Oct 11, 2004
A woman was killed in late September when a fire broke out in a warehouse in South Los Angeles. The warehouse's second floor had been converted into dozens of tiny apartments with a common kitchen. After the fire, the Building and Safety Department found all kinds of hazards in the apartments, including faulty wiring, missing smoke detectors, unsafe window grates and un-reinforced walls, ceilings and floors.
No wonder Los Angeles has a history of such tragedies. Seventeen years ago, the Los Angeles Times conducted a survey, finding that 200,000 people were living in garages and other illegally converted structures. No one has studied the situation since, but it undoubtedly has grown much worse. With rents and real estate prices skyrocketing since then, the number of people living in such dilapidated dwellings has gone through the roof.
Officials of the Building and Safety Department say that kicking poor people out into the street is not a solution. Today, according to city officials, there are more than 20,000 families on the waiting list for public housing. Another 70,000 are on a waiting list for Section 8 housing vouchers. "If you enforced all the building codes on the books, there would be at least 500,000 people on the street tomorrow," said a UCLA law professor who specializes in housing issues.
All of this is true – but what is the answer? City officials certainly don't touch the root cause of the problem, that is, real estate speculation which has been pushing house prices and rents into the stratosphere. Nor do they propose to construct the housing that is needed. De facto, the only possibilities they leave open are for working people either to pay almost all of their income for housing or live in dilapidated, unsafe buildings – or both.
A few speculators' right to make millions comes before millions of families' right to have a decent roof over their heads. Capitalism should emblazon this on its flags – it certainly is its motto.