Q&A: Walt Senterfitt of the Los Angeles Tenants Union

An LA Tenants Union action in Boyle Heights. Image via LATU.

An LA Tenants Union action in Boyle Heights. Image via LATU.

Los Angeles is in the throes of a housing crisis where people are increasingly facing eviction, displacement and rising rents. The Los Angeles Tenants Union (LATU) was formed a few years ago as a grassroots response to the crisis, and has grown to be a prominent voice for tenant and housing concerns in neighborhoods throughout the city. We spoke with Walt Senterfitt, a member and organizer of LATU, about the group’s history, struggles and their cluster of actions happening this week called "Days of Rage."

GDT: First off, how is the union structured and who participates?

WS: We’re all volunteers and we have no elected leaders, so the best thing that I can tell you is that I’m a member of the LA Tenants Union and I have been a member since the beginning, two and half years ago. I am active in the policy and research team, which is a committee that supports the overall work of the union from the perspective of policy issues, tracking them, making proposals, informing people of what’s going on. We have a number of committees, such as policy, outreach, media, sustainability, language justice, etc. And I’m also a member of the Eastside local section, based in Boyle Heights.

We made decisions from the beginning that it would be a horizontal, non-hierarchical organization, that we would explicitly reject the kind of non-profit foundation or government-funded model, that we would operate on consensus based decision making. And then soon after that, we decided that having just one form of meeting and gathering in one place in LA is not realistic for our city, as big and diverse and geographically spread out it is. And so we started to grow by propagating neighborhood or regional-based local sections. Now we’re organized into seven local sections, with an eighth in the process of being organized, and hopefully there will be a continuing rollout of more sections as organizing teams come together to start them in different neighborhoods spreading across the city.

GDT: That makes sense – while gentrification is an issue city-wide, each neighborhood has issues that pertain to them more specifically. Hollywood is seeing an influx of new hotels being planned, while Boyle Heights is fighting the art galleries, and Northeast LA has its own struggles.

WS: Exactly. Different neighborhoods have specific manifestations of the crisis that are hitting them the hardest, or that people perceive as the most immediately urgent, which is why the locals are important. But we also think that it’s vital that we figure out a way to build a city-wide movement so that these neighborhood-based fights and movements, as strong as they are, are not isolated or provincialized. It’s important that we connect both in terms of our analysis but also in terms of building power to effect things, sharing experiences and best practices, and to realize that it’s not just happening in our own particular neighborhood or to our own particular ethnicity or to our own particular economic class, but that it’s a city-wide and of course state, national, and global crisis.

GDT: So at this point, how many members are there total?

WS: We have over 500 dues-paying members and over 4000 supporters in the sense that they are people who have come to an event, have signed up for a mailing list or a Facebook page to be kept informed and have shown an interest in participating.

GDT: When LATU was created, was there inspiration from other cities or did this tenants union grow organically in Los Angeles?

WS: It was specific to LA and grew out of struggles and of people putting their heads together to think what could be done to fight and resist gentrification, evictions, mass displacement, and the rising tide of totally unaffordable rents. In the process of doing that we did research on other models of tenant organizing out there, but we didn’t draw from any particular one. We started by combining people who were actively struggling in their own buildings with people who had already been fighting, particularly a group called Unión de Vecinos in Boyle Heights, who had been working already for 20 years resisting gentrification and displacement, and another group called the School of Echoes, which is an open participatory popular education process to actively study what’s happening in our communities through community engagement and reflection. Out of these different streams we came together to form the Tenants Union in July 2015.

GDT: What are some specific local governmental bodies that are involved in enabling this crisis?

WS: There are two main city entities dealing with housing, one is HCID, which stands for the Housing and Community Investment Department and then there’s HACLA, the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles, which operates public housing, section 8 subsidies and few other things.  But HCID, formerly called the LA Housing Department, is the one that’s in charge of enforcing or regulating the rent stabilization ordinance, our form rent control. They’re also in charge of inspections and monitoring of housing, whether it’s under rent control or not, for habitability and landlord abuses.  

GDT: That sounds like a city body that is in theory supposed to protect tenants. But it seems like LATU is doing a lot of that work instead of HCID.

WS: Exactly. In reality it often prioritizes protecting landlords, partly under the guise of them saying “we’re supposed to be neutral” for both tenants and landlords. But neutrality when power is unequal doesn’t actually mean neutrality. They also run workshops and things for landlords supposedly to tell them about tenants rights and housing regulations, but the workshops are often basically telling landlords how they can make more money, how they can avoid getting in trouble with tenants, essentially telling them how they can get away with exploiting us and stay legal.

GDT: So where does Days of Rage come in?

WS: This is the third year we’ve done it. The first year was a cluster of actions focused most specifically on the struggles of our founding organizations. In my own building in Los Feliz for example, we held an action that targeted our State Senator Kevin de León, trying to push him and the state legislature to repeal the Ellis Act, which allows landlords to evict tenants and under which we and many other people across the city were losing our housing. That first year we also had actions focused on the proposed hotel at the Villa Carlotta in Hollywood, a building in the Crenshaw district that had tenants who were being pushed out because the landlord didn’t want to deal with Section 8 anymore, and one of the SB complexes in Downtown whose owner was raising rents sharply because the building was not under rent control. We also had a fight in Boyle Heights for the right of return for tenants being displaced by a non-profit housing developer at 1st and Soto.

This year the theme is “Stop The Evictions." We want to challenge the narrative that it’s simply an affordable housing crisis, and particularly the analysis that it’s a problem caused simply by a housing shortage. We say the crisis that we are experiencing is one of evictions and displacement and that should simply stop, by any means necessary or by a combination of means. That government, private owners and tenants like ourselves should resist evictions for any reason because it is forcing people into the streets, forcing people away from their neighborhoods, forcing people out of the city.  

GDT: Right. And it seems like the only reason that it’s happening is because of profit-driven developers and landlords.

WS: And the city policies and state laws that support them. The Ellis Act and the Costa-Hawkins Act are two key examples of that. As well as all kinds of zoning and land use policies that promote and encourage development as the solution. And the myth that if we simply build more “affordable” units we will eventually solve our problems. But we have to ask, affordable for whom? A large number of the so-called affordable units are not affordable for the people most at risk of homelessness or actively homeless because they have minimum income requirements. We also find that affordable units that are attached to market rate or luxury developments lead to more displacement, not only onsite but indirectly by driving up land prices and rents in the whole neighborhood. So one project that might have 10 affordable units and 90 market rate units, even if that’s replacing 10 affordable units that were destroyed to build it, will lead to, indirectly but inexorably, the displacement of many more people in that neighborhood.

GDT: Tell us about some of the Days of Rage actions that are coming up.

WS: There are two actions on Friday. The one that starts at HCID is called “Passing the Ball to City Hall” and is on Friday morning, and Friday afternoon is the “Houses Not Hotels / Casas No Hoteles” action in Hollywood. We have confronted HCID for their failure to defend tenants repeatedly over the last two years or so. We’ve had public meetings with them. They wanted to have just private negotiations, we’ve said no, this needs to be public and that they need to be accountable to the tenants at large. One of their themes has been “we can’t do anymore because City Hall is the one that controls our purse strings and the regulations and laws,” but we don’t think they’re doing anything like what they could do to stand up for tenants. We’re going to roll our demands from their office down to City Hall and leave them on their doorstep as well. And we’re literally using a big ball filled with tenants demands to roll up to City Hall.

GDT: How can people get involved with LATU?

WS: People are welcome to join us, to look us up online, to come to our meetings. We have general meetings the first and third Monday of every month from 7-9pm at the United Teachers of LA headquarters at 3305 Wilshire Blvd. And then each local has its own meetings generally also twice a month and you can find out details on our website and on each local’s Facebook page. And if people can’t come to meetings, message us on Facebook, send us an email, we’ll get you plugged in. Like I said we are an all volunteer organization, so we have lots of roles. On the one hand we think that’s our power and strength that makes us different, that we aren’t beholden to a funder and that we aren’t staffed so we aren’t beholden to what the staff thinks is feasible. But on the other hand it means we have to keep training new leaders, recruiting new volunteers and keep ourselves growing.