Letter to Congressman Schiff: In Support of Little Tokyo Service Center’s Santa Monica & Vermont Apartments for East Hollywood

Dear Honorable Congressman Schiff,

I hope this letter finds you well. I am writing to you today to express my support for the Little Tokyo Service Center’s (LTSC) transformative housing project in partnership with L.A. Metro at the Vermont/Santa Monica intersection in East Hollywood.

This past March, along with members of the East Hollywood Neighborhood Council and a coalition of storytellers, scholars, and other community members, I discussed historic redlining practices affecting East Hollywood in the critical years before the onset of WWII. You may or may not know that East Hollywood, along with a number of other neighborhoods in the Central L.A. area, was historically redlined by federal and municipal government officials who saw Black and immigrant families as “blight” and “too risky” or unworthy of investment.

As offensive as redlining was for racist language that discouraged private banks from lending to working-class families in East Hollywood, what was more consequential was redlining’s discouragement of building development to break ground for needed housing in the community.

This is still relevant today. The World War II era, for its myriad of unique particularities, continues bearing key connections to the current housing crisis in Los Angeles. In 1939, the national economy was still emerging from a decade of the Great Depression. Therefore, when the U.S. officially joined the conflict, while California’s ports and aerospace industries began employing masses of new workers, labor shortages threatened to stifle the state’s service and agriculture economies, which could have almost certainly cost the U.S. the war effort.

In bouts of heroism and bravery alike, waves of Black families from the historic U.S. south came to the rescue, especially for the Golden State’s service economies. Simultaneously, Latinx workers from the global south, particularly from Mexico, came to California as the first “Braceros” for the state’s agricultural industry.

Yet while these workers were sure to be hired in Los Angeles, what was entirely uncertain was their housing. After decades of racial covenants, deed restrictions, campaigns against housing for non-whites by an L.A. chapter of the Ku Klux Klan and their collaborators, and homogeneously white city councils, courtrooms, and police, Los Angeles left Black, Latinx and APPI communities with housing conditions that would only worsen with time.

Twenty years after the end of WWII, these conditions erupted in Watts. A generation later, less than twenty years after the world recession of 1973 – 1975, these conditions erupted again in South Central Los Angeles.

And today, even as research shows Black and Latinx people make up to 70% of the unhoused population in Los Angeles, and virtually the same rate of the incarcerated population in the L.A. County Jail and across California prisons, during the “war” against COVID, Black, Latinx and AAPI workers have unflinchingly and resiliently supported L.A.’s service, agricultural and transportation economies, including in East Hollywood. This is why LTSC’s project at Vermont/Santa Monica is as timely as it is appropriate. It is breaking the ground for families needed as early as the years before WWII.

I write in support of Little Tokyo Service Center’s Santa Monica & Vermont Apartments because they will provide 187 units of overdue affordable housing for people of color in the community, as well as permanent supportive housing that communities of color in East Hollywood have missed as the homelessness crisis, which is undoubtedly a humanitarian crisis, has only grown by leaps and bounds.

You are likely aware, Congressman Schiff, that in L.A. City Council’s 13th district, where East Hollywood is based, nearly 4,000 people are unhoused, and also that job losses due to the pandemic threaten to unhouse waves of more families of color in our community.

Therefore, while federal and municipal officials have still yet to officially account for discrimination in housing in East Hollywood due to redlining and related policies, LTSC’s extremely low-income housing is what beginning to “turn the page” looks like.

Congressman Schiff, the current moment for our state and nation calls for both bravery and urgency from our leadership, most of all in regards to historic issues of racial and economic justice in the U.S.

As you can recall, Lyndon B. Johnson was the first in Washington D.C. to officially declare “war” on poverty, but could only see the work unfinished as subsequent, “reactionary,” and corporate-bound leadership jeopardized the effort to bridge the wealth gap in our country. The moment now calls for that unfinished work to be resumed with utmost haste, and so we await your affirmation of this through your urgent support for LTSC’s housing work in East Hollywood.

Sincerely, and in community, always

J.T.

Re: the New Wine Bar, Alma’s, on the Corner Where Our Neighborhood Forms a “Promise Zone”

Dear Mr. President,

I hope this note finds you well. On the subject of “returning to normal” once the majority of our cities and communities are vaccinated, I’d like to bring up an old, but recurringly fresh topic on my mind as well as that of many in my community in Los Angeles.

As you may know, for centuries, white people in the United States have had exclusive access to land by way of colonies, plantations, titles, segregation, FHA loans, redlining, zoning, credit access, the suburbs, and more.

Can you explain to us, then, how their now fraternizing over drinks in our ‘hood, which until recently was avoided by both private and federal banks for its Black and immigrant residents, is not recreating this exclusive access?

This is exactly the case at “Alma’s,” a bar recently opened underneath apartments that house Latinx families at one of the most disinvested intersections for our community through at least two decades.

The reason it’s outrageous that this bar has suddenly opened in our vicinity is because little Brown kids from our community were killed across the street from its doors, and indeed on the same block.

As our neighborhood still reels from racist disinvestment in health, housing, and educational opportunities for our families, then, the new bar acts like a vortex, vacuuming in white money away for white investors’ keep, all while a Brown reality surrounding it remains politically and socially abandoned, as it has for generations.

The census tract for the area, 191410, shows a Median Household Income of $34,000 a year, or roughly half of L.A. County’s, placing the majority of families in the area well within the federal poverty level.

On top of this, public records state that at least 20% of people living on the same tract where the bar now operates rely on food stamps to pay for meals and groceries. This is a rate second only to that of the tract right below, 191420, where 23% of residents rely on food stamps.

That’s approximately 600 people in a six block radius, not counting undocumented and/or unhoused residents, of whom in the vicinity there are many, barely getting by, as white people throw money away on lavish drinks for themselves at this establishment, which was permitted to operate after a spot-zoning ordinance by local City Council Member, Mitch O’Farrell, in 2018.

The bar is also situated directly beneath residential housing, where Latinx abuelitas and mijas have resided for decades, and is even less than 500 feet from our community’s Lockwood Elementary school. I’ve got a feeling that this wouldn’t happen in neighborhoods throughout the Pacific Palisades, Bel Air, or Malibu, so why should it happen in ours?

Due in no small part to those whiter, more exclusive neighborhoods, as of January 2021, the median price for a single-family home in L.A. County reached $650,000. This makes the tiny blocks in our neighborhood much of all we have for the foreseeable future.

Yet suddenly, in our neighborhood, liquor licenses, paid for by white patrons, are welcome? That is the definition of Planning Violence, meaning that is how inequality for some is designated and manufactured while access and rights are reserved for just a privileged few.

Walking past “Alma’s” recently, Mr. President, I could spot shame on some of the faces behind the bar’s screen, a shame betraying cowardice, as they looked back in our direction while still failing to see our humanity before returning to a fantasy world which plays more like a nightmare for those of us only in its peripherals.

Candles for Anthony, a youth and local in the neighborhood slain in October 2019 just over 300 feet from where “Alma’s” now operates.

Long-time neighbors and community members around the new bar have also witnessed yellow tape cordoning off white chalk lines, where Brown bodies fell to their deaths on the street, as well as police handcuffing and incapacitating Brown youth before hauling them into police cruisers, even during quarantine.

And so we hope you can appreciate, Mr. President, that if there’s one thing we know after these experiences:

It’s that we don’t lose Brown lives on our streets for white wine bars to take home–outside of our neighborhoods–the pay.

Alma’s” disruptive presence in our community is not equity for our kids. It’s not support for 600 neighbors on food-stamps, and it’s certainly not justice for redlined Black and immigrant families here; it’s a product of Jim Crow policies by public officials in Los Angeles who shut the door to working-class communities but line boulevards for investors.

To be sure about our neighborhood, though, Mr. President, please also note that it was designated as a “Promise Zone” under the Obama administration in 2014.


According to the fact sheet for Promise Zone neighborhoods in Los Angeles, strategies to create equity for communities in areas like ours are supposed to include (bold J.T.’s):

  • Increasing housing affordability by preserving existing affordable housing and partnering with housing developers to increase the supply of affordable new housing to prevent displacement.

  • Ensuring all youth have access to a high-quality education, and are prepared for college and careers through its Promise Neighborhoods initiative, by partnering with the Youth Policy Institute and L.A. Unified School District to expand its Full Service Community Schools model from 7 schools to all 45 Promise Zone schools by 2019.

  • Ensuring youth and adult residents have access to high-quality career and technical training opportunities that prepare them for careers in high-growth industries through partnerships with career and technical training schools and the Los Angeles Community College District.

  • Investing in transit infrastructure including bus rapid transit lines and bike lanes, and promoting transit-oriented development (TOD) that attracts new businesses and creates jobs.

  • Charging its Promise Zone Director and Advisory Board with eliminating wasteful and duplicative government programs.

Unfortunately, Mr. President, the Youth Policy Institute was shut down for embezzlement in 2019, leaving this part of our promise glaringly unfulfilled. But in addition to goals laid out by the Promise Zone we’d still like to see come to fruition, we’ve also got a simple suggestion for what our neighborhoods can use to begin creating equity here:

Federally subsidized housing and zero-interest loans for Black and immigrant communities, so we may live without the threat of displacement and banishment and open our own shops in our neighborhoods; that’s all.

In terms of “wasteful and duplicative government programs” to eliminate, yours truly personally submits that the 13th District Council Member’s office for our community has fit this profile for decades, and that it should be shut down and rebuilt for our neighborhoods in the actual interests of our Promise Zone.

J.T.

Sunset over East Hollywood, Los Angeles

REAL ESTATE SUBDIVISIONS (1949): A CASE STUDY

The following are a few passages from an article for the University of Miami Law Review in 1950, when Gary I. Salzman, a former Assistant Professor of Management at the University of Miami, provided a brief summary for a real estate book published just one year earlier, entitled REAL ESTATE SUBDIVISIONS (1949) by Stanley L. McMichael.

The excerpts are of particular interest considering that McMichael’s book came on the heels of the consequential U.S. Supreme Court decision in Shelley vs Kraemer (1948), in which the court outlawed racial deed restrictions as unconstitutional (emphasis J.T.’s):

ADAM was the first to be given possession of land, subject, however, to certain restrictions…Through the reported connivance of his co-tenant, Eve, these restrictions were broken and the first eviction occurred…Adam had been given no deed to the land and not even a one dollar consideration was on record as having been paid. Indeed, the first real estate transaction was actually a conditional lease in perpetuity, contingent upon observance of certain covenants. Violation of one of these covenants led, subsequently, to a long series of litigations, which have been responsible for more clogged legal dockets than any other phase of human behavior.” – McMichael, 1949

What immediately stands out about this passage are conflated themes of property, tenancy, gender, law, and violation of law. According to the author’s logic, these themes ground a claim that “land” and “ownership of land” based on respect for “certain covenants” or agreements, are characteristics that go back to the earliest days of humanity, as fundamental things that make humans, well, human.

McMichael’s passage conveniently forgets, however, that if such characteristics are supposed to be fundamental, and even sacred to what makes us human, then the United States as an entity was in deep and perpetual violation of their sanctity since its founding, having been grounded on Indian genocide, Afro slavery, and various other forms of oppression inspired by these acts, not to mention the U.S. government’s repeated failure to honor many of the agreements or “covenants” made with descendants of these and other groups in its constitution, bills of right, and more.

Additionally, this first passage is striking for how utterly inventive it reads, like something borrowed from the mischievous L. Ron Hubbard (whose Dianetics was published a year after Subdivisions in 1950, by the way); but the fact of the matter is that zoning, or land rules, themselves were–and remain–inventive tools by which to maintain class and racial dominance. This was true according even to real estate experts themselves at the time, as the next passage indicates.

“‘The legal aspects of restrictions are given from material by Melvin B. Ogden, member of the Los Angeles Bar, stating that private control over the development of subdivisions of land by means of ‘restrictions imposed in deeds, declarations of restrictions, agreements, and similar contracts between the subdivider and lot owners, is of comparatively recent origin.‘” – Salzman, 1950

From this second quotation, it’s certainly no surprise to learn that lawyers in Los Angeles contributed significantly to instructions for realtors nationwide on the maintenance of land as [white] property, but to see one’s actual name cited on the matter is quite the homecoming.

Yet if there’s still any doubt regarding the very, very racial elements of real estate and zoning in Los Angeles as practices by which to assert white racial dominance, let the next quote clarify for readers.

“Can a subdivider of land so restrict sales of his lots that he can prevent, legally, the occupancy of such by non-Caucasions?”

Gary I. Salzman on Stanley L. McMichael’s Subdivisions (1949)

According to Salzman, this is a question McMichael covers at length in his book, with up to eight suggestions (italics J.T.’s) “made to soften the impact of the blow that racial restrictions have received.”

That is, the utterly tragic blow to those racial restrictions delivered by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1948, when the court sought to honor the 14th amendment in the land of the free and home of the brave, which, don’t forget, had just returned from Europe and the Pacific after defeating fascists there, according to the prevailing narratives of the time.

However, it’s the final passage for this reading that is of most interest to yours truly.

“…the higher the quality of a subdivision, the more satisfactory it is to its creator and the more money can eventually be made out of it by both seller and buyer.” – McMichael, Subdivisions (1949)

After a trying month in March 2021 for hopes of a more equitable, politically informed public dialogue between realtors, city leadership, planning and communities today given L.A.’s racist showings in housing historically, this last passage from McMichael’s Subdivisions seems to be the one which continues to reverberate the most today for two reasons.

First, on March 18th, the L.A. City Planning Commission voted to adopt an utterly inadequate Hollywood Community Update Plan, declining to accept the Just Hollywood Coalition’s calls for language in the plan towards higher affordable housing requirements (as opposed to 10% “encouragements”) from developers, a Right to Return clause for tenants displaced by new building developments, and strong limitations on destroying current rent stabilized housing units in Hollywood, which are increasingly dwindling due to Ellis Act and “cash-for-keys” evictions in the area.

Many working-class and especially immigrant voices lent their time for these calls with the Planning Commission via Zoom during the public comment segment, but while commissioners nodded along and thanked callers for these inputs, their voices, time, and stories were largely ignored during the commission’s final deliberations.

Because the Hollywood Community Update Plan approved by the L.A. City Planning Commission also still designates or “zones” more than 4,500 acres of land in the Hollywood area for single-family homes, thereby allowing for only single family homes to be built on this land, it’s apparent that much of zoning’s racist legacy remains critically out of the sight of our public and private leadership, especially during their “leadering”!

Other than being a major impediment to creating new, multi-family affordable housing in the Hollywood area, single-family zoning is a legacy product of white supremacy in Los Angeles over the 20th century, which the above quotations show clearly, and remains as exclusionary in the 21st century for Black and immigrant workers, most of whom are still anchored in poverty due to wage inequality and other forms of discrimination across L.A. and the “Golden” state.

Secondly, on March 25th, Mitch O’Farrell’s lawless eviction of unhoused residents in Echo Park was another score for the owning classes in Los Angeles, a 21st century version of eminent domain, or seizure and destruction of the dispossessed and their time and resources, for the right of property values and their holders.

Remember simply that “the higher the quality of the subdivision,” as McMichael put it to his readers in 1949, the higher the sale and profit. By the same logic, the “safer” or “more secure” from adverse elements a property is, the greater its value. Of course, as in 1949, safety and security is dependent on whose safety and security we’re talking about.

In the case of Echo Park, violent removal of unhoused residents from the Lake area, predominantly Black and immigrant people, necessarily threatening their safety and security, is permissible under the current zoning or rules for the land. This is because their forced removal, however temporary, is still a boon for investors looking to cash in on Echo Park’s renewed “safety,” however temporary even that boon may be (it’s always temporary, isn’t it?).

As historic actions of the owning class in Los Angeles suggest, then, there are no rights quite like the rights of owners. And as both actions and inaction by so many of L.A.’s public officials in service of this class have shown–and continue to show–the power of property over human rights in Los Angeles today is at least as strong as it was during McMichael’s day, which was a day in which realtors everywhere sought books like Subdivisions to navigate through that “tragic blow” to racial property restrictions delivered by the U.S. Supreme Court’s decisions in Shelley vs Kraemer. But while Subdivisions guidance for realtors entailed perverse and even “conniving” analyses of “creation” stories to serve McMichael’s narrow interests as the salesman, the question is, what stories does our society now accept about property rights over human rights?

You can pray for us now, Los Angeles.

J.T.