A Vision for the City
Photo by Ted Soqui
JAN BREIDENBACH, executive director, Southern California Association of Non-Profit Housing; serves on PLAN's housing task force
PETER DREIER, professor of politics and public policy and director of the Urban & Environmental Policy Program at Occidental College; co-chairs PLAN
ROBERT GOTTLIEB, professor of politics and public policy and director of the Urban & Environmental Institute at Occidental College; co-chairs PLAN
JOHN M. GRANT, vice-president and in-house counsel, United Food and Commercial Workers Local 770 (the union of L.A.'s supermarket and packing house workers); on PLAN's worker-rights task force
ANA GUERRERO, community organizing specialist at the Center for Community Change; PLAN senior adviser
MADELINE JANIS-APARICIO, executive director, Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy (the living-wage coalition); on PLAN's economic-justice task force
JERILYN LIPEZ MENDOZA, staff attorney for the Los Angeles Environmental Justice Project Office of Environmental Defense; on PLAN's land-use and transportation task force
REVEREND ALTAGRACIA PÉREZ, pastor at the Episcopal Church of St. Philip the Evangelist; leader of Coalition L.A.; on PLAN's democracy-and-participation task force
L.A.WEEKLY: One of the exciting things about L.A. is that in several areas, the city is pushing the envelope as to what a city can do, in areas where the state and federal governments have refused to act. There have been real innovations in a range of economic-justice issues, and in worker rights, which have become a kind of centerpiece of progressive organizing in L.A. Where do we go from here. What more can or should the city do?
MADELINE JANIS-APARICIO: The city is increasingly involved in economic development -- putting together pots of money from different governmental sources and handing them over to big companies in order to build things. The theory was that this was stimulating the economy, but there have been no criteria for the kind of jobs, and city, this was creating. The city also owns a lot of things -- the airport, the zoo, the convention center, and the city contracts with lots and lots of companies on those sites. And so city government can become a catalyst for the development of a whole range of new protections for workers. In return for the city providing money to the companies that build and service these projects, the workers should receive a living wage and health benefits. L.A. is giving $20 million to a major developer in North Hollywood to create 5,000 jobs, for instance. We're saying the city should insist they be living-wage jobs and create a hiring program where the people in the local community get first crack at those jobs. Let's provide training. Let's provide child care for workers in that project. Let's have a vision for what economic development can be, using the leverage of our dollars. And if we start looking at it that way, then the city can actually have a pretty large impact on the lives of many people.
L.A. is clearly the American capital of medical un-insurance. Part of the living-wage concept is the notion that the employer, in return for getting the city contract, should provide health benefits, or a higher off-setting wage if not. What can the city do to help those employers offer health benefits?
JANIS-APARICIO: We've been pushing the city to establish some sort of health trust or purchasing pool, at a good rate and with no administrative costs, for participating businesses, and one of the major developers that committed to a living wage, Trizec/Hahn, actually committed a sum of money to start this up. But it's taken two or three years, and there hasn't been a lot of leadership from the city to move this forward. With some real leadership from the Mayor's Office and the council, we could be doing some incredibly innovative things, like getting health care to families and to probably 10-, 15-, 20-thousand future families, and model it for a larger number of employers and workers.
PETER DREIER: Another extension of the living wage is into the city's purchasing power. Where does the LAUSD purchase its football uniforms? Just as the state uses its buying power to require clean diesel and clean cars, we could set standards for workplace conditions in the businesses where the city, the airport, the schools are major buyers. The mayor, the school board and City Council, basically, can govern that. ã
JOHN M. GRANT: We set environmental-impact standards on construction projects, and what we're talking about now is an equity impact -- what are the wages and working conditions and benefits that that employer will create? Until now, that's not even been looked at.
John, is there something the city can do more particularly about workers' rights?
GRANT: In New York, Jobs with Justice, a coalition of activist groups, has set up a commission to publicize where, and by whom, workers' rights have been violated in the city. It promotes an understanding that a violation of union rights is a violation of civil rights. Today, in a race- or sex-discrimination case, an employer may say, "It didn't happen," but he won't defend himself by saying, "I did it." But there's no problem with an employer saying, "Yeah, I violated a worker's right to organize. What are you going to do about it?" A commission can at least dramatize that violations of workers' rights are just as serious as the violation of any other civil rights.
One area where L.A. clearly lags behind most major cities is affordable-housing policy. Where do we rank in the availability of housing?
JAN BREIDENBACH: Which way do you want to start counting from the bottom? Here's one measure: Less than one-third of the county population earns enough money at this moment to buy the average-priced house. Here's another: The homeownership rate in the city is 39 percent. The only city that has an equivalently low homeownership rate is New York. Half the people who are earning $20,000 or less are paying upwards of 50 percent of their income on housing, and it can go up to 80 percent. We have a huge low-income population that's renting as opposed to buying. They're going to rent their whole lives, and they can't afford it. In Los Angeles, more than other cities, they live several families to a unit, or they're not spending on health care or buying products in their local stores.
And you've established a coalition, Housing L.A., that is proposing that the city set up an affordable-housing trust fund.
BREIDENBACH: We are proposing the city set aside $100 million a year -- out of a budget of $4 billion -- from a dedicated source that would go to production and rehab of low-income housing. The federal government's investment in housing is much less than it was 20 years ago. The state doesn't do much, so local government has to step in -- as it has in many other cities. One of the most common funding sources is a linkage fee on non-residential development. You build a mall, say, that will create a certain amount of jobs. Those jobs require housing, so there's a one-time mitigation fee that goes into the pot. A hotel occupancy tax is another common source, because it also produces low-wage jobs. And then there's inclusionary zoning, where developers wanting to build residential developments have a choice: They can either put aside a certain number of the units for low-income people while the others are market rate, or they can choose to pay a fee.
We're playing catch-up on housing, but on living wage and on conditioning development generally, are there other cities that are pushing that envelope as aggressively as you're talking about here?
JANIS-APARICIO: I think L.A. is one of the top two or three. And a lot of that is because of the connections we're making, trying to build a movement of lots of groups that are fighting for this larger vision. In other cities, I think the goals that have been set are usually more limited.
DREIER: One difference between a progressive city and a city that's more conventionally liberal -- or conservative -- is the extent to which it tests the limit of how much a city can do without causing business to flee. If you look at almost any of the organizations that are part of PLAN, or part of the progressive movement, they're asking for one of three things. They're asking for stronger regulations on private business, they're asking for a raise in taxes on the wealthy or big business, or they're asking for a raise in wages. And, in general, whenever you ask for, or demand, one of those three things, businesses typically say, "If you do that, we won't invest. We'll leave. We'll weaken the business climate. We'll lose jobs."
Sometimes they're bluffing, and sometimes they're not. And the test of a progressive movement is being able to call the bluff and to understand when they're bluffing. The living-wage movement did that. The housing campaign we're now waging is doing the same thing. We have to know those instances when business is, in fact, more mobile, and then we have to be willing to compromise and strike deals. And what distinguishes Los Angeles right now is that the progressive movement now has a confidence that it probably didn't have 10 years ago and probably doesn't have in most other cities, that it's able to understand when business is bluffing and that it's willing to call the bluff.
By any standard, the city's sprawl and transportation problems are, well, a mother.
JERILYN LIPEZ MENDOZA: There have to be better ways to link transportation funds to affordable housing so that people don't have to leave the city to be able to buy a home, or spend hours on their commute. And getting people out of their cars in Los Angeles is an extraordinary proposition. As we know from the MTA strike last fall, a huge number of the poor who can't afford to purchase and maintain cars are dependent upon public transit to get to their jobs, to get to their homes, to get their children to day care and to school, to get themselves to welfare-to-work programs.
All this requires some far-reaching policies, such as the establishement of a livable city commision -- but here's an example of something that could be relatively easy, and maybe have a long-term effect. There's no real public-information campaign about how to use public transit in Los Angeles. There's no ã equivalent to the New York City subway map. In a city where you have MetroRail, where you have the MTA and a lot of municipalities such as Montebello and Santa Monica and the Foothill District all running buses, there is no easy way for a person to pick up a document that tells how these transit lines interact.
One thing that's not congested in L.A. is polling places. Altagracia, you've been with a group looking at local elections and political participation . . .
REVEREND ALTAGRACIA PÉREZ: The way we allow people to vote is so unnecessarily cumbersome. We should be looking at allowing election-day voter registration, voting on weekends, and putting some money into better training the people who are watching the polls. These require changing state law, but some changes can be made at the local level --like creating an election-day holiday for city and county workers.
We looked at the neighborhood councils that were created in the new city charter, and how to make them truly accessible to all the people of the community. The danger is that the same people -- the homeowner groups -- who already have the access to politicians are going to stake them out as their own. We're calling for some stuff so basic that it's embarrassingly obvious -- making translation available at every meeting, making sure that the community-based agencies in the neighborhood are invited to participate.
These things aren't happening now?
PEREZ: They're not. So we're calling for some sort of de-certification process, not allowing councils to be certified if they fail to represent their communities. We want to make sure that certain populations are specified whose absence would trigger a de-certification -- workers in that particular neighborhood, renters, community-based agencies.
L.A. is a famously fragmented city, and in recent decades, the progressive movement has been equally fragmented. How has PLAN dealt with all these separate, and sometimes conflicting, agendas? How did you deal with the perennial question of bus versus rail?
MENDOZA: There were some very difficult tensions in our transportation group over the bus-versus-rail controversy, whether asking the MTA to stick to the things it had agreed to in the consent decree for bus service was somehow making it impossible to allocate funds to light-rail projects. And those debates generally had the traditional environmentalist planners on one side in favor of light rail, while on the other side the transit-equity and social-justice advocates were promoting bus service. At the end of the day, there was a respectful agreement to agree to disagree.
ROBERT GOTTLIEB: But the environmental movement is going through changes in this kind of interaction, and it's increasingly important to the environmental movement to not be pigeonholed as a middle-class homeowner movement. Its agenda changes in this process of interaction, in looking at these issues around bus and rail, looking at things like community development in areas with contaminated "brownfields," in seeing how environmental agendas connect with workplace and labor issues, all of which are important to the community. I see that process happening in environmental groups, particularly those that have been directly involved with this process. For them, it's no longer simply a question of "Here's my arena, and I only operate in that framework."
DREIER: I'll give you another example. The voters and the state legislature recently approved three bond issues: one for parks (a state measure), one for schools, one for libraries. And then there's the need for affordable housing. And there's not that much land in Los Angeles to build parks, schools, libraries and affordable housing. One of the conflicts is the school board has wanted to tear down affordable housing to build schools, and probably because each of these separate issues are all working on separate silos, the officials are often not talking to one another.
There really needs to be a way in which folks that care about housing -- and care about the schools, and care about the parks, and care about libraries -- can find some sort of common way of doing mixed-use development. So that parks and libraries and schools are sited near each other, so that housing is built along transit lines, in places near parks. I remember when [LAUSD construction chief] Howard Miller was talking about the need to build these 100-plus schools in the next couple of years, someone said, "You shouldn't be tearing down housing," and he said, "Housing's not my job. My job is to build schools."
But it's the same working-class and poor people who need all four of these things. What we need is for the city to take an inventory of what land is available -- which is something the city does not now have --so as to identify which sites have to be cleaned up, and which sites are appropriate for mixed-use and for in-fill development, for pocket parks next to libraries and to schools.
How do we promote our common agenda?
ANA GUERRERO: First of all, PLAN is going to form what we're calling at this point a shadow government. And the purpose of that shadow government would be to push for the implementation of a progressive politics in the city of Los Angeles. That agenda has been developed through these policy meetings, which have involved people from at least 50 different organizations, some of them established, some just emerging now. It's been developed through our relationships with community groups that have campaigns ongoing. So that at our March 10 event, several of the questions that we will be asking of the candidates will be related to campaigns that are already going on, or are about to emerge. The shadow government will be pushing an agenda that supports the ã work of these community-based organizations. Then we also want to continue to organize these policy summits, and continue to develop policy recommendations for the city. We also want to find ways to support the organizing that is going on in L.A., for instance, through regular policy trainings that are geared toward organizers.
GOTTLIEB: The mayoral election, this first term-limits election for the council and the mayor, was a contributing stimulus for PLAN. The March 10 forum is both symbolic and substantive. We really want to identify ways in which somebody who is a candidate can actually be held accountable to this type of agenda. But it's also symbolic in the sense that, independent of the outcome of the election -- although it could be very significantly influenced by the election -- there's going to be a change in the city. The chemistry of the different groups interacting, the sense of opportunity and possibility this creates, makes this moment a special one. Elections can have a big impact, but you can also act independently and create a continuity of progressive politics that does not become dependent on elections.
BREIDENBACH: It's later on, when these decisions are actually being made by the new mayor and new council, that PLAN can really play a distinctive role, as the mechanism around them that says, "Yes, you have to make these decisions, but you have to take into account all these factors, not just one."
JANIS-APARICIO: In my lifetime, in the progressive movement we've never articulated a real vision for what we want to see the city do, a platform for how the government can actually better the quality of life for the city. In the past 10 or 20 years, we've always been, at best, defensive. Whereas now, we're actually saying, these are 50 concrete things that the city can take leadership on.
It seems there are three factors that have laid the groundwork for this change. There's the readiness and maturity of these movements themselves, there's real transformation of the labor movement in particular, and then there's this huge class and ethnic re-composition of the city.
DREIER: The one other change that has happened in Los Angeles is that there is not one Fortune 500 corporation based here -- which means the downtown business establishment that ran the city for a long time is more fragmented and less cohesive. There aren't the 10 or 15 or 20 people who used to sit around the table and basically decide who's going to be the next mayor, who's going to build the next highway, when and where. So the business community, while still powerful, is much more fragmented, and that creates an opening for the progressive movement to take some initiative.
JANIS-APARICIO: I don't think we want to overstate this. Business interests are still an incredibly powerful force. Having gone through the hotel industry's bogus living-wage campaign in Santa Monica . . .
GOTTLIEB: But they lost!
JANIS-APARICIO: But they lost because we rose to the occasion, because we had the people on the ground [to defeat the industry's initiative in the November election]. In general, over the last five or six years, we have seen business interests come together in many powerful ways, and it has been formidable. But we've been able to think more long term, so we're planting the seeds, we're building up, we're building infrastructure, we're building capacity, we're better able to deal with that.
And there are parts of this agenda that parts of business have signed on to. You had your affordable housing conference with business, Jan . . .
BREIDENBACH: It was our business summit. There were actually people there from the business world. And they were there because affordable housing is, in fact, also a business issue. Some of them acknowledge that there is a role for government to play in resolving that problem. And, judging by the attendance, it was an incredibly successful day.
DREIER: When we're going to lobby for inclusionary zoning or some linkage ordinance, there may be some developers who get excited and oppose it. But there also may be business interests that support it, some big employers like Kaiser, which came to our business summit on Friday, that are having a hard time filling their positions. They can't find nurses because the cost of housing in L.A. is so high. The governmental affairs director for Kaiser, which is one of the biggest employers in the L.A. area, spoke at our conference on Friday, and said, "Housing is our issue. We have to care about housing, because we have 2,000 unfilled slots." So when we find employers who recognize the need for housing, they may be able to take our side against some unenlightened developers who don't recognize that affordable housing set-asides are necessary for a healthy business climate.
How much contact do you have with your counterparts in other cities? And do they see L.A. as a kind of model for their own work?
JANIS-APARICIO: There are about a dozen groups around the country that we [in the living-wage movement] are working with, that are trying to replicate this model around economic issues that brings together community organizing, research, public policy, building policy, and building connections with other groups -- not just living-wage groups, either -- to do this work.
PÉREZ: We get invitations to other states, that are trying to replicate the kind of organizing and connecting work across constituencies in other cities. I've been to New York twice now to talk to groups about how to change the way government responds to worker issues. There are other parts of country that are asking, "How did you guys get over the turf wars in order to make a movement vital again?"
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.