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Activist Builds Support for Affordable Housing

One woman's gripping appeals helped create a trust fund for L.A. and won her a coveted grant.

January 06, 2003|Jocelyn Y. Stewart | Times Staff Writer

Jan Breidenbach had come to union headquarters searching for converts.

She was armed with a speech on the city's housing shortage and had packed it with statistics that proved her point. But the most compelling argument sat right outside the County Federation of Labor building in Pico Union, a neighborhood that is home to some of the most crowded housing in Los Angeles.

You know how much your workers earn, she told the union leaders, but do you know where they live? They can only afford to live in buildings like these nearby, in units that are shoddy, overcrowded and often unsafe, she said. Or they live miles outside the city and travel long distances to work.

"All of us, as we left, looked around ... with new eyes," said John Grant, in-house counsel for United Food and Commercial Workers Local 770. "It motivated me to take up the question of housing and try and figure out a way to make the link real in our work, to expand the vision about what a union is."

Although she may not be known by the general public, Breidenbach is one of the most influential people affecting housing policy in Los Angeles. With her combination of hard facts and emotional appeals, she has created housing advocates out of union leaders and clergymen, businessmen and tenants.

Such collaborations helped win the city its first affordable housing trust fund. A trust fund is a permanent source of dedicated financing, a guarantee that money for housing will be there.

Now that work has helped earn Breidenbach, who is executive director of the Southern California Assn. of Non-Profit Housing, the coveted James A. Johnson Fellowship. In the world of housing advocates and developers, it is the equivalent of the MacArthur "genius" prize.

The prize, a $70,000 grant and stipend of $20,000 for travel and education-related expenses awarded by the Fannie Mae Foundation, allows recipients to take a sabbatical from their jobs.

During her time off, Breidenbach plans to research, write, study Spanish "and attend every one" of her youngest son's tennis matches. In an unrelated honor, Breidenbach will spend the academic year as a senior fellow at the UCLA School of Public Policy and Social Research.

The first order of business, though, is to do nothing at all.

"I want to spend the first three or four weeks sitting on my patio reading trashy mysteries and going to the gym every day," said the Echo Park resident.

The fourth-generation Californian is not a preachy advocate, supporters say. She is a thoughtful strategist, particularly adept at helping people understand the crucial role safe, affordable housing plays in everything from a child's education to the local economy.

For years, she has taken that message to boardrooms and City Hall. The even-keeled Breidenbach says she tries not to hold grudges.

Yet beneath her enthusiasm is one simmering resentment that she has harbored since her youth, one that fuels the work she does.

"It really [angers me] that we can't take care of people who need to be taken care of," she said. "I can go into a restaurant and pay more for a glass of wine than a minimum-wage worker makes in an hour."

Coming of age during the civil rights movement and the anti-war era -- she was 18 in 1964 -- Breidenbach had every reason to believe the world could change.

She was raised in New York, New Jersey and California by a single mother with her own subtle style of activism. During the Julius and Ethel Rosenberg espionage trial, Breidenbach was 7. She remembers listening to an account on the radio. She also remembers her mother, who opposed the Rosenbergs' execution, firing off a telegram.

"As parents, sometimes we don't realize how things impact our kids," Breidenbach said.

At 23, she read Ernest Hemingway's account of the expatriate life in Europe, "A Movable Feast," and spent the next two years in Paris, working for the French edition of Reader's Digest.

Outside work she read, spent time in intellectual circles and discovered the theoretical underpinnings for the progressive ideology she practices.

After graduating from UCLA, she spent 10 years working for the Service Employees International Union, organizing janitors in the state college system and later social workers and nurses.

It was as a tenant, not an organizer, that she made her first foray into a housing battle.

In the late 1970s, she and her husband, civil rights attorney Dan Stormer, lived in a Silver Lake apartment that had been condemned to make room for the Glendale Freeway.

Opposition ended plans to extend the freeway through the neighborhood, leaving Caltrans as landlord of Breidenbach's building and others. The agency's plan to sell the property on the open market, a move that would have priced out many of the tenants, sparked a massive community response, and Breidenbach joined in.

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