Derek Steele is an activist — but first and foremost a father and husband. When he and his wife were hit with two major rent increases in the past two years, with nothing to protect their family from further rent hikes, Steele began to think they may be forced to leave their longtime home in Inglewood, a working-class community near the Los Angeles International Airport. The idea of uprooting their two daughters sickens him.
“My children,” Steele says, “they don’t know anything else. My 11-year-old daughter has friends here going back to kindergarten. I’d disrupt her entire way of life if we had to move.”
Steele and his wife are paying $400 more per month in rent — or $4,800 more annually — than he was in 2016. Similar increases in the future would be unsustainable. But they decided to stay — and fight. They became active members of Uplift Inglewood, a housing justice group.
“At the end of the day,” says Steele, an affable, 35-year-old native of Pittsburgh, “we can solve this problem. And the problem is that corporate landlords don’t have the existing community in mind for what Inglewood’s future will be. So the people need to band together and fight and make things happen — together.”
The struggle Steele and his wife are facing is all too common in California — and throughout the nation.
As corporate landlords such as Blackstone Group CEO Stephen Schwarzman and Equity Residential Chairman Sam Zell grab for even more king-sized profits, median rents in California are higher than any other state in the country. Among all 50 states, California has the fourth highest increase in rents.
According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, a Californian earning minimum wage would have to work 92 hours per week in order to afford to rent an average one-bedroom apartment. And even though the state represents only 12 percent of the total U.S. population, California is home to 22 percent of the nation’s homeless population, according to the California Department of Housing and Community Development.
California is facing dire housing affordability and homeless crises, which are devastating lives and communities. An urgent response is needed, but with solutions that benefit the people, not just corporate landlords and developers. Housing policies should protect tenants, preserve existing affordable housing, and produce truly affordable housing.
It’s why Steele supported California’s Proposition 10. The 2018 ballot measure would have repealed statewide restrictions on rent control. More than 525 organizations and civic leaders backed Prop 10, but Big Real Estate, especially corporate landlords, shelled out $77.3 million to stop the initiative. It lost statewide, but won in cities — Los Angeles, San Francisco, Oakland, Glendale, Inglewood, among others — where sky-high rents are too often the norm.
Steele, a former electrical engineer at the defense and aerospace firm Northrop Grumman, and his wife run the health equity program at the Social Justice Learning Center in Inglewood. They helped build more than 100 community gardens where residents can grow healthy foods, they created a farmer’s market, and they operate a nutrition education program.
“My wife and I work very hard,” says Steele, “and it wasn’t beyond our means to live here. But we’re getting to the point that we won’t be able to.”
If they are forced out, not only would their daughters suffer, but Inglewood would lose two residents who have dedicated their lives to helping the community. It’s the real human cost suffered when landlords only think about reaping bigger profits — with nothing to check them.
“We need to allow communities to level the playing field for tenants,” Steele says. “We have to start putting mechanisms in place to keep people in their communities. Right now, the corporate interests have the game locked.”
It’s why he believes rent limits are necessary in Inglewood and other cities. In fact, top experts at USC, UCLA, and UC-Berkeley found that rent control is key to urgently address California’s housing affordability crisis.
“Rent control stabilizes the floor underneath families’ feet,” Steele says. “Too many people are spending too much money on rent, and they can’t afford other things, like healthy foods or starting a small business or buying their own homes.”
Steele is taking on runaway corporate greed. He urges Californians to join him. The well-being of millions hang in the balance.