In 1973, President Richard M. Nixon declared in his State of the Union speech that the “urban crisis” was over. Not. He just meant that the Feds would no longer give money for public housing or social services to US cities.
This was a sea change away from the idea that corporate abuse of working folks and people of color can be “made manageable” by social welfare programs, including public housing. The dismantling of what remained of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “New Deal” was on its way and kicked into high gear with “Reaganomics.” Once adopted by Democratic Party bosses, it was called the “Washington Consensus,” then later christened “neoliberalism.”
Reagan and the elites longed to restore their share of the world’s total wealth they controlled after World War II, about 50%, which shrunk to “only” 25%. They attacked labor unions, civil rights organizations, and women’s movements who demanded pay increases, equality and social welfare. They bombed the “uppity” nations of the Third World who fought to kick out US corporations and their military muscle who squeezed out their resources.
US cities were to rely on the charity of those same corporations to invest in cities and build housing. That's like relying on the compassion of Colonel Sanders to build housing for chickens. Many schemes were hatched. Two major programs were the Section 8 voucher program and the Low Interest Housing Tax Credit Program (LIHTCP).
Section 8 provides subsidies for only 1 out of 4 applicants to help pay their rent. Some wait 10 years to get it, then the money winds up in private landlord’s hands. With the LIHTCP, developers get huge tax breaks for building a few low-income units, but after 15 years can evict people and do what they want. There’s little monitoring of the program, so over the years only a few developers have been busted for stealing federal dollars. Even if these schemes were successful, far more people are made homeless than the number of low-income units built. No mystery that homelessness is at historic highs at about 600,000 in the US and another 11 million renters struggling to keep a roof over their heads.
Even with their limits, President Trump stripped these programs last year and diverted the money into the military budget, now at a record $700 billion, 54% of all federal spending. This will directly impact folks who want to get into Section 8 housing at the Little Tokyo Towers, or the Baldwin Plaza Project, where low income elderly African Americans and Asians want to get in.
In California, the shutdown of various community redevelopment agencies in 2011 hammered another nail into low-income housing's coffin. These monies were supposed to go to schools and other public services but this remains to be seen. These agencies helped to bandage the problem but were not designed to stop the bleeding. In Little Tokyo, the Community Redevelopment Agency used “eminent domain” to buy up property at market rates and evict folks to make way for a luxury hotel. Then they quickly sold it to the developer at dirt cheap prices, handing them millions of our taxpayer monies as a subsidy.
In Los Angeles, many laws have been passed like the High Density Housing program and the Transit Oriented Communities Affordable Housing program. All have the same basic idea: give incentives to developers and rely on them to “trickle down” the benefits to low-income folks as Reagan used to assure people. A typical requirement is for 10 to 15% of market rate condo units be made “affordable”, whatever that means.
The downtown “Artist-in-Residence” (AIR) program seems more of PR stunt than real help. It didn’t provide a penny to artists-residents, but made it easier for developers to house artists by loosening zoning codes.
The downtown “Artist-in-Residence” (AIR) program seems more of PR stunt than real help. It didn’t provide a penny to artists-residents, but made it easier for developers to house artists by loosening zoning codes. While the Arts District developed in part due to this measure, artists are still vulnerable to developers as evidenced by the gutsy struggle of the artists-residents of 800 Traction Building and Michael Parker of the Artists Loft Museum LA in the Arts District in what was originally Little Tokyo. They have been resisting evictions against DLJ Capital/Credit Suisse Bank and Capital KCS respectively.
In Little Tokyo, Chinatown, Boyle Heights and other communities across the nation, people won some replacement housing for low-income folks during the 1970s and 80s. However, even if affordable rents were won for all, they may not have been able to pay the rent due to the loss of their jobs. Bakeries moved to the suburbs, garment shops “ran away” to China and Mexico, and the flower markets founded by Japanese Americans have shriveled due to flowers now being imported from the Netherlands. The displaced blue-collar worker-residents were replaced by white collar worker-residents in healthcare, leisure-hospitality, transport, science and hi-tech who live in market rate condos that dominate inner cities.
The actual “white flight” was turbo-charged by the policies of the Federal Housing Administration, left over from the New Deal. Low interest home loans were given to whites but not African Americans. Over time, “white flight”, “job flight”, tax breaks of every kind to corporations, and endless wars against people of the global south eroded the tax base of US cities, which went broke while corporate profits rose obscenely.
As early as 1964, plans for LA’s Central City, including Little Tokyo, Chinatown and El Pueblo, were dreamed up by the region's most influential bankers, developers, oil companies, newspapers and city officials in a master plan document called “Centropolis; the Plan for Central City LA”.
Remarkably, the main themes described more than a half a century ago closely resembles todays Central City. Their plan envisioned DTLA as a focus of international investment to make profits from local consumption at the expense of working people. The city center was to be accessible by a network of freeways, light rail and buses, stringing together “entertainment districts”. Its vision for El Pueblo; “The world of sombreros, wishing wells, siestas, colorful dancing senoritas, mariachis, and fiestas.” Little Tokyo was to become “the Orient transplanted in Southern California” and “potentially an exciting tourist attraction.” Chinatown was described, as “an enclave replete with small shops and fine restaurants designed in classic Chinese style, this exotic complex has been a popular tourist attraction.”
Today, in order to fight gentrification and increase a little self determination for our communities, we must continue fighting for small improvements like delaying evictions, adequate moving fees, or subsidies from local governments In California we must continue the fight to repeal the Costa Hawkins bill which shackles rent control ordinances.
“Small enough to win but big enough to matter” demands must be connected to bold nationwide demands for a public housing program encompassing infrastructure development, green jobs and a new economy. One example might be Bernie Sanders’ program to infuse the National Affordable Housing Trust Fund with $5 billion to create 3.5 million units over 10 years. Sanders, similar to Jesse Jackson in the 1980’s, excited millions and expanded the national conversation beyond small reforms. We must mobilize our communities to get our elected representatives to embrace a bold national vision for housing as part of their party platform in addition to supporting our local “winnable” demands.
We must reach out to residents, mom-and-pop businesses and combine deep base building with broad coalition building with other communities, strategically using one to build the other. Allies involved in professional advocacy and non-profits make important contributions but are not the driving force. The residents and mom-and-pops, if united, are the most reliable backbone that have the power to occupy what the developer wants.
Too often, activists fail to point out that winning even small improvements can build confidence to expand our forces. It’s just as damaging to fight only for vague “overly broad” demands like, “stop gentrification” which seem out of reach. Both are needed. But building our community base is key because you only win what you have the power to take away from them at the height of your leverage. Know when to bet and when to fold.
Young activists in the post Occupy Wall Street era are turned off by lines like, “don’t be pie-in-the-sky, be realistic”. They’ve seen that gaining small victories without building a movement is failing. Just drive around urban LA, San Francisco, Chicago or New York City!
We need candidates for political office with good platforms that address the housing crisis, not reliant on corporate cash—ideally, leaders from the social movements instead of career politicians. Once in office, they can devote paid staff and resources to train their constituencies to self-organize with a long-term vision, instead of just providing “constituency services” to protect the incumbent from losing their seats.
Without a long-term vision and platform connected to everyday struggles, a consistent moral compass will be missing from our arsenal. This leaves people unable to navigate the roadmap for social change mired in silo struggles and eventual burns out.
With a long-term outlook we may not win 100% of most struggles in the early rounds but by winning concessions we can win over more tenants, students and others who become transformed into warriors for system-change and over time grow an army to beat back gentrification in the later rounds.