This article is excerpted from a longer piece that was published in Poverty & Race.
The recent upsurges of both labor organizing and tenant activism came together in Los Angeles last year in a dramatic victory at the polls: In November, 58 percent of Los Angeles voters embraced a ballot measure to raise taxes on the sale of all properties valued at over $5 million. The revenue raised by the real estate transfer tax, expected to be between $600 million and $1.1 billion annually, will be used to fund new and rehabilitated affordable housing, housing assistance for vulnerable tenants, legal aid for low-income tenants (to implement a right to counsel), and tenant outreach and education.
The measure will create the largest municipal housing program—on a per-person basis—in the country. It was made possible by an unprecedented coalition of labor unions, tenants’ rights and community organizing groups, nonprofit housing developers, providers of programs for the homeless, and faith-based groups. In addition to its sophisticated grassroots voter turnout efforts, the campaign was aided by endorsements by the Los Angeles Times and the United Way, which lent the effort credibility among some skeptical voters.
LA’s Housing and Poverty Crises
Los Angeles is both a city of renters and a city of workers. Most renters are workers, and most workers are renters. Many union members are tenants whose fought-for pay raises get wiped out by even larger rent increases. This double burden—exploitation by landlords and employers—has deepened in the past decade. At the same time, however, LA renters have forged a more militant movement. Community groups organized tenants around building conditions, rent hikes, the conversion of rooming houses and other low-rent buildings to luxury apartments, and, after 2020, a moratorium on evictions during the COVID-19 pandemic. Tenants organized rent strikes and engaged in civil disobedience.
On a parallel track, LA’s labor movement began its comeback in the 1990s, helping elect liberal and pro-labor candidates to the City Council, County Board of Supervisors, state legislature, and Congress. Unions began forging alliances with community, environmental justice, and faith-based groups.
LA was among the first cities to adopt a “living wage” law (for workers whose employers received city subsidies) and, later, a citywide minimum wage law ($16.78 per hour as of July 2023). LA was ground zero for SEIU’s nationwide “justice for janitors” campaign. UNITE HERE expanded its reach in the tourism industry and got several cities, including LA, to pass laws to reduce housekeepers’ workload and protect them from sexual harassment.
Even so, LA remains a bastion of low-wage work and poverty, which is made worse by escalating rents. About 17 percent of LA’s 4 million residents fall below the official federal poverty line, but many more have incomes only slightly above that threshold. LA’s economy is highly unequal with many low-wage jobs in the manufacturing, retail, service, and informal sectors. Blacks, Latinx, and Asians disproportionately occupy those low-wage jobs.
Sixty-three percent of LA’s population rent their homes. The proportion is higher for Black (76 percent) and Latinx (70 percent) residents. Skyrocketing rents and home prices have made it almost impossible for most renters to save any money to buy a home. With a scarcity of affordable rental housing, most tenants are at the mercy of the private housing market, where rents are increasing faster than wages. About half of LA’s rental housing is regulated by LA’s rent control law, but, due to the landlord-friendly state Costa-Hawkins Act, that law includes “vacancy decontrol,” which incentivizes landlords to harass and evict tenants so they can raise rents.
Low wages and high housing costs produce homelessness: In 2020, there were 66,436 people experiencing homelessness in Los Angeles County. Of these, 41,290 were in the city of Los Angeles, a 60 percent increase since 2015. More than 70 percent of homeless people were unsheltered. About five homeless people died each day in Los Angeles County.
As things got worse, polls repeatedly showed that LA residents ranked housing and homelessness as the city’s most serious problems.
The Origins of the Coalition
In 2018, a few veteran housing activists began talking about raising taxes on LA’s booming real estate economy to help address the city’s housing crisis. The informal discussions were initiated by Denny Zane, executive director of Move LA, a nonprofit group that worked closely with unions, especially the building trades, to run successful countywide ballot measure campaigns to raise taxes to fund public transportation, environmental, and other essential services. Zane was also a longtime tenant activist, a founder of Santa Monicans for Renters Rights, and a former Santa Monica mayor.
In November 2019, Zane organized a meeting of about 40 labor, housing, and community activists, held at UNITE HERE’s office, to discuss the idea of a ballot measure campaign that could be a serious game-changer. Most of the people at that meeting agreed that such an effort was needed but were reluctant to commit their organizations’ time or resources.
As LA’s housing crisis got worse, however, the idea kept percolating.
It was clear from the beginning that no campaign could succeed without a combination of the community and tenants’ groups intimate knowledge about the housing crisis and the labor movement’s political influence, financial resources, and large membership.
Activists from different organizations don’t build coalitions simply because they agree about a problem and a solution. It also requires trust—an elusive quality that develops over time. Fortunately, over many years, many LA union and community organizers and activists, and progressive public officials, have joined forces on a range of issue campaigns and electoral fights.
The trust, respect, and personal ties that emerged from those campaigns was a key ingredient in recruiting activists and organizations to discuss and launch a bold housing campaign that became Measure ULA. It took more than a year of one-on-one conversations with leaders of the labor and housing justice groups, to move the idea forward. Getting the LA-Orange County Building Trades Council to join the conversation was a major turning point. Laura Raymond (executive director of ACT-LA) and April Verrett (president of SEIU Local 2015) served as the campaign’s co-chairs.
The COVID pandemic crashed the party in early 2020. As layoffs in many industries escalated, many unions lost members. Tenants couldn’t pay the rent and landlords began a wave of evictions. The number of homeless people swelled. COVID both exacerbated the housing crisis and increased the recognition that a bold policy was needed to forge a working alliance among housing, labor, and social service groups.
By mid-2020, a couple dozen labor, housing, religious, and social action groups began meeting every two weeks, and then weekly, to formulate a campaign that could win support from a majority of voters. The goal was to place a measure on the ballot in November 2022.
Two key changes in the legal environment made it possible to win.
First, as a result of a change to the city charter in 2015, Los Angeles voters moved mayoral, council district, and school board races to the same years as federal and state elections. And LA Mayor Eric Garcetti would not be running for reelection because of term limits, so the race for the city’s highest office would be highly contested. That, along with several other very competitive local races, guaranteed that the November 2022 municipal elections would have a high turnout, which meant proportionately more Democrats, liberals, and renters voting.
Second, a state Appellate Court decision in 2018 clarified a provision of Proposition 13—the notorious anti-tax measure approved by California voters in 1978—ruling that ballot measures to raise taxes that were initiated by voters (rather than the city council) only had to be approved by a simple majority, not two-thirds of voters.
Drafting the Ballot Measure
The drafting committee, which included representatives of tenant and community groups, unions, nonprofit housing developers, the United Way, and a few academics, met for more than a year, on Zoom, to write the ballot measure.
What could have been a divisive matter was quickly resolved. Over many years, nonprofit housing developers had opposed efforts to pass a state law, pushed by the building trades unions, requiring union labor on low-income housing developments, arguing that the thin margins on such projects made it difficult to absorb such costs. Since both groups realized that they had a stake in passing Measure ULA, however, this time was different. Chris Hannan (the newly elected head of the Los Angeles and Orange Counties Building Trades Council) and Alan Greenlee (the executive director of the Southern California Association of Nonprofit Housing, the umbrella group for the region’s affordable housing developers) quickly found a compromise involving project labor agreements.
The Measure ULA coalition also had to decide the appropriate thresholds for the tax. They wanted it to generate a lot of money, but only tax the richest property owners and high-end sales, and of course have strong appeal to voters. The advocates agreed on a formula that balanced the various goals. Under the ULA measure, sales of residential and commercial real property valued at over $5 million but less than $10 million would be subject to an additional tax at the rate of 4 percent, while sales of properties valued at $10 million or more would be subject to 5.5 percent rate. The new tax would apply to the entirety of the sale value. The thresholds would be adjusted each year based on inflation. The tax would apply to property sales occurring on or after April 1, 2023. LA’s previous transfer tax was set at 0.56 percent, so the new rate is a significant increase. The measure excluded sales made to nonprofit organizations with assets under $1 billion.
A report based on property sales in fiscal year 2021–22 revealed that during that period, only 727 houses and condos sold for more than $5 million—2.6 percent of the total homes sold in the city. The tax would also apply to apartment complexes, office buildings, shopping malls, and other properties selling for more than $5 million. The ballot measure included a provision to create an oversight commission to make sure that the funds are used the way the measure requires.
Building the Coalition
After a year of drafting the measure, the next step was to gather the over 60,000 signatures needed to place it on the ballot (they collected over 98,000), and then do the work necessary to pass it. Union members and tenant activists were deeply involved in door-knocking, phone-banking, expanding the list of endorsing organizations, and spreading the word.
Thanks to the outreach effort by the steering committee, hundreds of organizations endorsed the ULA campaign. This groundswell of support, the United Way endorsement, and the report by local academics persuaded the Los Angeles Times editorial board to endorse Measure ULA on Oct. 4, more than a month before Election Day. That validation was enormously important in broadening support among on-the-fence voters.
The key grassroots work took place between July and November. It involved an intense amount of door-knocking, phone-banking, and community meetings to make people aware of the measure and to explain how it would address the homeless crisis, help families facing eviction, and create jobs by building more affordable housing, estimated at 26,000 units over a decade.
The campaign made sure that the voices of low-income tenants and workers were featured prominently in its messaging, on mailers, and in social media. They also recruited homeowners to express their support, knowing that a decisive victory would depend on at least half of homeowners voting “yes.”
This work was guided by polls that revealed which demographic groups and neighborhoods strongly supported the measure (the goal there was to get them to vote) and which were leaning toward support but still not committed (the goal being to persuade them to support it and then vote). The poll, conducted in mid-July, found that 62 percent of registered voters supported the measure. The poll showed that renters overwhelmingly (68 percent) embraced the measure, but a significant majority of homeowners (57 percent) did, too. But the poll was conducted before the opponents began their onslaught of anti-ULA propaganda. The question facing the coalition was whether it could raise enough money and mobilize enough grassroots activists to win the battle for hearts and minds after opponents spent millions of dollars to derail the ULA campaign.
The anti-ULA effort raised close to $8 million from many of California’s largest landlords, developers, and property managers, as well as lobby groups like the California Business Roundtable, the National Association of Realtors, and the Apartment Association of Greater Los Angeles.
The two overlapping groups waging the anti-ULA campaign—Angelenos for Affordability and Angelenos Against Higher Property Taxes—used the money for television and radio advertisements, separate mailers to tenants (falsely claiming that ULA would increase their rents) and homeowners, and paid canvassers, primarily in white and Latino homeowner neighborhoods.
The ULA campaign raised $3.6 million in cash in addition to in-kind contributions. Most of the funds came from the unions. Community organizing and social justice groups also helped fill the campaign coffers with about $500,000. The United Way contributed $50,000. A handful of Hollywood celebrities weighed in, including actress Kate Capshaw, director Steven Spielberg, and director Timothy Disney, who each donated $5,000. The funds were used for ads, social media, and flyers; polling; and a skeletal staff to oversee the organizing and media work.
Nov. 8 was a good day for LA’s progressives. More than 45 percent of LA’s eligible voters cast votes—most of them by mail. That was significantly higher than in any municipal election in decades. Measure ULA won with 58 percent of the vote. The City Council districts with the highest pro-ULA vote also had the highest proportion of renters. Progressive Congresswoman Karen Bass, a former community organizer, was elected as LA’s first woman and second Black mayor with 55 percent of the vote despite being outspent by more than 10 to 1 by her deep-pocketed rival, billionaire developer Rick Caruso.
The opposition effort, bankrolled by business and real estate interests, apparently had little impact. The ULA poll in July, before the opponents launched their onslaught of anti-ULA ads and mailers, showed that 62 percent of likely voters supported the measure. In November, 58 percent of voters said “yes” to ULA.
Sore Losers with Big Money
But soon after the activists celebrated their victory, the corporate and real estate lobby groups determined to create an insurrection against what voters had supported. They gathered enough signatures to put a measure on the statewide ballot in 2024 to retroactively invalidate Measure ULA. This will require housing and labor activists to mount a statewide effort to defeat it. They also filed a lawsuit to repeal Measure ULA. The suit provided the real estate industry with an excuse to encourage wealthy property owners to sell their properties before the new law kicked in on April 1 or to delay selling their properties until the lawsuit is settled, depriving the city of the anticipated revenues for the first few months of the new law. In effect, some of LA’s wealthiest property owners went on strike against the city’s poorest and neediest residents.
The ULA activists say that they will defeat the lawsuit and that high-end property owners will then begin selling their homes, apartment complexes, and office buildings, generating the funding to implement the law. Meanwhile, the ULA coalition has stayed together, hiring a staff and working with the Bass administration to carry out the law.
Although the victory remains under threat from a lawsuit and a retroactive ballot measure to nullify it, the Measure ULA win was monumental, and the coordination between the tenant movement and the labor movement every step of the way was the key to its success.