Becky Nicolaides

California resides at the leading edge of so many big political issues of the day—immigration, the #MeToo movement, social justice activism, climate change—and we can add another one to that list: Housing. If some believe that the affordable housing crisis looms as the “next big political issue,” California could easily be its poster child.[1] Crisis conditions have swelled for decades. It hits many, many people: the homeless in expanding encampments, their numbers recently reaching epic proportions; millennials struggling to find affordable digs in this jaw-dropping housing market, their searches triggering gentrification in low-income neighborhoods; working families struggling to put a roof over their heads. A recent study by the advocacy group Up for Growth found California leads the nation in housing under-production, falling short by a whopping 3.4 million homes in meeting demand and population growth.[2]

There’s a metric called “housing burden” that reveals a lot. It shows the ratio of housing costs to income. For my recent work on the suburban history of L.A. County from 1945-2000, I gathered data that traced this metric over sixty plus years in the county, and it looks something like the following:

chart

Sources: For 1950-2010, U.S. Census of Population, 1950-2010; for 2016, U.S. Census, American Fact Finder.

This is the kind of data that puts a pit in your stomach if you’re hoping to buy a home one day. I think of it this way: When my father bought our family home in South Pasadena back in 1966, it cost him about three years’ salary. Nowadays, it takes at least eight years’ salary if you’re even that lucky, and don’t hit a housing bubble, a recession putting you out of work, and or other potential macro-economic catastrophes working against you.

In metro areas like Los Angeles, San Diego, and the Silicon Valley, where suburban homes dominate the built landscape, it becomes more difficult to tackle this affordable housing problem. Strict zoning often limits the possibilities for in-filling or densifying built-up areas. Suburbia indeed is a particularly stubborn obstructer. If zoning doesn’t shut down the construction of affordable dwellings—like apartments—irate homeowners of all colors and classes will. They turn out in droves to oppose homeless shelters, low-income housing or Section 8 tenants, continuing a tradition of homeowner politics that’s been around for decades.[3]

Informal housing represents a creative response to the housing crisis, gaining traction in California with the recent passage of laws on Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs). These measures relax regulations on ADUs—like granny flats, converted garages, backyard cottages, and secondary units tucked away in suburban backyards—making it easier for homeowners to build them and even receive fee assistance.[4] It’s a very decentralized, individualized solution to the housing crisis. Rather than foisting large housing projects on neighborhoods, it throws the initiative to individual homeowners to densify from within. This approach has a suburban feel to it. The units are often hidden from view thus preserving suburban streetscapes, and they’re homeowner driven. It’s a deft solution to a vexing problem exacerbated by the suburban form itself. While it may not solve the housing crisis, it can chip away at it at the very least.

In this piece, I explore one slice of the informal housing story, focusing on the history of garage dwellings from the 1920s to the 1990s. At times, I hone in on South and Southeast Los Angeles, a part of Los Angeles where housing always had a dimension of informality to it, reflecting the strategies and needs of working-class residents struggling to get by. For generations, they maximized the productive potentials of their property to help make ends meet, set within the context of suburbia—towns with single-family detached homes, yards, and families. As the ethnic profile of southern Los Angeles changed, those efforts met with harsher challenges and barriers. In a nutshell, informal housing began as an auspicious opportunity for working-class whites in the 1920s, took on patriotic overtones during World War II, and then was essentially racialized and criminalized by the 1980s when the area flipped from white to Latino. Informal housing was suppressed right at a moment when housing need was exploding. This history reveals how housing policy became entwined with immigration policy at the local level, creating formidable barriers to solving L.A.’s on-going shelter problem.

Urban scholars who have studied informal housing emphasize the diversity and ubiquity of these units, which sheltered elderly parents, grown children, extended family, care providers, and the like. They appear in a variety of class, ethno-racial, and spatial settings, from rich to poor, sprawling to dense. My focus on southern Los Angeles necessarily narrows my gaze onto a population of the lower middle class, working-class, and the poor, who have remained a constant presence in this part of L.A. While it reflects county-wide trends in some ways, in others this story was shaped deeply by local conditions. These suburbs flipped from all-white to all-Latino beginning in the 1980s, a moment when deindustrialization ravaged much of South L.A. This trajectory mirrored patterns unfolding across the U.S., where Latinos migrated right into the “urban crisis,” into cities and suburbs suffering from disinvestment and white flight, seizing opportunity where others abandoned it.[5] In this maelstrom, informal housing was embraced and rejected—all at the same time—and it revealed the ways that suburbia was linking housing and immigration in new and disconcerting ways.


1920s: Working-class roots

In working-class South Gate, Huntington Park, Maywood, Bell Gardens, Watts, and surrounding neighborhoods in Southeast L.A., the streetscapes are suburban and always have been. Homes are modest, maybe squeezed in a little tightly, but they sit in tidy yards and gardens. Many are inhabited by families with children. And the overall physical profile is low-slung, with detached single-family homes, commercial strips, and shopping centers.

When these suburbs were first developed in the 1910s and 1920s, it was an auspicious moment in the history of metropolitan Los Angeles. It was a time when suburbia was an open, accessible, flexible landscape that offered working people the opportunity to become homeowners, practice small-scale homesteading, and in the process achieve a measure of self-sufficiency and independence. In suburbs like South Gate, this openness was created by the affordability of land and the town’s loose regulatory climate that allowed a family, for example, to live in a tent, jerry-build a house, and then raise dozens of chickens behind the house. These practices flourished in subdivisions like Home Gardens and nearby in Watts, Bell Gardens, Cudahy, and surrounding unincorporated pockets—where lots were small and cheap and families, poor. In these towns, the initiative for “development” was thrown to the homeowners who created their own version of sustainable suburbs. Their quotidian practices revealed a powerful ethic of self-reliance, frugality, hard work, and independence. And it gave residents a leg up, a chance to build a nest egg and secure shelter in uncertain times.[6]

South Gate Aerial

The wide-open spaces of early South Gate, March 1926. Ample, cheap land and lax regulation allowed working-class family to achieve a semblance of economic security in the young suburb, by self-building homes and informal structures. Reprinted in Huntington Park Daily Signal, 19 January 1973, p. C3.

This was especially crucial in the 1920s and early 1930s, when L.A. was rabidly open-shop and America still lacked a social safety net. Suburban homeownership became that safety net, in a world where sickness, layoffs, or old age could sink a household. For working-class families especially, the home was a source of economic security, something they could fall back upon in hard times. To squeeze all they could out of their property, they grew fruits, vegetables, and small livestock in backyards, took in boarders, or ran small businesses out of the home. Sweat equity—exerted in suburban yards and homes—became paramount. It gave them access to property ownership free of debt and a cherished economic cushion. In a suburb like South Gate, it was an achievable goal.[7]

Do-it-yourself construction was quite common, with many residents self-building their own homes. Daniel Smith’s family was typical. They constructed a small but sturdy home in 1926, soon after their arrival from Tennessee. During the building phase, they lived in a tent at first, and then a detached garage they constructed. The whole family helped out—including four young daughters—laying floorboards, handing nails to dad, and fetching tools. In a similar way, another Smith family—Frank, Estafana, and two daughters—lived in a modest home Frank built himself, two blocks away from “the sandy banks” of the L.A. River. She was an immigrant from Mexico, he from Germany. In 1920, thirty-six South Gate families were living in garages while building their own homes. The loose regulatory climate of these suburbs allowed these practices to flourish and lent the entire suburban landscape an air of informality. The homes were ramshackle, following few if any building regulations. These were grassroots, bottom-up strategies for grasping a semblance of economic security in insecure times. Especially for the white working-class such informal practices offered a crucial mode of economic sustenance.

wattshome

A modest-frame home in Watts (no date). This dwelling was likely self-built. Photograph by Louis Clyde Stoumen, photo number 00033658, Los Angeles Housing Authority Collection, Los Angeles Public Library. https://tessa.lapl.org/cdm/singleitem/collection/photos/id/1357/rec/1.

Thanks to a host of race restrictions in place, the overwhelming majority of residents in these suburbs were white.[8] Even so, some Mexicans managed to gain a foothold in the early years, in towns like South Gate, El Monte, La Puente, and Azusa.[9] South Gate’s Mexican households included immigrants, second generation, American-Mexican intermarriages, and a small colony of Mexican-born “white” Mormons who had been caught in a decades-long circular migration from the U.S. to Mexico and back again. By 1930, at least 175 residents of South Gate were Mexican immigrants and their kin, many of whomhad immigrated around the 1910 Mexican Revolution. They represented 0.9 percent of the local population. Of these ethnic Mexican households, homeowners outnumbered renters, a remarkable fact given that most of these owners were classified by federal authorities as “alien.”[10] South Gate’s earliest undocumented immigrants thus had managed to achieve home ownership within the suburb’s affordable, open, unregulated environment. Yet for most, that advantage was short lived—by 1940 many had left, possibly deported during L.A.’s 1930s repatriation crackdown, or in search of something better during the Depression. The security that whites achieved through homeownership eluded most of South Gate’s earliest ethnic Mexican families, likely because of their insecure immigration status.

The southern suburbs of L.A. were shaped deeply by these working-class roots, which generated opportunities along with certain formidable challenges. Early residents created towns out of shoddy housing, minimal infrastructure, and loose regulations. Rickety self-built homes, small detached garages, and cheap utilities made up the young bones of these communities. This established not only their physical foundation, but also local traditions of self-building, informality, and the expectations that homeowners could do whatever they pleased to maximize their property’s economic potential. This local culture gave working-class suburbanites a crucial economic edge, and it was built into the DNA of suburbs like South Gate and nearby towns.


1940s: Informal Housing as Patriotic Duty

By the 1940s, dramatic changes were afoot. The rise of the New Deal established a social safety net under American families—namely white families—gradually easing those everyday survival pressures. The labor movement gained momentum in Los Angeles and nationally, putting working-class families in a stronger position. And then World War II broke out. In the meantime, the combined pressures of the Depression—when home construction had come to a screeching halt—and the massive influx of defense workers to California created a housing shortage of epic proportions. South Los Angeles especially felt the squeeze, since this was where nearly half of the southland’s defense plants were located. In South Gate, the population spiked from 27,000 to 45,000 during the war. Yet local housing fell far short of need. By 1946, the crisis prompted seventy-five members of veterans groups in South Gate to petition the city council for immediate completion of city-sponsored emergency housing.[11]

This set off a major push to create housing for the millions pouring into California, including servicemen and women, defense workers, and other migrants. One huge initiative was launched by large-scale builders who drew on new federal supports and guidelines to mass-produce suburban homes at unprecedented scales. Los Angeles builders (like Fritz Burns) were pioneers, applying new mass-production techniques to the construction of homes. Developments like Westchester, Panorama City, and Lakewood were examples of this mass-building push to meet the intense demand for housing during and after the war.[12]

Another initiative was to encourage homeowners to convert rooms or garages to rent, a campaign that spread across L.A. County. Officials framed it as a patriotic gesture to help alleviate the housing crisis for homeless servicemen, along with defense workers and their families. In South Gate, the local war housing council put it like this: “Rent your houses to a war worker with children, and be thankful those kiddies are speaking our American language instead of Japanese.” South Gate property owners were urged to convert habitable spaces into actual living quarters, then list those units with a War Housing Center as a “patriotic duty.”[13]

The appeals worked. They spurred local homeowners to convert spare rooms and garages into rentals, a phenomenon happening all over Los Angeles. In 1945, a thirty-one-year-old veteran, his wife, and two kids spent nearly a year living in a garage in nearby Lynwood, with dirt floors and no plumbing or heating.. He claimed that they suffered no sickness because his wife “kept the place as clean as a pin.” In 1946, William Price, a fifty-five-year-old warehouse foreman, and his wife Edna were living in a double garage in South Gate. That same year, a family of four was living in a single garage in South Gate after moving from Oak Ridge, Tennessee where the daughter was “affected by atomic rays.” Another couple (a veteran and his wife)—was living for several months in a single room, “from which they were evicted just a few hours before their baby was born.” Similar stories continued into the 1950s. In 1952, a disabled veteran lived in a small dwelling behind a home in Huntington Park. The same year in the nearby Central Avenue district, a seventy-one-year-old pensioner was living in a garage cited for its “unsanitary conditions.” By 1961, the residue of these practices became clear even in the San Fernando Valley, where hundreds of homes had conversions for rent—garages, spare rooms, and add-ons—a practice that began during the WWII housing shortage.[14] The practice was common in suburban areas across the country, even as far away as Long Island, NY.[15]

The popular discourse surrounding these units reflected not just acceptance and praise, but a belief that informal housing was downright patriotic. In the 1940s and early 1950s, the Los Angeles Times ran a series of features profiling garage conversions across the southland, from North Hollywood to Arcadia to Palm Springs. These stories offered good housing-keeping style tips on how to design and decorate a garage, complete with floor plans, and they presented the profiled garages as “model dwellings.” The subtext was clear: A wholehearted acceptance of garage rentals, with an appreciation for the resourcefulness of their white tenants who were making the best of a tough housing market. “The garage apartment where Charles Hofflund and his British war bride are living is an excellent example of how ingenuity can triumph over necessity,” declared a 1946 feature. The couple divided a double garage into a bedroom on one side and a living room and kitchen on the other. Through cozy decorating touches, such as pale green wallpaper and maple furniture, the tenants gave their garage “the air and informality of a cottage.” A 1947 article noted the temporary nature of the converted garage and praised its occupant—who happened to be an interior designer—for the cheerful, colorful flourishes she brought to the small space. “There is no feeling of ‘make do’ … of grinning and bearing life in a garage while waiting for building conditions to become more settled. Everything is so ingeniously planned, so adroitly placed and so pleasant to the eye that try as you may you can’t feel sorry for the Faulkners.” In West Arcadia, Dr. and Mrs. Milo Sweet converted a garage into a “liveable and attractive little cottage—all within a matter of less than two months.” With a minor addition, the garage was expanded to accommodate a living room, bath, kitchen, dining nook, and child’s room. “The cement floors were painted an ashes-of-roses tone to blend with the rug…. A needlepoint chair brings all the room colorings together in a Colonial bouquet…. The kitchen in this little cottage is light, airy, beautiful and practical.”[16]

A 1945 feature epitomized the cheerful praise, with the eye-grabbing headline, “A Garage Goes Formal.” The writer described the unit as “very dignified and sophisticated… this garage is frankly elegant with decorator touches that any city apartment might envy.” This was a second home for the dweller, who converted the garage to be closer to work. The Times praised his resourcefulness, and the fact that this was a DIY project all the way. The front door was salvaged from a junk yard, and the living space included a small kitchen, shower, and lavatory. The interior was decorated with red and white striped wall paper, a mirrored dressing table and crystal lamps, giving the space a “surprisingly Victorian atmosphere.”[17] In all of these features, the tone was admiration for the plucky, creative ingenuity of the people doing the conversions, who could serve as a model for others. In this particular context and with these Anglo occupants, garage conversions enjoyed an aura of legitimacy and patriotism.


1980s: Immigrant Suburbia and the Criminalization of Informal Housing

By the 1980s, Southeast Los Angeles experienced another sea change. Factory closures swept the entire southern part of L.A., transforming it from a vibrant center of industrial production to L.A.’s own rustbelt. By the mid-1980s, over 40,000 jobs in the southern suburbs were lost to plant closings and indefinite layoff. South Gate alone lost over 12,500, mostly high-wage union jobs.[18] Not surprisingly, real estate prices plummeted as the bottom dropped out of the local economy. This downturn in prices became a moment of opportunity for home-seeking Latinos. As a result, south and southeast Los Angeles experienced a radical demographic turnover from white to Latino. The entire area essentially resegregated, as the population boomed.

In many of these suburbs, the Latino population included both a small middle class and a swelling cohort of working-class and working poor families, many of them recent immigrants from Mexico, with smaller numbers from Central America and Cuba. In South Gate, from 1970 to 2000 the number of families below the poverty line rose from 7.4 to 17.4 percent of the total population. By 2000, 17,612 people in South Gate lived in poverty, many of them undocumented immigrants.

This human inflow sparked yet another housing crisis in South Los Angeles. While real estate prices had indeed tanked, the existing housing inventory did not come close to meeting the spiking demand for affordable housing. In South Gate, the very suburb was partly to blame for this crisis. In the 1970s and 1980s, local leaders refused time and again to build affordable housing, even when they had the funds to do so. While they went after federal grants to attract business and industry—to fill the gaping hole left by the plant closures—they directed little of those funds to low-income housing, even when that money was earmarked for it. In some ways, leaders in suburbs like South Gate and Bell Gardens used redevelopment money as a sort of “slow growth” tool: build for industry and retail, but not housing, since housing would draw more residents. These policy approaches uniformly backfired, resulting not in a slower influx but in an exploding housing crisis as the local population continued to soar.[19] From 1980 to 2010, South Gate’s population rose from 64,000 to 94,000—and probably even higher because of census undercounts.[20] This dynamic created a new system of housing usage, driven by poverty and immigrant insecurity, that transformed these suburbs into spaces of ultra-high density living where informal housing drove the trend.

In the 1970s and 1980s, L.A.’s southern suburbs entered the third phase of informal housing: An extensive “shadow market” of unpermitted rental units tucked away in suburban backyards and detached garages. Just as previous generations of working-class suburbanites sought to maximize the economic potentials of their homes, many of South Gate’s Latino residents sought to do the same by squeezing all they could out of their properties. This time, it was playing out in the larger local context of economic distress, constricted job prospects, and immigrant poverty. They jerry-rigged small rental units out of detached garages, constructed lean-tos, or otherwise found creative ways to shelter tenants. These practices were enabled by the loosely regulated climate of this working-class suburb—generations in the making—that endured through the 1970s.

Planning scholar Jake Wegmann has remarkably documented the rise of these units in Southeast Los Angeles from the 1980s to the 2000s. He identified two main modes of informal housing: the conversion of existing space, and the addition of new space. These included partitioning a single-family home into multiple separate living spaces, converting garages into living spaces, transforming a home into a bunkhouse for “hot-bedding,” building onto a home in the back, and using a habitable vehicle or structure (like an RV or tool shed) on the property. This was a “deeply participatory” landscape, he notes, created by working-class people facing a brutally tight housing market. There were similarities to South Gate’s earliest working-class pioneers who self-built their homes; the crucial difference was that much of the latter-day working-class population lost out on the ultimate pay-off of everyday discomfort—property ownership.[21]

By the early 1980s, these informal units spread across the southern suburbs. Conditions varied from decent to horrific. In 1981 in Huntington Park, three adjacent double garages along an alley housed ten occupants. The living was rough—an extension cord ran from the front house to each unit, mattresses were spread wall to wall on the dirt floor, and a hot plate and refrigerator served as a makeshift kitchen. While the tenants had a portable television, they lacked plumbing—using a five-gallon can or a laundry sink as a toilet. A Huntington Park building inspector estimated that 50 percent of the suburb’s garage tenants were undocumented immigrants. In Norwalk in early 1981, a “small shed city” was erected behind two homes, consisting of ten metal garden sheds sheltering sixteen families. They jerry-rigged cooking and bathroom facilities in the same structure. In nearby Bellflower, most of the conversions were built by professional contractors and were “quite attractive,” according to a code enforcement office. The situation was more dire in Maywood, where hazardous conditions were reported—from raw sewage running under floors to exposed light sockets. Similar informal housing appeared in many poverty pockets across Southern California—from San Fernando, Pacoima, and Arleta to the north, to Santa Ana, Anaheim, and Long Beach to the south. In 1987, the Los Angeles Times published an expose on these illicit conversions, emphasizing their dire conditions and their tendency to house immigrants. While some scholars emphasize the ubiquity of informal housing—across space, time, and class—this working-class form concentrated especially in the southern suburbs, like South Gate, Huntington Park, Bell Gardens, and Maywood.[22]

In South Gate, the practice was quite widespread by the 1980s. In 1987, an estimated 20,000 people—about 20 percent of South Gate’s population—lived in a converted garage. A conversion, which could cost anywhere from $5,000 to $8,000 in the 1980s, might involve installing dry wall, tiles on the floor, and dividing walls for a makeshift bathroom. The garage door was often covered over with dry wall, eliminating that exit and concealing the living quarters if the garage door was opened. Health hazards ran rampant—cold drafts blowing through, poor ventilation, inadequate kitchen facilities to ensure food could be properly cleaned, cooked, and refrigerated, and the absence of bathrooms.[23]

Fueled by this shadow housing supply, the density levels in the southeast suburbs reached astronomical levels by the 1990s thus creating a pattern Jake Wegmann terms, “horizontal density.”[24] Maywood was the most densely populated town in California and among the most crowded in the nation. According to a study by the California Department of Finance, Southeast L.A. contained four of the five densest cities in California, including Maywood, Cudahy, Huntington Park, and Bell Gardens—the first three running ahead of San Francisco. Maywood had 25,083 residents per square mile, compared to 16,927 in San Francisco. Only a handful of cities on the east coast—including the boroughs of Manhattan, the Bronx, and Brooklyn—topped these levels. In towns like Maywood, the numbers were remarkable because that density was achieved mostly in one or two-story suburban homes and apartments.[25]

As shocking as it could be, this system of informal housing fulfilled the mutual needs of property owners and renters. For property owners, these rentals helped them make the mortgage payment every month and accrue savings. For renters, it was a survival strategy. Tenants were often undocumented immigrants, many arriving cash strapped after spending hundreds of dollars to cross the border and then ending up in low-wage jobs. For them, a garage rental was a viable option in L.A.’s tight, costly housing market; and the informality enabled them to evade the regulation of an apartment rental. Because everything was under the table, there was no lease agreement, no references were required, and instead of a hefty security deposit, a tenant could move in with just first month’s rent. For some, informal housing was a family-based strategy to provide shelter and pool resources. South Gate code enforcement officer Veronica Lopez estimated that in the 1980s at least 60 percent of conversions were done for family members.[26]

Garage conversion. Photo courtesy of Jonathan Pacheco Bell.

Garage conversion. Photo courtesy of Jonathan Pacheco Bell.

This informal housing system created a novel scenario of interclass proximity in suburbia. Contrary to more typical suburbs that excluded the poor, these communities not only housed the poor but did so in the most integrated, intimate way—within the spaces of domestic homes and property. The poor were not relegated to housing complexes or fringe settlements. They were interspersed in backyard garages, rental rooms, and ad-hoc backyard dwellings, physically present in the suburbs’ most private spaces. Despite all efforts to eradicate these spaces, the system persisted and adapted, housing a permanent resident underclass in South Gate. By 2011, South Gate had a comparatively low homeless population, suggesting that this system helped keep people off the streets in some type of shelter, however substandard.[27]

In the 1980s, local leaders in South Gate and some of its neighboring towns launched a massive crackdown on these units. This represented a jarring break with the past in that it was the first time local informal housing was criminalized and heavily regulated. Not surprisingly, it was also identified as an immigrant problem. These measures were part of a broader clampdown on Latino public life in South Gate that was meant to preserve a more traditional Anglo suburban aura that many felt was slipping away. Some leaders behind these campaigns were Latinos, recently elected to local office. The spatial policing that ensued represented a local layer of the state’s apparatus that rendered undocumented Mexicans “illegal” in the context of everyday life. For the first time in its history, local leaders transformed South Gate from a loosely regulated into a highly regulated suburb.

Part of what drove this shift was the intensifying pressure on local jobs, services, and infrastructure, which many blamed on the immigrant influx. Reeling from the mass exodus of factory jobs, intense anxiety over job losses led to scapegoating of Mexicans and “illegal aliens.” In 1984, the South Gate Press ran a front-page story declaring, “Illegal aliens said to take most new jobs.”[28] Strains on local services and infrastructure were likewise blamed on immigrants, whose presence in shadow housing overtaxed water systems, sewers, and the schools. South Gate, in fact, was suffering from massive overcrowding in its schools, which forced the adoption of a year-round school schedule and bussing kids to schools as far away as the San Fernando Valley.[29] Many blamed the school crisis on the housing situation.

A crackdown ensued. Local leaders launched a spatial “law and order” campaign that built upon prior 1960s city beautification efforts, but it did indeed take things in a more punitive, racialized direction. It deployed the teeth of local regulation and enforcement to codify the strictest land use measures in the town’s history. These rules were meant to ensure a suburb of properly utilized single-family homes and public spaces, and they were implicitly aimed against Latinos who were perceived as the main violators. This spatial crackdown was a broad initiative across the southeast suburbs, with Bell, Bell Gardens, Cudahy, Maywood, Lynwood, and Huntington Park initiating similar campaigns against suburban “decay,” “eyesores,” and garage conversions. South Gate’s measures were among the strictest.[30]

In 1981, the city council launched a protracted campaign against informal housing. It began by beefing up the suburb’s enforcement authority around building code violations. An amendment to the municipal building code allowed the city to take violators “directly to a court judge” and re-designated violations to a fine-able “infraction” of the law. Henry Gonzalez, who in 1982 became the first Latino elected to the South Gate city council, carried the momentum forward. In 1983, during his first mayoral term, he began a proactive campaign of spatial policing. It started with a monthly “mayor’s tour” of South Gate, where he and other local officials climbed into a van and roamed the suburb in a quest to “find the ugliest spots in town.” They jotted down addresses in violation of city codes, including illegally converted garages.[31]

A 1983 ordinance sealed the effort by mandating the proper care of local properties. Residents were required to mow lawns, pull weeds, paint homes, keep yards clear of cars, clotheslines, and junk, and refrain from unauthorized conversions. Violators would face criminal misdemeanor charges, with a fine of $1,000 or six months in county jail.[32] The next year, South Gate’s “fight against blight” included ramped up enforcement: A new team of six building inspectors—equipped with shiny, white 1984 Ford Escorts—were empowered to patrol the suburb and issue citations on the spot. This system of spatial policing, adopted by Huntington Park in 1980 and South Gate in 1983, was fairly rare; one Huntington Park official estimated that one in one-hundred cities empowered building inspectors to issue citations, much like a police officer. In 1985, South Gate passed a pre-sale inspection ordinance, which required a city inspection of all homes for sale, a measure expressly designed to combat illegal conversions. It essentially inserted city authority into a private transaction, giving officials a handy means for scoping out violators.[33] This new enforcement apparatus represented a key turning point—property regulation shifted from a reactive system that responded to complaints, to a proactive, well-funded system that sniffed out violators.[34]

Occupied RV. Photo courtesy of Jonathan Pacheco Bell.

Occupied RV. Photo courtesy of Jonathan Pacheco Bell.

Local debates around these measures reflected a racialized view of informal housing, by those both for and against the crackdown. They shared the view that the prime culprits behind informal housing were Latinos, often undocumented. Those who voiced opinions were mostly Anglos or American-born Mexicans, who felt empowered to express opinions at public meetings. Opponents of the pre-sale law were mostly Anglo realtors who feared the measure would hamper home sales, and long-time white residents who felt the law was an infringement upon their property rights. Dorothea Lombardo, a longtime resident, told the city council, “it was understood by the citizens that the ordinances were intended to keep illegal aliens out of the City but that law-abiding citizens are being hurt by these ordinances.” Lombardo had little sympathy for the undocumented and felt South Gate ought to use the INS—rather than city resources—to crack down on illegal conversions. Such an approach would kill two birds with one stone—eradicating both illegal housing and “illegal aliens.” Councilman Del Snavely voiced the opinion of some white residents that the laws should be selectively enforced—targeting units rented out unlawfully, but “grandfathering in” garage conversions done before 1960 (implicitly, by white residents).[35]

Other opponents saw the new law as a civil rights violation. For example, Gregory Slaughter complained to the city council that inspectors “told him they wished to check his garage for illegal aliens” and he believed “this to be a violation of people’s rights particularly in regard to searches.”[36] Larry Swisher claimed the housing crackdown had deeper implications: “The council wanted to get the illegals out of garages. They avoided saying it…” out of a fear of offending Latino residents.[37] Local officials ultimately showed some flexibility in financial hardship cases—homeowners forced to undo garage conversions—but this forgiveness extended mostly to homeowners not using garages as rental units.[38]

In the eyes of some residents, housing inspection had become a local tool of immigration control, despite the insistence of city officials that they were   “concerned about enforcing civil rights in this community.”[39] The system implicitly used housing code enforcement to regulate undocumented residents, and encouraged neighbors to turn in people they saw violating housing regulations. South Gate set up a hotline, and deployed code enforcement officers, the police department, and building inspectors to follow up on tips.[40] By this point, informal housing had taken a wide pendulum swing in South Gate—begun as a viable survival strategy in the 1920s, encouraged as a patriotic duty in the 1940s, and then fully criminalized by the 1980s, when the practice had become racialized and linked to undocumented Mexican immigrants.

Similar conditions and crackdowns occurred across Southern California—it wasn’t just a South L.A. thing. In the early 1990s, the Los Angeles Times reported on the ubiquity of garage conversions, from Temple City to Simi Valley to South Laguna. In the beach cities of Manhattan, Redondo, and Hermosa, illegal conversions were rampant as rents there skyrocketed. Young adults, single parents, seniors, and the poor lived in garages, like the two illegal units Edward Roszyk added onto his house in Redondo Beach. In another Redondo Beach home, the landlord lined his wine cellar with bunk beds and rented it out to sixteen Latino immigrants. Redondo officials received five bootleg complaints a month in the early 1990s. In wealthy Simi Valley, there were reports of single-family homes sheltering four to five families, and a family of nine crowded into a single converted garage. The crackdowns similarly spread—and many targeted Latino renters. In 1989, the City of Los Angeles clamped down on garage conversions in South Central—for the first time in over twenty years—when Latinos began moving into the area. And clear to the north in Santa Clarita, officials launched nighttime raids in 1991 on illegal garage conversions, targeting that sprawling suburb’s neighborhood of East Newhall, where Latinos were 90 percent of the population. Two members of the Santa Clarita city council were vocal supporters of the raids, hoping they would drive out “illegal aliens.” As one put it, “If we make housing more difficult to find for these people, hopefully, they’ll move on.”[41]

Just two months ago, the Los Angeles Times ran a front-page story by columnist Steve Lopez on garage living among LA’s poorest.  Like the Times expose back in 1987, Lopez’s column delivered a powerful emotional punch.  He described how Alejandra and her two children lived in a garage in Pacoima for $900 a month, the small space partionened into a tiny kitchen, main living area, a small bedroom with bunk beds, and bathroom.  The walls were plastered and painted, a cage with chirping parrots sat nearby, and the space smelled of homemade soup boiling on the stove. Modest as it was, said Alejandra, it was better than what she had back in Mexico. The teachers at the local school elementary school claimed that garage living has been on the rise in recent years. The practice and the need, clearly, are still with us.[42]


Moving Toward Solutions

This story shows how policies toward informal housing have varied throughout the years, depending on factors like a particular socio-economic context, depending on who the landlords and tenants were, and depending on who was making such policies. Mexican immigrants were particularly vulnerable targets of housing crackdowns, exacerbating their insecure status via new modes of localized regulation upon everyday life.

Urban planning scholars like Vinit Mukhija, Jake Wegmann, and Jonathan Pacheco Bell have all argued persuasively that we need more flexible policies on informal housing if we ever hope to solve the crushing housing crisis in California and even across the nation. Such policies might support the practice of creating accessory dwelling units by providing resources and guidance for making these dwellings safer through upgrades and fixes. Total prohibition is not a productive approach. Especially in suburban communities, where we must devise ways to utilize land in more economical, efficient ways, informal housing holds immense potential.[43]

As Vinit Mukhija and Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris point out in The Informal American City, informality has the paradoxical nature of being both productive and exploitative, and—sometimes both at once. The challenge for policy is to emphasize action that privileges the poor instead of punishing them.[44] California’s new ADU laws are a step in the right direction, but we still have a long way to go. Once suburbanites and their elected leaders grasp the positive potential in informal housing—and the fact that it’s been around in L.A. a very long time—we may move a step closer toward solving our intractable affordable housing crisis.

Occupied Garden Shed. Photo courtesy of Jonathan Pacheco Bell.

Occupied Garden Shed. Photo courtesy of Jonathan Pacheco Bell.

 

Notes

[1] Benjamin Schneider, “The American Housing Crisis Might Be Our Next Big Political Issue,” Atlantic CityLab, 16 May 2018, https://www.citylab.com/equity/2018/05/is-housing-americas-next-big-political-issue/560378/?utm_source=citylab-daily&silverid=MzEwMTkyMzE2NzgwS0.

[2] Madeline Baron, et. al, “Housing Underproduction in the U.S.” (Up for Growth National Coalition and Holland Government Affairs, 2018), https://docs.wixstatic.com/ugd/336283_2d8fcafe99fa4aa181dc9884864eb750.pdf.

[3] For example, see James S. Duncan and Nancy G. Duncan, Landscapes of Privilege: The Politics of the Aesthetic in an American Suburb (New York: Routledge, 2004); L. Owen Kirkpatrick and Casey Gallagher, “The Suburban Geography of Moral Panic: Low-Income Panic and the Revanchist Fringe,” in Christopher Niedt, ed., Social Justice in Diverse Suburbs: History, Politics, and Prospects (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2013), 31-53. A recent round of suburban protests against homeless shelter occurred in Irvine, spearheaded by Asian homeowners (Los Angeles Times, 1, 25 April 2018).

[4] http://www.hcd.ca.gov/policy-research/AccessoryDwellingUnits.shtml.

[5] Andrew K. Sandoval-Strausz, “Latino Landscapes: Postwar Cities and the Transnational Origins of a New Urban America,” Journal of American History 101 (2014): 804-31; Llana Barber, Latino City: Immigration and Urban Crisis in Lawrence, Massachusetts (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017); Mike Davis, Magical Urbanism: Latinos Reinvent the U.S. Big City (London: Verso, 2000).

[6] Becky Nicolaides, My Blue Heaven: Life and Politics in the Working-Class Suburbs of Los Angeles, 1920-1965 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002), chapter 1-4.

[7] Ibid., chapter 1.

[8] Ibid., 42-43.

[9] On El Monte, La Puente, and Azusa, see Jerry Gonzalez, In Search of the Mexican Beverly Hills (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2017), chapter 2; Matt Garcia, A World of Its Own: Race, Labor and the Making of Greater Los Angeles, 1900-1970 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001). In My Blue Heaven, p. 44, I noted that very few Latinos lived in South Gate in the 1920s. That assessment was wrong. Since that book’s publication, the opening up of the U.S. Census manuscripts for the 1930s and 1940s has allowed me to correct that portrayal along the lines of my description here.

[10] Information on these residents reconstructed from: United States of America, Bureau of the Census. Fifteenth Census of the United States, 1930. Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1930. Census Place: South Gate, Los Angeles, California; Roll: 171; Page: 15A; Enumeration District: 1353; FHL microfilm: 2339906. Accessed at Ancestry.com. 1930 United States Federal Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc., 2002. I cross-checked with additional 1940s records on Ancestry.com—including U.S. Census, Naturalization records, and city directories. On Mormon colonies in Mexico around this time, see John B. Wright, “Mormon Colonias of Chihuahua,” Geographical Review 91 (2001): 586-96; Thomas Romney, Mormon Colonies in Mexico (University of Utah Press, 1938, reprinted 2005).

[11] Nicolaides, My Blue Heaven, 220; Los Angeles Times, 14 August 1946.

[12] Greg Hise, Magnetic Los Angeles: Planning the Twentieth Century Metropolis (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997); Greg Hise, “Home building and industrial decentralization in Los Angeles: the roots of the postwar urban region,” Journal of Urban History 19 (1992): 95-125; D. J. Waldie, Holy Land (New York: W.W. Norton, 2005); Barbara Lane Miller, Houses for a New World: Builders and Buyers in American Suburbs, 1945-1965 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015).

[13] Los Angeles Times, 6 May 1943; South Gate Press, 6, 27 January 1944.

[14] Los Angeles Times, 11 November 1945, 24 July 1946, 8 April 1952, 16 May 1952, 16 March 1961; South Gate Press, 1 August, 3 October 1946.

[15] Jacob Wegmann, “‘We Just Built It’: Code Enforcement, Local Politics, and the Informal Housing Market in Southeast Los Angeles County,” unpublished Ph.D. dissertation (Berkeley: University of California, 2014), 18-23; Tim Keogh, “Suburbs in Black and White: How Jobs Created Inequality in Affluent America” (manuscript in progress); also see Vinit Mukhija, “Outlaw In-Laws: Informal Second Units and the Stealth Reinvention of Single-Family Housing,” in Vinit Mukhija and Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris, eds., The Informal American City (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2014), 39-45.

[16] Los Angeles Times, 14 April, 15 September 1946, 17 August 1947.

[17] Los Angeles Times, 2 September 1945

[18] Nicolaides, My Blue Heaven, 329; Ed Soja, Postmodern Geographies: The Reassertion of Space in Critical Social Theory (London: Verso, 1989), chapter 8; James R. Curtis, “Barrio Space and Place in Southeast Los Angeles, California,” in Daniel D. Arreola, ed., Hispanic Spaces, Latino Places: Community and Cultural Diversity in Contemporary America (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2004), 133-136.

[19] Graham McNeill, “Deindustrialization and the Evolution of the Working-Class Suburban Dream in Southeast Los Angeles (1965-1990),” unpublished seminar paper (Claremont Graduate University, 2014), 11-21; William Fulton, The Reluctant Metropolis: The Politics of Urban Growth in Los Angeles (Point Arena, CA, Solano Press Books, 1997), 85-87; Los Angeles Times, 1 October 1989.

[20] U.S. Census, 1980-2000. Local officials voiced concerns about census undercounts at least since the early 1980s: see South Gate Press, 26 July 1980.

[21] Jake Wegmann, “Research Notes: The Hidden Cityscapes of Informal Housing in Suburban Los Angeles and the Paradox of Horizontal Density,” Buildings and Landscapes 22 (2015): 89-110, Jake Wegmann and Sarah Mawhorter, “Measuring Informal Housing Production in California Cities,” Journal of the American Planning Association 83 (2017): 119-130.

[22] South Gate Press, 29 April 1981; Los Angeles Times, 8 September 1983, 24 May 1987. On the ubiquity of informal housing, see Noah J. Durst and Jake Wegmann, “Informal Housing in the United States,” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 41 (2017): 282-297.

[23] Los Angeles Times, 8 September 1983, 14 March 1985, 24 May 1987; South Gate Press, 29 April 1981, 20 June 1984 (on cost estimates); Veronica Lopez oral history, conducted by Becky Nicolaides, 6 March 2017, South Gate, CA, pp. 7, 15, 17-18.

[24] Wegmann, “We Just Built It,” 120-123.

[25] Los Angeles Times, 19 December 1999; Wegmann, “We Just Built It,” 65.

[26] Veronica Lopez oral history, pp. 7-8, 11-12, 15, 24-25; South Gate Press, 29 April 1981; Los Angeles Times, 24 May 1987; Wegmann, “We Just Built It,” 140-14.

[27] City of South Gate, “Housing Element,” in South Gate General Plan 2035, January 2014, p. 24 (accessed at http://www.southgatecc.org/community/planning-division/). In 2011, South Gate had 199 homeless persons, which represented 0.21 percent of the total population. The L.A. County rate was 0.46 percent of the total population.

[28] South Gate Press, 20 June 1984.

[29] For examples of the extensive press coverage of school overcrowding in this period, see South Gate Press, 16 April, 7, 14, June, 13 September, 8 October, 16 August 1980, 3 January 1981; Los Angeles Times, 9 October 1978, 9 February 1986.

[30] Los Angeles Times, 8 September 1983.

[31] South Gate Press, 17 January 1981; Los Angeles Times, 8 September 1983; South Gate Ordinance No. 1562, 11 April 1983, South Gate City Clerk’s Office.

[32] Los Angeles Times, 8 September 1983; South Gate Ordinance No. 1562, 11 April 1983, SG City Clerk’s Office.

[33] South Gate Ordinance No. 1651-A, 3 April 1985, SG City Clerk’s Office; Los Angeles Times, 14 March 1985.

[34] Los Angeles Times, 8 September 1983, 6 September 1984, 9 February 1986. South Gate budgeted $265,000 in 1984, and $335,000 in 1986 for the enforcement of municipal building codes.

[35] South Gate City Council minutes, 27 May 1986, pp. 3-4.

[36] South Gate City Council minutes, 27 January 1986, p. 7, 10 February 1986, p. 5. Both Lombardo and Slaughter were later elected to the South Gate City Council.

[37] South Gate Press, 25 September 1986 (Box 6, file 14, South Gate History Archive, Weaver Library). Swisher was part of an unsuccessful citizen movement to overturn South Gate’s laws against garage conversions.

[38] South Gate City Council minutes, 23 June 1986. A war of petitions occurred at this point: the pro-crackdown side gathered 121 signatures, those against had 1,000 signatures. The opposition petition was never submitted to the city council because many people who signed did not want their identity revealed (South Gate City Council minutes, 27 January 1986, 24 March 1986), p. 7.

[39] South Gate City Council minutes, January 27, 1986, 10 February 1986, p. 5.

[40] Los Angeles Times, 21 December 1996. For example, one councilman reported on complaints from a resident that “illegal aliens” were living in a garage on their street (South Gate City Council minutes, 27 May 1986).

[41] Los Angeles Times, 11 May 1990, 7 June 1991.

[42] Los Angeles Times, 27 November 2018.

[43] Vinit Mukhija and Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris, eds., The Informal American City (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2014); Wegmann, “We Just Built It”; Jake Wegmann and Jonathan Pacheco Bell, “The Invisibility of Code Enforcement in Planning Praxis: The Case of Informal Housing in Southern California,” Focus: The Journal of Planning Practice and Education 13 (2016), http://digitalcommons.calpoly.edu/focus/vol13/iss1/10/.

[44] Mukhija and Loukaitou-Sideris, eds., The Informal American City, 9.
Becky Nicolaides is a research affiliate at USC and UCLA. She’s currently working on her third book called On the Ground in Suburbia, which explores how social and civic life evolved in LA’s suburbs from 1945-2000. Her UCLA website: http://www.tinyurl.com/NicolaidesUCLA.

Copyright: © 2019 Becky Nicolaides. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.

 

 

 

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