It has been an article of faith in America that religious people exercise their beliefs in the public square for what they believed is the “Common Good.” But before religion became weaponized in the late 1970s in reaction to the counter-culture movement, faith was considered a private matter that informed the conscience of someone who wanted to “do good,” be of service, and fight injustice. Such were the women who founded the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW) in 1910 to “bringing about social and political change to improve the quality of life for women, children, and families.” Today that mission includes fighting to prevent homelessness by supporting Proposition 21, the Rental Affordability Act.
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, Black Lives Matter and the Los Angeles Times, among many others, have thrown their full support behind Prop 21.
“We have a long history of filling gaps in services and supporting the community in really targeted ways and a few years ago, we refined our mission specifically to support economic justice equity,” says NCJW/LA Director Rachel Resnick. “Our target is working women in Los Angeles… They are sometimes working two jobs, they are contributing, they’re paying taxes. They are contributing members of society and they are not making enough money to get by. And we think that’s wrong. We think that people should be paid a fair wage. People should have benefits. People should have safety and security in housing without being worried that their housing costs are going to outpace their income.
“Yes on 21, to us,” Resnick continues, “addresses that exactly. It provides housing stability for people who need it, who want to have the confidence that they can stay housed where they are living because that helps their children stay in school where they’re going to school. It helps them maintain their employment without putting additional financial strain on their household.”
The importance of NCJW/LA’s mission is underscored by a Jan. 2020 report from the Downtown Women’s Center. “Homelessness among women has increased in the last year, with 10,845 women experiencing homelessness in the City of Los Angeles, and more women experiencing homelessness for the first time,” according to the pre-COVID-19 report.
“There is a hidden crisis within the crisis that is overlooked and underreported,” Downtown Women’s Center CEO Amy Turk told the LA Downtown News. “Every night… 11,000 women are experiencing homelessness. 18,000 women across the county are enduring the harsh indignities of homelessness. To solve this crisis we must understand the real conditions homeless women face every single day.”
“It feels really important to us to stop homelessness,” Rachel Resnick. “We want to do everything we can to keep people from having to even face that situation. And so Yes on 21 really speaks to everything that we do. It speaks to the care and concern that we think people should have for their neighbors and in their neighborhoods. I’m really hopeful that it will give families peace of mind to be able to stay with confidence in their homes.”
NCJW/LA — which has had a rental assistance program funded by the City of West Hollywood for eight or nine years — decided to expand their community work in 2018. “We felt like it was a good opportunity to think about really specific ways that we could provide services and support to the community that were also reflected in our advocacy work,” says Resnick. “The guiding light of the work for a long time was filling gaps in services. But we thought about how economic justice and equity is an ongoing issue… and just thinking about how to make more stronger connections between our advocacy work and our program services.”
NCJW/LA’s rental assistance program through West Hollywood social services “was really to help tenants and residents of the city who were facing an economic emergency. The rental assistance allowed them to get over that hump, to stay housed and not lose their homes or not lose their apartments that they’ve lived in sometimes for a long time because of one emergency. We all are very familiar with the statistic that the majority of American households don’t have enough savings to cover a $400 emergency expense — and all of the ways that that can quickly spiral out of control financially for a household.”
About nine months ago, NCJW/LA, working with community partners and city council offices, budgeted for an expansion of their rental assistance program into four different zip codes in East Hollywood “that have the highest density of renters, but also high density of female-headed households.” The program “provides the best financial support that is paid to landlords and property managers to cover rent in a month that these tenants are unable to pay rent.”
Justice is “a core value,” says Resnick. “But we should all be in pursuit of justice and the way that that connects to economic justice is about fairness and equity. We believe that everybody could be basically housed and should have access to safe and affordable housing and should have access to employment that allows them to afford their safe and affordable housing. We think that when people are housed, when people are employed, it makes our entire community safer, more robust, healthier, and really helps push us towards success, towards a vibrancy in our communities. And there are areas enough for everyone to be able to be safely housed in this city. There’s enough space. I hope that there is the willpower to make that possible. Nobody deserves to sleep on the street.”
Resnick suggests there’s a movement afoot.
“Everybody should want this for the people who we live with and the people who we live next to, and the people that are in our city and that are in our country. But I think for us, it really comes down to the pursuit of justice for our society,” says Resnick. “People should not be rent burdened. People should be earning enough — earning a living wage that is reflective of what it means to live here. We are all responsible for each other. And you know, that I think really drives our work and drives our volunteers.”
Resnick recalls hearing a San Fernando Valley rescue mission leader talk about the dignity of all human beings. “He talked about how important it is for each of us, when we are walking down the street in Los Angeles, to make eye contact with people who are sitting or sleeping on the street. And that’s the very least we can do — is acknowledge their humanity and acknowledge the dignity in each person,” she says. “It is something that I think is important that all of us do. There are ways that we can all contribute and honor the dignity of each person,” including the person who’s never had to ask for help before.
“I think that with Yes on 21 — that’s baked in,” Resnick says. “It’s that people deserve to be housed. People deserve to have the safety of a home to return to, and that there are ways that we can make that possible for more people and that we can increase the stability and the confidence that people have that their homes will remain their homes, that the rent will remain affordable to them in a way that doesn’t take away from their landlord, either. There are ways to honor everyone involved in that equation. And I think that that’s a really critical way to work and to live, to be guided by that idea.”