By Bill Boyarsky
More than 25 years ago, Los Angeles' senior Jewish renters joined with young progressives and persuaded a reluctant city government to adopt rent control.
With condos rapidly replacing apartment units, a new crisis in affordable rentals confronts Los Angeles. But is this generation of seniors, victims of a huge wave of condo conversions, ready for another fight?
The old rent-control campaign was a great one, providing us reporters with many features about older Jewish people teaming up with kids young enough to be their grandchildren. With rents rising, low-income tenants were threatened with eviction unless they paid up. Many Jews were among them.
Some of the same conditions exist today. There are about 600,000 rent-controlled units in Los Angeles, according to the Los Angeles Times, and they are giving way to condos at an alarming rate. About 12,000 apartments have been converted to condos or demolished -- probably to make way for condominiums -- since 2001. When condos come, renters are out.
It's increasingly hard to find an apartment in Southern California. The Lusk Center for Real Estate at USC reported that almost 97 percent of apartments in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties are currently rented. In Los Angeles, the USC group predicted rent increases of 6 percent to 7 percent. The average monthly rent there at the end of last year was $1,416. And most Los Angeles residents are renters. Only 39 percent own homes, according to the Southern California Association of Non-Profit Housing.
With rent-controlled apartments going fast, the City Council this month offered some help to beleaguered renters. It passed an ordinance, which Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa signed this week, that would sharply raise the fees developers must pay tenants who are evicted when rent-controlled apartments are converted to condos.
Tenants who have lived in their apartments for less than five years would receive $6,810 -or $14,850 for those who are older, disabled or have families with minor children. Residents of more than five years would get $9,040 -- or $17,080 for the elderly, disabled and families with minor children. The very poor, with incomes 80 percent or less of the region's median income, would also get between $9,040 and $17,080.
On the surface, the payments seem substantial. But actually, the money is only a bridge until a renter finds a place in the dwindling number of rent-controlled apartments.
Condo conversion is hot in Jewish neighborhoods, beginning with Fairfax and Pico-Robertson, extending west to Palms and Venice and moving across the Santa Monica Mountains to Sherman Oaks and Valley Village. There, the success of the Orange Line transit system is prompting many landlords to sell their apartment buildings to condo developers or to convert the buildings themselves.
Elissa Barrett, director of Bet Tzedek's Sydney M. Irmas Housing Conditions Project, told me that "we have a steady stream of refugees ... seniors, disabled, families with dependent children" coming to the agency for help. She said they are "displaced by speculation," just as others have been displaced by fire or earthquake.
"The issue stretches upward into the middle class," said Larry Gross, who heads the Coalition for Economic Survival, one of several groups fighting the condo conversions. They are seeking a halt to conversions while the vacancy rate remains so low and a stop to evictions.
Gross has been in this fight for years. In the early 1970s, he joined with other activists in the Coalition for Economic Survival, an umbrella group that has protested rising bus fares, utility rate increases and high milk prices.
But, while their demonstrations were covered by the media, the protesters could not make an impact on policy until, as the Los Angeles Times' Stephen Braun wrote at the time, " skyrocketing rents that accompanied Los Angeles' real estate speculation fever in the late 1970s gave the coalition a ready-made issue."
Coalition membership grew and a substantial number of the new members were Jewish seniors afraid of eviction from their apartments. They were an important force in persuading a reluctant Los Angeles City Council to enact rent control in the 1970s.
The coalition turned its attention to West Hollywood, then an unincorporated area under the control of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. The area was filled with apartments -- and Jewish seniors. They, too, were threatened with rising rents and evictions.
When the supervisors refused to impose rent control, Gross and the coalition led a successful fight for incorporation in 1984. The new city government approved a rent-stabilization ordinance.
I asked Gross if the current generation of older Jews could be similarly organized.
"It's different now," he said. Twenty years ago, the seniors faced immediate threats of eviction with no protection. They could be forced out with just 30 days notice. Now, the rent-control law protects them from the hasty evictions that fueled the old movement
Yet as the condo conversions roll on, Jewish renters are joining a coalition of labor unions, homeless advocates and community organizers working in poor Latino neighborhoods, such as Pico Union and Echo Park.
These neighborhoods, with their heavy population of nonvoting immigrants, don't have much political power. But the addition of a Jewish presence extends the coalition into politically active areas with more clout.
"They [the Jews] have a history of fighting against oppression," Gross said. "They are stalwarts of labor unions. They are the glue that holds together the tenant organizations."
Until leaving the Los Angeles Times in 2001, Bill Boyarsky worked as a political correspondent, a Metro columnist for nine years and as city editor for three years. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.