On August 22, the Bell Gardens City Council voted unanimously in favor of the first Rent Control and Just Cause ordinance in Southeast Los Angeles. This victory comes after two and a half years of tireless organizing by the largely working-class immigrant women and families that make up the Union de Vecinas of Bell Gardens, backed by non-profit California Latinas for Reproductive Justice. The ordinance still requires one more final vote of approval, but once passed will set an incredible precedent in a region of LA County that has been historically neglected, marginalized and victim to corruption scandals.
The ordinance will limit rent increases to once per year, limit the legally allowable reasons for evictions, establish a rental registry and require relocation assistance for no-fault evictions equal to three times the rent, plus one additional month’s rent for qualified tenants — low-income, seniors, disabled, families with minor children, and tenancy five years or more. The ordinance also includes protections against harassment and retaliation, supplementing existing state law.
These changes will also provide greater stability and recourse for tenants experiencing landlord abuses in this city where 96% identify as Latino, only 6% have a bachelor’s degree or higher and approximately 30% live below the federal poverty line. Of all the cities in California, Bell Gardens has the lowest median income and the highest percentage of renters.
The ordinance was strongly supported by Council member Jorgel Chavez and had cautious but committed support from Council Member Marco Barcena. “These protections … meant so much to me because [they] will literally keep families in their homes,” shared Chavez.
The ordinance passed with unanimous support from all 5 council members, despite two of those council members previously refusing to sit down to address community housing concerns and one having strong ties to real estate interests. The power built by community and supporters, the months spent advocating on the Ad-hoc Committee for Rent Control, and the upcoming city council elections all certainly played a role in this victory.
The struggle began in summer of 2019, when two organizers from CLRJ discovered through door-to-door outreach in the community that among the top issues impacting Latinas and their families were housing costs and housing conditions. Community members described stories of unsustainable rent increases, harassment and overall unsafe conditions.
UDV member Lucia Veloz shared that she was motivated to join this struggle when she “saw the injustices on the part of owners, people evicted, excessive increases …. and upon realizing we didn’t know our rights” (translation). Other tenants shared stories of landlords refusing to clean up mold or get rid of rat infestations, despite children developing asthma and people getting sick, and the experience of a single mother with disabilities escaping domestic violence only to then find herself facing a $400 rent increase, among so many others. In response to resistance, abusive landlords often replied with the common, “Si no te gusta, te puedes ir” (“If you don’t like it, you can leave”).
Organizers laid the groundwork in 2020 for a better organized tenant response. They held workshops, virtual community meetings, built tenant’s skills to collectively address individual issues and made connections between reproductive justice and housing justice. A result of such intensive organizing and training led to the formation of Union de Vecinas of Bell Gardens, which formally launched the Rent Control and Just Cause campaign in fall 2020. The campaign, aside from building political consciousness and organization, is also based on the premise that housing justice is deeply linked to reproductive justice.
Through the latest Bell Gardens City Council vote, the community was ultimately successful in all they set out to do: build the power of people who previously felt powerless, win something tangible to alleviate instability for tens of thousands of people, inspire tenants and legislators in surrounding SELA cities facing gentrification and start broader conversations about reproductive justice!
The leaders of this struggle prevailed despite facing some of the harshest consequences of mismanagement of the pandemic and the converging housing, health, unemployment, climate, inflation and other crises caused by a system driven by profit motives.
UDV’s fight is not over however, because opposition forces are mobilizing to reverse housing gains won through struggle and real estate interests are backing candidates in hopes of taking over the council in the upcoming elections. “There are a lot of corporate landlords who can’t see past their profits and their own interests and they come in big numbers to these council meetings and spew lies. They are in it for themselves, they absolutely do not care about the community,” shared UDV’s Jasmine Gonzales.
UDV and Bell Gardens’ tenants will continue to fight for better housing conditions and reproductive justice through collective power. But for now, the lesson is loud and clear: When the working class and poor people unite across differences – they win!
Featured photo: Union de Vecinas of Bell Gardens