How did LA’s public housing become privatized? New series finds out

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An aerial view shows historic public housing projects in Watts, California. Photo by Shutterstock.

In the 1940s and 50s, public housing enjoyed enormous popular support in Los Angeles, as thousands of units were built to quell a housing crisis spurred by veterans returning from the war. 

But within a few years, that construction came to a complete halt. By the 80s and 90s, many of the public projects started to get slated for demolition and ultimately handed over to private developers. 

What triggered this housing policy about-face? And how did it impact the many Angelenos living in these developments? Those questions are at the heart of “LA’s War on Public Housing,” a new series from the community journalism site KNOCK LA. 

Author Jacob Woocher, an eviction defense lawyer and organizer for the Los Angeles Tenants Union (LATU), says the goal of the series was to fill a gap in the history of housing in LA.

“For me, public housing is a very important policy to consider for this housing crisis that we're in,” says Woocher. “But when you go and try to figure out what's going on with public housing in Los Angeles recently, it's very hard to find information.” 

Woocher’s research examines the way rhetoric shifted around public housing in the 80s and 90s, as law enforcement and public officials launched a crackdown on crime that targeted areas where low-income Angelenos lived — particularly public housing developments. 

“Tied up with the war on gangs, the war on drugs, the war on crime — really the rise of what we now would call mass incarceration — you also get this war on public housing,” he says. “The leaders of the city, the LA Times, different real estate interests start really demonizing LA's public housing as the source of all the problems in the city.”

Eventually, local officials began proposing plans to sell off public housing developments like Jordan Downs in Watts and Pico-Aliso in Boyle Heights to private developers, as a way to “revitalize” these communities and raise property values. 

But while this tactic may have been beneficial for property owners, it often led to the displacement of low-income tenants who were living in or near these units. 

“That's why I describe some of this as a class war,” says Woocher. “The rich people are generally winning, and the poor people are losing. … The propertied class wants public housing to be redeveloped. … But the poor people who live there, and who live nearby, and who are just going to see rent increases with rising property values, it's not so good for them.”

In the series, Woocher documents the many cases where tenants resisted that displacement by organizing to stay in their homes.

“Throughout this history, you see that when tenants’ homes are threatened by privatization, they fight back against that,” he says. “I think this is a really important lesson because there's this very common narrative that public housing was a failure, that public housing didn't work, that they were miserable places to live. And I don't think that narrative holds water, when you look at the fact that tenants have fought to protect their homes.” 

These days, much of LA’s original public housing stock has either been replaced with privately-owned “affordable” housing, or is currently in the process of such a transition. Woocher says this type of housing often serves a higher income demographic, and might not offer tenants the long-term stability that housing removed from the private market can.

He says he doesn’t expect to see any new public housing built soon, but hopes perspectives are at least shifting.

“As we see how bad the housing crisis is getting … I hope that we will see more of an appetite for straightup public housing, owned and operated by the government, not for profit,” he says. “I would take the government as my landlord rather than some for-profit corporation as my landlord seven days of the week.”



  • Jacob Woocher - Los Angeles Tenants Union organizer, eviction defense lawyer, writer