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SGV Connect 114 Transcript : Allison Henry

Damien Newton (DN): So welcome to SGV Connect. I'm Damian Newton. Today we're recording live in a beautiful park in Pasadena not over a phone or over zoom or any of those sorts of things. And I am here with Chris Greenspon. He's doing the production work today, so I don't know if he's gonna hop on the microphone at all. I guess we'll find out as the podcast goes along. Today we're with Alison Henry Allison is a housing justice organizer for LA Forward, and a co founder of the SGV Community Tenants Alliance. Thank you for being here with us today.

Allison Henry (AH): Thank you for having me.

DN:So I'm going to read some ad copy and rather than me reading the bio that's here. Why don't we'll ask you a little bit more about yourself. So first, I'd like to remind all of our listeners that SGV Connect is sponsored by Foothill Transit offering car free transit throughout the San Gabriel Valley, with connections to the new Gold Line stations across the foothills and the coming Gold Line stations hopefully very soon. Anyway, to plan your trip visit Foothill Transit, whether it's through the foothills or into the heart of downtown Los Angeles on the Silver Streak at Foothill Foothill Transit going good places. So again, thank you for being here with us and why don't you tell us a little bit about yourself?

AH: Yeah, thanks. So um, like you said, I'm the SGV housing justice organizer with LA Forward and co founder of the San Gabriel Valley Tenants Alliance. We started that the SGV Tenants Alliance in 2020. After many years of organizing with the Pasadena Tenants Union, I'm actually kind of a co founder of that too. I saw a great need in the SGV as pandemic was starting. And all these tenant majority cities, having very few people come before them and asking for things like eviction moratoriums, and rent freezes the things that we were seeing in Los Angeles City. So I grew up in the area, I grew up in Claremont, I live in Pasadena. I didn't start out in housing. I at one point in time was a was in educational sales and a teacher and got galvanized into housing in 2016, when my neighbors and I were given a pretty substantial rent increase, which was at the time legal. I work with different people and organizations in the SGV. Using housing data, Southern California Association of Governments data, SCAG, to really highlight the housing need and injustice in our area.

DN: Now, you said something that's interesting, because you mentioned that is a renter majority city. And for people that don't know, I am currently editing our Santa Monica Next website for the nonprofit. And what I've discovered in doing that is almost every city in LA County is a majority renter city, but we see policy at the cities when it comes to rent control or other issues sort of all over the place. And some of the cities that are really progressive on some issues, for some reason aren't on housing. When we talk specifically about the San Gabriel Valley, sort of what cities are doing really well on this issue, if any, and what or could still use some work?

AH: Yeah, thanks for asking that question. I think people would be really shocked at not just how many cities are renter majority cities, but some of the percentages of those cities, it's not 50/50. So when I think about cities are doing it right, there are two ecosystems for that question. Right? The politicians, the leaders, they're doing it right. So, you know, definitely appreciate Pomona got Council out there that's working through rent stabilization and tenant protections that were all brought on board by the council. But you know, PUSH, Pomona United for Stable Housing and Pomona Economic Opportunity Center, and La Gente. They were all instrumental community groups, in getting the Council to act. Alhambra's Another place where we see some really good policy being made for tenants. A few weeks ago, they passed an urgency ordinance closing what we call the reno-viction loophole of the state Tenant Protection Act of 2019. It allows for tenants to be removed from their apartment for substantial renovations, but there's very little around that. So it's been used for predatorially. Clermont is another place where we saw this loophole being closed and a council having good conversation, but Claremont is an interesting case because one council member recused himself because he's a landlord, which begs the question, why are you representing anyone at the city level? You know, it's what 30% tenants in Claremont. So it says to me like he's not going to represent 30% of the tenants. So that council despite another councilmember who was on the voting body, being just uncomfortable with a lot of tenant protections, they passed some strong reno-viction protections and they're also currently crafting anti harassment protections. There are very few cities, if any, in the San Gabriel Valley that have protections against harassment.

DN: So there's there's sort of two levels and we talk a lot about the issues with affordability for housing, you have the rental protections and rent control and stabilization and the issues that you were just talking about and you also have the affordable housing component of things. Are there any cities that really stand out as doing good work on affordable housing issues right now? Other ones that are questionable we, I'll say we talked a little bit off microphone about two specific projects. I'm going to ask them, you about them if you don't bring them up yourself right now.

AH: Sure. So around affordable housing. So when we talk about affordable housing, we are, you know, that's shorthand for building new housing that is, you know, to be for low income people, or 30% of people's income, which will be low. There are some cities doing some good things with inclusionary ordinances, which is a percentage requirement for new buildings beyond the state 10% density allowance. Pasadena has 20%. I know Monrovia, I think got up to 15%, which is which is big, because there's development in Monrovia. Claremont has been really great about production of affordable units. And there's one project in particular that I was thinking of, but remind me of the other one. So it's this project is on East Foothill Boulevard, right where Foothill and the 210 meet. It's in unincorporated LA County, it's a 43 unit building for seniors, recently homeless seniors. There's some pushback from the communities of San Dimas and La Verne about it, which is just staggering, given that it's 43 units, it's next to a freeway. And the latest report from LAHSA and from the City of Pasadena indicates that seniors are the one of the fastest growing groups living on our streets.

DN: Which flies in the face of a lot of the conventional wisdom where you know, you hear a lot about the person from South Dakota who wants to experience a Freedom Summer or something like that. And they're living in their van by the beach or whatever. But the reality that we saw from the homeless report that was released last week is the fastest growing segment, or one of the fastest growing segments, is seniors that have lived here for years. And just as the rents going up, they can't keep pace with it, especially people on fixed incomes. So senior housing becomes a larger issue, especially affordable senior housing. You were talking about inclusionary. ordinances. And I've heard some criticism that cities will pass inclusionary ordinances with high numbers as a way to prevent housing from being built at all is there? Do you think that there's a number cities should be striving for these different cities have different numbers that make sense as far as what the percentage should be?

AH: No, that's a really fair question. And the scenario that you pose, while interesting is not the one I've seen in terms of trying to prevent affordable housing from being built. What I've seen is the opposite. There are two cities in our region, San Gabriel and Duarte. Duarte, unfortunately, was successful in, getting rid of its inclusionary housing ordinance. San Gabriel was actually trying to do the same and their pitch was developers were coming to them saying that because of falling rents, the pro formas for these projects weren't penciling out. None of this data is consistent with anything that any other groups data pickups are, are seeing. Pasadena has got a very high percentage, partly because the community pushed for that. Same with Monrovia. There was a community of residents who through the housing element worked on getting that inclusionary ordinance increase, particularly because of all the building going up near the Metro stop, and in downtown Monrovia that is unaffordable, that's actually got higher than the area, higher than Monrovia median rents. So when I think about the obstacles to affordable housing, unfortunately, it's not these high percentages. It's cities coming back and saying it's not penciling out for developers and councils buying it.

DN: They're just taking their word for it...that it's not penciling out?

AH:Yeah. And I think also straight up. I think there's a lot of race and class bias in our city councils. I mean, San Gabriel astounds me. San Gabriel is 14% poverty rate amongst its households, it's 55% tenants with at least 30% of the tenants in San Gabriel having significant rent burden, which is over 50% of their income. There are a lot of seniors in that group. There are a lot of low income workers. And yet the City Council of San Gabriel, many of them seemed uninterested in that, uninterested in providing housing for that portion of their population despite community turnout for that meeting, the joint meeting with the City Council and planning commission, a few months ago; and members of other city Commission's and the school district the joint School District saying that there is an absolute need for affordability. And we should be talking very high percentages.

DN: You just brought up school districts. This is always interesting me for a policy standpoint, because from where I grew up, and I am a transplant to LA County, from the East Coast, but where I grew up school districts and school boards and school unions, they talked about education and nothing else. But affordability has been a big issue, not just with schools and teachers unions in recent years with their strikes. But it's what we're seeing right now at the hotel workers strike that's going on right now. And the WGA strike that's going on right now is that people that have jobs, and in some case, what are considered white collar or, jobs that require master's degrees or whatever, they can't afford to live anywhere near where they're working. And this has become an ongoing affordability issue, I think throughout the region. Outside of of increasing wages, and some of the things we've talked about sort of what's the solution to that?

AH: Well, I mean, you're right. And in fact, I'm, it's I'm not glad that people have had hardship. But as someone who's been doing tenants rights and housing affordability, affordability issues since 2016. And arguably, before that, when I lived in Dublin in the late 90s. Within six months, I saw people who had come back to Ireland, after years of being away, have to leave again because of housing affordability. And that was 1999. Okay, so it was 2024 years ago, right? And the the narrative for so long was it's you your job isn't good enough, right? So I'm, I'm heartened that people are starting to connect the dots. I think that we are looking at not just affordability issues, and people not being able to get to work. But we're looking at both ends of the spectrum in terms of age, living on our streets, people getting priced out and pinched out as they get older. And they don't have property wealth, and transition age youth Tay has their call, not being able to get housing, because it's so expensive. The marginal returns for landlords have actually caused an economic crisis that were not properly acknowledging. And it's unsustainable. Rent Stabilization is helpful. But if you're paying 50% of your income, and I'm grateful, I'm grateful for everyone in Pasadena that helped pass Measure H. I helped write that. I'm grateful to Pomona and all the cities that have brought it in Cudahay, Bell Gardens, Baldwin Park, but we actually need a wholesale write down of the cost of housing for people currently in it. And we also need to start investing in something called social housing. I'm sure you started to hear about this. My mom and dad are from Scotland. I'm very familiar with social housing, because that's all the housing my family ever had, before my mom and dad immigrated to the United States. So if, if our country and cities are willing to put money into bullets and guns for our police forces and military, why haven't we been building bricks and mortar? So we need to build but I think we also need to start talking about taxing high rent. This is kind of a fringe idea, not because it's like, you know, I've been on the Joe Rogan Experience. But because I've talked with it to a few people. But I think I think we should actually start taxing rents that are harmful, just the way we tax tobacco, and alcohol. And so if you're a landlord, charging $2,000 rent in a building that's 70 years old, maybe like 65% of that should be taxed. Right? To bring it down. Crazy, but we need to start bringing down the housing costs for people currently in their buildings. I mean, the other way you can do that is through a community land trust. And I know you're gonna be talking with someone who started a regional CLT here, but that's one other things cities and CLTs can do, they can actually buy property. There's a really successful senior housing project here in Pasadena called Hudson Oaks. And it started its life as a burned out apartment building. The tenants had to move. The the owner didn't do anything with it. It sat vacant for years, and the city bought it. The city negotiated a deal and then converted it into affordable senior housing. And it is an absolute gem. In my role with LA Forward, we're doing an SGV housing cohort, once a month, for six months. And we've got 25 people here in the SGV wanting to organize for housing. And we did a tour of that of that project. That could be replicated in every single city, but it's just 45 units.

DN: 45 units at a time. We've had the group from Union Station Homeless Services on set with us several times and they always say, "homelessness isn't solved 40,000 people at a time and solved one person at a time." I assume that affordability is the same thing. It's not the 45 person building on its own. It's going to make a big difference in 45 families lives but as far as a regional issue, it takes a regional solution. So let's talk about that a little bit because - with the coalition that's building and growing in there - because there was an SGV housing justice symposium earlier this year at Azusa Pacific, you've mentioned various groups in different cities working together, are we starting to see regional cooperation? Obviously, you're with LA Forward. So there's some regional cooperation that you can speak to, but are we starting to see connections being made amongst these groups and these leaders, people working together more to start to address things regionally instead of just the fight for, you know, 40 houses on Foothill Avenue or 45 units in Pasadena?

AH: Yeah, that's a good question. I would say the, when I think of the reach the regional approach, I think, of people who are near each other, but in different cities, right, so they have to hit up different legislative bodies for policy change. And so we're sharing shared experiences, but also data and the regional interplay with employment, right. Sharing resources. So and also supporting in terms of sharing, you know, we all have friends in these cities that were organizing in. So that kind of resource sharing and contact sharing has actually been a big part of this regional approach, as well as really chipping away at some of the meta narrative that we talked about that's real in the San Gabriel Valley. We are, we are the suburbs. And that comes with a suburbia of the mind that is very much sundown towns and pioneer cemeteries and replicating redlining, even though we shouldn't be... myths about affordable housing and poverty. And we see it also with the expansion of the rail line. You know, the this idea that we don't have poverty in our area that any poverty and homelessness we see is imported from Los Angeles, we've had years of data to fight that. And lots more shared experience to back you know, to push against that. And yet, it's still a very dominant narrative in communities, and is a significant obstacle to more building.

DN:So you did talk just a little bit about the SGV, Community Land Trust and other land trusts and you were talking about their ability to purchase land. We talked about land trusts a lot when we talk about the 710 sort of in our our annual 710 Caltrans housing coverage, which this year stretched over like three different podcasts. But could you just for someone who's not familiar, explain what a community land trust is how it works, because I think that's always a concept that people hearing for the first time have a little trouble grabbing on to especially when you have a community land trust that sells units inside of it. So you have like apartment owners or house owners, but then they don't own the land. And they're part it's not quite a homeowner's association, and maybe just a brief description of how all that works.

AH: Yes, and and I'm going to put this with an asterisk because I'm by no means an expert. But the exciting thing about community land trust is they offer some model to what we say decommodify housing. Typically land is donated or sometimes purchased. And sometimes that land has housing on it. And it'll be purchased by a CLT. They can leverage things that maybe other good hearted individuals can't in terms of money and loaning and lending, or leverage donations from other nonprofits. And then depending whether the house the land is vacant, and they need to build or in the case of one CLT, they're still finalizing the deal. So I won't spill too many beans about it, but they're they're acquiring a multifamily building. So they're going to own the housing and the land. And the idea is to take the cost burden off of the tenants. So in some models, tenants or people living there are paying very little rent. In some cases, none at all. Some have like an ownership scheme, but ultimately, they can't like sell it for profit. But it's basically a means for an organization to take land and any existing housing on that land and keep it affordable. in perpetuity. Not just for 55 years, but hopefully forever, because we have a lot of tax credited affordable housing projects in the state that actually have like, usually 55 year covenants that tend to expire. We're seeing that now that's actually what Hillside Villa was all about, right that affordability covenant expired. So this is an alternative to a system that has an expiration date on affordability.

Chris Greenspon (CG): Damien, I'm gonna jump in here for the last question. So I was looking over the presentation that was given at APU which, like many presentations in any kind of progressive or radical contexts these days begins with a land acknowledgement. And the SGV is becoming more and more widely recognized, at least in these kinds of circles as the ancestral home of the Tongva, Gabrielino and Kizh. My point is that these land acknowledgments we see some people find them unnecessary or uncomfortable. You know, we can point to West Covina Mayor Tony Wu, who had a bit of a tantrum at the city Centennial about an apparently unannounced land acknowledgement. So with all that said, and with you being a housing justice activist, why do you believe it's important to keep doing land acknowledgement?

AH: Oh, my gosh, it's it's regional history and national history. And I think you're acknowledging the land that was taken from other people. And from the context of housing when you don't do that kind of not...just acknowledgement of who lived here before but even in some cases, how how that land was're, you're perpetuating harm throughout history. I was astounded at what went down in West Covina, I know Brian personally, and we we talked about that. And I was disappointed to see that in 2023, land acknowledgement. Opening ourselves to our history can show us different models of being, different ways of doing and stepping on the past without acknowledging it is feels like a crime to me. That's where I come at it from.

CG: Well, thank you so much for joining us, Allison. And we do look forward to doing part two with Connie to talk specifically about the community land trust for the San Gabriel Valley. And thanks to Damien, who did a fantastic job of steering this interview and using some of my notes. And thanks to you, SGV Connect listeners for doing what you do best. And with that, we will see you next time or we will speak to you next time in part two. Damien, do you want to say anything before we dematerialize?

DN: I mean, I just had a terrible idea that we should do a live thing once on zoom so people can watch us do an interview. But other than that, no.

CG: Terrible interviews and terrible ideas to come up aplenty. Stay tuned.