By Tom Wetzel
Echo Park is a diverse, predominantly Latino working-class neighborhood not far from downtown Los Angeles. Over the past several years rents and housing prices have skyrocketed. Speculators buy buildings and use various tactics to flip them, such as spurious owner move-in evictions. Rents are doubled or tripled. Rents for a one-bedroom are now as high as $1,200 a month.
Echo Park is built over a hilly terrain. The storefronts lining Sunset Blvd are the community's "Main Street." Nearby is a pleasant park built around a lake. Echo Park's urban location makes it attractive to younger, mostly white, professionals, working in financial or entertainment industry offices in places like Burbank or downtown Los Angeles. They can easily drive to the "hip," new restaurants and stores in Silverlake, a heavily gentrified neighborhood immediately to the west. With this market of potential new residents, landlords and speculators have a motive to evict low-income residents for those who can pay higher rents.
Corporate interests and some city council members are backing recent proposals to "up-zone" Sunset Blvd, which would allow construction of multi-story buildings with apartments over stores. If implemented, this would pave the way for a major influx of investment that would add expensive apartments, and replace the small businesses serving the working class community with chains or upscale stores.
With a growing population and economy, a number of working class neighborhoods in central Los Angeles have come under displacement pressure in the past six years. Maria Arroyo, a tenant organizer at Inquilinos Unidos (Renters United), told me her group has been "overwhelmed" by the upsurge in evictions, with Hollywood, Echo Park, and the area north of USC being the "hot spots." "In most of the old buildings," Maria said, "what they have been charging is in the range of $400 to 600 a month, it could be from a single to a two-bedroom. We are talking about [the landlords] jumping the rent by $400 from one month to the next."
I asked Maria what approach Inquilinos Unidos uses. "When we find out they are trying to evict someone, we try to step in to save the whole building. If it's one apartment, I'll see the others eventually. So I start by telling them I need everybody together," Maria said. "I tell them, if it's a group, you can avoid retaliation against you." People, especially immigrants, often don't know their rights under the rent control law, so they just leave if the landlord tells them to.
Organizing out of a storefront in a mini-mall on Sunset Blvd, the Casa del Pueblo Cooperative in Echo Park is trying to develop a community land trust as an anti-displacement tactic. I talked with Juan Ramos and several other Casa del Pueblo members. "If the poor are pushed into the ghettos, into areas to the south and east [of downtown], these are often areas that are more polluted and isolated, and even there there aren't many vacancies," Juan said.
A few months back Casa del Pueblo called a community meeting where various housing strategies were discussed. The people at that meeting decided they liked the community land trust approach best. A community land trust is a cooperative that develops resident-controlled housing, such as housing co-ops, and retains ownership of the land under the buildings. This enables the community to ensure that the housing will remain permanently affordable.
About 200 non-profit housing corporations exist in the greater Los Angeles area. But these may have a self-perpetuating board of directors and are often run by a conventional managerial hierarchy. These organizations "are controlled by the professionals," Juan said. "We don't want to be like that. We want the community in control."
Casa del Pueblo is not just a housing organization but has a broader perspective of community autonomy and self-determination. "We have positioned ourselves [politically] within a broader global uprising of the poor, third world, indigenous and geographically displaced," the group says (www.casadelpueblocoop.org). "By exploring our history from a radical perspective that emphasizes individual and communitarian autonomy, we strive to break cycles of violence and destruction and develop new modes of interaction for a viable, sustainable future." The Zapatista movement in Chiapas, Mexico is one influence, and Casa del Pueblo sells fair-trade coffee and craft products from Chiapas.
Casa del Pueblo has after-school tutoring and an alternative health and nutrition program. The health program is motivated by the fact that low-income people often do not have health insurance, Juan said. Casa del Pueblo is also a community space for cultural events.
The Casa del Pueblo project is an example of an effort to develop a self-managing institution — and one situated in the context of a particular class struggle, the struggle against eviction and displacement.