Posts by Author: Alejandra Molina

Street Vendors, a Fixture of City Life, Finally Legal in Los Angeles

Rosa Obando sells a bag of peanuts Friday, Nov. 30, in the Boyle Heights community in Los Angeles. (Photo by Alejandra Molina)

On the corner of Whittier Boulevard and Soto Street in Boyle Heights, Rosa Obando sets up her cart loaded with ripe avocados, water bottles, and small plastic bags filled with peanuts and dried mango. She makes about $60 a day selling the snacks, Monday through Saturday.

Next to her, Marlene Patricio sells colorful Tupperware containers in green, orange, purple, and yellow. She works flexible hours to be able to take her daughter to school.

About half a mile away at Hollenbeck Park, Jose Mijango, 66, displays plastic cups filled with diced watermelon, cucumber, and pineapple for sale.

They’re the street vendors of Los Angeles who make up an estimated $500 million industry and who, after years of advocacy and debate, will now be able to sell their goods legally in the city.

On Wednesday, Nov. 28, the Los Angeles City Council voted 14-0 to legalize street vending and impose regulations on the business.

After the vote, a dedicated group of vendors who ran a tenacious campaign for legalization erupted in cheers. “Si se pudo! Si se pudo!” they chanted.

Out on the sidewalks, vendors like Obando, may not have been aware of the shift, but they certainly welcomed the news. Obando lives with her daughter and recently decided to give street vending a try.

“I’m 84 and I’m still here because I need to,” Obando says. “What good are we if we just cross our arms and live off others?”

“We need to do something to survive,” she says.

Marlene Patricio’s display of Tupperware in Boyle Heights. (Photo by Alejandra Molina)

Street vending is a $504 million industry in Los Angeles, according to a report by Economic Roundtable. Using data from the Bureau of Street Services, the report notes that every year about 50,000 “microbusinesses” set up shop on L.A.’s sidewalks. About three-quarters of them sell merchandise such as clothing and cell phone accessories, while the others sell bacon-wrapped hot dogs, tamales, and ice cream, according to the report.

Council members had proposed ending a street-vending ban five years ago, but disagreed over where vending should be allowed. Under that proposal, vendors would have to sell at a location away from established shops. Brick-and-mortar businesses saw street vendors, who didn’t pay rent, as unfair competition.

In the wake of President Donald Trump’s election, the City Council removed criminal penalties from the city’s law banning street vending to help protect undocumented immigrants vulnerable under the new administration.

City officials earlier this year were already looking into allowing vending in the city when California Gov. Jerry Brown got ahead of them and sped up their process.

The governor in mid-September signed the Safe Sidewalk Vending Act, a law that bans criminal penalties for sidewalk vending and encourages cities to establish permit programs for vendors.

Under the law — which takes effect January — local officials across the state are forbidden from restricting where vendors do business unless it’s for “objective health, safety, or welfare concerns.” Any city regulations will have to be “in accordance with the provisions of the bill.” Vendors can also now petition the court if they were previously convicted under anti-vending laws.

Because California has not had a universal approach to street vending, cities have had their own regulations in place. Public safety issues and complaints from brick-and-mortar establishments have often resulted in anti-vending protocols, advocates say.

Now, under the city’s new rules, vendors will have to operate within a certain distance to school sites and venues like the Greek Theatre. There will also be a two-vendor-per-acre rule in city parks. Vendors will also have to acquire permits and licenses to sell their goods.

Jose Mijango sells fruit cups across Hollenbeck Park in Boyle Heights. (Photo by Alejandra Molina)

The city is expected to implement its permit system by 2020.

Sidewalk vendors had urged officials to include a permit program in the overall legalization plan. This will allow vendors to reserve specific locations.

“It allows them to have a secured space,” says Isela Gracian, president of the East LA Community Corporation, an advocacy group that has been at the forefront of the sidewalk vending legalization movement.

A review by the Leadership for Urban Renewal Network (LURN) found that eight of the 30 most populous cities in California, including Los Angeles, did not have a permit system in place. All cities had significant restrictions, the network found. Oakland was the only city that didn’t criminalize violations by street and sidewalk vendors.

Rudy Espinoza, executive director for LURN, says city officials will need to educate the vendor community about the upcoming licensing system and make sure the program is accessible, affordable and fair.

Benjamin Wood, an organizer with the Pomona Economic Opportunity Center, agrees.

Wood served has served as an advocate for Marcelina Rios, an undocumented mother who risked deportation after she was arrested for selling corn in Rancho Cucamonga — a city in San Bernardino County that already had a permit system in place.

Rios — who became as a symbol for the movement to decriminalize and legalize sidewalk vending in California — had been arrested for having multiple vending citations that turned into a misdemeanor offense, according to The Press-Enterprise.

Wood says cities should focus on achieving compliance rather than enforcement and should look at solutions that “ensure street vendors get their business licenses.”

In the city of Pomona, as city officials work toward legalize street vending, Wood says community organizers will advocate for street vendors to have a say in the crafting of any business licensing programs.

To Gracian, from the East LA Community Corporation, the new state law will be a shield from bad permit policies.

“Now if cities and jurisdictions and counties don’t do that and they keep citing per the existing laws, then they can get sued by the vendors and it’s likely that the vendors will win,” she says.

For now, Gracian and vendors are relishing in their victory.

“For those vendor leaders who have been part of the campaign from the beginning and hearing some of their colleagues or compañeros be like, ‘It’s never going to happen … [They can now say] Look, here’s our work and if we work together this is what we can achieve,” Gracian says.


A Victory for Tenants in Los Angeles County

Members of Housing is a Human Right recently celebrated the passage of temporary rent control in parts of the Los Angeles area. (Credit: Housing is a Human Right)

“Que queremos? Control de renta! Cuando lo queremos? Ahora!” (“What do we want? Rent control! When do we want it? Now!”)

Dozens of residents chanted what’s been a rallying cry for affordable housing this past year, as they took the steps of the Los Angeles County administration building just days after Proposition 10 — an initiative that would have made it easier for cities in California to enact rent control policies — failed to secure enough votes in the midterm elections.

This time residents demanded rent caps from their Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. And they got it.

On Tuesday, Nov. 13, the board approved an ordinance, on a 4-1 vote, that offers eviction protections and temporary rent caps in unincorporated areas of L.A. County. Those areas include: Hacienda Heights, South Whittier, City Terrace, East Pasadena and South Central L.A. communities like Willowbrook and Florence-Firestone.

The ordinance places six-month moratoriums on evictions without a just cause as well as on rent increases that exceed three percent. County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl said an estimated 200,000 renters would be protected by the county ordinance, according to NBC Los Angeles.

It’s a move that’s taken months of advocacy and that surfaced on the heels of the failed rent control measure in the state. Many renters are happy about the measure, but developers and others are not. To housing advocates, it proves there is momentum for more tenant protections despite the failed Proposition 10.

“It shows us we can win renter protections,” says Dagan Bayliss, a director for SAJE, a nonprofit that advocates for tenants in South Central L.A.

The temporary ordinance passed more than a year after the board approved the formation of a working group to study policies in and outside California that address rental rates and building conditions. It’s meant to “address the threat of unreasonable rent adjustments” while the county works toward a permanent ordinance.

The rent caps also work within the confines of Costa-Hawkins Rental Housing Act, a state law that forbids cities from imposing rent control on single-family homes or apartments built after 1995, among other restrictions. (Proposition 10 would have repealed that law.)

At the Nov. 13 meeting, a number of tenants advocated in favor of the rent caps, while developers and others representing apartment associations and landlords spoke against such protections.

Janet Gagnon, representing the Apartment Association of Greater Los Angeles, said the ordinance would negatively affect the “mom and pop” landlords who “don’t have deep pockets like the corporations and the Wall Street investors.”

“They’re really afraid that they’re going to lose their buildings,” Gagnon said. “They can’t foresee urgent major repairs like a leak in the roof, the heater going out, a burst pipe … They need to be able to increase the rent when these issues come up.”

Christine Rangel, with the Building Industry Association of Southern California, said the ordinance could negatively impact housing affordability. She said it would reduce the housing supply “by making rental investments uncertain and financially unfeasible for landlords … It will likely push existing rental units into condo conversions for sale instead of rent.”

Tenants at the meeting shared their stories of struggle while renting in the county.

Diana Cruz, a lifelong tenant, said her family has been living in the area of Korea Town for the past 60 years. Cruz said her family is threatened by no-cause eviction. “We are facing displacement from the neighborhood we have known and loved for so long,” Cruz said. “We are not protected under any rent control at all. I understand there are protections in place for landowners and developers. Don’t we the people of the neighborhood deserve to be protected as well?”

Blanca Duenas couldn’t fight back tears as she told supervisors how difficult it was to make a living with a low income.

“We are decent people who always pay our rent on time and unfortunately the rich always keep getting richer and the poor keep getting poorer,” Duenas said. “We lost Proposition 10, but we didn’t lose the war.”


What’s Next For Tenant Advocates After Failed Rent Control Measure

Black Women for Wellness' executive director, Janette Robinson-Flint speaks while (from left to right) Los Angeles Councilmember Robert Farrell (Ret.), LA CAN Executive Director Pete White, Church Without Walls Pastor Cue Jn-Marie, Los Angeles Urban League President Michael Lawson, AFSCME 3090 Past President Alice Goff and Assemblymember Mike Davis (Ret.) look on at the Yes on 10 campaign press conference at Vision Theater on Monday, July 20, 2018 in Los Angeles. (Jordan Strauss/AP Images for Yes on 10 campaign)

It was an unlikely scenario.

The call for affordable housing had come to Beverly Hills, where a group of mostly middle-class professionals in early October protested in front of a high-end Chinese restaurant owned by Vicky Mense, the same woman listed as a proprietor of their Silver Lake apartment complex.

“What do we want? No evictions! When do we want it? Now!” they shouted.

Protesters banged on drums, walked past luxury boutiques, and chanted “The rent is too high. Yes on 10!”

The high cost of living in Los Angeles has predominantly impacted Latinx working-class neighborhoods such as Highland Park and Boyle Heights. But it had reached white middle-class tenants in Silver Lake — a trendy community where “hipsterdom” flourished around the early 2000’s — who now found themselves protesting against monthly rent increases.

This was just one of many demonstrations taking place. In other parts of L.A., tenants were engaging in rent strikes, renters were staging faux homeless encampments to protest rent hikes, and housing advocates were showing up en masse to the homes elected officials who they felt were not addressing the issue.

Median rents in Los Angeles now stand at $1,367 for a one-bedroom apartment and $1,756 for a two-bedroom, according to a report from Apartment List.

There was enough momentum to suggest that Proposition 10, a hotly contested measure that would have made it easier for California cities to enact rent control policies, had a chance of passing in the midterm elections Nov. 6.

But it didn’t. The measure failed on a 38 to 62 margin.

“It’s devastating,” says Brent Armendinger, an organizer with the LA Tenants Union. “And yet, we’re going to keep on fighting.”

The LA Tenants Union, which heavily advocated in favor of Proposition 10, has been a main driving force in organizing tenants across the city. The organization has helped renters form tenant associations, encouraging them to post fliers on their windows to protest rent hikes and living conditions in the complexes. LA Tenants Union organizers have also pushed landowners, in some cases through rent strikes, to negotiate fair leases and demand better living conditions.

Armendinger is assisting the Silver Lake tenants. He said if their complex had been covered through the city’s rent stabilization ordinance, the Silver Lake tenants would have had basic protections against the no-cause evictions they received.

At the heart of Proposition 10, was the repeal of the Costa-Hawkins Rental Housing Act, a state law passed 23 years ago that forbids cities from imposing rent control on single-family homes or apartments built after 1995, among other restrictions.

Groups turned in enough signatures to qualify Proposition 10 in the ballot after a bill that would have repealed Costa-Hawkins failed to go through a legislative committee in January this year.

Soon after, groups like the Democratic Socialists of America - Los Angeles, canvassed the neighborhoods in favor of the proposition.

Arielle Sallai, a spokeswoman with the Los Angeles chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, says the Yes on 10 campaign was about “people versus money.”

“In a state as large as California, it’s a little hard to have the power to win against money,” Sallai says.

Millions of dollars were spent on the fight over Proposition 10. Opponents such as tax groups and apartment associations spent more than $76 million in advocating against the measure, while supporters, including the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, spent about $26 million in support of Proposition 10.

“The fact that we lost, I think just means that we didn’t have the capacity or the money to reach as many people that they did,” Sallai says.

A number of California residents were also confused about the proposition amid a rush of television ads sponsored by Proposition 10 opponents. In South Central L.A., for example, residents who were asked about the measure said they were struggling with housing costs and wanted the government to put a cap on rent, but said they were against the proposition.

The California Apartment Association, in a statement, celebrated the failed proposition that, if passed, would have “brought extreme forms of rent control back to the state.”

“The stunning margin of victory shows California voters clearly understood the negative impacts Prop 10 would have on the availability of affordable and middle-class housing in our state,” said Tom Bannon, chief executive officer of the California Apartment Association, in the statement.

Despite the loss, housing rights activists say they have energized enough people to continue to fight for affordable housing. Sallai says the Democratic Socialists of America - Los Angeles wants to push for social housing models, community land trusts and vacancy taxes.

“We will continue to be loud outside the offices of the elected officials that are doing nothing about this crisis and be as loud and vocal as we can to make sure that action happens,” Sallai says.

The LA Tenants Union in a statement said it will continue to fight against eviction and displacement and will renew its fight for reforms of the city’s housing department.

“We know the majority of Californians do support rent control, even if they did not understand — or were tricked into doubting — that Prop 10 was the first step to get it,” the LA Tenants Union said in the statement. “We have already proven so much with so little besides ourselves.”


Mapping Intersectional Feminist Resources in Los Angeles

(AP Photo/Reed Saxon)

Janelle Ketcher had recently moved to Los Angeles from Iowa and was looking to familiarize herself with her new neighborhood.

She was looking for feminist arts and community programming and found the Women’s Center for Creative Work, a feminist space in the Elysian Valley neighborhood that runs along the Los Angeles River.

There, Ketcher met other women like her, who had recently moved to L.A. “and wanted to learn about L.A.” She also learned and got involved with an effort that was already underway at the center: Angelena Atlas — an intersectional feminist mapping project of the Mapping Feminist Los Angeles working group.

Spearheaded by Leana Scott, 30, the project’s goal is to build a crowdsourced online and print map to share intersectional feminist resources, services, and events for people who identify as women across L.A. County, not just the city. The map will include organizations and events that focus on anti-racism work, improve the lives of women, and that serve low-income communities.

Los Angeles resources to be featured in the map so far include: Inquilinos Unidos, which works for tenants rights; the Coalition for Human Immigrant Rights, which advocates for immigrant rights; and the Social Justice Learning Institute.

“There are so many resources in L.A. and you don’t know how to look for them until you start looking for them,” says Ketcher, 25.

On the surface, Los Angeles County can be often be regarded as an area known for the Hollywood industry, palm trees, and beaches. L.A., however, has a more multi-layered reality. Do-it-yourself maps and atlases help feature the nuances of daily life, community organizers say.

Llano Del Rio Collective, for example, has for years created guides and maps that showcase L.A.’s cooperatives, art spaces, gardens, beekeepers, and cooking collectives. Its most recent guide, Rebel City, features grassroots organizations advocating against evictions and in support of public banking.

Robby Herbst, with Llano Del Rio Collective, has said such guides can hopefully “challenge people to see and use the city differently.”

The Mapping Feminist Los Angeles working group — which includes women who are city planners, community organizers, and visual artists — began brainstorming in 2016, and is now fundraising for web design developers to build the crowdsourced map. The working group is hoping to crowdsource more resources to feature on the map, as well as the resources to build it. A GoFundMe page went live Saturday, Sept. 22. The goal is to have the digital map live by 2019. There are also plans to print the map and distribute copies to public libraries.

Working group members also include Brittany Arceneaux, 28, a New Orleans-native working as a planner and GIS analyst at the City of Los Angeles Planning Department, building this map is about making it easier for the general public to access this type of information.

“Access to these type of things is almost like a privilege … you have to be a part of social media groups (and/or activism groups),” she says.

Arceneaux says data for the digital map will be crowdsourced and maintained by volunteers.

Yasmine Batniji, 24, is another member and an interdisciplinary artist based in Los Angeles who uses sound, video, and 3D animation, the map is a tool to help and engage with people.

“The day we get actual feedback to say, ‘Hey, you don’t have this location’ (or) ‘This isn’t the right address,’ that will be the day we’re really excited because that means someone is using the map,” Batniji says. “That’s the kind of conversation we’re looking to have.”


California Organizers Don’t Want This Kind of Bail Reform

One social justice advocate calls a bail reform bill passed in August by legislators in the Sacramento Capitol, above, a "tragedy."

In late August, Raj Jayadev and Jose Valle led a group of Bay Area residents to the California Capitol in a last-ditch effort to prevent Gov. Jerry Brown from signing a bail reform bill that is a revised version of a measure that Jayadev, Valle and many activists once supported.

The measure, known as SB 10, would “mass incarcerate our people,” Valle told a state representative after handing him a letter signed by community organizations that share Valle’s concern.

Jayadev advocated for “real bail reform,” urged the governor not to taint his legacy by signing the bill, and with the others chanted, “Veto SB 10, Veto SB 10!”

This encounter took place Aug. 23, just days after the bill, which eliminates money bail in California, passed the Assembly. It will replace a cash bail system with “risk assessment” tools. Counties will have to use computer algorithms to determine how likely it is that a person facing trial will flee before a court date or commit a crime if not held in jail.

On Aug. 28, the governor signed SB 10.

In a statement, Brown said the new law guarantees “that rich and poor alike are treated fairly” when accused of crimes.

Research shows that in California, most people held in county jails have not been sentenced and are serving time because they’re unable to pay for pretrial release. That’s why many criminal justice advocates spent two years rallying for a different version of SB 10 and helped state Sen. Bob Hertzberg, a Democrat, craft a measure.

Valle, Jayadev and other criminal justice reform organizers fear the version that’s been passed gives too much power to judges.

“It’s definitely a fake bill,” Valle says. “It’s a tragedy that it passed.”

Starting in October 2019 in California, people accused of committing low-level misdemeanors will be released within 12 hours of being booked. They won’t undergo a risk-assessment exam.

People accused of felonies and who are deemed “low risk” by the assessment test will be released. The release of those considered medium risk will depend on the courts. Offenders deemed “high risk” will see a judge at arraignment. “High-risk” defendants may await trial in jail if they’ve been convicted of a serious or violent felony in the last five years.

As big data-driven decision-making has become more popular, many critics have pointed out that computers have failed to remove racial bias — often to the detriment of marginalized communities. A ProPublica study in 2016 found that software designed for pretrial risk assessment was often inaccurate and biased against black people.

Human Rights Watch, which also opposes SB 10, says risk-assessment tools “tend to reinforce the system’s ingrained biases and lack transparency.”

“The data they use, especially arrest and conviction history is greatly skewed by racial and class bias in policing and court outcomes and social inequities,” the organization noted in an Aug. 23 statement.

American Civil Liberties Union of California officials — who supported earlier versions of the measure — in a joint statement that same day said they “welcome an end to the predatory lending practices of the for-profit bail industry,” but said the measure does not “provide sufficient due process nor adequately protect against racial biases and disparities that permeate our justice system.”

Oakland-based Essie Justice Group, a nonprofit helping women with incarcerated loved ones, has long advocated for cash bail reform but opposes what passed in Sacramento. The group released a statement that included: “In a sad twist after years of work, this bill as amended in the final days subjects nearly everyone arrested to a new system of expanded pretrial incarceration and preventative detention. People who could get out and go home today pretrial, albeit at great cost to a bail bondsman, would have to stay incarcerated the moment this bill goes into effect.”

Some Democratic lawmakers, however, see this bill as a crucial first step.

Assembly Member Reggie Jones-Sawyer, as quoted in KQED, said the Legislature will have to revisit the issue next year.

“We are going to have to come at it again and again … until we get the system that we want … until we build a system that is equitable and provides justice for all,” he told KQED.

Assembly Member Shirley Weber called the bill a giant step forward, according to KQED.

“It requires courage sometimes to step forward and not just make that change, but work to make that change right,” she said.

For Valle and Jayadev, who are part of Silicon Valley Debug, a San Jose-based organization that helps families with incarcerated loved ones, the bill’s passage is bad news for the people they serve.

Their organization often helps families who go to them when their loved ones are arrested.

Valle says he helps families navigate the court system by encouraging them to do more than just depend on their attorneys. He helps them understand the court process and penal codes. He guides them through testimonies and evidence. He helps them create biography packets for incarcerated people because it “humanizes them,” he says.

“Money bail is an issue, but we can’t replace the bail industry with the prison industry,” he says. “[Bail companies] are only businesses that were able to capitalize off of the enemy, and I think the enemy is injustice in our courts, in our policy and laws, and in bail.”


Would You Tax Twitter to Help Address a Housing and Homelessness Crisis?

The rooftop lounge at Twitter's San Francisco headquarters. (Photo by Oscar Perry Abello)

To Joe Wilson, who runs the San Francisco homeless outreach service Hospitality House, having the city commit itself to a source of funding to address homelessness can go a long way. Wilson, who in the past sought shelter from Hospitality House himself, says residents have a “collective responsibility to improve the quality of life for everyone in the city.”

“If it takes devoting some additional resources to do that, to tackle both income inequality and housing affordability, it’s in everyone’s best interest to do that,” Wilson says.

In San Francisco, a city that has been referred to as a metaphor for income inequality in America, tens of thousands of residents have joined Wilson to push for a measure that would direct millions of dollars toward housing and mental health services through a tax on businesses that make more than $50 million annually.

The measure— known as “Our City, Our Home” — gathered enough signatures in July to qualify for the November ballot. Advocates estimate it could bring up to $300 million for homelessness prevention and the city’s affordable housing programs through the annual gross receipts tax they’re proposing.

A similar measure passed city council in Seattle earlier this year, after much controversy. A month later, bowing to pressure from business groups, the city council repealed the measure. Voters never got the chance to weigh-in at the ballot box.

But Seattle’s failed attempt to make big businesses pay for affordable housing quickly inspired others to consider doing the same, including cities in Silicon Valley. Cupertino, home of Apple, ended up shelving its proposal until at least 2020. Mountain View, home to Google, did end up putting its measure on the ballot for this fall.

In San Francisco, the Coalition on Homelessness helped craft “Our City, Our Home” by working with community organizations and people who have experienced homelessness.

“It’s really a holistic and comprehensive measure that attacks the homelessness crisis at many different angles,” says Sam Lew, policy director for the Coalition on Homelessness.

Under the measure, at least 50 percent of the funds would go toward housing families, youths, and adults. It would pay for subsidies of about 4,000 units of housing. The rest of the money would go toward public health for street-based care of those with mental illness. Funds would also be directed to families needing temporary subsidies to stay in their homes. Money would also be used to add new shelter beds.

Enthusiasm for this initiative is high, according to Lew. Volunteers and community organizers helped gather 28,000 signatures for the measure, more than 18,000 than they actually needed.

“I think that’s very reflective of how excited and ready San Franciscans are to have a measure like this on the ballot,” Lew says.

Not everyone is on board with the proposed new tax on large businesses.

According to The San Francisco Chronicle, the Office of Economic and Workforce Development sent a memo to the mayor’s office, expressing concern that the tax would disproportionately impact employees in mid-level jobs.

“There is a limit on how high taxes can go before you decide to go to Oakland, where the taxes are much, much lower,” said Jim Lazarus, senior vice president of public policy for the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, according to the Chronicle.

Lazarus told the Chronicle there are companies in the city that pay more San Francisco tax than they pay in other states. Some businesses that could be impacted by the measure would be grocery stores like Safeway and Whole Foods, he said, according to the Chronicle.

Interestingly, the proposed measure would affect some companies that are already receiving a tax break from the city for locating in the Tenderloin, a neighborhood next to downtown San Francisco that the city is actively seeking to re-develop. The Tenderloin has had a history of being home to a large concentration of homeless individuals as well as a concentration of affordable housing. Companies that receive the tax break must also sign a community benefits agreement with the city. Twitter is one of the companies receiving the tax break. As Next City reported previously, the Tenderloin tax break has brought some benefits to the neighborhood, but at the cost of tens of millions of dollars in foregone city tax revenues and counting.

So far, over a hundred community groups, nearly 30 public officials, and nine businesses in San Francisco have endorsed “Our City, Our Home.”


Sparking a Mini-Movement of Worker Cooperatives in Southeast L.A.

(Credit: COOP LA)

Kateri Gutierrez yearned for her hometown in Southeast Los Angeles County. The region is made up of working-class cities like Lynwood, South Gate, Bell, and Maywood, which have become known as gateway cities for immigrants to the United States.

While Southeast L.A. has been mired by city government corruption scandals and life-threatening pollution amid train yards, manufacturing, and battery recycling plants, the region is also defined by community perseverance. To address the lack of art spaces in the area, one substitute teacher hosted popular open mic nights in his parents’ garage. Earlier this summer, thousands of people flocked to Lynwood for the first SELA Arts Festival that featured Chicanx performers, local vendors, and artists along the LA River.

Born and raised in Lynwood, Gutierrez left for the University of California Berkeley after high school and immersed herself in business and consumer courses. She gained corporate experience working for Disneyland and top accounting firms. Eventually, she left the corporate world to move back home.

Gutierrez was determined to spur economic change and, to that end, decided that her neighborhood needed more community-minded businesses in which workers shared management and ownership — in other words, it needed more worker cooperatives.

So, taking her experience in running a business, she helped open Collective Avenue Coffee, a pop-up coffee shop in Lynwood that, within three years of existence, has helped spark a mini-movement of worker cooperatives in Southeast L.A. The coffee shop will soon be one of four worker cooperatives that will co-locate in COOP LA — a venture that workers say could be the first commercial space in California to be comprised only of worker cooperatives.

“We’re going to revamp small business development, not from outsiders, but by strengthening existing communities,” Gutierrez says. “We’re not keeping the community separate … We’re including them as part of the process.”

COOP LA will include Collective Avenue Coffee, De La Luna Catering, Salazar Landscaping, and Semillas Wellness. Worker-owners of these businesses knew of one another from pop-up events around town and began meeting in hopes of finding a space where they could all pitch in for rent. The COOP LA space became available after the landlord sought Collective Avenue to complement an already-established bakery by serving and selling coffee. The landlord later agreed to lease the space to the four businesses, Gutierrez says. COOP LA is also hoping to raise $15,000 by Sept. 7 through a GoFundMe page to help cover plumbing and other build-out expenses and to help cover costs of community workshops and events.

“We’re all very community-minded in our business structure,” Gutierrez says. “No matter the industry.”

Across the United States, there are nearly 360 estimated small businesses that are worker cooperatives, according to the Democracy at Work Institute, a nonprofit that supports worker co-ops. The typical worker cooperative employs nine workers who make nearly $16 an hour and work 30 hours a week, the Institute says. The Institute found that cooperatives show a workforce that is 63 percent people of color.

Worker cooperatives appear to be increasing across the U.S., but L.A. lags other cities with only four such businesses reported in 2016, compared to 50 in San Francisco, the Democracy at Work Institute says. And, as Next City previously reported, New York City saw 36 new worker cooperatives launched in 2017 alone.

Gutierrez says she would sometimes drive up to the Bay Area to research cooperative models. She knew she wanted a worker-owned coffee shop “that the community can call its own.” She figured she’d take care of the business side of things and find a partner who would focus on the coffee. Gutierrez, along with Jonathan Robles, also from Lynwood, have been operating Collective Avenue Coffee out of a community center concession stand.

Southeast L.A. is hungry for the kind of businesses COOP LA will be housing, such as vegan food options and wellness services, Gutierrez says.

Growing up in South Gate, Lisa Luna, 27, is all too familiar with the abundance of car dealerships and abandoned spaces in disrepair that have left her feeling “incredibly vulnerable to judgment and gentrification.”

“It needs a familiar touch,” says Luna, who grew up in South Gate near the location of COOP LA, and also plans to offer writing workshops in the space after it opens.

Erik Rodas, 30, is the chef at De La Luna Catering. Raised in a working-class family, Rodas wanted to start a business “that would give opportunity to other people.”

According to Rodas, chefs in the restaurant industry are notorious for not giving credit to other workers.

“It’s not equal pay. It’s very hierarchical,” he says. “I didn’t want that for a business.”

De La Luna Catering has three workers, including Rodas. Everyone has a say on important decisions surrounding the food they cook, the money they make, and the events they participate in.

Rodas is looking forward to providing healthy “grab-and-go” food options to complement the coffee shop.

He sees COOP LA as an active way to resist gentrification.

“There’s a lot of anti-gentrification movements but … they don’t provide any alternatives,” says Rodas. “We just see this as an opportunity to hold space.”


This Fast Growing City Has Major Concerns about New Investor Tax Break

The Texas Capitol and downtown buildings fade into the fog in Austin, Texas. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

A new federal tax break encouraging investment in poor communities has some Austin officials and residents worried about potential development that could price out the very residents it’s claiming to help.

Mark Rogers, who builds affordable housing through Guadalupe Neighborhood Development Corporation, says some residents “are sick and tired of all the investment … making things less affordable.”

Now, more investment could be pouring into the city.

Tucked into last year’s tax overhaul bill is a provision that offers capital gains tax breaks to investors in exchange for investing in poor neighborhoods across the United States. Under this program, governors designated a limited number of low-income census tracts in their states as “opportunity zones,” where investments eligible for tax incentives would take place. Although the idea for the program had been floating around for several years, the tax break’s inclusion in the tax reform bill was a surprise to many, igniting a scramble to understand what it is and how would it be regulated by various agencies including the Internal Revenue Service.

Projects that opportunity zone investment can finance are broad, according to the nonprofit Urban Institute. Through “opportunity funds,” vehicles created under the law to channel investment into opportunity zones, opportunity zone investors can finance commercial and industrial real estate, housing, infrastructure, and existing or start-up businesses, the Urban Institute says.

Texas Governor Greg Abbott submitted and designated 628 census tracts in 145 counties as opportunity zones, according to a city report. Twenty-one of those tracts are in Austin, including four the city submitted. Public and private entities could provide nominations to the governor.

The program has not yet provided guidelines requiring investors to consult and work with local officials and residents, the city says. That worries city leaders, who, despite concerns, nominated the four Austin census tracts to be considered as opportunity zones.

“[The program] could lead to supporting businesses that aren’t really assets in our community,” says Christine Maguire, the city’s redevelopment division manager. “Often, it’s not a lack of capital. It’s the lack of the right kinds of capital in fast-growing areas like Austin.”

In Austin, a city that has twice been deemed by Forbes as “America’s Fastest Growing City,” hundreds of residents have reportedly faced displacement threats because of redevelopment plans. As Next City previously reported, Austin recently became part of the initial cohort of the “All-In-Cities Anti-Displacement Network.

In a June 2018 letter to the Internal Revenue Service, the city urged the agency to craft regulations requiring investors to work with local stakeholders.

“As it stands, the City fears that these local stakeholders will not necessarily have an opportunity to work with Opportunity Fund investors, fail to meet local needs and priorities and could possibly exacerbate existing problems or impose hardship on the communities the legislation is intended to help,” the letter reads.

The letter also notes how the city’s recent growth has disproportionately impacted low-and-moderate-income people, “the very people Opportunity Zones are meant to help.”

Maguire says the city is hopeful that national advocates will be able to positively influence the way the new program is handled.

Rogers is less optimistic.

“Those folks that want to make money will feel like they’re doing a good thing by eliminating vacant land … and bringing in better-paying jobs, and the people who are there will get washed away in the tidal wave,” Rogers says.

To Rogers, the best solution is simply not to have opportunity zones in Austin.

Such development projects, “need to be done with the existing population,” he says. “I do not see these opportunity zones doing that.”


This Inland Empire Community Says Enough with the Warehouses

A 2012 Amazon warehouse opening in San Bernardino, Calif. (Eric Reed/AP Images for Amazon)

Nearly 10 years ago, Carmen and Enrique Jaime decided to sell move from their Los Angeles County home and move 50 miles east to Bloomington, an unincorporated area in California’s Inland Empire that offered spacious homes, panoramic views of the mountains, and enough tranquility to spend their retiring years.

“We were attracted to the everyday life (of Bloomington) … large terrains and access to the mountains,” says Enrique Jaime, 74. “The tranquility here is not something you find in other places.”

Now, that ideal life is under threat.

The San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors on Aug. 21 will vote on a plan that would rezone 17 acres of land from residential to industrial in order to make way for a 344,000 square-foot warehouse. It would be about half a mile away from the Jaimes and their neighbors. The county planning commission, in a unanimous vote, already approved the project in June.

The proposed facility is described as a “high cube” warehouse, which means it would have a ceiling height of 24 feet or more and would be primarily used to store goods prior to distribution to retail locations or other warehouses. It would be built near Bloomington High School.

It’s not the only such facility in Bloomington. Last May, county supervisors approved a nearly 680,000-square foot warehouse not far from an elementary school.

“It’s becoming chaos,” Jaime says.

“What are we going to leave our kids? A house surrounded by warehouses?” Jaime adds. “This is affecting our children, too.”

Bloomington has been referred to as a type of place where residents ride their horses. About 24,000 people call this area home and roughly 84 percent of residents are Latino, according to 2017 estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau. The median household income between 2012 and 2016 was about $49,200, according to census bureau estimates.

Residents in Bloomington worry this project would bring additional pollution, traffic, and noise. But county officials see this project as a profit-making source for the local economy.

Nearly 300 jobs are expected to be created by this facility, according to a county report. County officials say this project will generate additional tax revenues, including an estimated $5.9 million in property tax by 2029. Additionally, county officials say the developer, would annually contribute $30,000 toward road maintenance and other enhancements for the Bloomington community.

As an unincorporated area, Bloomington has no Mayor, city council, or planning commission of its own to whom residents can plead their case. Unincorporated areas can make for some interesting political situations, like those in East Los Angeles.

To Jaime, it’s hard to separate this issue from race. He’s seen residents with respiratory issues in tears, urging county supervisors to ban this project that they fear would affect their health due to the pollution the additional trailers would bring to their community. But despite being the largest county by land area in the lower-48 states, San Bernardino’s Board of Supervisors has only five members, and only one is Latinx. (There is also one Native American currently elected to the board, the first ever.) The Latinx member, Supervisor Josie Gonzales, voted to approve the other 680,000-square-foot warehouse, although two of her fellow supervisors opposed it.

“Because we are Latino, they think we don’t have any rights,” Jaime says. “They want to build warehouses because they want to make money.”

Carmen and Enrique Jaime. (Photo by Alejandra Molina)

The Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice began advocating against the 344,000 square-foot warehouse about two years ago when residents went to the organization for help.

“We decided that it was of high importance for us to push against this project and hopefully begin to set a tone for local elected officials as well as developers, so they don’t think that coming into communities of the Inland Empire would be easy when it came to develop projects of this magnitude,” says Ericka Flores, an organizer with the Center of Community Action and Environmental Justice.

Flores says this kind of warehouse would only add to the “disastrous air quality that we already have in the Inland Empire.”

San Bernardino and Riverside counties, parts of which make up the Inland Empire, ranked as the top two of 25 counties most ozone-polluted counties where people are at risk, according to the American Lung Association State of the Air 2018 report. Often synonymous with “smog,” ozone is harmful to breathe because it aggressively attacks lung tissue, the American Lung Association says. Children, elders, and people with asthma are most at risk.

“Residents are fully aware, educated, and informed [of] the health impacts,” Flores says.

County officials in their report said the projected daily and yearly emissions generated by the land use change will meet regional air quality requirements.

Flores says organizers are not anti-development or are trying to ban warehouses, which are part of a growing e-commerce economy.

“The issue with this is the irresponsible placement of these industrial facilities so close to homes, schools, and community hubs,” she says. “If this warehouse were to be somewhere else … away from community, we would not be as tormented and appalled by this.”


What It’s Like to Open a Locally-Owned Coffeeshop in Compton

Patria opened in May. (Photo courtesy of Geoffrey Martinez)

It’s not so unusual for tourists to flock to Compton to get a glimpse of the hip-hop culture with which the city is still largely associated.

Not long ago, Geoffrey Martinez, 39, of Compton, came across two tourists visiting from the Netherlands who wanted to see the city they knew from references in the Grand Theft Auto video game.

They wound up at the independent coffee house that Martinez recently opened in Compton.

“When they were there, they were shocked,” says Martinez. “This is not what we thought we would see,’” he envisions them thinking.

Martinez opened Patria — which in English translates to “homeland” — in May, after years of roasting coffee from his Compton garage. It’s thought to be the first independent coffee house in the city. Martinez says he would often have to drive out of Compton for a decent coffeehouse experience and would think, “Why can’t we have one in our city?”

“I waited years for someone to do it and I realized no one was doing it,” he says.

“It becomes a quality of life (issue) where we lack destinations or communal spaces where we could walk or ride our bicycles to,” he says.

Martinez already had a location in mind — a 950-square-foot space he would often pass by on his way to work. It’s in a small shopping strip on Alameda Street, next to a hair salon and near a park. Martinez liked that it was close to homes and green spaces.

He created a crowdfunding page on Indiegogo and raised more than $14,000 to help open up shop. He also took out small business loans, received private donations, and used earnings from selling the coffee he would roast. It cost him about $75,000 to open the coffee shop, which included getting plumbing and electrical work done along with other necessary permits.

Opening the coffeehouse in Compton was a process, Martinez says.

The space never had a certificate of occupancy, Martinez says. He had to make the necessary improvements to bring it up to certain building codes and California energy efficiency standards.

Martinez envisioned getting local contractors who would hire employees typically shut out of the labor market. It was tougher than he thought. He found there was a shortage of licensed contractors in the city, and other contractors he sought from other cities wouldn’t follow through once learning the project was taking place in Compton.

“There’s a stigma,” he says.

About three months in, Patria has six employees. Martinez says he was intentional about hiring people of color. Most of the people who walk into Patria are from the community or nearby cities, he says.

“I wanted to hire people who look like us in the community,” Martinez explains.

Martinez also started an apprenticeship type program teaching baristas how to operate an espresso machine and other techniques. To Martinez, it’s important that the people of Compton get a quality cup of coffee.

“That’s part of giving people a service with dignity, not just treating them nicely but bringing quality product,” he says.

Martinez, who was born in Los Angeles, spent his childhood living in his mother’s native Guatemala. His single mother, who in the 1970s emigrated from Guatemala to the U.S., had Martinez and his younger brother live with his grandmother for some time. They eventually reunited with their mother in the U.S. once she became a legal permanent resident, after being granted amnesty under the 1986 immigration reform legislation.

They settled in South Los Angeles, with Martinez living in different cities across L.A. as an adult before buying a home in Compton in 2010, after he got married.

It was his childhood in the rural coastal region of Escuintla that Martinez learned about coffee in its fruit form while playing at his best friend’s backyard in Guatemala. He remembers how important freshwater sources were for the campesinos (farmers) and their families who live in the countryside where coffee is grown.

That’s why Martinez and his shop specialize in serving organic coffee. He gets their coffee from a distributor in Oakland.

“Organic coffee is harder to source,” he says. “I feel that it’s in line with some of the values we’re trying to practice.”

To Martinez, the coffeehouse is not meant to be a profit-making source. He says he breaks even operating Patria. His source of income comes from the coffee he roasts and sells.

Instead, Martinez says, he wants to facilitate community enrichment. Patria recently raised money for a nonprofit helping the people of Guatemala after a deadly volcano explosion. Students and professors from nearly public colleges are among his customer base. Martinez is also seeking to make connections with artists and authors.

But there are also people in the city falling on hard times, living out of their cars in parking lots. If they come into Patria, they can use their restroom, get a cup of water or ice, or even coffee if they have extra, Martinez says. He also keeps coffee drink prices affordable, between $2.30 and $4.50.

“We try to treat everyone with the same respect no matter age, appearance … That’s one of our values to treat everyone with dignity,” he says.


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