Slum Housing: LA’s Hidden Health Crisis and a Model Response

Slum housing has a negative impact on residents’ health–even when the building doesn’t collapse on top of you while you sleep which is what happened to some tenants of slumlord Frank McHugh. But today, more than 3,000 low-income families enjoy better health and almost as many now live in improved housing thanks to the Healthy Neighborhoods, Same Neighbors Collaborative, a groundbreaking partnership among community organizers, grassroots nonprofits, and tenants from South Los Angeles and downtown, all working in coordination with city and county agencies, legal professionals and health care providers.

Tuesday evening, April 20th, the group presented their most recent report at a community meeting and “People’s Hearing.” Approximately 200 “people,” ranging from babes-in-arms to seniors, women in pumps and pinstripes to older Latinos in cowboy hats, assembled at the St. Vincent’s School to hear what the collaborative has done to take on the widespread conditions that were documented: peeling and chipping lead paint; mold and mildew caused by leaking pipes, holes in walls, inadequate drainage and ventilation; vermin including cockroaches, lice, bedbugs, rats, and fleas; leaking sewage; shared bathrooms lacking adequate maintenance; lack of heat and hot water. These conditions are directly connected to brain, kidney, and nerve damage; respiratory problems such as asthma attacks and chronic bronchitis; infections including extremely serious staph infections; skin rashes and infections and more, not to mention the stress and depression tenants experience not only from living this way but from facing harassment and threats of eviction when they complain.

At a time when electoral politics may seem like a limited and unwieldy approach to meaningful change, the collaborative’s effectiveness is both inspiring and instructive. So here is a brief look at the partners and what they have done since the project began two years ago:

  • St. John’s Well Child and Family Center, headquartered in South LA, provides a medical home to over 35,000 low-income children and families through its network of health centers and school-based clinics. Its President and CEO, Jim Mangia, has long recognized the impact of substandard housing on health as St. John’s providers have years of experience pulling cockroaches out of patients’ ears and treating severe asthma attacks and other chronic conditions and then having to send patients right back to the housing responsible for those conditions in the first place. St. John’s was one of the convenors of the South LA Health and Human Rights Conference in June 2009. When the collaboration began, St. John’s clinicians incorporated questions about housing conditions as well as education about slum-related disease into patient visits and compared these findings to national health research data.
  • Los Angeles Community Action Network (LA CAN) has a proud history of organizing downtown low-income tenants to prevent displacement due to gentrification. Having developed grassroots leadership over the years in the struggle for safe and affordable housing, LA CAN brought experienced and directly impacted tenants and tenant organizers to the collaboration, letting people know their rights and that they could not be evicted in retaliation for filing complaints.
  • Strategic Action for a Just Economy (SAJE), an economic justice and tenants rights organization encouraged tenants to file complaints and promised support in case of retaliation while also bringing to the collaborative its special expertise in engaging in the City’s and Community Redevelopment Agency’s land use planning process.
  • Esperanza Community Housing Corporation has developed quality affordable housing but also developed a model for training 350 bilingual (Spanish/English) community residents as health promoters who visit families in slum housing, document conditions, collect environmental samples, and provide information on how to mitigate dangers. They also link affected families to medical providers and to tenants rights organizers.

Together, the participants identified and targeted three of the city’s worst large-scale professional slumlords. They organized tenants, in part by facilitating relationships across different buildings owned by the same owners. With a multi-pronged and coordinated strategy, the collaborative brought evidence and testimony to the media which began to report on slumlords as criminals rather than as businessmen facing the occasional fine, and to public interest lawyers who filed civil suits, and to the City Attorney’s Office which filed criminal charges against the slum building owners.

In addition to winning improvements to identified slum housing, the collaborative’s efforts paid off in other ways. Slumlord McHugh is now being required to sell all of his residential properties in Los Angeles–more than 200 of them–and must hire new building management and establish a trust fund to cover the cost of bringing these buildings up to full compliance before sale. Following civil and criminal litigation, another slumlord, Landmark Equity, paid a total of $15 million in compensation to affected tenants, benefiting approximately 1,000 households. Continuing problems that afflict tenants of the Amerland Group were aired at the Hearing.

The structure of the evening’s event answered still another question: how on earth has the collaborative managed to get participants to show up reliably at meetings every month for two whole years? Of course, by getting results, but also by being conscious and considerate of people’s needs–including the need not to have their time wasted.

Dinner was served, free of charge, to all in attendance while volunteers circulated among the tables letting people know when to finish up and move to the auditorium so the meeting could start on time–which it did. Simultaneous interpretation into Spanish was available via headsets. Childcare was offered, though many kids chose to stay with their parents and attend. There were no lengthy introductions or speeches, no pats on the back or flattering anecdotes.

We heard some success stories: the asthmatic woman who had to use her pump twice a day but since the project has been getting by with 14 times a month; the family of seven no longer squeezed into a one-bedroom apartment, kept awake all night by bedbugs and with frequent trips to the emergency room. But mostly we heard testimony focused on findings and tactics, and questions and challenges to the agency representatives who sat on a panel not to make canned presentations but to respond.

Tenants complained about fake repairs and loopholes. For example, inspectors find mold and landlords paint over it instead of removing it so that it’s invisible upon reinspection but continues to make people sick. Advocates pointed out that building inspectors are not able to assess building-wide problems such as structural deficiencies and faulty wiring.
Pam Walls, a longtime activist with LA CAN, wanted to know how code enforcement would change, given that many landlords see slap-on-the-wrist fines as simply the cost of doing business. (Over dinner, she’d said that in spite of years exposing and fighting slum conditions, she hadn’t really known about the impact on health until getting involved with the collaborative. “You’re coughing all the time, but everyone’s coughing. You think it’s normal.”)

Tina Hess, Supervising Assistant City Attorney for the Safe Neighborhoods Division, acknowledged how difficult it can be to get judges to take slumlord cases seriously: “Our housing cases are heard by the same judges that hear murder cases.” The collaborative’s documentation is helpful in exposing the real harm caused by slum condition. She also explained her office now takes a different approach. Instead of going for fines–which end up in Sacramento’s coffers anyway instead of benefiting the neighborhood, the City Attorney is asking for sentencing orders that require offenders to make substantial donations, starting at about $20,000, to health clinics and other organizations that provide direct services to low-income residents in the community.

Joseph Bell was one of several tenants of the Alexandria Hotel–and a plaintiff in the suit against its owner, the Amerland Group–who complained about living conditions there. The Alexandria has undergone a $14 million facelift as part of downtown’s urban renaissance, but the approximately 400 longtime low-income residents haven’t seen any improvement. Instead, since Amerland acquired the property in 2006, Bell reported, tenants have often gone without water or heat. The elevators are frequently out-of- service–a terrible, potentially life-threatening hardship in a 12-story building, especially for the many disabled tenants, some of whom use wheelchairs, and who end up stranded on high floors without functioning toilets. The fire system is not up to code and sewage leaks get tracked through the building. Since legal action started, said Bell, things have improved–but only a little.

Ken Murray of the LA County Department of Public Health reminded everyone of the Environmental Health Emergency Hotline at (888) 700-9995 for complaints and also offered his direct phone line to Bell and to others who’d made repeated calls and seen repeated inspections without results.

diane_lefer.gifAlong with Murray and Hess, Joan Ling of the Community Redevelopment Agency and Domingo Sauceda of Code Enforcement made it clear that their own limited investigative capabilities have been amplified by the collaborative’s work and they strongly encouraged continued monitoring and reporting.

Jim Mangia concluded, “We have transformed patients into active change-makers.”

The meeting ended on time.

Diane Lefer

Diane Lefer’s new book, The Blessing Next to the Wound, co-authored with Hector Aristizábal, is a true story of surviving torture and civil war and seeking change through activism and art. It will be published in the spring by Lantern Books.

Published by the LA Progressive on April 23, 2010
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About Diane Lefer

Diane Lefer's books include The Blessing Next to the Wound: A Story of Art, Activism, and Transformation, co-authored with Colombian exile and torture survivor Hector Aristizábal; the crime novel Nobody Wakes Up Pretty, described by Edgar Award winner Domenic Stansberry as "sifting the ashes of America's endless class warfare" and, most recently, her historical novel The Fiery Alphabet, which tells a woman's adventurous life-story against the backdrop of the 18th-century tension between Enlightenment values and religious faith.
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