It’s a new, virtual reality. Before the coronavirus pandemic, hundreds of political and grassroots activists would have packed the Los Angeles City Council chamber to applaud the swearing-in of longtime progressive Latino organizer Kevin de León as the new council member representing the city’s 14th Council District. Though the chamber was empty for the ceremony, in his videotaped remarks, he seemed acutely aware of the hundreds of thousands of desperate unhoused individuals and families and renters at risk for eviction who he’s been talking to through his support of Proposition 21, the Rental Affordability Act.
“Homelessness is a humanitarian crisis. Many families are facing eviction. That’s why I’m supporting Prop 21. It prevents homelessness by keeping housing affordable. Keep families in their homes. Join the California Democratic Party. Vote yes on Prop 21,” de León says in a Yes on 21 campaign video.
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.
De León, 53, was sworn in one day before the 26th anniversary of the massive 70,000-100,000-person march on Oct. 16, 1994 opposing the ugly anti-immigrant/anti-Latino initiative Prop. 187 that Gov. Pete Wilson cruelly used to win re-election. In his remarks after being sworn in for LA City Council, de León remembered how he “cut his teeth” as an organizer for that historic march. As PBS and others have noted, organizing against Prop 187 was the catalyst for creating a massive Latino registration and voter drive. (See de León’s extended interview here.) Four years later, in 1998, Latinos helped flipped the then-conservative Republican-run state into the hands of more liberal Democrats who welcomed the dignity of all human beings.
In his taped remarks, de León — who went from teaching English as a Second Language (ESL) at One Stop Immigration to become the first Latino in multiple decades to serve as president of the State Senate where he led on making California a sanctuary state — intimated that a similar social, economic, and political justice movement is underway in recognizing housing as a human right.
Noting the constraints because of the COVID pandemic, de León said he’s “glad that we’re in this together because this unprecedented moment in our city’s history requires us to collaborate with each other, support one another, and be there for each other on building a healthier, more equitable community. Whether it’s building housing for our unhoused neighbors, cleaning the dirty air we breathe, planting trees or picking up the trash, I believe we can build a better future because we are LA. We face adversity every single day. And every single day, we wake up with more resolve to overcome our challenges than we did the day before.”
He was born in downtown LA, “in the heart of this district to a single immigrant mother with a third-grade education — a woman who worked her fingers to the bone to raise her family. She taught me the value of hard work and why it’s so important to stand out and speak out for what’s right in our community,” de León said. “Protecting families and fighting for everyone to have a fair shot at achieving their dreams is not a choice. This is who we are. These are our values. As Angelenos, as Californians, as Americans.”
Today, he continued, “we’re facing a confluence of crises — the worst economic depression in our living memory, powered by a global pandemic that on most days feels endless. Our city and this district have become ground zero for homelessness in America. While our neighbors — increasingly single mothers and children — live in tents and cardboard boxes, languishing in the shadows of skyscrapers in luxury high rises, Latino families and the poorest among us in every community are suffering disproportionately from COVID-19, experiencing extreme unemployment, displacement and death. The unfair and unjust enforcement of our laws is causing a great deal of unnecessary suffering, forcing us to reimagine the way we approach investments in our communities and in law enforcement.”
De León said he wants to use these great challenges “to forge transformational change,” inspired by his own life experience. “Like many of you, I’m a lifelong renter, As a child and teenager, my mother rented rooms in other people’s homes — basement apartments with padlocks on the door, landlords shouting at my mother, demanding the rent,” he said. “Like many of you, we were just one stroke of bad luck away from living on the street. We took nothing for granted because we didn’t know where the next paycheck would come from,” he said.
“So, when I say I understand the challenges before us in a very personal way, and when I call for action to address these challenges with a sense of urgency and intentionality — I mean this. Now, when it comes to homelessness and housing affordability. What we’re seeing today in Los Angeles is a modern-day human catastrophe, a dystopian nightmare, unlike anything we’ve ever seen before. It’s shocking. It’s shameful. We have a moral and human obligation to do better, to improve our quality of life, ensuring that everyone can afford to keep a roof over their head,” said de León.
“And we must act now — which is why I’m announcing today that in my first council meeting, I’ll introduce a resolution instructing the city to partner with the county on the construction of more than 200 beds for unhoused Angelenos right here in downtown LA. Also on day one, I’ll instruct city departments to begin to work on hundreds of transitional housing units across CD 14,” he said. “As we continue to use our authority as elected leaders to shape development in Los Angeles, we must recognize and address serious flaws in our current system. Our current system, lacks transparency, predictability and has created a breeding ground for consultants and others to abuse the system and inflate costs. It’s time to revamp our entire planning process to prioritize, accelerate, and expand affordable housing throughout Los Angeles. To get our planning back on track. I’ve already begun working with the city’s planning department to trim away more than 800 pages of convoluted and unnecessary code written decades ago.”
Homelessness is not unfixable.
“We know the homelessness crisis is fueled by a lack of affordable housing in our communities. And the reason why we’re struggling to build enough of it is because we’re stuck using mid-century rules to build 21st century affordable housing. For far too long, good projects have languished under the city’s review, which adds months, if not years, to the process, inflating costs and delaying the promise of affordable housing.”
“Addressing our affordable housing crisis will help bolster diversity in our communities that we value so highly protecting our neighbors from the threat of gentrification,” he said. “Latino, Black, and Asian Pacific Islander communities have always faced the threat of displacement. But this pandemic has only accelerated that process, highlighting the glaring inequalities built into our economy. Since COVID-19 struck, the rich have gotten richer and the poor have been forced to bear the brunt of the economic devastation, making impossible choices to risk their lives at work, risk eviction by staying home and not working, leaving their city entirely or worse, becoming homeless. Essential workers are treated like expendable workers.”
“As we climb out of this historic recession, we must build it better, a cleaner, and most importantly, equitable economy. We can build it better future by all of us, by making Los Angeles the epicenter of the clean energy revolution and create good paying jobs,” de León said. “We’ve never been afraid of doing things on our own, and we’re not about to start today….We’re going to reimagine our communities in a way that benefits us and the rest of Los Angeles….I cannot wait to see what we can all accomplish together.”