A Union Takes on the Housing Crisis

You can’t have a living wage without sufficient affordable housing, and you can’t afford decent housing without a living wage.

These claims are being championed by the workers of one local, UNITE HERE Local 11, which represents more than 32,000 workers in hotels, restaurants, food service facilities, and concessions throughout Southern California and Arizona.

These claims are becoming more persuasive day by day – and not just for the region served by Local 11.

At a recent union rally, I heard LA airport concession workers speak of two-hour (and more) one-way commutes, and of the impossibility of living close to one’s workplace on the airport’s minimum wage of $18.04 an hour. With one commercial estimate putting average LA city rents at more than $2,700 per month for a one-bedroom apartment and over $3,800 for two bedrooms, workers now face enormous stresses in their personal and family lives. They’re demanding a living wage and enough affordable housing that they won’t have to work 17-hour days in order to rent an apartment reasonably close to work.

These issues aren’t confined to the city of Los Angeles. Over the past two years, California’s population dropped by 500,000, with a net out-migration exceeding that of any other state. The number one cause of that migration is the high cost of housing. People seeking more affordable housing, shorter commutes, and a better quality of life have fled to states like Nevada and Utah, which in turn are experiencing their own housing shortages and rising housing costs. In response to such trends, Utah’s governor, Republican Spencer Cox, recently declared, “Our biggest problems are more growth-related. We would love for people to stay in California instead of coming as refugees to Utah.”

Though Mr. Cox would prefer to see the issue as a California problem best confined within California’s borders, the reality is that economic hardship is a national issue, with homelessness, for example, impacting over half a million people nationwide. As theologian and anti-poverty activist Liz Theoharis has noted, “nearly half the population is either poor or a single $400 emergency away from poverty.” And this national crisis is not occurring in an impoverished nation, but in one in which extreme wealth continues to accumulate in the hands of a very few. (Theoharis notes how the wealthiest three individuals in the country are now collectively worth more than $300 billion).

As the most populous state in the nation, California is experiencing the crisis more extensively and, in some respects, more intensively, than other states. With its 9.8 million residents, Los Angeles County is the most overcrowded in the country. One LA community, the Pico Union district just west of downtown Los Angeles, has 40,000 people crammed into 1.33 square miles, a density greater than that of New York City. As LA Times reporters described the conditions, “generations of families squeeze into tiny apartments. Construction workers, seamstresses and dishwashers live in close quarters. Day laborers bunk with half a dozen or more strangers in living spaces intended for one or two people.”

With so many residents caught in a vise between low wages and the lack of affordable housing, it’s no wonder that many people fall into homelessness, losing their hold on apartments where rent has been raised, and finding themselves in shelters or on the streets. Homelessness among Latinos, in particular, has increased by 30 percent in the city in the last two years, and LA’s new mayor, Karen Bass, declared a state of emergency over homelessness at her inauguration last December.

For its part, UNITE HERE Local 11 joined with other organizations this past fall to support a successful city-wide ballot measure that will raise transfer taxes on real estate sales of $5 million and above, a measure expected to raise over $900 million for rent relief, low-cost housing, and programs to combat homelessness.

And the union has taken another step, garnering enough signatures to place a city-wide initiative on the March, 2024 primary ballot that would require hotels with vacancies to rent rooms to homeless people, with the city’s housing department providing payment vouchers at market rates. The measure would also require that hotels must provide affordable replacement housing if they demolish or convert existing housing for new hotel construction.

Hotel industry representatives strongly oppose the measure, claiming that hotels didn’t create the homelessness crisis, and they can’t be expected to provide a solution. But in testimony before LA’s City Council last year, hotel workers spoke of their own experiences with housing insecurity and homelessness, and they argued that the industry does indeed have a role to play. Currently, LA has the highest number of hotel rooms in the “construction pipeline” of any city in the country (19,815), with 22 hotels and 3630 rooms in construction. And the 2028 Olympics, to be held in the city, are certainly part of the equation.

By demonstrating the unequivocal links between inadequate wages and insufficient housing, UNITE HERE Local 11 is seeking to make clearly visible the fraying of the social fabric and the diminishing quality of life in our cities. And it is showing that a union has a unique and significant role to play in making the connection.

Andrew Moss is an emeritus professor from the California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, where he taught a course, “War and Peace in Literature,” for 10 years.