The hour-long closed-door meeting between Los Angeles County Federation of Labor president Ron Herrera and City Councilmembers Nury Martinez, Kevin de León, and Gil Cedillo covers a lot of nasty ground — they trade homophobic, racist, and xenophobic insults about their colleagues and constituents while strategizing about how to consolidate power by redrawing district lines. They laugh while calling a fellow councilmember’s Black son a slur and joke about how the toddler “needs a beatdown.”
In the sprawling conversation, which was secretly recorded in October 2021 while the city was embroiled in a contentious redistricting process and published earlier this week, the councilmembers also fixate on the proportion of tenants represented in each of the council’s 15 districts. “So you’re saying that’s the one to put in a blender and chop up left and right,” de León, who was also running for mayor at the time, says of progressive Councilmember Nithya Raman’s proposed district boundaries. Martinez, agreeing, says that leaving Raman’s district intact “solidifies her renters’ district and that is not a good thing for any of us.” Herrera, who before stepping down this week represented 800,000 local workers in the local AFL-CIO chapter, puts a finer point on the matter: “She wants to rile up the renters to create a base.” (Martinez resigned Wednesday; de León and Cedillo have both refused to resign despite widespread calls for them to do so.) The recording offers a vile yet not altogether surprising documentation of how elected officials carve up neighborhoods to serve their own interests. It’s also a window into how these councilmembers view renters as a potential constituency with real power. Even if many renters don’t see themselves that way — yet.
L.A.’s renters are the second-most cost-burdened in the country, with half of all households spending 50 percent or more of their monthly income on rent. One 2020 study showed that the city’s Black, Latino, and Spanish-speaking households were most likely to experience severe rent burdens, making permanent cutbacks to food and transportation spending in order to keep a roof over their heads. Stratospheric housing prices have put homeownership out of reach for all but the very wealthy, and an acute shortage of affordable apartments leaves tenants exceptionally vulnerable to displacement. And while renters account for 63 percent of occupied housing units in L.A. and represent a majority in 12 of L.A.’s 15 council districts, none of L.A.’s councilmembers are renters. (According to one estimate, a majority of them are landlords.) At the state level, where policies like rent control are passed, nearly one in four of the legislature’s members are landlords, and the California Association of Realtors, a powerful anti-renter lobbying group, is the second-largest donor to the state’s Democratic Party. What all of this amounts to is a supermajority of L.A. tenants that has very little political power.
“There’s never been a coherent tenant bloc in the city in the past,” says René Christian Moya, an organizer with the Debt Collective and the Los Angeles Tenants Union. Building that bloc — helping tenants to act collectively and see their interests as aligned — has been LATU’s project for the past seven years. During that time, its membership has grown to 11 chapters citywide. Just in the past few years, LATU members and other tenants’ groups have orchestrated major rent strikes and even persuaded the city to seize a building using eminent domain to preserve its income-restricted affordability status. The renter coalition is not limited to low-income households; it reflects a broad constituency that includes would-be upwardly mobile families that have been priced out of homeownership. The organizing is still in its early days, but Moya says it’s getting stronger: “There’s going to be a reckoning in the city about tenant issues.”
At Tuesday’s council meeting, the first since the leak, where tenants’ groups in the chambers booed until de León and Cedillo left the floor, a handful of motions were introduced that could start to bring systemic change for the city’s renters, such as a call for an independent redistricting committee (members are currently appointed by councilmembers) and a proposal to expand the number of councilmembers (right now, L.A.’s exceptionally populous districts represent 200,000 to 300,000 constituents). But those actions still leave tenants, whose fates are at the center of this crisis, unprotected, says Faizah Malik, senior staff attorney for Public Counsel and a member of the Keep LA Housed coalition: “I think we have this opportunity right now, with everything that’s come to light with the City Council, to get the additional policies we need.” Which is why Keep LA Housed is calling for a tenant bill of rights with no expiration of emergency protections to be put in place with a full investigation into the redistricting process, which California’s attorney general confirmed would happen.
A progressive, pro-tenant slate of candidates will be on the November ballot — one of whom, Eunisses Hernandez, already won her seat outright by defeating Cedillo in the primary — as well as Measure ULA which, in addition to raising more money for affordable housing, will allocate a dedicated stream of money for enforcing tenant-protection measures, something the city has never had. The arrival of new leadership, backed with funding, opens the door to negotiate for stronger tenant protections at a moment when the council has voted to repeal the pandemic provisions that are keeping many of the city’s most vulnerable renters housed (at least until February). “It does not stop with these three councilmembers,” says Sasha Harnden, a public-policy advocate at Inner City Law Center. “But I feel like there is a bright spot here. With the system gamed against us in these backroom deals and all of the money that has poured into our elections to skew them and to serve the interests of a few, this year we’ve seen some really incredible victories coming out of grassroots organizing.”
All of which, we learned this week, terrifies some of L.A.’s current councilmembers. Among her many statements issued this week, Martinez tried to defend her record by claiming the council’s work spoke for itself. Tenants would probably agree.