Activist Susan Hunter Fights for Renters and the Unhoused – One Third of Whom are Women

Karen Ocamb News

In the middle of perhaps the most important election in American history, the California Sec. of State acknowledged the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage: “On October 10, 1911, California became the sixth state where women could vote equally with men, nine years before the 19th Amendment enfranchised women nationally.”

The ballot initiative that year was considered “radical and controversial” since “the U.S. Supreme Court took the phrase ‘all men are created equal’ literally. It ruled that protection under the U.S. Constitution did not include women.” Suffragettes organized and spoke personally about why their representation mattered, fighting a well-funded opposition. Several days after Election Day, Equal Suffrage passed by 3,587 votes – “an average majority of one vote in each precinct in the state!”

Today, powerful people are still opposing progress for women and minorities. But civil rights leaders such as Dolores Huerta and Congress members Maxine Waters, Karen Bass, and Barbara Lee and activists like Susan Hunter are pushing for full equality and recognition that housing is a human right through the 2020 ballot initiative, Proposition 21. The Yes on 21 campaign they back is opposed by billionaire Big Real Estate landlords.

Prop 21 is the statewide ballot measure that puts limits on unfair, sky-high rent increases, reins in corporate landlord greed, and prevents homelessness. Top experts at USC, UCLA, and UC Berkeley agree that sensible rent limits are key for stabilizing California’s housing affordability crisis. That’s why the California Democratic Party, the ACLU, the California Nurses Association, the California Alliance for Retired Americans, and the Los Angeles Times, among many others, have thrown their full support behind Prop 21.

Today, women elected officials and activists are taking on the systemic sexism exposed by the COVID-19 crisis that has exacerbated the homelessness and housing affordability crises. Last month, L.A. County Supervisors Hilda Solis and Kathryn Barger co-authored a motion ordering a Countywide Women’s Needs Assessment and instructing Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) to collect data on unaccompanied women as a distinct subpopulation during the annual homeless count.

“Just under one-third of the 60,000 people experiencing homelessness in Los Angeles County are women — a 15 percent increase over 2019, according to the 2020 Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count. The Homeless Count, however, does not reveal how many of these women are single, rendering them invisible,” says a press release from Solis’ office. Additionally, “with LGBTQ women experiencing homelessness at disproportionately high rates, and transgender women facing greater challenges in accessing shelters and homeless services, more data needs to be collected and analyzed to effectively identify strategies to help this population.”

“Single women are especially vulnerable when homeless because they have fewer resources available to them since most services for women are geared toward those living with children in a family unit,” says Solis. “As a result of systemic inequities, women of color are disproportionately experiencing homelessness. Rent increases, evictions, and the COVID-19 economic downturn have pushed many into homelessness. Today’s motion gives voice to unsheltered single women who deserve the type of support that will set them on course to self-reliance and hope.”

The campaign to designate unaccompanied women as an official homeless subpopulation started in 2014. “Unaccompanied women have grown to account for 29% of all unhoused individuals experiencing homelessness in the U.S,” Amy Turk, CEO of the Downtown Women’s Center, says in a CalMatters op-ed. “In Los Angeles, women’s homelessness is rising every year at a rate outpacing men’s. Amidst a persistent gender pay gap and historic housing unaffordability, roughly half of unaccompanied women experiencing homelessness in the city today are newly homeless, as a variety of economic barriers, physical and mental health ailments, and vulnerabilities to marital conflict and domestic violence continue to put single women at greater socioeconomic risk than men.”

COVID-19 related job losses are disproportionately impacting women, with evidence pointing to spikes in domestic violence, as well. “Combined with any COVID-19-related evictions, these trends threaten to push more women into homelessness in Los Angeles than ever before, at a time when resources are harder to access. Unaccompanied women in particular, who cannot seek assistance on behalf of families, will be left to navigate the injustices of homelessness without adequate support,” says Turk. “For many, and especially those who are Black, Brown, and/or LGBTQIA+, the consequences will be dire: unhoused women in Los Angeles live, on average, 35 years less than women in stable housing and experience gender-based violence at a staggering rate.”

For Susan Hunter, fighting homelessness and for the passage of Prop 21 is a deeply personal, moral issue.

In 2010, Hunter was one of the few female stage managers working in professional photography studios, a very male dominated industry. She was paying her career dues, handling a lot of the heavy equipment, lighting, turning stages, making sure that shoots were going smoothly. She was on track from a college degree to a successful career as a fulltime independent photographer in Hollywood. But Hunter also worked on neighborhood concerns, then victim’s rights, especially regarding sexual assault. It was at those community meetings where she ran into advocates for tenants’ rights.

Hunter’s activism was triggered by a personal injustice when her landlord tried to evict everybody in her building. “He held everybody’s rent check and said, ‘I will go through with evictions and you will lose because you have no proof of payment. If you don’t fight me, I’ll give you a month free. But if you fight me, I will take you to court and you’ll have an eviction on your record,” Hunter recalls.

“People don’t know the law, but they have an idea about what’s right and wrong. But the law does not always reflect that,” she says.

Hunter, then 32, retained “a very cheap lawyer” to fight the eviction. The process was both terrifying and unfair. “You realize that the decision’s already made before you even walk in that courtroom” because of nonpayment of rent. A carbon copy of a rent check does not stand up in court because there’s no proof that you gave it to the landlord, delighting in the second wave of gentrification in Hollywood.

But during deliberations in the hallway, they realized that a previous landlord had done an illegal rent increase and it had snowballed. Hunter’s landlord actually owed her over $2,000 in back rent – and her sliding scale lawyer beat the landlord’s $300-an hour attorney.

“It was a big win. But it wasn’t until we got to that point that I realized the whole process of what it takes to try and fight off an eviction. And the deck is not stacked in your favor, even being in a rent-controlled apartment,” Hunter says. “The really sad thing was the overwhelming majority of the other tenants gave up and left. They never fought it.”

Word on her win got around and friends and friends of friends contacted her for advice. That’s when Hunter started helping people with “impromptu” case work.  

And that’s when it happened: an epiphany that changed the direction of her life. A request came in for a paid photo shoot with somebody with whom she’d been building a relationship as a client. But the shoot was during an important community meeting discussing a big development project that was displacing tenants.

“I literally hit this crossroads. I remember I was standing in the street looking at my phone and I was like: ‘I know that if I go the photography route, I could have a successful career.’ And then I wondered if I would regret that I didn’t go back and help these people. I was like, wow, I’m actually at that weird crossroads of which way do you want to go?”

Hunter says: “I chose helping the tenants. I made that decision and I let that client go. And it was a tough thing to do at the time. But, at this point, looking back, I know it was absolutely the right decision.”

Eventually Hunter got involved with Coalition to Preserve LA and the Los Angeles Tenants Union simultaneously. It was a “good fit” because she dealt with planning and land use and also tenants’ rights, both fields “typically dominated by men.” But, she thought, “you can’t have a discussion around how we’re going to use the land for housing and not include the fact that it means people. A lot of times they’re very separated. So, I was put into a very unique position of bridging both.”

Hunter is keen on changing the narrative of “what we think about homelessness” to solve the crisis. “We have people who are full-time employees living out of tents and cars simply because they can’t afford the rent. We have to recognize that for so many people out there, drugs and alcohol were not the reason why they ended up on the streets. That’s what they did to cope with the fact that they ended up there.”

Knowing that housing justice advocates aren’t going to win every battle, being involved and voting for change makes a huge difference. “You want to make sure everybody stays in their home,” Hunter says. “But the deck is not stacked in your favor. And that’s why it’s so important to have legislation and policy like Proposition 21 — because we have to make sure that it’s a much more level playing field against these corporate landlords that can just evict people en masse.”