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Reclaiming Los Angeles

In cities across America, housing has played a key role in maintaining and deepening inequality. Nowhere is this more so than in Los Angeles, with its homelessness crisis, soaring rents, and luxury condos. Nithya Raman’s grassroots campaign for city council is pushing back against the developers, boosters, and lobbyists that keep it this way.

Downtown Los Angeles from Signal Hill near Long Beach, CA. (Aydin Palabiyikoglu / Flickr)

On January 11, Victor Valencia was shot and killed by Los Angeles police. Unhoused, living under a freeway, and struggling with mental health issues, he was holding up a piece of a bicycle when cops opened fire. It took several days for the major papers in LA to report on Valencia’s death, and even then, only after the pressure of community activists.

Most of the coverage was brief and, according to Nithya Raman, a longtime housing and homelessness activist and advocate in Los Angeles, “remarkably un-curious.” Most articles had very little follow-up about Valencia’s situation, or whether he was armed or not (he wasn’t).

Raman continues: “To so many of us who have been working on housing and homelessness issues in Los Angeles, his death felt really emblematic of a kind of acceptance of the situation as is. That our unhoused population is primarily people of color, and that we have so many people who are unhoused, who neither have housing or even a shelter bed. And that we as a city have come to accept this.”

Her current campaign for a seat on Los Angeles’s city council is built around the idea that stories like Victor Valencia’s, along with the estimated fifty thousand homeless people in the LA area, are patently unacceptable. So, for that matter, is the state of the city’s public transit, its toxic ecological standards, its high rents, its treatment of immigrants, and the profound democratic gulf maintained by the city’s government — all key issues in Raman’s campaign.

There is a lot to recommend voters to Raman ahead of the March 3 election. She has a master’s degree in urban planning from MIT. She has worked with slum-dwellers in the Indian city of Chennai to win clean water. Before running for city council, she was director of Time’s Up Entertainment, an organization that sprung up in the wake of #MeToo to advocate for better conditions for women in the entertainment industry.

She also, importantly, worked at City Hall in 2014, compiling a report on how LA was tackling homelessness. Of the $100 million that the city was spending to deal with the homelessness crisis, a staggering $87 million was spent on arresting unhoused people, locking them up in city jails, and releasing them with no resources. Remarkably, a total of just nineteen outreach workers were employed for a homeless population in the tens of thousands. There were no large-scale job placements or mental health programs, no centers to connect people with social workers — just jail cells. Raman left City Hall after that, understandably disillusioned.

Raman is running against David Ryu, who took office in LA’s fourth city council district around the same time she was working at City Hall. When he first ran, Ryu swore to not take a dime from real estate developers. To date, he has taken hundreds of thousands from them, as well as lobbyists from the oil and Styrofoam industries.

Since he came to office five years ago, homelessness has skyrocketed by 90 percent in Ryu’s district; it’s gone up by 53 percent just in the last year. Of the new housing built in the fourth district during his tenure, 93 percent has been luxury accommodation; the figure is 87 percent across the city as a whole. As Raman has said, Council District 4, along with most of the city, is becoming “affordable only for the wealthy.”

In the face of that social crisis, politicians like Ryu, and notably Mayor Eric Garcetti as well, are only interested in keeping things ticking over as usual (like their dithering proposal to make LA carbon-neutral by 2050 — twenty years too late according to the IPCC). If the construction of affordable housing in LA continues at its current pace, it will take a hundred years to get homeless people housed.

Unequal Landscapes

It is difficult to make sense of LA’s jumbled landscape. Getting past the city’s own mythology, and cutting through the rhetoric of its boosters, you find a profoundly unequal city, deeply commodified and over-policed. The services we rely on are either privatized or woefully underfunded. Those of us who fall through the cracks find only cops and jail cells to catch us.

In short, in LA we have been dispossessed of our city. Its democratic institutions, such as they are, reflect this. A city of four million has a city council of just fifteen members — the same number as in 1920, when the population was just three hundred thousand.

Most districts have somewhere close to a quarter of a million inhabitants, spanning vast stretches of land. District 4, for example, reaches from the southern San Fernando Valley, east across Hollywood to Griffith Park, then down into Mid-Wilshire and Koreatown. Council members are paid more than members of the US Congress. In recent years, they have voted in unison 99.37 percent of the time.

In cities across the United States, housing has played a central role in maintaining and deepening inequality, but Los Angeles has some of the most gobsmackingly expensive rents in the country. A 1950 statewide referendum altered California’s constitution to mandate voter approval before public housing could be built in any given community. The amendment was campaigned for by the real estate industry and overwhelmingly supported by LA’s residents at the same time that the very notion of housing as a right was demonized in newspapers as “communist propaganda.” Though redlining was long ago outlawed, its lingering and unreckoned effects still keep LA segregated; its black and brown populations disproportionately live in poverty.

Control land and you control everything that relies on it (which is to say everything). Raman understands all this. “Southern California has been shaped by private real estate development,” she says. “The geography of it, the architecture of it, the shape of the city, and how it grew; private real estate development is what has shaped LA for so many decades.” She is also alert to how the city’s residents are now confronting “how dysfunctional the market around real estate is.”

For Raman, the time is right for us to talk about bringing public housing back to LA. She wants to freeze rents and provide free legal representation for all tenants facing eviction. She is also demanding that the city provide practical resources for those experiencing homelessness, where they can get a hot meal, a shower, clothes for job interviews, and caseworkers.

Raman is explicit that the question of homelessness is linked to other social questions in LA: “You can talk about it in terms of transit, you can talk about it in terms of how we protect immigrants . . . on every front where the city interacts with us, I think we can rethink what that relationship looks like. It is a fundamental rethinking, but I think it is also very realistic and possible.”

Consider the ways in which the housing crisis intersects with the erosion of LA’s ecology. The oozy, yellowish smog hanging over the city may be a thing of the past, but we still have the worst air quality in the nation. With oil extraction ongoing, the map of the city is pocked with Plainview-esque derricks and “nodding donkey” pump-jacks. Needless to say, they are not in the affluent neighborhoods.

Adopting a Green New Deal framework, Raman had advocated for LA to be carbon-neutral by 2030. This isn’t simply a matter of shutting down the oil pumps and building bike lanes, but about reimaging our access to the city, connecting issues of pollution, housing policy, transit, and the challenges of urban sprawl. “To make those connections visible to people has been incredibly exciting in this campaign,” she said. “I don’t think people necessarily thought about those connections before. And it also makes clearer how you fight for the environment at a local level, through means you didn’t even know existed.”

Crisis and Action

Raman’s campaign comes in the context of a rejuvenated left-wing electoralism at both national and local levels that has in turn shifted the way we relate to the organization of the city. Examples range from Kshama Sawant in Seattle, to the six socialist councilors in Chicago (who have made affordable housing a priority), to Chesa Boudin’s attempts to radically overhaul San Francisco’s justice system, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s successful opposition to Amazon in Queens.

These bottom-up challenges to how our cities are run have been the backdrop to Raman’s campaign from the start, which has consciously worked closely with activists and residents, as well as experts and academics to produce policy.

She has participated in civil disobedience alongside members of the Sunrise Movement and other groups at the “Fire Drill Friday” actions. Sunrise recently endorsed Raman’s campaign. So has Ground Game LA. So has the city’s chapter of Democratic Socialists of America. Says Raman:

I’m so grateful to have the support of the DSA, of Ground Game, of Sunrise, of all of these different groups that are really shaking up LA’s reputation from being disengaged from politics. And hopefully, this is something that we all can benefit from, that people interested in my campaign can find their way to those groups, and grow them and vice versa . . . We need groups like this to hold our officials accountable. Because no matter what happens, whether I’m elected or not, we will still need to hold whoever is in office accountable.

It is this vision of the city that animates Raman’s campaign and her supporters. It reminds us that a city should never be a monolith dominating our lives, but a fluid project that we can all participate in and shape for ourselves.