Article excerpt

This article is part of the "What Works" series, which explores effective strategies for improving people's lives through progressive social change. --The Editors

On December 8, 2000, just after 8 am, 31-year-old Juan Pineda, a father of two children from Guatemala, was crushed to death when a two-story slum apartment building in Los Angeles's Echo Park neighborhood collapsed. Another thirty-six low-income tenants--mainly immigrant garment workers, day laborers and their children--were injured. More than 100 residents were left temporarily homeless.

For years, tenants had complained about the building's numerous health and safety violations, including a faulty foundation, but city housing inspectors allowed the absentee landlord to get away with only minor repairs. The tragedy put a human face on the city's severe housing crisis and the failure of the city's political leaders to address the problem.

The outrage inspired by the Echo Park building collapse helped to galvanize a movement for decent affordable housing that had come together the previous year, spearheaded by Housing LA, a broad coalition of labor unions, community organizations and housing groups. On January 17, 2002, when Mayor James Hahn announced plans for a $100 million annual Housing Trust Fund--the largest in the country--to expand the city's supply of affordable housing, it was the crowning achievement of Housing LA's two-year grassroots campaign. State Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg, a former LA city councilwoman, called the fund "the most important progressive victory in the city since the living wage law was adopted" in 1997.

During the past decade, as the federal government cut funds for construction of low-rent housing and as housing prices spiraled upward, LA has faced a deepening shortage of affordable housing. In a city of 4 million people--more than one-quarter of them below the poverty line--the median house costs more than $249,500. The city's homeownership rate--39 percent--is the lowest in the country except for New York City. But unlike New York, LA has few government-subsidized apartments.

Rents are so high that a family needs to earn almost $20 an hour to afford the typical apartment. About one out of seven apartments--more than 125,000 units--is substandard. Many families live in overcrowded housing, and an estimated 40,000 live in garages. Just to keep pace with population increases, LA needs to add at least 5,000 affordable units a year, but last year the city added only 1,200 units.

During the eight-year regime of Mayor Richard Riordan, a moderate Republican who was term-limited out of office last year, tenants groups, nonprofit housing developers and homeless advocates had little success getting city officials or the local media to make housing a priority. The city used none of its own funds to subsidize affordable housing.

How did activists manage to produce a dramatic turnabout in the city's political priorities?

"We knew we had to broaden the coalition for housing beyond the 'usual suspects' of housing developers and tenants groups," explained Jan Breidenbach, executive director of the Southern California Association for Non-Profit Housing, the campaign's key strategist. "We had to engage the unions, especially those that represent the working poor, who bear the brunt of the housing crisis, as well as the building trades, whose members would build some of the housing. We also reached out to the religious community and to community organizing groups."

Breidenbach recognized that the June 2001 municipal elections--the open mayoral seat attracted six candidates and the six open seats on the fifteen-member City Council attracted several candidates each--provided a strategic opening to inject housing issues into mainstream political debate.

Cardinal Roger Mahoney and LA County Federation of Labor head Miguel Contreras agreed to serve as Housing LA's co-chairs, solidifying a labor-community alliance forged by the city's key activists over several years. …