April 10, 2023
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Excerpted from Poverty & Race, Volume 32, No.1 (Jan – March 2023)
The recent upsurges of both labor organizing and tenant activism came together in Los Angeles last year in a dramatic victory at the polls (Dougherty, 2022; Greenhouse, 2022). In November, 58% of Los Angeles voters embraced a ballot measure (see: https://tinyurl.com/3wssydj4) to raise taxes on the sale of all properties valued at over $5 million. The revenue raised by the real estate transfer tax, expected to be between $600 million and $1.1 billion annually, will be used to fund new and rehabilitated affordable housing, housing assistance for vulnerable tenants, legal aid for low-income tenants (to implement a “right to counsel”), and tenant outreach and education.
The measure will create the largest municipal housing program – on a per-person basis – in the country. It was made possible by an unprecedented coalition of labor unions, tenants’ rights and community organizing groups, nonprofit housing developers, providers of programs for the homeless, and faith-based groups. In addition to its sophisticated grassroots voter turnout efforts, the campaign was aided by endorsements by the Los Angeles Times and the United Way, which lent the effort credibility among some skeptical voters.
The victory took place on the same day that LA voters elected a new mayor — progressive Congresswoman Karen Bass – whose administration is now working with the activists to implement the new law. She defeated billionaire real estate developer Rick Caruso despite being outspent by more than 10 to one. Voters also elected two new progressive pro-union and pro-renter City Council members – union organizer Hugo Soto-Martinez and community organizer Eunisses Hernandez.
Despite these hopeful political trends, United to House LA (the name of the coalition that waged the campaign for Measure ULA) was hardly a slam dunk. The real estate and business industries spent almost $8 million to defeat the ballot measure, more than twice as much as the labor- community coalition spent.
LA’s Housing and Poverty Crises
Los Angeles is both a city of renters and a city of workers. Most renters are workers, and most workers are renters. This double burden – exploitation by landlords and employers – has deepened in the past decade. At the same time, however, LA renters have forged a more militant movement. Community groups organized tenants around building conditions, rent hikes, the conversion of rooming houses and other low-rent buildings to luxury apartments, and, after 2020, a moratorium on evictions during the COVID-19 pandemic. Tenants organized rent strikes and engaged in civil disobedience. But until recently, they didn’t translate their activism into electing pro-tenant candidates to the City Council or state legislature.
On a parallel track, LA’s labor movement began its comeback in the 1990s, helping elect liberal and pro-labor candidates to the City Council, County Board of Supervisors, state legislature, and Congress. Unions began forging alliances with community, environmental justice, and faith-based groups.
LA was among the first cities to adopt a “living wage” law (for workers whose employers received city subsidies) and, later, a citywide minimum wage law. LA was ground zero for the nationwide “justice for janitors” campaign, sponsored by the Service Employees International Union with broad community support. In 1999 SEIU won a union election for 75,000 low-wage home care workers in the Los Angeles area, most of them immigrant women. This was the nation’s largest single union victory since the 1930s. UNITE HERE expanded its reach in the tourism industry and got several cities, including LA, to pass laws to reduce housekeepers’ workload and protect them from sexual harassment.
Even so, LA remains a bastion of low-wage work and poverty, which is made worse by escalating rents. About 17% of LA’s four million residents fall below the official federal poverty line, but many more have incomes only slightly above that threshold. LA’s economy is highly unequal with many low-wage jobs in the manufacturing, retail, service, and informal sectors. Blacks, Latinx, and Asians disproportionately occupy those low-wage jobs.
Sixty-three percent of LA’s population rent their homes. The proportion is higher for Black (76%) and Latinx (70%) residents. Skyrocketing rents and home prices have made it almost impossible for most renters to save any money to buy a house or even a condominium. This has been exacerbated by banks’ redlining of Black and Latino neighborhoods, depriving even many middle-class families of the ability to buy a home. As a result, tenants have their back to the walls, which has triggered a new wave of activism around rents, evictions, and building conditions.
Almost all the housing built in LA during the past decade has targeted the affluent. Despite claims by developers and politicians that the construction of market-rate housing “filters down” to working class people, the reality is that it “filters up,” as nearby landlords raise rents closer to the rents in newer buildings.
The scarcity of affordable rental housing has meant that most tenants have been at the mercy of the private housing market, where rents are growing at a far faster rate than wages. About half of LA’s rental housing is regulated by LA’s rent control law, which, thanks to the landlord-friendly state Costa-Hawkins Act, is limited to ‘vacancy decontrol,” which incentivizes landlords to harass and evict tenants so they can raise rents.
To make matters worse, the supply of rental housing remains scarce due not only to under-production, but also demolition and conversion. The supply of older, more affordable rental housing has diminished over time, due in part to the state’s Ellis Act, which allows landlords of rent-regulated apartments to remove their properties from the rental market.
The most serious consequence of high housing costs is homelessness. In 2020, there were 66,436 people experiencing homelessness in Los Angeles County. 41,290 were in the city of Los Angeles, representing a 60% increase since 2015. More than 70% of homeless people were unsheltered, living outdoors (including tents and encampments) or in a vehicle. The total number of unhoused people in LA County increased by 7,500 from 2019 to 2020. About five homeless people died each day in Los Angeles County.
As things got worse, polls repeatedly showed that LA residents ranked housing and homelessness as the city’s most serious problems. For years, advocacy groups, elected officials, and candidates for public office have proposed ways to address these problems, such as changing zoning laws and streamlining bureaucratic approvals of new housing construction, and increasing tenant protections, but the crisis persisted.
The Origins of the Coalition
The campaign for Measure ULA was in response to these twin crises of housing and poverty.
The effort that led to the campaign had a long gestation period. In 2018, a few veteran housing activists began talking about identifying ways to raise taxes on LA’s booming real estate economy to help address the city’s deepening housing and homeless crisis. The informal discussions were initiated by Denny Zane, executive director of Move LA, a non-profit group with an enviable track record of working closely with organized labor, especially the building trades, to run successful countywide ballot measure campaigns to raise taxes to fund public transportation, environmental, and other essential services. Zane was also a long-time tenants right activist, a founder of Santa Monicans for Renters Rights, and a former Santa Monica mayor.
In November 2019, Zane organized a meeting of about 40 labor, housing, and community activists, held at the office of UNITE HERE, to discuss the idea of a ballot measure campaign that could be a serious game-changer. Most of the people at that meeting agreed that such an effort was needed but were reluctant to commit the organizations’ time or resources.
But as LA’s housing crisis got worse, and polls showed that most voters identified homelessness as the city’s most important problem, the idea kept percolating among activists.
It was clear from the beginning that no campaign could succeed without a combination of the community and tenants’ groups intimate knowledge and experience with the housing crisis and the labor movement’s political influence, financial resources, and large membership. Many union members are tenants whose pay raises get wiped out by even larger rent increases.
Activists from different organizations don’t build coalitions simply because they agree about a problem and a solution. It also requires trust – an elusive quality that develops over time. Fortunately, over many years, LA had a large network of organizers and activists who worked for unions, community groups, and progressive public officials who had provided mutual support on a wide range of issue campaigns and electoral fights.
The trust, respect, and personal ties that emerged from those campaigns was a key ingredient as Zane and a few others sought to recruit activists and organizations to discuss and launch a bold housing campaign that became Measure ULA. After more than a year of one-on-one conversations with leaders of the labor and housing justice groups, they had enough support to initiate regular meetings to move the idea forward. Getting the LA-Orange County Building Trades Council to join the conversation was a major turning point that made it possible to envision a winning campaign. Laura Raymond (executive director of ACT-LA) and April Verrett (president of SEIU Local 2015) served as the campaign’s co-chairs.
Just as it looked like the burgeoning effort was making headway, the COVID pandemic crashed the party in early 2020. Every group involved in the discussion had to deal with the catastrophic impact of the pandemic on their members and communities. For example, UNITE HERE Local 11 lost almost two thirds of its members as the city’s hotels and restaurants shuttered, and the union scrambled to find ways to provide these low-income workers with food, rent money, and health insurance. As layoffs in many industries escalated, tenants couldn’t pay the rent and landlords began a wave of evictions. The already large number of people without homes were joined by a swelling number of renters evicted for non-payment. Under pressure from unions, housing groups, and social agencies, LA city officials adopted a moratorium on evictions, backed up by a statewide eviction ban, and funds allocated by Congress for rent relief. COVID both exacerbated the housing crisis and increased the recognition that even after the pandemic eased, a bold policy was needed to forge a working alliance among housing, labor, and social service groups.
By mid-2020, between 15 and 25 labor, housing, religious, and social action groups, began meeting every two weeks, and then once a week, to formulate a campaign that could win support from a majority of voters. The goal was to place a measure on the ballot in November 2022.
Two key changes in the legal environment made it possible, if not inevitable, to wage a successful campaign.
First, as a result of a change to the city charter in 2015, Los Angeles voters moved mayoral, council district and school board races to even-numbered years to consolidate with federal and state elections. As a result, LA’s mayoral elections would, for the first time in 2022, take place in a June primary and a November run-off, the same day as elections for Congress, statewide officials, and the state legislature. LA Mayor Eric Garcetti would not be running for re-election because of term limits, so the race for the city’s highest office would be highly contested. That, along with several very competitive races for City Council, city attorney, and city controller, guaranteed that the November 2022 municipal elections would have a high turnout, which meant that more Democrats, liberals, and renters would go to the polls or vote by mail. Of course, it would still require a massive grassroots effort to get renters to the polls and persuade them, as well as a significant number of homeowners, to vote “yes” on Measure ULA.
Second, a state Appellate Court decision in 2018 modified a provision of Proposition 13 – the notorious anti-tax measure approved by California voters in 1978 — that required two-thirds voter approval for any new local tax. The court ruled that ballot measures to raise taxes that were initiated by voters (rather than the city council) only had to be approved by a simple majority vote. That opened the window for LA’s housing and labor activists to initiate the Measure ULA campaign.
Nuts-and-Bolts of the Campaign
The core group of the ULA coalition had three major tasks: draft the ballot measure, recruit more groups to participate in the campaign and endorse the measure, and develop a campaign strategy, which included raising money, crafting a winning message, and mobilizing voters.
Drafting the ballot measure
The drafting committee of the coalition’s initial core group – including representatives of tenant and community groups, unions, nonprofit housing developers, the United Way, and a few academics — met for more than a year, on Zoom, to write the ballot measure. The group agreed that the revenues raised by ULA would be used to build more affordable housing, provide emergency rent relief to tenants, pay for legal services to tenants facing eviction (the “right to counsel”), and pay for nonprofit groups to educate renters about their rights and responsibilities.
Every group represented in these conversations had a reason to join the coalition. UNITE HERE and other unions of low-wage workers wanted to help their members cope with their serious housing problems. So did community organizing groups, whose low-wage members faced the persistent threat of rising rents and evictions. The United Way understood that the Measure ULA provisions would help address the poverty and homelessness crises that the influential philanthropic agency had been working on for years.
What could have been a divisive matter was quickly resolved. Over many years, nonprofit housing developers had opposed efforts to pass a state law, pushed by the building trades unions, requiring union labor on low-income housing developments, arguing that the thin margins on such projects made it difficult to absorb such costs. But both groups realized that they had a stake in passing Measure ULA. The nonprofit developers wanted considerable and consistent funding to significantly expand their ability to construct affordable housing. The building trades unions wanted their members to build the new housing. Chris Hannan (the newly elected head of the Los Angeles and Orange Countries Building Trades Council) and Alan Greenlee (the executive director of the Southern California Association of Nonprofit Housing, the umbrella group for the region’s affordable housing developers) quickly found common ground on language regarding union labor, codified through project labor agreements.
The Measure ULA coalition conducted extensive research to help decide the appropriate thresholds for the tax. They wanted the tax to both generate a lot of money but only tax the richest property owners and sales. The steering committee was guided in these efforts by a poll it paid for that gauged the willingness of voters to support a tax on different kinds of properties, including single family homes, apartment buildings, and commercial office buildings and shopping malls. The crafters also had to consider the propaganda arguments that the potential opposition in the real estate industry would use to try to defeat it. They anticipated that the opponents’ fearmongering would argue that ULA would increase residential and commercial rents and stifle new construction of apartments and other buildings.
The advocates agreed on a formula that balanced the various goals. Under the ULA measure, sales of residential and commercial real property valued at over $5 million but less than $10 million would be subject to an additional tax at the rate of 4%, while sales of properties valued at $10 million or more would be subject to an additional tax at the rate of 5.5%. The new tax would apply to the entirety of the sale value. The thresholds would be adjusted each year based on inflation. The tax would apply to property sales occurring on or after April 1, 2023. LA’s previous transfer tax was set at 0.56%, so the new rate is a significant increase. The measure excluded sales made to nonprofit organizations with assets under $1 billion.
A report coauthored by several local academics, based on property sales in fiscal year 2021-22, estimated that Measure ULA would affect less than 3% of single-family home and condominium unit sales (Dreier et al., 2022). During that period, only 727 houses and condos sold for more than $5 million, which was only 2.6% of the 28,378 homes sold in the city. The tax would also apply to apartment complexes, office buildings, shopping malls, and other properties selling for more than $5 million. The ballot measure included a provision to create an oversight commission to make sure that the funds are used the way the measure requires.
Building the Coalition
After a year of drafting the measure, the next step was to gather over 60,000 signatures needed to place it on the ballot. In the end, they collected over 98,000 signatures.
Once city officials certified the signatures, the next phase of the campaign involved grassroots organizing, door-knocking, phone-banking, expanding the list of endorsing organizations, spreading the word via paid and free media, and fundraising. The core group assigned subcommittees to deal with each of these tasks. Union members and tenant activists were deeply involved in all these activities.
Thanks to the outreach effort by the steering committee hundreds of organizations endorsed the ULA campaign (see: https://unitedtohousela.com/coalition/). This groundswell of support, the United Way endorsement, and a report by local academics explaining the necessity and feasibility of the measure, persuaded the Los Angeles Times editorial board to endorse Measure ULA on October 4, more than a month before Election Day (see: https://www.latimes.com/opinion/story/2022-10-04/endorsement-yes-on-proposition-ula). That validation was enormously important. The campaign used the Times’ backing to broaden its support among on-the-fence voters.
The key grassroots work took place between July and November. It involved an intense amount of door-knocking, phone-banking, and community meetings to make people aware of the measure and to explain how it would address the homeless crisis, help families facing eviction, and create jobs by building more affordable housing, estimated at 26,000 units over a decade.
This work was guided by polls that revealed which demographic groups and neighborhoods strongly supported the measure (the goal there was to get them to vote) and which were leaning toward support but still not committed (the goal being to persuade them to support it and then vote). The poll, conducted in mid-July, found that 62% of registered voters supported the measure. Among liberals and progressives, 82% were in favor, compared with 50% of moderates and 25% of conservatives. In an overwhelmingly Democrat city, 74% of Democrats, 58% of independents, and 20% of Republicans said they would vote “yes.” The racial breakdown was somewhat surprising, with 65% of Latinos, 64% of whites, 60% of Blacks, and 57% of Asians expressing support. The poll showed that renters overwhelmingly (68%) embraced the measure, but a significant majority of homeowners (57%) did, too.
Overall, the poll showed strength among almost all groups of voters. But the poll was conducted before the opponents began their onslaught of anti-ULA propaganda. The question facing the coalition was whether it could raise enough money and mobilize enough grassroots activists to win the battle for hearts and minds after opponents spent millions of dollars to derail the ULA campaign.
The campaign made sure that the voices of low-income tenants and workers played an important role in the messaging in its mailers and social media. They also recruited homeowners to express their support, knowing that a decisive victory would depend on at least half of homeowners to vote “yes.”
The coalition activists also realized that the ULA campaign was taking place amidst a busy election season, with campaigns for mayor, city attorney, city controller, City Council, the state legislature, and Congress grabbing most of the headlines and liberal campaign donations. Early on, the coalition leaders decided to remain out of the fray in the mayoral and city council race, even though many of the groups involved in the ULA campaign had endorsed candidates. The ULA coalition emphasized that the measure was drafted by activists and service providers, not politicians. In fact, the campaign did not seek endorsements from candidates or elected officials.
The anti-ULA effort raised close to $8 million. Many of California’s largest landlords, developers and property managers – as well as lobby groups like the California Business Roundtable, the National Association of Realtors, and the Apartment Association of Greater Los Angeles — contributed to the anti-ULA campaign.
The two overlapping opposition committees waging the anti-ULA campaign — Angelenos for Affordability and Angelenos Against Higher Property Taxes – used the money on television and radio advertisements, separate mailers to tenants (falsely claiming that ULA would increase their rents) and homeowners, and paid canvassers, primarily in white and Latino homeowner neighborhoods.
The ULA campaign had to raise at least a few million dollars to have any chance of success.
The ULA campaign raised $3.6 million in cash in addition to in-kind contributions. Most of the funds came from the unions. Community organizing and social justice groups also helped fill the campaign coffers with about $500,000. The United Way contributed $50,000. This being LA, a handful of Hollywood celebrities weighed in, including actress Kate Capshaw, director Steven Spielberg, and director Timothy Disney, who each donated $5,000.
November 8 was a good day for LA’s progressives. More than 45% of LA’s eligible voters cast votes – most of them by mail. That was significantly higher than in any municipal election in decades, a result of both the hotly contested races and the new rules making it easier to vote by mail and scheduling the city elections to coincide with state and federal contests. Measure ULA won with 58% of the vote. Karen Bass was elected as LA’s first woman and second Black mayor with 55% of the vote despite being outspent by more than 10 to 1 by her deep-pocketed rival. In eight of the 15 City Council districts, the pro-ULA margin equaled or exceeded the citywide tally of 58%. The Council districts with the highest pro-ULA vote also had the highest proportion of renters.
The opposition effort, bankrolled by business and real estate interests, apparently had little impact. The ULA poll in July, before the opponents launched their onslaught of anti-ULA ads and mailers, showed that 62% of likely voters supported the measure. In November, 58% of voters said “yes” to ULA.
Sore Losers with Big Money
But soon after the activists celebrated their victory, the corporate and real estate lobby groups announced that they weren’t going to give up. They were determined to create an insurrection against what voters had supported. In February, the California Business Roundtable (CBR) and the real estate industry announced that they had gathered enough signatures – more than one million overall – to put a measure on the statewide ballot in 2024 to invalidate Measure ULA. It would do so retroactively, which many legal experts say is probably illegal.
So, while ULA coalition members are working with the Bass administration to implement their new law, they know they can’t let their guard down. They must also be planning to mount a statewide campaign to defend their victory by defeating the statewide CBR effort to overturn ULA.
In addition, in March, the Apartment Association of Greater Los Angeles, and the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, filed a lawsuit against the city and Measure ULA, arguing that the state Constitution, despite the court decisions of 2018 to the contrary, doesn’t allow ballot measure to raise taxes dedicated to a special need (such as housing) instead of the city’s general fund. Immediately, the ULA coalition joined the fight to defend the measure in court.
Meanwhile, some of LA’s wealthiest property owners and their real estate agents began scheming about how to disobey, or at least circumvent, the new law (Fleming, 2022).
Lessons: Strengthening the Labor-Housing Coalition
The time is ripe to forge a new coalition of labor unions and housing justice activists at the national, state, and local levels as has been done in Los Angeles.
Over the past century, federal investment in affordable housing was strongest when progressive housing activists were part of a broad movement for social reform that linked housing to other issues. In particular, they joined forces with the labor movement. Their bold demands were matched by political skills. Not only did they think big, they also organized well. They built movements and coalitions. In particular, “housers” hitched their ideas to the one vehicle that could effectively mobilize the political power needed to enact progressive housing legislation: organized labor.
Despite a significant decline in union membership since the 1970s – from about 25% of all workers to about 10% today – organized labor remains the largest and most influential part of the nation’s progressive movement. But as unions lost membership and clout, the labor movement put its “social” agenda (such as housing) on the back burner, trying simply to maintain membership and political influence. Part of organized labor’s recent renewal has been a growing recognition that unions tend to do better in gaining support and winning workplace elections – and do better at election pro-worker political candidates – when they address the social and community concerns of their potential members (such as healthcare, childcare, and housing) as well as their workplace problems.
In the past decade – particularly in the past few years — there’s been a resurgence of labor organizing. A new cohort of labor activists at both the national and local levels is now seeking to rekindle the “movement” spirit of activist unionism, in part by focusing on the low-wage service and manufacturing sectors, which are comprised disproportionately of women, people of color, and immigrants.
More recent union drives at Starbucks, Amazon, REI, and other visible corporations, and successful strikes at John Deere and Kellogg, among other companies, have made headlines. A recent Gallup Poll found that 71% of Americans now support unions – the highest since 1965.
Widening inequality accounts for much of this new-found activism, but so does a new attitude about work – exacerbated by the COVID pandemic – among younger workers, particularly workers of color. In fact, workers of color now account for 38% of the nation’s 13 million union members. Black workers are the most likely to be represented by unions: 13.6% are covered by a collective bargaining agreement, compared with 12.3% of white workers, 11.0% of Hispanic workers, and 10.3% of AAPI workers.
Labor unions have increasingly embraced issues of environmental justice, LGBTQ equality, and women’s rights.
Today, housing policy for working class Americans lacks a coherent and well-organized political constituency. Federal housing policy today ignores most of the poor and offers little for the near-poor and the fragile lower-middle class. In fact, the federal government spends more to help well-off homeowners than low-income renters. The biggest federal housing subsidy today is the mortgage interest deduction, a tax break that goes disproportionately to homeowners with incomes over $200,000. In addition, when homeowners sell their homes, the capital gains on the sales are excluded from federal taxes. This costs the federal government another $40 billion a year, which disproportionately benefit the wealthiest homeowners.
Organized labor clearly has a stake in progressive national housing policy. Working families need help paying the rent or buying a home. Likewise, housing and community activists have a stake in a stronger labor movement. They have many overlapping members. Renters benefit when workers have better pay, benefits, and job security. A labor-tenant political coalition could have major consequences for both groups. Tenants could be the sleeping giant in American politics, particularly in cities and in suburbs with many apartments, and where rents are rising faster than wages.
Investing resources in organizing renters can have significant payoffs for advancing social justice and electing progressive candidates. Historically, tenants vote at much lower rates than homeowners, but that gap has been shrinking (Salviati and Warnock 2022). Increasing turnout among renters could play a decisive role in “swing” elections for mayor, state legislature, governor, Congress and even president. According to an analysis by a real estate research group, “if voter turnout among renters had matched that of homeowners in the 2016 elections, Hilary Clinton would have beat former President Trump handily, and Democrats would have likely won additional seats in both the House and Senate” (Salviati, 2018).
Catherine Bauer, a leader of the Labor Housing Conference, wrote in 1933, “there would never be a real housing movement until workers and consumers organized an effective demand: that housing is a major political issue or it is nothing.”
As last year’s victory in Los Angeles demonstrates, the same is true today.
Dougherty, C. (2022). The Rent Revolution is Coming. New York Times (October 15).
Dreier, P, Ling J, Philips S., Cummings, S., Pastor, M., Rodnyansky, S., Loop, J. (2022). An Analysis of ‘Measure ULA’: A Ballot Measure to Reform Real Estate Transfer Taxes in the City of Los Angeles.
Fleming, J. L.A.’s Rich are already Scheming Ways to Avoid the New “Mansion Tax.” (2022). Los Angeles Times (December 15).
Greenhouse, S. (2022). A New Generation is Reviving Unions. The Old Guard Could Help. Los Angeles Times (May 23).
Salviati, C. (2018). Renters vs. Homeowners at the Ballot Box — Will America’s Politicians Represent the Voice of Renters? Apartment List (October 30).
Salviati. C and Warnock, R. (2022). Why the voter turnout gap between renters and homeowners may finally be narrowing. Apartment List (October 26).
Peter Dreier, Ph.D. (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the E.P. Clapp Distinguished Professor of Politics and Professor of Urban and Environmental Policy at Occidental College.