Our cities are in a state of shock. The streets of Los Angeles, San Francisco, West Hollywood, etc. are teeming with homeless people. Tiny studio apartments are renting for astronomical sums. Formerly poor and working-class neighborhoods are being gentrified at lightning speed. Taquerias are being replaced by pricey vegan ice cream places. We are tearing down tens of thousands of affordable apartments to make room for soulless luxury buildings that turn their backs on our streets. The net result is that formerly vibrant cities are being turned into richer, whiter and far less interesting places while we look away — or step over our neighbors sleeping on the sidewalks.
How did it get so bad? Is it because of California’s sunny weather? Has our collective mental health drastically deteriorated in the last few years? Or is it a self-inflicted wound resulting from trickle-down government policies that have added jet fuel to gentrification?
There is no more basic human right than shelter. It is shameful that 981 people died on the streets of Los Angeles County in 2018. And, it is a clear indication that the system has failed. We cannot depend on the private marketplace to ensure that every person has healthcare, education or housing. Yet City Hall keeps approving luxury buildings with few, if any, affordable units while giving massive exemptions and giveaways to corporate developers.
The problem has reached epic levels; 59,000 people are homeless in Los Angeles County and millions of California’s renters are paying more than 50% of their income on rent. If no action is taken, these numbers will continue to skyrocket. Meanwhile, every renter protection bill has been killed by a legislature that is wholly owned by big real estate. Few politicians have the courage or conviction to stand up to this corporate greed.
AIDS Healthcare Foundation was born of moral outrage over the mistreatment of people with AIDS. We began as a hospice provider when people were dying in the hallways of the county hospital. Today’s housing crisis is a similar crisis of indifference to suffering. Our patients and employees are feeling the devastating impact of skyrocketing rents. AHF has jumped into the breach with advocacy and by directly creating affordable housing units.
Our program is called the Three Ps: Prevent, Preserve and Produce. Prevent homelessness through rent control; preserve communities by fighting gentrification; and produce housing by rehabilitating existing buildings. AHF is also making another run at a statewide ballot initiative in 2020 to expand rent control; we are fighting against statewide legislation to open up more neighborhoods to luxury development; and in the last two years, we have brought 680 affordable housing units on-line through our Healthy Housing Foundation.
In addition, as part of our stepped-up advocacy efforts to address homelessness and housing affordability, AHF also recently launched one of its provocative billboard campaigns in greater Los Angeles, this one, intended to shine a harsh, but necessary spotlight on the burgeoning homeless and affordable housing crisis here. The campaign, running now on over 30 billboards and 100 bus bench and transit shelter ads throughout greater Los Angeles, includes two different messages: The first has a banner headline reading ‘Homelessness Kills’ superimposed over an image of a toe-tagged cadaver. The second reads ‘Gentrification Sucks’ with the headline lettering over a cityscape of L.A. The only additional text on both these billboards is the web address URL for ‘LAScandal.org’ where people can get information on the homeless crisis, learn about the misguided response from our government and elected officials and find links to directly contact their L.A. City Council Member or L.A. County Supervisor to urge them to act decisively and more quickly to address the crisis.
Recently, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders accompanied me to AHF’s 204-unit Madison Hotel on Skid Row where he laid out his platform for addressing housing affordability. Bernie is the first presidential candidate to visit Skid Row and he has a holistic analysis of how corporate greed and political corruption have led to where we are today as well as positive solutions to creating new affordable apartments. The centerpiece of Sanders’ campaign is controlling corporate greed and giving a fair shake to the 99% instead of the 1%, which makes him uniquely qualified to address the housing crisis.
We are at a crossroads: the cities we hold dear and the diversity we cherish are under threat. Gentrification sucks and there is something we can do about it.