Housing is a Human Right: Math Whiz Needed?

By Cindy Chambers

On May 22, the Los Angeles City Council, through its actions and votes, communicated to 61% of its constituents that housing is not a human right. Just let that sink in for a minute. Sixty-one percent of L.A. city constituents now face the reality that L.A. City Council deems housing a luxury – something that not everyone deserves. Hmmm … very interesting. What does that mean?

Sixty-one to Seventy Percent

Sixty-one percent of L.A. city residents rent apartments. Last I checked, 61 percent comprised a majority; or, at the very least, this percentage portrayed a number greater than half the population. Even though I’m no math whiz, I’m fairly certain that we could all agree that 61 percent of anything comprises the majority. Venice, on the other hand, is comprise of nearly 70 percent renters, or an even larger majority. So when the LA City Council voted to send the rent increase moratorium back to committee – essentially making it impossible to save renters facing rent increases slated for July 1 – Councilmembers Garcetti, Rosendahl, Cardenas, La Bonge, Koretz, Parks, Perry, Reyes, Smith and Zine’s action simply stated: You, the majority, only deserve this basic human right if you can afford to pay the same rent that we’re charging much wealthier folks. In other words, money provides you access to human rights.

To add insult to injury, Councilmember Zine instructed police to remove renters and community organizations. In the packed chambers with peaceable residents including seniors, women and children, the Los Angeles Police Department deemed it necessary to forcibly remove, arrest and even taser some of the residents. Again, these are the same individuals representing 61 percent of LA City population, or as councilmembers may need reminding – 61 percent of voters in Los Angeles. These same families and individuals face losing their homes as rents increase. Where would they go? What would they do in a city with limited affordable housing?

During a time when our country, and Los Angeles in particular, is facing the worst recession in our history with families and individuals scraping to pay bills and buy food, the L.A. City Council displayed its disdain for those without wealth or seemingly lacking power by saying, “hey, that’s the breaks.”

The L.A. City Council fails to realize that this lapse in judgment, their failure to fight the good fight and their insistence on supporting a wealthy minority does not come without consequences. As the middle class slips quietly from existence and the working poor are forced to subsist on even less while good paying jobs represent the stuff fantasies are made of in L.A., more and more people experience the reality of unfettered greed and the uneven distribution of wealth. Today’s poor and working poor look much different than yesterday’s, and, what they lack in personal wealth is eclipsed by their education and access to information, ability to organize, sense of right and wrong, and, for the unemployed, lots of free time to make these and other issues a priority. It doesn’t appear that this time, people will retreat silently into the night never to return.

What does this mean for Venetians?

Venice’s rich and colorful history is founded on diversity of thought and opinion; a place where arts, culture and counter-culture blossomed; a city by the sea that embraces all. People come here and stay for myriad reasons, however if rents continue to skyrocket, Venice will no longer reflect its rich roots, but instead become something akin to a gated community. As I walk our community, I see vacant apartments remain so for 6, 9, 12-months and longer. In this economy, no one can afford high rent; and, for the first time in my 15 years as a resident of Venice, I’ve seen move-in specials posted.

Some landlords are willing to lower their rents; but the vast majority of them are doing so only for tenants who have moved in during the past couple of years. Still others are blatantly disregarding tough economic times and raising rents as high as possible.

Is this about need or necessity to off-set a mortgage; or is it about capitalistic greed feeding the ever hungry need for more and more money while pushing out long-term residents in order to secure new tenants at exorbitant rents? Who benefits? Certainly not the 70 percent of renters who call Venice home; unscrupulous landlords benefit while tenants become homeless. In this economy, finding an alternate home is next to impossible.

Just another catchphrase?

You may be thinking: Okay, so the majority of renters will face rent increases beginning July 1 but how does that equate with housing being a human right? Allow me to create the picture or framework of what we’re discussing here. Most cities like Santa Monica, West Hollywood, Berkeley, San Francisco and others connect rent increases to the Consumer Price Index, or CPI, which is a fancy word for inflation. When the CPI – or inflation — is negative, as it was last year, rent increases reflect that meaning that these cities allow a rent increase ranging between 0 and 1 percent. L.A., on the other hand, imposes a floor of 3 percent, which means that even if the CPI is negative, landlords with rent-controlled apartments may increase rent between three and eight percent. The three percent floor makes no economic sense; and, a study conducted for and paid by the city in 2009 recommended removing the three percent minimum increase among other things.

The Office of United Nations Commission on Human Rights appointed a Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing who visited LA in 2009. Her job: to focus on adequate housing as a component of the right to an adequate standard of living. After her visit to L.A., she prepared and submitted a report to the UN, which included a recommendation that the city reform its rent control law to protect tenants against unfair rent increases. On March 30, City Hall received this report when 300 residents of the 630,000 rent-controlled households presented it. Again, the message is loud and clear: Housing is a human right.

What’s the hold up, City Hall?

Good question. Clearly, it isn’t a result of lacking information or being ignorant of the situation. Councilmembers have heard repeated testimony about how the lack of a rent increase moratorium will adversely affect a large majority of renters. The City’s inability and/or unwillingness to address these issues and implement the necessary and repeated recommendations leaves tenants burdened with housing costs that in many situations consumes more than 50 percent of their income. Idly standing by and allowing this to happen is not only wrong, but also criminal – it is a human rights violation. Siding with landlords, talking about business, while tenants are talking about their lives in a situation where many could become homeless, seems outrageous and heartless, however in the context of what we’ve seen in recent months with Wall Street, corporations and banks is not surprising. Still, how can we allow this to happen in our own backyard? The L.A. City Council must be held accountable for this atrocious human rights violation. The U.N. took this stance, and it’s time we do, too.

Bottom Line

It boils down to this: housing is a human right; and, everyone deserves the right to feed, clothe and shelter themselves. Without such basic human rights, a person cannot determine his or her own destiny. It’s that simple and it is that important. Venice residents need action now!

What’s Next?

Elected officials see the world in a much different way than you or I. They see things in numbers like voter tallies, dollar signs, calls and emails, etc. Sometimes they mistakenly think that they can quickly identify these figures by noting a person’s race, gender, etc. As the fight continues to win affordable housing for all of L.A., it just might be time to educate them on who wants affordable housing as I’d venture a guess – again, not being a math whiz or anything – that the majority of us want and need affordable housing to succeed in Los Angeles.

Get involved and join us in leading the fight for housing in our great city. Here’s how: Contact POWER (People Organized for Westside Renewal) via Email or call POWER’s office, 392-9700, to get involved in the fight. POWER has been and continues to be a strong voice in the fight for affordable housing on the Westside.

The rent increase moratorium is only the beginning. Implementing permanent reforms detailed in the U.N. report remains the goal. Early on, residents demonstrated a desire to work within the system by asking to come to meetings; speak on panels; share information with neighbors and other residents; show support and communicate through emails, fax and phone calls. Sixty-one percent of the city did their part to rectify this human rights violation. The system failed them – it failed each of us. Now it is time to demand change on our terms – the terms outlined by the U.N. and 61 percent of L.A. Please, get involved today and join the fight. Housing is a human right.

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