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Los Angeles renters are being elected to political office and are changing policies

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Now, most people here in Los Angeles are renters. Most of the people who represent them are homeowners. But as David Wagner of LAist News reports, that started to change in recent elections.

DAVID WAGNER, BYLINE: Los Angeles residents consistently rank housing affordability as a top concern. Thirty percent of renters here spend more than 50% of their income on rent. Emely Pineda moved into an apartment with her sister in 2018. She says their rent has already gone up about $300 a month.

EMELY PINEDA: We're paying more each month each year, and nothing gets better. Nothing's improved.

WAGNER: Pineda isn't just a renter. She's also a voter.

PINEDA: You know, when elected officials have the similar background story as you or share the same struggles as you, they can really advocate in a different way.

WAGNER: Homeowners continue to dominate political office in LA, but Pineda played a small part in changing that by voting for new LA County Supervisor Lindsey Horvath, the only renter on the board.

LINDSEY HORVATH: I've been renting since I was in college. I think that's the experience of most millennials who have been saddled with student debt.

WAGNER: Since taking office, Horvath has pushed to keep LA's COVID eviction protections in place, far longer than other parts of the country. She says renters are the ones falling into homelessness, but lawmakers often spend more time worrying about landlords.

HORVATH: I think our priorities are out of whack. We have to make sure that we are listening to the people who need our help the most to stay in housing and be protected.

MICHAEL LENS: It does, I think, matter to have representation along that axis.

WAGNER: UCLA urban planning professor Michael Lens says efforts to diversify LA politics have long focused on race, gender and sexuality, but until recently, renters have not received the same attention.

LENS: It's a pretty fundamental part of who we are and how we live in a city.

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HUGO SOTO-MARTINEZ: So I wanted to bring my lease that I have as one of the renters here in the City Council.

WAGNER: At a recent LA City Council meeting, Council member Hugo Soto-Martinez waved a copy of his lease before taking a key vote on new renters rights.

SOTO-MARTINEZ: What we're really talking about, my colleagues, is about, who does this city represent?

WAGNER: Soto-Martinez says age has a lot to do with why a small but growing number of renters like him are getting elected.

SOTO-MARTINEZ: It's very generational. My parents were street vendors, immigrants from Mexico, and they were able to buy a house because, you know, buying a house was affordable.

WAGNER: For millennials like him, even those with good salaries, LA's median home price of $830,000 feels completely out of reach.

SOTO-MARTINEZ: That's a lot of folks that are in my age group or younger. We are renters. That's who we are, and so I think that's the generation that's being elected.

WAGNER: Landlords also see a generational shift.

DAN YUKELSON: Well, I think millennials are - in many cases are just complacent.

WAGNER: Dan Yukelson heads a landlord group called the Apartment Association of Greater LA. He's seen LA's new council members helping to pass new limits on eviction and a requirement for landlords to pay relocation assistance to tenants priced out by large rent hikes.

YUKELSON: Some of the younger generations are satisfied with renting property and don't necessarily have the impetus to own property and deal with all the responsibility that comes with it.

WAGNER: Still, there are more landlords on the LA City Council than renters. Resident Emely Pineda wants to change that too. Just like she did in November's County Board of Supervisors election, she plans to vote for a new kind of city council member in an upcoming special election.

PINEDA: Yeah, I'm definitely going to vote for the renter in that race.

WAGNER: She's even planning to volunteer on his campaign. For NPR News, I'm David Wagner in Los Angeles.

(SOUNDBITE OF MNELIA SONG, "CLOSURE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Wagner