59 years ago homeless WWII veterans camped out in front of the L.A. City Hall and demanded housing.
I recently found my father’s 1946 love letters to my mother. Every letter deals with his unsuccessful hunt for an apartment. Talk to anyone from that generation and you will hear similar stories. The Truman Administration responded with calls for a massive building program. Congress refused to fund the requested 100,000 public housing units, but did fund a private building boom of both apartments and single-family houses through FHA-insured mortgages. The veterans were housed. The FHA raised building standards. Middle class prosperity was born.
How far we’ve come. Today’s homeless veterans are not just abandoned, but vilified, and middle-class renters — including those same WWII veterans and their wives — are thrown out of their homes into poverty, even into homelessness. Venice is a microcosm of this phenomenon.
One of the issues at the heart of the Grass Roots Venice Neighborhood Council power struggle is the issue of homelessness, a struggle between those who want the homeless out of our neighborhoods — they don’t seem to care where they go, so long as they’re gone — and those who attempt to give them a seat at the table: 24-hour bathrooms, an expanded job training center, child care center and counseling services at St. Joseph’s. (I write this with a caveat—some who opposed St. Joseph’s opposed exceptions to the Venice Specific Plan.)
The case of Lincoln Place, the largest apartment complex built for WWII veterans and their families in post WWII California, is somewhat different. While the vast majority of Venetians on both sides appears to support the preservation of Lincoln Place, it is an uphill battle against a particular California law (the Ellis Act), powerful developer interests, and the intransigence of our City government which has vilified before the court both the Lincoln Place tenants and preservation organizations such as the California Preservation Foundation, the L.A. Conservancy and the National Association of Minority Architects.
When a landlord drops the “E-word,” from one day to the next, your whole life changes. You realize that any Johnny-come-lately landlord can uproot you and throw you out of your home and community. It is a painful realization, fraught with anguish and desperation for many who see full well that,at today’s rent levels, their income will not even suffice for rent, let alone food, clothing, utilities, or medicine. Many seniors have said, “What am I going to do? I have no place to go. I barely get by now.” Some people who lost their homes at Lincoln Place a couple of years ago had to go to homeless shelters —one was a veteran of WWII and had lived at Lincoln Place for decades;quite ironic considering the place was built to house veterans.
On the face of it, the Ellis Act seems as logical as can be: No municipality can compel a landlord to remain in the rental business, or as the courts put it, prevent a landlord from “going out of business.” In other words, “I, the landlord, ought to be able to do what I want with my own property.”
What happens when tenants are suddenly faced with rents that are near double what they now pay? Clearly, they will have substantially less disposable income. What will they forego? A 40-year old who moves from a $900 rent-controlled Lincoln Place apartments to another (be he so lucky!) rent-controlled apartment at $1,400 today, will spend $457,000 more on rent by age 80 than by staying at Lincoln Place. That’s $457,000 that will not be spent on clothes, movies, restaurants, consumer goods, health care. This obviously has an enormous impact on our merchants and their employees. If tenants have to forego health insurance, we’ll all pony up when they go to County Hospital, or pay if they now qualify for Medi-Cal, food stamps, or Section 8. When parents have to take on still another job to pay the higher rent and/or double up with another family, what happens to their children, their families? Overcrowding puts health at risk, youth at risk, and can lead to crime, gangs, domestic violence. We pay when we have to hire more cops, are burglarized, or pick up the tab at County Hospital. So the Ellis Act can cost all of us real money!
And what else happens when all the working class and middle-class professionals are thrown out of a gentrifying community? Who waits on tables, cleans buildings, provides domestic services, including elder and childcare, teaches in our schools, works as our police and firemen? Who staffs the schools, clinics, and retail establishments? The commuters, that’s who: the ones who drive an hour or two into the West Side each day and struggle to find parking. The Ellis Act states that it does not intend to interfere with cities’ prerogatives concerning planning and zoning, but it does exactly that. Los Angeles will not be able to ease its auto dependency in any meaningful way while the Ellis Act remains on the books. And auto dependency costs all of us real money and hurts our quality of life.
The mayor and all the candidates in the L.A. election tout the great $100 million Housing Trust Fund. Let’s put this in perspective, please! $100 million can not even pay to replace the apartments at Lincoln Place. And as more and more developers scarf up wonderful older complexes and turn to the Ellis Act to impose their will on communities, we will only get deeper and deeper in the hole. Calcutta, here we come!
The California Environmental Quality Act protects the habitats of endangered species. Maybe it’s time to protect the habitat of middle-class renters, who are rapidly becoming an endangered species on the Westside!
The Ellis Act simply has to go. Call your state senators and assemblymembers with that direct message. Tell them the cost is too great, both in human suffering and in real dollars paid by all of us. Tell them we want to be able to plan our cities again.
And if Lincoln Place does go, plenty of members of the very generation of WWII veterans and their wives will be displaced who were homeless 55 years ago and made their voices heard at City Hall, in Sacramento and all the way to Washington. Do they need to put up homeless camps again?
What the developers and the City don’t “get” is that Lincoln Place should be preserved as a reminder and teacher that in another generation, years ago, our society believed not only in housing its people, but housing them in dignity, in beauty, with lots of light and open space, on safe streets — and wonder of wonders — even near a beach! Among preservationists, Lincoln Place is recognized as one of the most superbly designed Garden City complexes of that era in the nation. The tenants understand this first-hand, still delighting in this special environment. Their efforts to preserve Lincoln Place go far beyond “holding onto their affordable rents.” It is about holding on to a way of life, a quality of life envisioned and created by designers Ralph Vaughn and Heth Wharton — and by developers Sam Bialac and Phil Yousem, a very different breed than we see today, who set out to create, as they said 54 years ago, “luxury on a budget.”Laura Burns is the Co-Chair of the Grass Roots Venice Neighborhood Council and a documentary filmmaker researching the history of Lincoln Place. She is a resident of Lincoln Place.