The immediate cause of the demonstrations in Los Angeles and elsewhere following the police killing of George Floyd is well known—brutality by cops  inflicting racist treatment on African Americans.  But dig deeper into Floyd’s  and other killings and you’ll find   a more complex story.

For Los Angeles, it is a story largely shaped by racism, homelessness, income inequality  and the lack of affordable housing.  These factors, plus   the damage inflicted by coronavirus on poor neighborhoods, should  create a sense of great urgency for helping the homeless and creating more housing low income Angelenos can afford.

While nine percent of Los Angeles County’s population is black, African Americans comprise 36 percent of the homeless.

Homelessness is related to other troubles, a point made in a 2019 report by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority. The report said, “the circumstances that lead black people to disproportionately experience homelessness cannot be untangled from the impact of institutional and structural racism in education, criminal justice, housing, employment, health care, and access to opportunities… Institutional and structural racism impact black people experiencing homelessness on a daily, life-long basis, from renting an apartment, to seeking employment, to the trauma of living in an anti-black society.”

African Americans join other low income people in fierce competition  for rental units  in a city where almost 65 percent of residents are renters and where income inequality heightens social tensions. In the Los Angeles Times analysis of  neighborhoods,  the poorest areas have the highest percentage of renters.  Largely Latino Pico Union, just west of downtown, is 90.5 renters, most of them crowded into slum apartments in one of the nation’s most congested areas.  Renters dominate working class and middle-class Baldwin Hills/ Crenshaw, the heart of Los Angeles black community, comprising 69.1 percent of the population and in poorer Watts, where 67 percent of the population are renters.

Rents are rising.  “Los Angeles rents are among the highest in the nation,” Elijah Chiland and Jenna Chandler wrote in LA Curbed.

Wages are stagnant, and jobs are hard to find   in an economy hit by the coronavirus.  Apartments are scarce.  More and more families are moving in together, despite pandemic risks.  An increasing number of the poor teeter on the brink of homelessness.

For years, city and state rent control has been a popular way to protect tenants from big rent increases. 

State law limits annual rent increases for those living in apartments.  Chiland and Chandler noted that Los Angeles and several other cities in Los Angeles County also impose rent control.  After a long fight between tenant and landlord groups, Los Angeles finally agreed on  controls on buildings built and occupied prior to Oct. 1, 1978.   In Santa Monica and West Hollywood, it’s 1979 and in Beverly Hills, Culver City, Inglewood, and unincorporated Los Angeles, it’s February 1, 1995.

The state law has been strengthened.  A new law makes it difficult for landlords to discriminate against prospective tenants who receive federal housing aid.  Los Angeles City Councilman Mike Bonin is pushing legislation limiting city rent increases even more.

What’s different about these efforts  is the sense of emergency created by the killing of George Floyd plus the damage inflicted by coronavirus on poor black and Latino neighborhoods.

Rent control, while important, has not been a gut issue on the municipal agenda.  Tenants and landlords get steamed up but rarely does it swing elections. Same with a related topic, easing  zoning laws to promote construction of more multiple dwellings in residential area.  Homeowner groups are on fire over this one, but not the general electorate.  Zoning and rent control usually fit into a category that cynical journalists call important but boring.

Not any more, hopefully.  High rent, evictions and discriminatory renting practices add to the sense of hopelessness and anger that fueled the demonstrations.  Combine that with  failing public education and years of brutal policing in black neighborhoods, maybe ameliorated in recent years by a police department whose officers are now majority minority.  The Los Angeles Police Department is not the LAPD of the 1992 riot.  But, as recent events have shown, in moments of high pressure the old culture can take hold in shockingly brutal ways.

Not enough people understand all the angles connected with rent control and affordable housing have so many angles.   Last year’s Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority report I referred to earlier in this column laid it all out  but was lost in the shuffle of news.  The report is a reminder that the causes of the Los Angeles demonstrations are deep and intertwined. Hopefully this will be understood and not forgotten in the days ahead.