Los Angeles seniors live on the knife-edge of the worst housing crisis in the United States. Driven by scarcity, property owners and developers conspire to evict tenants and gentrify buildings one apartment at a time.
We are seeing this incremental attack have disastrous effects. Just late last year in Westwood, the Watermark corporation purchased the rent-controlled Vintage Westwood Horizons apartment building and began eviction proceedings against more than 100 residents, all older than 80 and most older than 90, in order to convert the building into a luxury assisted living facility.
[Opposing view: Measure S will fix system and support Jewish values]
These tenants have been desperately searching for comparable housing in the neighborhood and it simply does not exist. Now Bet Tzedek is fighting to keep these units in the system, and the fates of these tenants hang in the balance.
The scenes at this Westwood building are sadly all too common. Every year in Los Angeles, more than 100,000 people turn 65. As they move into retirement, their now-fixed incomes are set on a collision course with rising housing costs. And the single biggest threat to their health and safety is eviction.
For an 85-year-old disabled widow relying on Social Security and the dwindling proceeds of the sale of her home years earlier to pay for rent, prescriptions and meals, eviction from her apartment of 35 years is terrifying. In the best-case scenario, she will find another building in a less expensive neighborhood that will accept her. She’ll suffer the loss of her community, access to her regular doctor and current routine. But she’ll have a home.
Too often, however, even for a senior decades younger than the Westwood residents, this story ends in permanent housing distress, homelessness or worse. The stress of thinking about such a move wears on her health. The reality of the move itself may be more than she can bear. The 2016 Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority survey counted 3,752 homeless men and women older than 62 in Los Angeles County, a 10 percent increase from just one year earlier.
While elected officials and community allies work to prevent the Westwood evictions, one group attempted to insert itself into the story: the backers of Measure S, the initiative on the March 7 ballot in Los Angeles that would ban zoning changes and General Plan Amendments (GPAs) for two years and place severe permanent restrictions on the use of GPAs, sharply curtailing Los Angeles’ ability to build the housing it needs.
Don’t believe the rash of press releases, videos and emails attempting to link the two causes — Measure S wouldn’t stop Watermark from evicting seniors. On the contrary, it would result in many more evictions just like it. Property owners of all sorts will be even more incentivized to take advantage of low vacancies and limited development options, and push tenants out of low-income units in order to maximize profits. We see it already today. We’ll see more of it in a city where Measure S is law.
With new housing slowed or banned, landlords cash out by failing their building inspections and selling their property to developers. As affordable housing covenants expire, once-affordable apartments revert to market rate.
These scenarios are especially typical in gentrifying neighborhoods. In Highland Park, investors raised the rents at the Marmion Royal apartments, hoping to evict current tenants in favor of the neighborhood’s affluent arrivals, who have bid up single-family homes over the $1 million mark. If Measure S hampers new construction, investors will search for more Marmion Royals where they can freely raise the rent.
Boyle Heights, a community with a strong identity that generations of families call home, has seen the dismantling of hundreds of units of public housing, replaced by hundreds fewer dwelling units. This is a failure that should be laid at the steps of City Hall. Protecting existing housing stock is not enough — if the children of Boyle Heights’ current residents also are to have the chance to call it home, the neighborhood needs to build more affordable housing. That housing can be built only using the zone changes and plan amendments that Measure S takes off the table.
We must envision a city where seniors on fixed incomes at the Vintage Westwood Horizons, tenants of the Marmion Royal, and the children of Boyle Heights can live without threat of displacement. Eviction need not be an inevitable byproduct of neighborhood change. New arrivals need not displace the vulnerable.
But public policy must both allow and encourage a diverse market. Only then will the homeless be able to get off the street. Only then will the quarter-million renters paying half their incomes in rent finally find some breathing room.
The status quo is broken. We must protect and expand our city’s affordable housing. We need to fight to hold slumlords — who would rather fail a building inspection and sell their property than continue to rent to low-income tenants — accountable. We need to keep affordable units available after affordability covenants expire. We need to invest resources into the development of more affordable housing through initiatives such as the successful Proposition HHH.
And the last thing we should do is put a stop to building more.
Jessie Kornberg is the President & CEO of Bet Tzedek, which provides free legal services for low-income individuals. Bet Tzedek is representing the Westwood Horizons residents in their eviction defense.