Tag Archives: housing

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