in local incorporation of suburbs in order to implement restrictive zoning
-the various government programs which transformed the property market while promoting the myth that they were doing nothing of the kind…Freund argues that broadly speaking, the federal government intervened in three ways

1. ‘federal initiatives and policies fueled the resegregation of the nation’s metropolitan regions by race and by wealth.’

2. ‘state interventions helped popularize a new rationale for the exclusion of minorities from the fast-growing suburbs. Through its involvement in both zoning and mortgage politics, the federal government put considerable force behind the theory that racial segregation was driven not by white racism but by economic necessity, that exclusion was a “market imperative,” required solely by the principles of land-use science. This argument was not new to the postwar era. But federal involvement made it constitutive of a new metropolitan political economy’

3. ‘federal interventions were instrumental in popularizing a powerful and quite paradoxical myth: that neither suburban growth nor new patterns of racial inequality owed anything to the state’s efforts. The federal government insisted that the new metropolitan order was a product of unregulated free-market activity. [33]’

What I found most interesting (and struggled the most with as well, as I can’t quite get my head around the mortgage stuff)

Still most commentators understate the extent of federal subsidy and the depth of the federal role in shaping the private market for housing, because they focus almost exclusively on FHA and VA operations and because they do not examine how selective credit policy transformed the way that wealth in housing is generated in the modern United States. The FHA and VA worked in tandem with other powerful programs that subsidized and regulated the conventional mortgage market (for home loans not covered by FHA or VA insurance) and virtually created a secondary mortgage market (enabling investors to trade home finance debt like other securities). Taken together, this broad range of federal initiatives did more than shore up a struggling market for housing finance. It created a new kind of mortgage market and a new kind of mortgage industry, which together issued more credit, and thus produced far more wealth than their predecessors. These chapters situate federal mortgage policy within a much larger revolution in U.S. money and credit markets, demonstrating that postwar suburbanization was part and parcel of a fundamental transformation in the mechanics of American capitalism.

And so, to recap in terms of how this affected people of colour in the U.S.

Because the programs that subsidized the mortgage market systematically excluded racial minorities, suburban growth and its corollary prosperity were not just state-managed but also inherently discriminatory. Federal housing policies did not merely “embrace … the discriminatory attitudes of the marketplace,” as the FHA’s critics have long argued. Selective credit operations created a new kind of discriminatory marketplace.52

This structural transformation was accompanied by a change in national housing politics, an ideological change of equal importance. State involvement in the private housing sector helped popularize a mythical story about the mortgage revolution and suburban racial exclusion. Supporters of federal intervention insisted that market forces alone were spurring suburban growth and that it was these same impersonal forces that required the exclusion of minorities.

There follows the case studies on Detroit neighborhoods, which certainly bear out the theory above.

If I have any critique of Colored Property, it’s that I think with some editing it could have lost a lot of the bulk that made it so much work to get through. It felt like a number of things were repeated or overly detailed, which might explain why it doesn’t seem to be seen as the pivotal book I really think it is in terms of connecting the formation of ideas of race with the development of property markets and the geographical consolidation of homes and wealth in the U.S.

What is largely missing from this story though? The struggle of African Americans to escape the Black belt, to get access to resources, to fight discrimination, to face black mobs, to build their own houses, realty organisations, banks…

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The radicalisciousness of housing

That article I’m supposed to be writing right now? This is sort of part of it, so enjoy the preview.

Today I was invited to a party to celebrate the victory in a court case over a building that I started organizing just before I left SAJE, and it’s sent me remembering the crazed stress and anger of the days when the owner ripped the outside off of the building while the tenants were still inside it. Lead, asbestos, he didn’t care. The city came out when we called and put a stop work order on the building. The owner ignored it. So the city came out when we called and put another stop work order. And the owner ignored that too, and he did it over the weekend when the city rests and relaxes, so he was able to do quite a lot of ignoring in the form of strewing asbestos and lead paint all over the sidewalks. So the city came out again when we called and put a third stop work order. The owner kept on stripping the siding off the building until you could see the sun shining through the walls while sitting on your toilet,

You could feel the strong winds through the window from which all glass had been removed while showering.  Someone from the state environmental agency came and put a fourth stop work order on the building because children from the school across the street had to walk past the building and over the asbestos on the sidewalk, but they took the extra step of wrapping the building in yellow danger! do-not-cross ribbon. The tenants had to duck under it to get home…at least the adults did, their kids were just fine of course. The yellow tape didn’t last so long…

But none of these agencies could physically stop the owner from working if he decided to ignore them (as he did), and punitive measures? A possible lawsuit months down the line long after the tenants had been forced to leave. Then the city inspectors came and ruled that the bathrooms were unsafe as the owner had also started to remove some of the foundational supports from the first floor, they used more caution tape (red this time, for extra danger) to prevent the tenants from using the toilets. We didn’t know whether to cry, or buy shotguns and keep everyone the hell away from the place.

And this reminds me of another story.

In California, tenant organizers have the right under civil code to visit any tenant who invites them into their apartment. In the Morrison Hotel, the tenants brave enough to invite us in had their electricity turned off, were physically threatened, were faced with eviction, and were thereafter prevented from having any visitors at all. After the first two, there were no more volunteers. And all to no avail as we were not allowed in, but were physically kept outside by first the managers and their pit bull, then by armed security guards hired especially for us. While the fire-arms and attack dog flattered our organizing super-powers, they were also quite annoyingly effective. The managers also called the police. The police surprisingly enough, did not really seem to care about civil code. They told us (and I quote) they were there to protect property rights, and so if we tried to enter we would be arrested for trespassing. And as we fought to enforce our civil right to get in the building, the owners steadily and illegally emptied 70 apartments through a combination of threats, illegal evictions, harassment and bribery. They boarded up the empty rooms, many of them filled to overflowing with trash (and rats), and for the remaining 30 families who lived in the building and fought for their homes for another year and a half. It looked like this:

What these two stories have in common is the way that they expose the ugly reality that property rights take precedence over everything else in the US. Buy me a drink and I will tell you many more, or perhaps you can buy me one not to, especially the one about the building that collapsed in Echo Park, killing one of the tenants. Law and law enforcement exist to protect the owner’s right to do anything he chooses to his building.

And so what better place for radical struggle? In these stories lie not only grave injustice, but also what we would call a teachable moment, a place where people can break down for themselves the powerful American mythology of private property. What happened in these two buildings (among so many others), exposes the essence of capitalism and its human cost, and demands an alternative vision for our society.

Without grasping this moment, critically analyzing it, adding theory, folding it into a greater movement, these stories are nothing more than stories, a struggle with a beginning and an end that makes little difference in the world as it currently exists or the hearts and minds of those who fought.

So theory, I had my theories of course, but I have to say I was never particularly rigorous about them and I still feel a level of pragmatism is key…Still, I’ve decided to take the task in hand, and I’ve mapped out radical thought and thinkers on my walls before doing it on paper. I have read many of them (but isolatedly over the years), heard of many of others, and I discovered many that I did not know…but I wanted to see how they all fit together and where my community and our stories fit within that. And maybe even create a tool for people to see their past and ideas for a future and learn from it.

This is what it looks like right now, it feels massive when you’re looking at it though my room is tiny so the photo’s not the best. It’s still only a skeleton, and I’ve made sure you can’t really read it because I’m not quite ready for the onslought of criticism over my simplifications of theory and events that will probably be entirely justified.

In blue are thinkers, in red major theories, in orange organizations based on theories. And seems like Marx and Engels nailed most of the essentials of capitalism and its discontents. And the “communalist anarchists” nailed the vision of a society where local communities define their own needs and govern themselves through direct democracy, and federate together to take care of those needs that each cannot provide on their own. And even after (or better said because of) years of organizing I believe like they did, that building such collective organization and direct democracy in the now is the way to a successful revolution and a new world, though I know that’s where the radical world divides and sets to work killing each other. Ah, the glory days when Marx and Bakunin were still talking. And of course, there has been much important work done since to expand theory and understanding to take into account race and gender, imperialism, globalization, the environment etc. And exciting things have happened as people have adapted theory to their own countries and culture and put it into practice to build large-scale movement. Still. Seems like we had a lot of the answers 150 years ago. That’s when I get rather sad. And then I look at Latin America and get a bit more optimistic. And then I remember kids able to look through the walls of their building and having their blood drawn to test for lead poisoning, and I am so filled with rage I don’t really care about the odds. I’ll just fight. We need something better than a world where people pay rent for a building falling down around them so that their landlord can make more money. And organizers and tenants need to be able to understand what exactly they are working against, they need to look up and see what exactly they are working for.

Luckily, the theory wall is full of humor as well, though I believe that precious few of the bastards were able to laugh at themselves, that’s really why I’m here I suppose…But who knew (apart from Hugo Chavez) that Bolivar’s full name was:

Simón José Antonio de la Santísima Trinidad Bolívar Palacios y Blanco?

And that Augusto Sandino was a member of the Magnetic-Spiritualist School of the Universal Commune founded in Buenos Aires by some Basque guy, and it blended anarchism with zoroastrianism, kabbalah and spiritism? And google Bogdanov and Fourier, they will make you smile.

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Sheepherders and the CA Minimum Wage

So I’m doing a wee bit of research for a fellowship I’m applying for…money is money, and money paid to do something akin to what I want to do is good money so I’m applying. So I’m trying to explain the abysmal situation that most working folks in LA find themselves in, and from there heading down the ladder to all those who are sometimes with work, out of work, unable to work. And what my writing might be able to do about it…I’m writing a good line to be sure, but it’ll take a hell of a lot more than writing for damn sure.

At any rate, I was looking some stuff up about the California minimum wage and discovered this juicy tidbit from off of the official California Department of Industrial Relations (a misnomer if the below quote is anything to judge by…you can read all about it yourself at http://www.dir.ca.gov/dlse/faq_minimumwage.htm):

Q. What is the minimum wage?

A. Effective January 1, 2008, the minimum wage in California is $8.00 per hour.

For sheepherders, however, effective July 1, 2002, the minimum wage was set at $1,200.00 per month. Effective January 1, 2007 this wage was increased to a minimum monthly salary of $1,333.20. Effective January 1, 2008, the minimum monthly salary for sheepherders will be $1,422.52. Wages paid to sheepherders may not be offset by meals or lodging provided by the employer. Instead, there are provisions in IWC Order 14-2007, Sections 10(F), (G) and (H) that apply to sheepherders with respect to monthly meal and lodging benefits required to be provided by the employer.

Yeah, I thought that was pretty sweet. Sheepherders. I’m glad they’re taken care of, or are they? I suppose a minimum monthly means they can’t be paid less then that for their work…how many hours do sheepherders work anyway? The ones in the bible seemed to be on pretty much 24/7 but it’s been many years since I spent time reading about them…

Actually this minimum wage takes care of no one really. A full time worker will earn $16,640 a year. That means a mom with her two kids is living below the federal poverty limit even though she is working full time. Though I guess she’ll be better off working at Burger King than herding sheep. Perhaps.

It’s really too bad that the Department of Industrial Relations’ Frequently Asked Questions section doesn’t include just how people are expected to live off of under $1,400 a month when the average 2 bedroom apartment in LA is now renting at $2,100. Forget about healthcare, car insurance, clothes, utilities, food…

For general info on just how badly you are fucked on minimum wage look at California Progress Report 2008, of course, the folks earning minimum wage already know all that.

Was it the Economy that Slapped Michael Jackson?

So many of us waited this week with bated breath, on the edge of our seats. Some of us wanted the dirty bastard to lose it all, some of us wanted the misunderstood superstar to keep it. FInally, the suspense has ended. Neverland is safe. For now.

But all of us know it is a sad sad day when the economy digs its foul claws of recession into even the richest of men. The nation mourns, for the wake of foreclosures has left not even the most priveleged amongst us safe. And now that this national wave of catastrophe has lapped upon Neverland’s shores, how can anyone sleep at night? Who could possibly dream of ever attaining Michael Jackson’s immense wealth? Yet even he has had to face the pinch of poverty. Even he has had to work to scrape together the last minute deal to save his property from auction and certain occupation at the hand of strangers. What the hell happened to Elizabeth Taylor? What can lie in store for the rest of us?

It is certainly not a road trip to Bahrain to hang out with the Crown Prince.

For those of us not cushioned by multi-million dollar homes and exotic wild animals that we can sell to cover our asses, there sits between us and homelessness only a few gold chains and the toaster oven at the pawn shop. Those won’t get you very far, we all know that. We are, most of us, one major illness away from eviction or foreclosure, one lay-off, one arrest, one unexpected expense. Most of us pay more than a third of our income in rent or a mortgage. And to be sure, most of us don’t have those large settlements to pay off to the parents of kids we’ve had over just to “play” with our toys…we’ve got expenses like food. And gas. And this broadband wireless connection. Boyfriends run the tab up too, fancy underwear when you’re with ’em, liquor when you’re not…it all adds up. But the point here is that a national landmark like Neverland, almost put up for auction so that any multi-millionaire at all could just buy it, well, that should send a clear message to our leaders that something is wrong. Something must be done. The housing crisis must be averted, and I am paying them more than enough to do it. Not to save the Michael Jacksons of the world of course, they can just sell one of their Malibu homes. But I ask it for the rest of us, the ones with nowhere to turn, the ones even now soldiering on without their jewelry or their toaster ovens…

LA’s skid row effort hits a wall

The LA Times can really write a headline. Is this the effort to deal with the systemic problems that have led to massive homelessness and widespread drug addiction? An attempt to deal with the absence of community mental health clinics, affordable housing, living wage jobs, a solution to racism?

I’m afraid not, it is Chief Bratton’s effort to criminalize homelessness itself, to clean up downtown by simply shoving thousands of people in jail, and harrassing them enough to move on. It was the three cops on every corner, seven cops to make each arrest, cops on horses running people down on foot, a frightening show of force. And the fact that it has hit a wall shouldn’t be too surprising. You can’t stop the drug trade by arresting junkies, you can’t clean out an area of people who have nowhere else to go, and it’s never good to piss people off who have nothing left to lose. Though they’ve certainly tried.

HUD Leaves the Business of Housing

Alphonso Jackson is leaving HUD, and he’s leaving under a cloud of criminal investigation for corruption in the handing out of federal contracts…but there are a lot of other reasons he should be leaving which sadly aren’t getting enough attention in the press. As a political appointee, and therefore an entirely political animal, you could argue that he is simply following the party line, following orders. I think we’ve all heard that before. Why wasn’t he fired in 2006 when he boasted in a public speech that he had revoked a contract with someone when they told him they did not like Bush? Or when he was accused in a lawsuit by a local Housing Authority of trying to force them to sell land to a developer he knew, and then gutting their budget when they refused? Now he’s the one resigning, I know it’s under pressure, but clearly he’s been allowed to save face.

Still, the deeper, much more important issue here is the reality of a federal government steadily dis-investing in housing in this country even as real wages are falling, rents are skyrocketing, the population of homeless folks is being swelled by women and children, and almost everyone but the very wealthy are only a paycheck or two away from eviction. A serious illness in the family or a lay-off and many of us would be in trouble. Given the sub-prime mortgage crisis, many thousands have already lost their homes. So lets take a look at those lucrative New Orleans contracts that are currently under investigation, what exactly was the federal government paying contractors to do in New Orleans? It certainly wasn’t to build housing for the thousands of refugees spread across the nation. New Orleans is actually a perfect case study showing how the federal government is slowly withdrawing from public housing and leaving hundreds of thousands of citizens vulnerable to the bubbles of the market. And no one will be bailing them out.

In 1996 there were 13,500 public housing units in New Orleans. 9 years later, just before Katrina, that number had already been reduced by almost half to 7,100 through programs like Hope VI; 2,000 of those units were vacant, scheduled to be demolished. 5,146 families lived in public housing before the hurricane. How many have been allowed to return? About 1,000 families. And HUD continues to put forward the plan to demolish another 5,000 units, of which they are proposing to replace around 20%. The federal government will have gone from providing 13,500 homes for needy families to a grand total of around 2,000 homes, all within the space of 12 years.

I heard a lot of speculation on the news about the mindset of those people who had refused to leave New Orleans. Leaving aside the fact that many poor people did not have the means to get out of town, I believe this definitely bears out their fear that once they left, they would not be allowed back. Poor people aren’t stupid, and balancing personal risk with keeping your home is a dilemma that many would find very hard.

The other way, less direct way that HUD is putting people onto the streets? When the Federal Housing Authority insures the mortgage of a low-income home-buyer, and that home-buyer defaults on their mortgage, then the FHA pays the mortgage off and turns the property over to HUD. Buildings between 1 and 4 units are eligible for FHA insurance, so HUD receives a number of buildings with between 1 and 4 families living in them as tenants. Their policy is to evict all of the tenants, which they can do even in rent-controlled areas, and then auction off the building. The much-publicized wave of foreclosures and the crash of the sub-prime market has undoubtedly had thousands of silent and unremarked victims. I worked with one such building several years ago where we were trying to arrange the sale of a foreclosed upon 4 unit building to a local non-profit affordable housing developer. Our goal was to keep the tenants in the building as all four families had lived there for over 10 years, and one of the tenants had lived there for over 20 years and was incredibly active in the work to improve the neighborhood. We managed it in spite of HUD, one of their employees actually told me over the phone that they were “not in the business of housing.” There are a multitude of witty answers possible to such a statement, but my jaw dropped and I could not think of a single one. Still, the woman was right, it certainly seems true that the Department of Housing and Urban Development is no longer in the business of housing.

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L.A. City Attorney Forces $9 Million in Restitution from Landlord

Given that over 60% of Los Angelenos are renters, and far too many of them are paying far too much in rent for substandard apartments, why isn’t this being treated as much bigger news? It’s been a long time since a landlord had to dig this deep into his pockets, possibly never in L.A. We’re not known as a slum town, still, that is what much of Los Angeles is for a great many reasons (none of which include rent control). Essentially there is a great deal of profit to be made in renting to the poor; they don’t know what their rights are, and to keep a roof over their heads they’ll put up with pretty much anything. In Europe no one would believe me when I said that lead poisoning still exists in America. Or that kids are regularly bitten by rats. Or that I worked with a doctor who pulled cockroaches out of the ears of several children every week of every year. It certainly beggars belief. Until now it has been a handful of community organizations working with tenants high in bravery and low on resources trying to stop this from happening without being evicted.

Until now. After many years of pressure from community and tenant rights groups, the Los Angeles City Attorney’s office has finally turned around an atrocious record for the prosecution of criminal landlords profiting from slum buildings and illegally evicting tenants, and are showing what a city can achieve on behalf of its residents. They charged Darren Stern (also known as Henry Shalom), the owner of Landmark Equity Management Inc., with using a calculated and criminal strategy to empty out his buildings, thereby evading rent control laws to increase his profits. Some of the tactics he used, all too common in a rapidly gentrifying Los Angeles, were:

Illegally shutting off utilities
Entering units without permission
Refusing to conduct repairs, resulting in dangerous slum conditions
Refusing to accept rent and then trying to evict tenants for nonpayment
Harassment, threats, and intimidation

This case is groundbreaking not only as a civil suit conducted on behalf of tenants by the city, but also as an effective and holistic campaign to target the entire business operation of the minority of truly criminal landlords. Instead of prosecuting building by building and collecting fines that do not even cover the city’s costs, they have started looking at companies like Landmark that have engaged in illegal activities in the 850 units that they own spread across the city.

To maximize the strength of these cases the city is working closely with community based organizations and the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles for the first time in a new and very exciting way. The Morrison Hotel served as the first test case for this new approach. Working with Strategic Actions for a Just Economy (SAJE) and the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles (LAFLA), the City Attorney took the criminal case to trial and won a precedent setting conviction of the owners on 21 charges which was based in part on extensive research and tenant testimony. In my time as lead tenant organizer at SAJE, this certainly counted as one of the high points where a clear victory had been won that would clearly have a strong ripple effect in the city. It is immensely encouraging to see that the City Attorney’s Office is working with many different tenant organizations, and truly pushing the envelope to try and solve one of the city’s worst, most intractable problems. This case has clearly taken the Morrison victory to another level with partners Los Angeles Community Action Network (LACAN) and LAFLA. Although much will depend on the actual enforcement of the settlement agreement, this is a huge step forward for the City Attorney’s Office and a meaningful victory for tenants across the city. There are a number of other landlords out there hiding the same illegal business practices behind the corporate veil, so I hope to see this work continue.

Shall we sum up this victory then? The City Attorney’s office had already filed a criminal suit for the code violations in the various buildings which was won in May of 2007, and resulted in a sentence of 150 days in jail for the owner, of which he served 30 days. The City Attorney’s office also filed a civil suit, and yesterday reached an agreement with Landmark Equity Management requiring Landmark to pay $1 million in damages to the city in addition to the city’s legal costs, and $9 million into a restitution fund for the tenants who they mistreated. Landmark will also be prevented from buying new buildings in L.A. for the next 4 and a half years, and is required to bring all the buildings it currently owns up to code. This sends a clear message that intimidation, slum housing, and illegal evictions will not be tolerated in our city of renters.

Want more information?
City Attorney’s Press Release: http://www.lacity.org/atty/attypress/attyattypress6938518_06142006.pdf

Need help enforcing your rights?

Los Angeles Community Action Network: http://www.cangress.org/

Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles: http://www.lafla.org/

Strategic Actions for a Just Economy: www.saje.net

Need to know what your rights even are?

Los Angeles Housing Department: http://www.lacity.org/LAHD/ten_land.htm

also published at http://www.allvoices.com/users/Andrea#tab=blogs&group=2,widget=blogs&page=2&filter=popular