Commoning in Los Angeles: Emergent Solidarity Economies
This essay is a part of the forum on Carving Out the Commons
Jorge Juan lives with his wife and two children in an apartment complex in the rapidly-gentrifying Westlake neighborhood of Los Angeles. A densely populated area – more than 100,000 people live in nearly three-square miles – Westlake has been the destination for immigrants from Mexico and Central America for many years. However, as the average rent for a studio increased from $1,782 to $2,600 in the neighborhood where most are renters, so has the Latinx population dropped from 74 to 68 percent from 1990 to 2015, based on the American Community Survey.
Juan’s family had their monthly rent increase from $950 to $1,350 – a 37 percent increase. Their household wasn’t alone; all tenants of the 192 units at 131, 143, and 171 South Burlington Avenue were told that their rent would increase by 25 to 40 percent. Juan told a reporter at L.A. Taco his concerns about his children who attended the elementary school across the street. “We just want them to learn and not be worried about a meal for tomorrow because all of our money is going to the rent.” The tenants started to collectively organize as a tenants association called Burlington Unidos, and decided to withhold rent until the owner addressed the inhabitable conditions plaguing the apartments: rats, roaches, bed bugs, sewage water leakage, and toxic mold. 92 tenants agreed to participate in the rent strike.
On a warm Friday evening in May 2018, members of Burlington Unidos gathered in a Craftsman house on a block lined with Jacaranda trees. Dishes of rice and beans were arranged on the kitchen table while children squirmed in their seats. About twenty adults – mostly tenants participating in the rent strike – sat on an assortment of folding chairs and benches in the living room. The tenants were gathered to learn about cooperative models where tenants purchased their buildings and converted them into tenant-controlled housing.