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Beyond Racism, Leaked Recording Showed Martinez, Cedillo and de León Feared L.A.’s Majority: Renters

Councilmembers blocked by the trio now see opportunity for housing reforms.




A protest sign rests against a microphone stand at an L.A. City Council meeting on October 25. Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images.

In the notorious leaked recording of three Los Angeles city councilmembers and ex-County Federation of Labor head Ron Herrera, former City Council President Nury Martinez said she wanted to thwart representation for nearly two-thirds of Los Angeles residents — renters.

In the conversation, Herrera warned that City Councilmember Nithya Raman wanted to “rile up the renters to create a base and not do anything for the renters” in a tenant-heavy district. Martinez responded, “She’s not going to get the renters. We’re not going to give her that.”

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Martinez also dismissed the idea of Raman representing renter-dense Koreatown. “Because if you do, that solidifies her renters’ district, and that is not a good thing for any of us,” she said.

The three councilmembers did slice and dice Raman’s District 4 to deny her a strong tenant voting bloc and also deny her the chance to represent Koreatown tenants. But Raman and Councilman Mike Bonin argue that the three council leaders did far more damage to the city by blocking progress on tenants’ issues, housing and homelessness in the midst of a deepening affordable housing crisis.

According to Nithya Raman, the open racism Martinez and de León expressed on tape was reflected in the council’s actions on homelessness.

Now, Raman, who has replaced Gil Cedillo as chair of the Housing Committee, has a chance to set the agenda. Martinez resigned Oct. 12. Cedillo lost his bid for reelection and, along with Kevin de León, has been stripped of his committee assignments. Depending on the results of the November election, Raman could have the backing of as many as three new city councilmembers who’ve made renters’ rights and housing for the poorest Angelenos a part of their platforms.

Martinez, Cedillo and de León played powerful roles on key City Council housing committees. Martinez presided over the council and served as chair of the Ad Hoc Committee on COVID Recovery and Neighborhood Investment. Cedillo chaired the Housing Committee, while de León helmed the Homelessness and Poverty Committee.

Raman said the open racism Martinez and de León expressed on tape was reflected in the council’s actions on homelessness, which disproportionately affects Black Angelenos. African Americans comprise just 8% of the population, but make up 33% of the homeless. Raman said the City Council spent months debating how to clear the streets of homeless people, and didn’t focus on providing them shelter or housing. “It was divisive and very fraught,” she said.

Nury Martinez didn’t answer emails requesting comment on her taped remarks regarding redistricting and renters, or on criticisms of her handling of housing and homelessness. De León likewise didn’t respond to charges that his leadership on housing and homelessness issues led to policy mistakes and inaction. Cedillo spokesman Conrado TerrazasCross responded by email, saying, “Councilmember Cedillo is at a place of reflection and is unavailable.”

Raman said Cedillo, as Housing Committee chairman, lacked direction and a sense of urgency and would cancel meetings. “Agendas would be light, without much substance to address some of these really big issues. I was never clear on what his agenda was,” Raman said. “That was reflective of what we accomplished.”

“Tenants have become a powerful force. We’ve been forcing them to do the [eviction] moratorium longer than anywhere else in the country.”

~ Leonardo Vilchis, co-director, Union de Vecinos

“If legislation benefited renters or pushed approaches to homelessness that focused on housing and services, it was in trouble,” Bonin wrote in an Oct. 18 tweet. “If legislation was proposed by me or Nithya [Raman] or Marqueece [District 8 City Councilman Marqueece Harris-Dawson] as well, it was doomed.”

Still, in recent years, a resurgent tenant movement, spurred by the worst affordable housing crisis in the country, did persuade the City Council to make some concessions to L.A. renters, said Leonardo Vilchis, an organizer with the Union de Vecinos in Boyle Heights. “Tenants have become a powerful force,” Vilchis said. “We’ve been forcing them to do the [eviction] moratorium longer than anywhere else in the country.” Los Angeles tenants who have been unable to pay rent due to COVID will be able to defer payments until February 2023 when the eviction protections end.

The infamous taped comments by Martinez, Cedillo and de León showed that renters had begun to make their voices heard at City Hall, noted Joe Donlin, deputy director of the nonprofit Strategic Actions for a Just Economy, based in South L.A. “You had the City Council threatened by the power wielded by tenants and those whose agenda includes keeping people housed,” Donlin said.

Vilchis said tenant demands also spurred L.A.’s current effort to extend just cause eviction protections to renters not covered by the city’s rent control law. Currently, the law bars landlords from evicting tenants in rent-controlled units unless they fail to pay rent, create a nuisance or otherwise violate their rental agreements.

Those reforms are hardly adequate, Vilchis said. Many renters are barely hanging on to their dwellings. An L.A. renter must earn more than $95,000 a year to afford the average rent of $2,400 for a one-bedroom apartment — far more than the city’s median household income of $65,000.

Raman, now acting as chairperson of the City Council Housing Committee, said she hopes to tackle housing issues more effectively than her predecessor. Her priorities include housing production, preservation of apartments that are affordable to lower income Angelenos and tenant protections.

The California Apartment Association has sunk more than $3 million into this year’s L.A. City Council races.

Raman’s success on housing could depend on whether voters elect candidates who share her agenda in two key races on Tuesday’s ballot. If the June primary is any indication, they may.

Record spending by the California Apartment Association failed to stop Eunisses Hernandez, a 32-year-old activist who called for strong tenant protections and housing affordable for the poorest Angelenos, from defeating Cedillo in the June primary. She will take office in December.

Two other candidates who have pledged to defend tenants and dig deep for solutions to the housing crisis finished in first place in the June primary. District 11 candidate Erin Darling, a civil rights attorney, garnered 34% of the vote to oppose Traci Park (who drew 29%) in the November runoff. Hugo Soto Martinez bested District 13 incumbent City Councilperson Mitch O’Farrell 40% to 31%.

But the CAA, one of the state’s most powerful political organizations, has sunk more than $3 million into this year’s L.A. City Council races — an unprecedented amount for the group in an L.A. race — to elect O’Farrell, Park and two others, District 5 council candidate Sam Yebri, in his race against Katy Young Yaroslavsky, and attorney Tim McOsker, who’s running against businesswoman Danielle Sandoval in District 15.

The organization, largely funded by the state’s biggest corporate landlords, is known for its advocacy on behalf of property owners, opposition to recent statewide initiatives that would have allowed cities to enact stricter rent control laws and its pushback against COVID eviction protections.

CAA Executive Vice President Debra Carlton declined to comment on the reason for the massive expenditure, deferring to local L.A. CAA members, who didn’t respond.

Housing and tenant activists say the scandal surrounding the tape could energize their calls for tenants rights and the creation of housing that Angelenos can afford.

“This is a major wake-up call,” Donlin said. “The primary election has shown voters want to see changes on the City Council.”

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