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Law Gives Equal 'Hope' to All

November 21, 1994|PAMELA COHEN and RUBEN MARTINEZ | Pamela Cohen is an independent producer who made "Hope Street." Ruben Martinez is an author and journalist who is the host-narrator of the documentary. and

We would like to respond to Howard Rosenberg's comments in his review of the documentary "Hope Street: Anatomy of a Housing Struggle" that we feel added fuel to the fire of the misguided anti-immigrant backlash rampant in California ("Battling a Slumlord on 'Hope Street,' " Calendar, Nov. 9). "Hope Street's" intent, in part, was to ameliorate this virulent and mean-spirited trend by putting a human face on Latino immigrant tenants, both documented and undocumented, in their efforts to eliminate the slum conditions in apartments.

Rosenberg states, "A . . . flaw is the documentary's failure to defog the murkiness it creates when a tenant advocate mentions the 'rights' of illegal immigrant tenants and says it is 'illegal' for slumlords to threaten them with exposure if they complain about conditions." Rosenberg then asks--with an apparent tone of incredulity--"Do undocumented non-citizens have the same tenant rights as citizens? And is it really unlawful to report an illegal immigrant under the above circumstances?"

In the context of the inflamed immigration debate, Rosenberg's questions appear to turn on the idea that undocumented non-citizens perhaps should not be entitled to humane living conditions, and implies that the undocumented are, somehow, less human than citizens. (This is out of character for the usually fair-minded Rosenberg, but, unfortunately, it is an idea quite popular in California these days given the wide margin of victory for Proposition 187.)

Simply put, the answer to Rosenberg's questions is, yes, and that is what tenant advocate Enrique Velasquez states in "Hope Street."

State law stipulates that landlords cannot retaliate against tenants who organize to improve their housing conditions. Further, federal housing law states that landlords cannot discriminate against tenants due to their religion, race, age, sexual preference or legal status.

The reasoning behind both state and federal statutes prohibiting discrimination in housing is obvious. Allowing landlords to turn their tenants over to the INS would give owners carte blanche to blackmail residents into accepting unhealthy and--in some cases, such as in the firetraps of Pico-Union--even life-threatening conditions. There are, of course, people who would say, "If they don't like it here, why don't they go back to where they came from?"

The problem is, allowing such discrimination to occur imperils our democratic tradition. If we allow landlords to blackmail non-citizens, what group comes next? Will they threaten to "out" gay or lesbian tenants to their neighbors? Spread rumors that the guy in No. 406 has AIDS? Intimidate senior citizens?

There are statutes like these on the books in virtually every democracy in the world. Immigration law is one matter; anti-discrimination law--which protects the male, the female, the straight as well as the gay, and yes, the citizen as well as the non-citizen--is quite another.

The point of "Hope Street" is not the polemic over immigration: It is about criminal landlords in the inner city and about how any working-class tenant in Los Angeles has legal recourse to demand safe and secure housing, and to be treated with dignity and respect.

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