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Primer: Housing Health Hazards in Downtown Los Angeles

Primer: Housing Health Hazards in Downtown Los Angeles

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The National Health Journalism Fellows will take a tour of the varied landscapes of Downtown Los Angeles this afternoon. Their guides, Sandra McNeill, Executive Director of the Figueroa Corridor Community Land Trust, and Roberto Bustillo, a tenant organizer for Strategic Actions for a Just Economy (SAJE), say that the much lauded revitalization projects are exacerbating problems faced by long-time tenants in the area.

The Figueroa Corridor is home to 200,000 people, 86% who are tenants, with 74% mostly immigrant Latinos and 12% African American. It is a a part of town with a long history of racist housing laws which pushed minorities into certain neighborhoods, and home to some of the oldest housing in Los Angeles. Many apartment buildings were built in 1930 and earlier, said McNeill.

The "Live, Work, Play Downtown L.A." revitalization campaign that began in 2003 was an insult to the many people who were already living, working and playing downtown, she said. It is a diverse neighborhood, including the University of Southern California and the largest homeless population in the nation. While revitalization has brought better basic services, they are largely designed to serve wealthy families. McNeill and Bustillo are fighting displacement in the Figueroa Corridor. The revitalization project, they say, is actually a gentrification project. They are devloping leaders among the residents of the neighborhood to fight increasing rent and illegal evictions, as well as poor housing conditions.

The fellows will be visiting four families in buildings near the Staples Center and the newly developed LA Live "entertainment campus." The families live in buildings owned by Frank McHugh, who owns over 200 properties with 1655 units, housing a population of 5,000 to 8,000, according to SAJE. Over 80% properties are in Los Angeles, mostly in Pico-Union and South Los Angeles. The Los Angeles Times investigated and chronicled McHugh's "flouting and health and safety codes" in an April report. LA Weekly describes SAJE's relationship to McHugh this way:

"Los Angeles is home to about half a dozen of such richer-than-God rentiers who, occasionally, are hauled into court and, just maybe, ordered by a judge to spend a week or two in one of their own dilapidated properties. McHugh's lived a charmed legal life in that regard, although since 2006 his nemesis has been SAJE -- Strategic Actions for a Just Economy, an activist group helping low-income renters who mostly reside along the Figueroa corridor. SAJE has tried to force the city to force McHugh into making more than cosmetic repairs on his rundown properties."

To give this story national context, according to the National Center for Healthy Housing (NCHH), 5.7 million families in the United States live in substandard housing conditions. Rebecca Morley, the NCHH Executive Director, explained why healthy housing is important. She challenged that idea that housing is just in the private realm. Asthma, injuries and depression -- the costs associated with them -- are often connected back to housing concerns. Radon, for example, is a colorless, odorless gas, and the second common cause of lung cancer behind smoking. It comes up through basement or ground level slabs. Dampness and pests have been correlated with depression and anxiety.

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