This is the second article in NPQ’s series titled Owning the Economy: Stories from Latinx Communities. Coproduced with the National Association for Latino Community Asset Builders, a national network of Latinx community development groups, this series highlights community preservation, land ownership, and business development efforts in Latinx and immigrant communities across the country.
In Long Beach, CA, Latinx renters face increasing threats of gentrification and displacement. But the community is not taking these threats lying down. Rather, tenants are organizing to protect their rights and preserve their housing.
As Latinx tenant activism is rising, the community is gaining its voice, moving beyond building-by-building organizing into broader efforts, which include both policy reform and the creation of a community land trust. In all of this, community members are animated by a vision centered on ensuring long-term housing affordability for all.
An Introduction to Long Beach
Nestled between the city of Los Angeles and Orange County is Long Beach—home to over 450,000 people and the nation’s second-busiest container port. The city’s waterfront hosts numerous music festivals and conventions throughout the year and sightings of large container ships in the harbor are guaranteed.
Long Beach is among the nation’s most ethnically diverse cities. Nearly three-quarters of city residents are people of color, with the Latinx population growing the fastest. Despite being home to many culturally diverse neighborhoods, the city remains deeply segregated, a lasting effect from decades of redlining. Long Beach is a majority tenant city: approximately 60 percent of residents are renters. Latinx renters largely live in overcrowded conditions and 57 percent are rent-burdened, meaning they pay more than 30 percent of their monthly income toward rent.
At present, Latinx residents make up the largest portion of tenants in a city section known as Central Long Beach. This area is largely working class and home to several immigrant communities, including a large concentration of Cambodian refugees who were resettled in this area after fleeing the Khmer Rouge.
Central Long Beach residents are at high risk of displacement as rents continue to rise and as the city sets its sights on these neighborhoods as part of its next rezoning effort. While the city claims the goal of these changes is to facilitate the development of new affordable housing, many residents are skeptical; similar promises were made in 2012 when the city council approved the “Downtown Plan,” which has spawned luxury apartments that have attracted wealthier residents and led to massive rent hikes and displacement of working-class renters who once lived in these neighborhoods.
Stepping Up to Empower Renters
Solidarity among tenants is not limited to the buildings where they live, as tenant unions from across Long Beach support one another.
Long Beach Residents Empowered, or LiBRE, was formed in 2016 in response to common housing challenges renters face, including unjust rent increases, no-cause evictions, and unsafe living conditions. The group focuses on teaching renters about their rights, strengthening tenants’ leadership skills so they can advocate for the changes they want to see politically or in their own buildings, and exploring new ways to create and preserve affordable housing.
LiBRE’s entire staff consists of renters with firsthand experience of the issues faced by the communities they serve. Latinx tenants, primarily monolingual Spanish speakers, make up the largest proportion of the organization’s current membership.
By strengthening relationships with neighbors in their buildings, residents have formed tenant unions to advocate collectively for the changes they want for safer homes. However, solidarity among tenants is not limited to the buildings where they live, as tenant unions from across Long Beach support one another.
In January 2022, the tenant union United as One at Century Villages at Cabrillo in West Long Beach protested the lack of safety and violence at their housing community, which houses very low-income veterans, families, and seniors, many of whom have previously experienced homelessness. The protest also garnered support from the 21st Street Collective, a tenant union from Central Long Beach composed of HUD-assisted tenants who were facing harassment from their manager.
The collaboration between the tenant unions created the pressure needed to bring about change. Residents at Century Villages at Cabrillo were given a seat at the table to address ongoing safety concerns with management while the 21st Street Collective celebrated the firing of the harassing manager.
Ana Reyes, a tenant with the 21st Street Collective, has found power in sharing her experience and encouraging other tenants across the city to unionize.
“The more I talk about what happened to us in our building, the more I realize that other people are facing problems that are just as bad or even worse with their management companies,” said Reyes. “We are not alone, and we must speak up so we aren’t harassed out of our homes.”
The Value of Advocacy
“There were families who had lived in the building for over 20 years…We didn’t want to lose our neighborhood.”
Some of the issues behind tenant unions arise in response to specific bad managers or issues of safety. But there are also times when tenants organize to address policy shortfalls. One form of these are so-called “remodeling” evictions. These occur when a landlord evicts tenants, remodels the building, and then charges new tenants significantly higher rents than the previous tenants had been paying.
These types of evictions became an increasingly common way during the pandemic for landlords to increase their rental income. In the summer of 2021, tenants launched a campaign in front of Long Beach City Hall to restrict this form of eviction.
It is perhaps not surprising that tenants frequently first seek out LiBRE in times of crisis, often when eviction is imminent. Over time, many of these tenants have become leaders at the forefront of the housing justice movement. Take, for example, Antonia De León. De León first got involved with LiBRE when substantial remodeling evictions threatened to displace her neighbors from their North Long Beach apartment complex.
“It was frightening for families in our building, some with small children, to have the possibility of losing our homes weighing over our heads,” De León recalled. “There were families who had lived in the building for over 20 years whose kids, along with my own, attended the nearby schools. We didn’t want to lose our neighborhood.”
In response, tenants sought assistance from LiBRE and the Long Beach Tenants Union, a collective of grassroots housing organizers, to unionize and form the 64th Street Resistance. The resistance joined other tenant unions in filling up the seats at city council chambers and testifying about their fears of losing their homes.
After months of advocacy, tenants celebrated a major victory when the city council voted to make it more difficult for landlords to evict tenants on grounds of substantial remodeling. Most notably, these changes require landlords to provide tenants with a 90-day notice to vacate as well as relocation assistance equivalent to two months’ rent or $4,500; the state law requires just one month’s rent to be paid to tenants. Landlords also have to notify the city when evicting tenants for substantial remodeling and are subject to a fine if they violate the law.
While these protections make it harder to evict tenants, it has not stopped substantial remodeling evictions from happening. Tenants have reported how landlords have taken advantage of them—particularly those who don’t speak English as their primary language—for not being familiar with the new laws. Too often, landlords offer tenants less than what they’re entitled to in relocation assistance or offer money for tenants to self-evict as a way to avoid the need to report substantial remodeling evictions to city officials. While tenants have been actively organizing workshops to connect people with the protections available to them, they also feel pressure as affordable housing options are limited and rent prices are projected to continue increasing in the coming years.
Developing a Community Land Trust
As affordability moves further out of reach, more and more renters are being squeezed out of their homes and into historically disinvested city neighborhoods where a large majority of lower-income people of color live or are being pushed out entirely.
One of the solutions tenants are looking to in order to create and preserve affordable housing is establishing the first community land trust in Long Beach. Community land trusts, or CLTs, take land out of the speculative market on a 99-year ground lease. Stewardship of the land resides with the CLT. Rather than corporate landlords developing land into units that existing communities cannot afford, this model stabilizes neighborhoods and creates a path for residents of color and of modest incomes to become homeowners.
In January 2021, LiBRE established a study group to lay the groundwork to form the Housing for All Long Beach Community Land Trust and filed its articles of incorporation in July 2022. The vision behind the land trust is to begin to acquire property by purchasing existing apartments or mixed-use buildings in Central Long Beach to provide a way for residents to continue living and working in these communities and allow a pathway for displaced residents to return.
“A community land trust is going to be healing for so many marginalized people who have never been asked what they truly need to thrive.”
To move this effort forward, LiBRE also brought former tenant volunteer Mayra Garcia onto the staff as the community organizer for this work. Garcia became a tenant advocate after she and her family overcame an illegal eviction in retaliation for reporting a cockroach infestation. Garcia also has been a longtime advocate for families of children with disabilities and built upon the intersections of that in housing.
“My son has mobility issues that make it difficult to navigate our apartment building. Our building’s elevator would often be out of service, and we’d have to find a way to pull my son in his wheelchair up the stairs,” Garcia shared. “A community land trust brings me hope that families like mine will be able to live in a community that has accessibility in mind and builds a better way to serve neglected neighborhoods.”
Long Beach tenants are also at the table in developing the CLT. Tenant leader Antonia De León is part of this study group and toured other CLTs in Los Angeles to learn more about how the model can adapt to the needs of residents in Long Beach neighborhoods. De León is excited about the next chapter of CLT work, which aims to teach community members about the CLT model through a series of workshops and collect input on the types of housing and services residents would like built on the land.
“It’s difficult to survive as a renter in Long Beach, so we don’t often give ourselves the opportunity to dream of owning something like a home,” De León said. “A community land trust is going to be healing for so many marginalized people who have never been asked what they truly need to thrive.”
As efforts move forward to recover from the financial strains from the pandemic, which has left over 200,000 households with rent debt in Los Angeles County, Latinx residents in Long Beach are determined to create better conditions for renters than the systems in place prior to the pandemic.
De León’s vision for the future of Latinx residents in Long Beach encompasses a community where tenants have equitable opportunities to get involved in housing issues. She is conscious that leading with the word “equitable” requires intentional labor to reach people where they live, hold conversations in the languages people speak, and avoid incomprehensible jargon.
As tenant leaders organize house meetings and workshops at community centers to inform tenants of their rights and develop new models to preserve affordable housing, De León looks forward to seeing more renters advocate for stronger protections to keep people like themselves in their homes and stave off displacement.
“Si nos fortalecemos, vamos hacer algo más bonito,” De León said. “If we strengthen ourselves, we will create something more beautiful.”