Since the 1990s, Los Angeles has been privatizing its public housing even as its residents repeatedly organize to defend their homes. That organizing demonstrates the importance of public housing — and why the Left should demand we build more of it.

Nickerson Gardens housing complex in Watts, Los Angeles, 2019. (US Department of Housing and Urban Development / Wikimedia Commons)

“What is happening here in Jordan Downs is going to happen to each one of the [other] developments,” declared Claudia Moore, a leader of the citywide movement of public housing tenants, speaking at a press conference on February 24, 1989. Earlier that month, the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles (HACLA) had announced a plan to sell off Jordan Downs, a seven-hundred-unit complex located in the heart of the South Los Angeles Watts neighborhood, to the highest bidder.

Los Angeles’s war on public housing had officially begun.

Although the tenants had been kept in the dark, the news broke with immediate support from the city’s elites. Tom Bradley, the city’s first black mayor, who governed from 1973 to 1993, thought the idea was “innovative and creative.” Private developers contacted by the Los Angeles Times applauded the plan, but stressed that any private owner would need to be given wide latitude to regulate and evict the project’s poor, majority-black population. The Housing Authority was more than happy to oblige: “We need to tighten up the procedure whereby drug dealers and people who don’t pay rent can be evicted,” its executive director told the paper.

Ultimately, Moore’s prediction was only half right. Thanks to the vigorous organizing of the Jordan Downs tenants with a resurgent citywide movement behind them, the privatization scheme was defeated within just two months. But the Housing Authority did come with demolition and privatization plans for other developments — including Jordan Downs again, two decades later — in a process that continues to this day.

A crucial lesson for the Left from this history is that public housing worked, and it still does. It has provided decent and stable shelter to tens of thousands of families in one of the most hostile housing markets in the nation. Nobody knows that better than the tenants who have struggled to defend it.

The Assault on Public Housing in Los Angeles

Los Angeles has demolished, or is in the process of demolishing, over three thousand units of public housing since the 1990s. Private sector developers are being given sweetheart deals on ninety-nine-year leases, representing over 182 acres of prime land that have been made profitable for private interests.

Due to the first war on public housing — a hysterical anti-communist campaign by real estate interests in the early 1950s that succeeded in canceling a contract with the federal government for ten thousand additional units — Los Angeles never has never had a large amount of public housing units compared to other major cities. The finished and ongoing demolition projects will take the 8,264 units maintained by the city prior to 1995 down to just 5,236 units, representing a decrease of over one-third in just a few decades. And the Housing Authority’s twenty-five-year plan presents a vision to reduce this even further, to fewer than 2,500 units of public housing.

Public housing has provided decent and stable shelter to tens of thousands of families in one of the most hostile housing markets in the nation.

These privatization schemes have been huge boons for the developers building new housing and collecting rents, always generously subsidized by public funds. For example, Related California — an offshoot of the massive NYC-based developer, the Related Companies — got its start in Los Angeles by redeveloping the Normont Terrace complex, the first public housing complex in the city to be demolished and privatized, and has subsequently been involved in two other privatization projects. The Michaels Organization, a for-profit corporation that is the largest “affordable housing” landlord in the nation, is one of the two lead developers for the Jordan Downs redevelopment.

Finance capital benefits too. The opening up of this land to private speculation and development allows for interest-bearing loans and tax credits that can be worth tens of millions of dollars. Bank of America has invested over $100 million into the Jordan Downs redevelopment; Citi Bank provided a $34 million loan to just one phase of the Dana Strand redevelopment; and Goldman Sachs will purchase tax credits worth over $18 million as part of the recent refinancing of the privatized Pueblo Del Sol.

It is no wonder that Los Angeles’s corporate elite, organized into the Los Angeles Economy & Jobs Committee, in 2008 made “the redevelopment of all large public housing sites in Los Angeles” a core demand for the city’s leadership.

The decisions to demolish and privatize these developments are not neutral, technocratic ones made by enlightened policy experts. Rather, they represent a class war waged against some of the poorest people in the city who occupy these housing complexes, overwhelmingly black and Latino.

The war on public housing has occurred alongside and as part of the “war on drugs” and the rise of mass incarceration, with these residents often at the very center of these repressive and racist campaigns. The history of the last thirty years of public housing in Los Angeles abounds with stories of massive police raids, ubiquitous and invasive surveillance, millions of dollars allocated for broken-windows policing, and draconian gang injunctions placed on entire communities that criminalize everyday life and give the state even further license to harass and cage anyone deemed to be a gang member.

Then, when the neighborhood is ready to be gentrified, the city employs a different strategy: complete removal.

The Value of Public Housing

Although the public developments have been replaced by privatized “affordable housing,” the original residents rarely benefit from the new units. In some cases, the available evidence suggests, the vast majority of tenants — thousands of people — were not able to return to the privatized complexes. In others, the poorest and most vulnerable are excluded by design through the strict screening of applicants based on credit and criminal backgrounds.

More generally, these private developments tend to serve significantly wealthier populations. For example, some of the “affordable” units at the redeveloped Jordan Downs will be available for families earning 80 percent of the “Area Median Income.” In Los Angeles, this means an income of up to $100,000 for a household of four people, which is about five times the income of the average family in public housing.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the value of public housing was dramatically demonstrated as local housing authorities were explicitly authorized and encouraged by the federal government to effectively cancel rent. Tenants could apply for “income reexaminations” that could retroactively reduce their rent to as low as $0 per month and wipe out any balance owed due to the loss of a job or other circumstance.

Public housing, while certainly not perfect, is essential in its ability to provide decent and stable shelter outside of the for-profit marketplace.

This would be unheard of in the private market, including in privatized low-income developments, where the financiers are still owed regular debt payments, pandemic or not. In public housing, tenants’ rents are generally set at no more than 30 percent of their incomes and can be adjusted regularly. This means the loss of one’s job, or a sudden disaster, need not lead to eviction and homelessness — if your income goes down, your rent can go down, too.

Such stability is perhaps why public housing tenants in Los Angeles have repeatedly united to defend their homes. This happened at Rancho San Pedro in 1987, at Jordan Downs in 1989, at Pico-Aliso throughout the second half of the 1990s, at Dana Strand in the years leading up to 2001, at housing developments across the city in 2010, and at Jordan Downs again in the last decade.

We would do well to understand something that many of its residents have long realized: public housing, while certainly not perfect, is essential in its ability to provide decent and stable shelter outside of the for-profit marketplace.

Taking the Initiative

The Red Scare of the late 1940s and early ’50s decimated Los Angeles’s left. As the historian Gerald Horne recounts in his book, Fire This Time: The Watts Uprising and the 1960s, the Communist Party in Los Angeles, genuinely rooted in the city’s multiracial working class, went from being one of the strongest branches in the nation to a mere shell of its former self.

By the end of the 1950s, this had left the city in an “ideological vacuum,” lacking notable working-class leadership. In the course of just a few years, the party’s local leaders were jailed under the Smith Act, the most robust and effective unions were purged of communists (real or imaginary), and left-leaning workers from screenwriters to teachers were relentlessly hounded and forced out of their jobs for their supposedly subversive views.

This local war against the Left climaxed with the battle against public housing waged by the real estate industry and the Los Angeles Times. Public housing was “the last rung in the ladder toward complete socialism, one step this side of Communism and Our downfall,” according to the Committee Against Social Housing (CASH), led by the megadeveloper Fritz Burns.

Beyond drastically reducing the number of public housing units built, this capitalist coalition was able to make public housing, and the alleged infiltration of communists into the city’s Housing Authority, the major issue of the 1953 mayoral election, in which the relatively progressive Fletcher Bowron was narrowly defeated by the elite-backed Norris Poulson.

As historian Don Parson summarizes in his book, Making a Better World: Public Housing, the Red Scare, and the Direction of Modern Los Angeles, the political assassination of the city’s public housing program “marked the exit of the Left from the politics of the city” — from which we still have yet to recover.

In 2020, Los Angeles’s city council did pass a motion asking for certain reports on the idea of expanding both “public” and “social” housing; nearly three years later, however, none of the requested documents from the various city departments have been completed. A more recent motion expresses support for a very vague and ill-defined idea of “social housing,” yet does not commit the city to do anything concrete to bring its development about.

There is no need to genuflect to the conventional wisdom about how public housing was a failure.

The term “social housing” generally encompasses a range of models in which housing is owned and developed by different types of entities — nonprofit corporations, cooperatives, and so on — rather than just the state. Yet a bill just passed by the California Legislature shows how a watered-down idea of “social housing” may simply be a Trojan horse for the same model of privatized low-income developments that exclude the poorest by design and are heavily reliant on the whims of private, for-profit financing. Under this legislation, a development would be considered “social housing” as long as it is built on land that is leased from a public entity. The bill would not even require that such privately built and financed developments include units affordable to tenants with low incomes.

Ultimately, this “social housing” will look largely identical to the privatized complexes built upon the ruins of Los Angeles’s public housing.

The antidote to this elite capture is housing entirely owned and operated — and yes, heavily subsidized — by the public. There are plenty of resources hoarded by the police and the rich in cities like Los Angeles to get us started, as well as successful models to draw from. New York City’s public housing, while certainly not perfect, allows 330,000 tenants to live in one of the most expensive cities in the world at rents they can afford. And Vienna, Austria is an increasingly popular reference point. There, while a range of models of social housing coexist, the municipal government owns and operates about one fourth of the city’s housing stock, providing the basis for what has been dubbed a “renters’ utopia” by the New York Times.

Of course, we should make sure not to advocate an underfunded program where residents are surveilled and harassed by the state. Rather, as movements and advocates did in pre–Red Scare Los Angeles — not least among them, the Communist Party and organized labor — we can demand public housing that is connected to other life-sustaining institutions: childcare centers, health centers, recreational facilities, and the like.

There is no need for the Left to apologize or be on the defensive in presenting such a demand. There is no need to genuflect to the conventional wisdom about how public housing was a failure. On the contrary, those who regurgitate this line should be forced to explain why public housing tenants in Los Angeles have, again and again, organized to protect their communities from demolition and privatization.

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