As a former, long-term resident of East Los Angeles’ notorious Ramona Gardens housing project, I’m appalled by the local housing authority’s Big Brother control over the residents—mainly poor Latinos and African Americans. I’m speaking about Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles (HACLA) and its overpaid President and CEO, Rudolf Montiel. He pockets, according to various media sources, close to $500,000 per year, which includes his regular salary, benefits, vacation time, housing allowance and bonuses.
While much of the media spotlight has been on the looters in the City of Bell, who enriched themselves at the expense of the working-class Latino residents and local businesses, an overly paid bureaucrat like Montiel—himself a son of Mexican immigrants—has recently come under scrutiny by the media and Los Angeles City Council over his decree to evict nine public housing residents because they protested outside his luxurious Rancho Cucamonga home.
Given that any incident of this nature—a public protest against an inaccessible ruler—requires an exhaustive independent investigation to determine whether these nine individuals (and their families) deserve to be kicked out of their subsidized apartments, what’s undisputable is that the police at the scene made no arrests nor filed any criminal charges against the protesters. How, then, does a public servant like Montiel in good conscious evict these needy individuals in the midst of a Great Recession?
I can empathize with these nine individuals because I was one of them. I know what it is to live in fear, not knowing if the housing authority will evict your family for breaking one of the many draconian rules. For example, as a sixth grader, I remember translating for my mother at the local housing authority office to report on my school grades. Apparently, Big Brother wanted to make sure that we, the poor kids from the projects, had to provide proof that we were serious about our studies so that we wouldn’t return as potential residents in the future. I will never forget the look of disbelief I received from a housing authority official when years later I reported that I had been accepted to UCLA. In an unsettling way, I left like I was leaving for the moon, since most of my peers dropped out of high school, where many of them left for prison or tragically died young.
I also remember how the housing authority controlled us by applying military strategies, such as divide-and-conquer techniques. For instance, the housing authority encouraged all residents to inform on any neighbor who made extra cash via illicit and licit means. This made life more difficult on my later mother, who had to earn cash to provide for her eight children, especially since the government aid we received only covered the basics, such food, utilities, shelter and some clothing. Like a house burglar or crack dealer, she hid from the local authorities and neighbors to take a two-hour bus from the Eastside to the Westiside to clean the homes of the wealthy.
One day, her so-called friend threatened to report my mother to the authorities for her occasional paid domestic work. While my mother suspected jealousy to be the motive, out of fear, she decided to stop working until we left the projects. These are some of the hidden costs of the poor in housing projects—disunity perpetuated by the authorities, fear and petty jealousy. While I still find it difficult to forgive our former neighbor for what she did to my mother’s entrepreneurial spirit, I reserve most of my anger for those who rule public housing like 19th Century colonial powers that ruled “their” colonies through similar authoritarian and perverse strategies.
Like someone who survived a war-like environment, I constantly reflect on the dark experiences I encountered in the projects. Apart from being ashamed of being poor, depending on welfare, food stamps, Medical and free school lunches, I am still haunted by the violence that I witnessed. It’s not just the brutal violence of the local gang members who engaged in acts of self-destruction, but also of the police who patrol the projects like police-state forces found in like Bagdad or Bogotá.
No child should worry about being shot in a drive-by by a gang member or becoming a victim of police abuse because of his or her zip code. While many of my childhood friends in Murchison Elementary School eventually joined the neighborhood gang, none of them pointed a gun at me for failing to make a complete stop as a novice, 16-year-old driver. No teenager should worry about being pressured to consume drugs or do their homework while police helicopters fly over his or her homes.
While many middle-aged Americans nostalgically visit their childhood homes, I can’t even visit my old apartment without the fear of the unknown. I’m not referring to the few gang members that remain, since they themselves are victims of a hopeless environment. I’m referring to the “No Trespassing” signs found in Ramona Gardens and other housing projects, where outsiders can be arrested for visiting a friend or extended family member. This doesn’t include the many surveillance cameras that have been installed in the housing projects throughout the city. Whatever happened to the right of privacy and freedom against big government? Do these so-called American principles also apply to those who live in housing projects? Is it a crime to be poor in this country? And finally, where are the Tea Party and GOP leaders when we need these so-called freedom fighters to fight against Big Brother in America’s barrios and ghettos?
If we want to help public housing residents to escape poverty and believe in a better future—one with opportunities beyond their bleak environments—the first step is for housing authority bureaucrats to stop acting like prison wardens and, instead, behave like true public servants. In short, the time has come for public housing residents to be treated as human beings with dignity and respect.
Finally, Montiel should immediately rescind the nine eviction notices and engage in a meaningful dialogue with the concerned residents who represent the constituents—not market-rate interests—he was hired to serve.
Ph.D. Candidate at UC Berkeley’s Dept. of City & Regional Planning and Visiting Scholar at UCLA’s Chicano Studies Research Center