In the fall of 2022, the prospects for renters in Los Angeles were not looking very bright. The Los Angeles City Council had voted to wind down the emergency eviction protections enacted during the COVID-19 pandemic. Thousands of tenants were behind on rent and faced losing their homes. The council itself had an uncertain future; in the upcoming election, it would either break for progressives or for a slate of incumbents, many of whom had ties to developers. Billionaire developer and former Republican Rick Caruso was spending millions of dollars of his own money in his campaign for mayor. 

Against the odds, and the deep pockets, pro-tenant candidates came out on top in several races. Longtime liberal Rep. Karen Bass defeated Caruso. Progressives beat incumbents for several council seats and the office of City Controller. And most significantly for tenants, voters approved Measure ULA, a new tax on real estate sales of $5 million or more, with the funds going to affordable housing and rent relief, plus legal counsel for tenants.

On January 20, tenants scored another monumental win. The Los Angeles City Council, on the heels of rallies, protests, public comment and outcry, approved new protections for renters. Those included universal just cause for evictions, a monetary threshold for nonpayment evictions, and relocation assistance for those displaced by rising rents. Most of these provisions went into effect at the end of the month, before the city’s COVID-19 emergency protections expired; the rest of the legislation will go into effect in mid-March. Those were finalized on by a Council vote last week. Tenants outside of the city got another reprieve when the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors extended its emergency protections another two months. Although they don’t address every issue facing tenants in Los Angeles, these wins mark major legislative victories for a group that has seldom had much political power in the city.

All of those successes came in part from a wave of tenant organizing and mobilization, taken to a new level as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. “The pandemic itself forced us all to think bigger and quicker,” said Sasha Harnden, a public policy advocate with Inner City Law Center and a member of the Keep LA Housed coalition, one of the leading groups in the fight for expanded tenant protections. The economic halt that resulted from the onset of the pandemic left many without jobs, unable to work, but still having to pay rent. 

The fight for tenants’ rights isn’t new in Los Angeles. Displacement and rising rents have been ongoing issues over the decades, with inequality and gentrification becoming major issues of contention leading into 2020. In the late 1970s, when Proposition 13 all but eliminated the property tax on landlords, whose newfound dollars failed to trickle down to renters, a tenant upsurge yielded a spate of rent controls, which were subsequently weakened by state legislation. Today, even with recent wins, the fight to give renters more power is still an uphill climb, given the resources and political connections of many landlords and developers. Tenant associations and advocacy groups have long been the outsiders in places of power. But they were never at the forefront of coalition activism in the city. The central mission of “the traditional organizing base was very much to do immigrant rights, particularly in the ‘90s and early 2000s,” said Hugo Soto-Martínez, a labor organizer and renter who was elected to represent the 13th City Council district in November.

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, however, caused a major realignment in many groups’ political focus, driven by the urgency of the situation. Activists, including groups such as the Los Angeles Tenants Union, rallied for multiple days outside Mayor Eric Garcetti’s Hancock Park mayoral mansion. They also lobbied the City Council, pushing for outright rent cancellation instead of rental assistance. They staged symbolic rent strikes, rallied outside of City Hall and brought together different groups, including those who had occupied vacant homes in East Los Angeles as well as newly motivated Angelenos who were struggling with rent after losing work. Although calls for canceling rent did not succeed, public outcry led to sweeping emergency protections, including an eviction moratorium. 


Los Angeles was already undergoing a housing disaster well before the pandemic, in which a struggling middle class and a huge low-wage working class faced rising rents, even as programs to build affordable and supportive housing were slow to take effect and much too small in scale when they did. The 2022 annual point-in-time homeless count, conducted by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, found that there were 41,980 unhoused people in the city, up from 41,290 two years earlier. 

Tenants rights organizers found themselves in a Los Angeles where every part of the city was facing growing numbers of people struggling with rent. “It had somewhat of a unifying effect,” said Soto-Martínez. “If you’re someone in the [San Fernando] Valley or the Westside or South L.A., most people relate with the lack of affordability.”

When the pandemic prompted stay-at-home orders and economic downturns, tenant associations and community groups that had been in existence for years found their issue newly at the forefront of Angelenos’ minds. Their network also grew as the racial justice protests broke out in 2020, with people taking to the streets to demand police budget cuts and investment in social services. There was an overlap between the anti-policing and pro-tenant interests. Advocacy groups that had been protesting in the spring were able to reach new audiences during the protests of the summer. Organizers worked to coordinate protests, share information over social media and build networks online. Many of the people who took to the streets also were renters dealing with affordability issues and risks of eviction. Mutual aid groups that formed out of the early months of the pandemic linked up with existing tenant rights organizations.

The pandemic also led to more digital literacy and online organizing. City Council meetings, including public comments, were taken to Zoom. Groups found themselves having to train community members in using the technology to participate. There were some benefits to the move online, members of Keep LA Housed said. The remote organizing made it easier to coordinate across the city, and made City Council meetings more accessible to the many who couldn’t make it to City Hall. With all of the groups working together as part of a coalition, each one also focused on its distinct mission, from neighborhood organizing to legal advice, according to Bill Przylucki, executive director with Ground Game LA. 

The severity of the pandemic proved a unifying element for advocates. “I’ve seen coalitions who have been able to do what we did, bring all of the pieces together—but still fail,” said Carla De Paz, director of organizational strategy for Community Power Collective, one of the Keep LA Housed member organizations. “Many times, they implode from a lack of trust, or when we start talking about different tactics, or just [due to] the nature of working in a high-stress situation.”

One of the largest tenant organizations to emerge was Keep LA Housed. Formed in 2021, it comprises several dozen local groups concerned with issues of personal debt, social justice, and housing, among other causes. The coalition set its sights on the 2022 municipal and county elections, hoping they would prompt local legislative wins. 

At the same time, landlord and real estate interests, as well as conservative movements in Los Angeles, were endeavoring to stoke a backlash against rent relief and the eviction moratorium. They built on public anger at the sight of unhoused encampments, which had led to failed attempts to recall such officials as Councilman Mike Bonin, whose district included historically liberal Venice, which had multiple such encampments. The city expanded its anti-camping ordinance, severely limiting where Los Angeles’ large number of unhoused people were legally able to put up tents. At the same time, landlord and developer interest groups were spending millions in the local elections opposing progressive candidates and proposals like Measure ULA. The California Apartment Association, for instance, spent roughly $2 million during the primaries in Los Angeles. 

There were also several notable displacements of encampments, at Venice Beach and Echo Park. At the latter, more than 170 activists who’d come out to protest the action were arrested. The displacements, however, also demonstrated a clear lack of coordination within city government: while some council district offices worked with police to carry out these sweeps, they also interfered with and undercut the outreach work of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority. Few of the people displaced ended up in long-term housing.

Then, on the cusp of the 2022 elections last October, the City Council voted to end the emergency eviction protections. Without new, permanent protections, the decision put tens of thousands of people at risk. There are 226,000 households in Los Angeles County that are behind on rent, according to the National Equity Atlas. Alongside the election campaigns, advocacy groups called on the City Council to pass a set of permanent protections to help those facing eviction and homelessness.

As organizers were working to boost voter turnout, Los Angeles was rocked in October by leaked audio tapes of three city councilmembers and the then-president of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor Ron Herrera making racist comments while discussing the city’s redistricting process in 2021. The officials—including then-City Council President Nury Martinez, District 1 Councilman Gil Cedillo and District 14 Councilman Kevin de León—also talked about redrawing district lines to limit the power of renters and their supporters in the City Council, including progressive 4th District Councilmember Nithya Raman. The audio sent ripples through the city, drawing outrage and calls for resignations Herrera and Martinez resigned in October; Cedillo stayed out of public eye and finished his term in December while de León remains in office, still the subject of protests.

The recordings also caused issues for the permanent protection effort, as some supportive votes were gone or absent and energy at City Council public comments turned to calls for resignations. Many tenant advocacy groups supported demands for the council members to resign, but with the shift in public focus to the resignation issue and the subsequent loss of members who had previously voted for some pro-tenant measures on the Council, they also were concerned about the increased legislative difficulty they might encounter in enshrining long-term protections.

Facing those challenges, tenant advocates realized there was a greater need than ever to get pro-tenant candidates into City Hall and prevent a backslide. They had already scored a victory in the June primary: activist and organizer Eunisses Hernandez had outright defeated Cedillo for the District 1 seat with more than 50 percent of the vote. She’d been supported by renter groups and tenant associations from the district, which includes Chinatown, one of the poorest neighborhoods in the city and one facing a combination of gentrification, rising rents and the end of affordable housing covenants. Efforts by the city to buy one of those buildings, Hillside Villa, to create more affordable housing had been stalled by delays. That left many in the community looking for different representation “[Hernandez] won by tenants speaking up against a powerful city councilmember,” said Annie Shaw, part of the Chinatown Community for an Equitable Development.

Hernandez’s victory turned out to be no fluke. In November, multiple pro-tenant candidates running on the left prevailed. Despite being outspent, their campaigns had a strong ground game of canvassers sharing personal stories, while social media posts called out incumbents’ ties to lobbying and developers. It helped that many of the candidates themselves were renters, or had been organizers in recent efforts for criminal justice reform. Not every progressive candidate won, but a critical mass did. Soto-Martínez defeated incumbent Mitch O’Farrell, and pro-tenant candidate Kenneth Mejia handily beat outgoing City Councilman Paul Koretz for the post of City Controller, running on a platform that called out the funding disparity between the LAPD and the city’s provision for housing and other services. 

The effect of those victories was enhanced by Bass’s win in the mayoral contest. Although not seen as particularly leftist, Bass had a more progressive approach on housing and homelessness than Caruso. And while she favored increased policing, her platform was less punitive than the developer’s and offered more proposals on housing. When the new council convened in December, with a solidly progressive block of Hernandez, Soto-Martínez and Raman, a fresh push for permanent tenant rights began. Much of the effort went into supporting motions put forward by Raman.

The resources of their office and the platform that City Hall afforded enabled these members to help build and highlight public rallies for permanent protections. There were several protests around the city, including outside City Hall in January, as well as an organized public comment campaign to push for the passage of the proposals. Soto-Martínez called it an “inside-outside” strategy, building on the trust these members had built up over the years working with different advocacy groups.


The protections that renters won were major victories, but they don’t come close to solving all of the city’s housing problems. Individual landlords are still trying to raise rents. Shaw said that landlords are looking for ways to carry out evictions. “We do realize if we hadn’t organized, we wouldn’t have gotten [the protections in January], but we could have gone further though,” she said.

The other major challenge is keeping the political momentum going to ensure wider protections across Los Angeles County. (The city of Los Angeles has 4 million people, but the rest of the county has an additional 86 cities and 6 million people.) Smaller cities have not enacted the same measures, and all across the county, neighborhoods are still dealing with gentrification and high housing costs. Shaw said that several buildings in Chinatown received 10 percent rent increases in the last month. Soto-Martínez said that much of the legal counsel and rental assistance provisions in Measure ULA still need to be implemented by the City Council.

Przyucki echoed Shaw’s concerns on realtors’ and landlords’ counter-messaging. He said he expects the fight will continue to be difficult, in part because developers and landlords have a strategy of couching their efforts in progressive terminology. 

“We won the narrative war, or we’re winning it. You can’t say ‘poor people should get another job if they can’t afford housing,’” he said. But Przylucki added that tenant advocates will have to work to challenge more sophisticated messaging from landlords going forward.

What renters have, the Inner City Law Center’s Harnden said, is their lived experiences. By contrast, he said, “money doesn’t have a story to tell.”


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