LA’s Hugo Soto-Martinez Is Organizing Tenants Directly

Los Angeles has one of the worst housing crises in the nation. Councilmember Hugo Soto-Martinez thinks renters need to stand up for themselves — which is why he’s knocking doors to directly organize people who’ve received eviction notices.

Los Angeles City Councilmember Hugo Soto-Martinez at Echo Park Lake in Los Angeles on March 6, 2023. (Christina House / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

I am the only tenant on the Los Angeles City Council. In a city where renters make up almost two-thirds of the population, renters are routinely left out of the city’s decision-making. To make Los Angeles livable for the majority of its residents, city politicians must take renters’ rights seriously — but they’ll never choose to do it on their own. Renters have to start standing up for ourselves, which is why my office is organizing tenants whose names appear on the city’s eviction databases.

For decades, we renters were thought of as undesirables who would lower property values, so apartment buildings were routinely shunned in favor of the single-family home. Meanwhile, the remnants of redlining and racial covenants still play out in the city’s political dynamics. Although the city is diverse, neighborhoods were once strictly segregated by race and class, patterns that remain to this day. While these policies have slowly gotten better over the years, tenants continue to feel their reverberations like the aftershocks of an earthquake.

Los Angeles’s housing and homelessness crisis is one of the worst in the nation. Our catastrophic lack of multifamily housing, especially units that workers can truly afford, drives up housing costs and supercharges the gentrification of working-class communities of color. For Los Angeles residents, it’s no shock that estimates show we need half a million new units just to stabilize the market. It makes all the more sense when you learn that we haven’t built a single unit of social housing since the Dodgers came to town.

It’s no surprise that the number-one cause of homelessness is the cost of housing. Due to the legacy of deeply racist policies and economic disempowerment across generations, racially marginalized groups are the most affected by housing cost spikes. Black Angelenos make up over 30 percent of the unhoused population, even though they are only 8 percent of the city.

No matter what we do to help people on the streets, for every one person helped into housing, more fall out. Evictions haunt our city, and Los Angeles’s leaders have historically cared more about the corporate landlord lobby than the 63 percent of Angelenos who rent.

The policy landscape started to look better during the COVID pandemic, which motivated the Los Angeles City Council to enact the best tenant protections in our city’s history, including a rent freeze, an eviction freeze (with an exception for egregious criminal activities), and robust rent relief. However, there was an ominous tension that undergirded it all — unlike the economic devastation for millions of families, these safeguards were only temporary. By the time other progressives and I were voted in, the writing was on the wall. These great policies were going to be repealed within months by either the council majority or the courts. We had one shot to replace these policies with something that would even partially maintain the conditions on the ground, or we would see a tsunami of evictions.

Fortunately we were able to stop the worst-case scenarios. The factors to thank for that include the incredible leadership and policy acumen of my colleague Councilmember Nithya Raman, our ability to organize tenant groups, and the tireless work of Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), some labor unions, and other progressive councilmembers working the inside.

Notably, one piece of legislation from Nithya Raman, underrated at the time, opened up a possibility that could potentially lead to a large-scale organization of tenants unprecedented in Los Angeles’s history. Now, we’re throwing our full weight behind it.

Taking Names

It sounds ludicrous, but before that package of tenant protections, Los Angeles simply did not keep track of eviction filings. There was no way to know who was being evicted, where they lived, and which landlords were the most grievous offenders. What Nithya did, simply and effectively, was to say, “Hey landlords! You have to tell us when you plan to throw someone onto the street.”

Now, we finally have an eviction count, and the data it shows us is terrifying. From February to July, in our district alone, more than seven thousand evictions were filed. With this information, we now had the ability to speak directly to a tenant in crisis. We could help them fight.

In response to this crisis, I knew we had to meet these people where they are — in their homes. I have a long history of knocking doors and putting together canvassing campaigns, owing to my sixteen years of experience as an organizer with the local hotel workers union, UNITE HERE Local 11. So I decided to put that experience and knowledge to use, preparing to build an on-the-ground campaign to organize tenants named in the new eviction database.

For this campaign, I needed a lead organizer who understands how to build power. We’re not creating a program just to provide city services from within the bureaucracy; we want to train tenants to advocate for themselves. I landed on Collin Baker, who cochaired the DSA-LA working group for my campaign and led an effort to knock on twelve thousand doors in just a few months.

Collin got to work organizing within DSA and from other supportive volunteers. As we built our system, we began to receive the eviction data. The initial batches we got were just building addresses, not unit numbers — and even worse, we were told that we couldn’t share any information with our volunteers, only city employees. So we hired a canvasser to join our staff and talk to entire apartment buildings. We brought volunteers to neighborhoods we knew were facing the most displacement and canvassed entire blocks. Even though we couldn’t target specific tenants, we knew we had to do something.

These renters have only a few days to respond to their notices before they essentially forfeit their case. Every person we couldn’t help meant another family on the verge of ending up on the streets. Each week, we’re given a list of every person whose landlord has filed to evict them, where they live, how much they owe, and why their landlords want to kick them out. In just our first few hours of canvassing, we assembled two dozen people to knock on nearly five hundred doors of tenants facing hell who think their government doesn’t care.

Ninety-five percent of the filings are for nonpayment of rent, and the biggest cause of that is COVID. We were surprised to find that the average outstanding rent amount is only $3,445, which is about the same as one month of rent for the median two-bedroom unit in Los Angeles, a city where 66 percent of rental units are owned by corporate landlords. It seems barbaric to upend someone’s life for such a small sum, just to benefit a Wall Street mega-landlord who makes that amount in a second. It’s even worse when you realize that the overwhelming number of evictions happen in working-class neighborhoods of color that are most at risk of gentrification, and that corporate landlords are overwhelmingly more likely to file for evictions than smaller landlords.

Now that we have our canvassing operation up and running, we’re already thinking about what comes next. To start, we’re directing folks to DSA-LA’s Power to the Tenants working group, which is dedicated purely to tenant organizing. We’re identifying leaders in buildings with bad landlords and gross habitability issues and empowering them to organize their neighbors. We’re building volunteer capacity by plugging in tenants who want to help other renters learn and build the way they’ve done. We’re bringing tenants together online and in the real world to educate, meet others in their same position, and show them they’re not alone. And as we expand our organizing, our hope is to mobilize these tenants in legislative battles that will help renters everywhere, like tenant antiharassment enforcement, capping rent hikes, the right to a lawyer in eviction court, and the creation of real social housing.

Though we are just at the beginning of this chapter of the struggle, we know that the only way to win in the face of what seem like impossible odds is simple: solidarity. To quote Los Angeles’s prophet of hope, Mike Davis:

What keeps us going, ultimately, is our love for each other, and our refusal to bow our heads, to accept the verdict, however all-powerful it seems. It’s what ordinary people have to do. You have to love each other. You have to defend each other. You have to fight.