On May Day: Building Housing and Economic Stability for Workers in South Los Angeles

I’m writing this on May Day and, like every other day, too many working families in south Los Angeles are spending up to 50 percent of their earnings on housing. This amount compares poorly to a recommended maximum expenditure of 30 percent of income on housing. Stable, affordable housing requires a community-based strategy for job training, livable wage employment, and economic development. It also means addressing racialized inequities.

During an off-site visit Monday, conference participants learned about Esperanza Community Housing. Founded in the late 1980s, Esperanza is a neighborhood-based community development agency. Along with providing 165 units of permanent, affordable housing, it organizes local residents around critical health concerns.

Just as important, the organization has helped to create the vibrant Mercado La Paloma, where local food and craft vendors are able to establish and grow their microenterprises. A number of cafes at the Mercado have become destinations in their own right. It’s not only good for the merchants, but it’s good for the community.

Esperanza has done a remarkable job of integrating asset building and policy advocacy while maintaining a holistic focus on community. Such an integrated approach is applicable to all areas of the country that are experiencing demographic shifts powered, in part, by immigration.

One of the issues confronting residents in south Los Angeles is illegal eviction. Esperanza is paying attention to this problem. When tenants (or family members) are undocumented, have limited English proficiency, or are in low-wage jobs (housekeepers or groundskeepers), it’s difficult for them to protect themselves against an illegal eviction. In these frightening and stressful situations, tenants may not know they have legal rights.

Organizations like Esperanza collaborate with their peers to make sure immigrants and low-wage workers know their rights and are not taken advantage of. They are contributing to policy efforts that strengthen workplace protections, ensure landlords honor their obligations, and help improve the overall health of the neighborhood.

The vision for neighborhoods throughout south Los Angeles is a compelling one: It’s about communities where people go to work, make a livable wage, are treated respectfully, and then return at the end of the day to a safe, healthy neighborhood. Grantmakers across the country who are tackling thorny issues share this vision.

The good news this May Day is that Esperanza Community Housing is making real progress toward an even stronger south Los Angeles.

William Vesneski is director of evaluation, planning and research at The Paul G. Allen Family Foundation.

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