The Social Justice Vision at Stephen S. Wise Temple

Our congregation will see Social Justice as a calling that derives from our sense of God and the imperative of Jewish Tradition. The Stephen S. Wise Temple community will use our influence, power and compassion to be a force for positive, meaningful and effective change in the quality of life on behalf of all the citizens of Los Angeles and the world.


Thursday, June 25, 2009

More Challenges and Opportunities on the Affordable Housing Front

From the Los Angeles Business Journal

Developers Brace For Housing Fight
By HOWARD FINE - 6/22/2009
Los Angeles Business Journal Staff

Developers and business groups are mobilizing against the latest attempt by the city of Los Angeles to force developers to include below-market apartments and condos in their projects or pay fees to the city to subsidize other affordable housing.

While the effort to require affordable housing set-asides is in the early stages, some developers contend that any mandates could force them to abandon projects and prolong the downturn in residential construction.

“This is absolutely the wrong time to proceed with this mandate,” said Carol Schatz, chief executive of the Central City Association, which represents downtown businesses and development companies. “We should be doing everything we can to incentivize development, not put burdens on developers.”

While the city has put incentives on the table in the past, developers say the incentives wouldn’t have offset the loss of income from affordable units.

Opposition from developers and some neighborhood groups killed the city’s two previous attempts this decade to craft an ordinance requiring below-market-rate housing.

Developers argued that they would drop projects in Los Angeles if such a requirement was adopted because they would lose money. Neighborhood groups feared the ordinance would force low-income housing in their communities, bringing with them an increased risk of crime and lower property values.

The key issue for most developers is to avoid citywide requirements for affordable housing.

“An incentive-based system is much more preferable to one that relies on punitive measures,” said Bill Witte, president of Related Cos. of Southern California, which has developed several mixed-income projects in the region and is the lead developer on the Grand Avenue project downtown.

Affordable housing shortage

The lack of housing for low-income residents has grown increasingly acute as more rent-controlled units have come off the market, and unemployment and underemployment have increased. This has resulted in overcrowding as people forced out of their own units have doubled up or even tripled up in other units or been forced onto the streets.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa launched the latest drive as part of his 2008 call for up to 20,000 affordable housing units. He wants the new ordinance to require developers to set aside some units for households earning less than the county household median income of $60,000 or pay into a fund for building units elsewhere. This would qualify more people to move into any new affordable units than past proposals, which were targeted to lower-income families.

“This city has produced more than enough housing for people at the high end of the income scale, but way too little for low-income households and virtually nothing for moderate-income households,” said Helmi Hisserich, the city’s deputy mayor for housing. “That’s why we need a mandate as one of the tools to produce more affordable housing.”

However, she said the exact percentage of set-asides and the income thresholds for the affordable units remain open to negotiation and compromise.

City planners are now crafting the ordinance, which should be in draft form this fall and could make it to the City Council for a vote in spring 2010.

This time, they have changed the name of the ordinance from “inclusionary zoning” to “mixed-income housing,” to better reflect the goal of having both lower and higher incomes in the same multifamily buildings. And city officials say they are making more of an effort to reach out to developers.

“We’re trying to move more incrementally this time, to give us a chance to build consensus,” said Jane Blumenfeld, deputy planning director. “We are also trying to be more realistic about what it costs to build housing in the city.”

But so far, developers said that there has been little indication the city is moving to address what has long been their main concern: setting aside a certain percentage of their units for lower rents or prices would make their projects unprofitable.

“There’s a big gap between the cost and return on affordable housing and the cost and return on market-rate housing,” said Renata Simril, vice president of development for Forest City Enterprises Inc., a Cleveland developer that has built several mixed-income projects in Los Angeles, including the Metropolitan Lofts near the Staples Center in downtown. “The incentives that we have seen coming from the city don’t go nearly far enough to bridge that gap.”

Need for incentives

Simril and other developers said the focus should be on providing enough financial incentives so that developers can make money on their projects.

In past proposals for affordable requirements, the city has offered developers density bonuses. Those are rights to build more units than would otherwise be allowed. The city also promised to fast-track the approval process and cut fees.

But those measures might not be enough help, according to Jim Atkins, managing director in the Los Angeles office of Merlone Geier Partners, who was previously with South Group, a partnership that developed three major market-rate for-sale loft projects in downtown Los Angeles: the Elleven, Luma and Evo. Atkins, along with Simril, served on an advisory group set up by the city to study construction costs in order to prepare for the new ordinance.

While giving developers certain advantages, density bonuses make projects more expensive up front because bigger buildings cost more money.

Meanwhile, fast-tracking would require additional city staff workers and fee reductions would cost the city revenue. Neither would be palatable for the council given the current budget crisis.

Also, it’s easy for the city to grant density bonuses in concept, but more difficult to deliver them: Neighborhood opposition, stirred by concerns over traffic and building height, would often prevail in the past.

Some developers have sought to avoid an affordable housing set-aside mandate. Downtown developer Geoff Palmer even went so far as to sue the city to prevent the imposition of an affordable unit set-aside for the Visconti Luxury Apartments project just west of downtown. Palmer prevailed and the Visconti was built without low-income units.

Simril said other more substantive incentives are needed. Those could include bond or redevelopment funds. She said the Community Redevelopment Agency sold the land for Forest City’s Metropolitan Lofts at a deep discount in order to get the project built with some affordable units.

“You can have a mandate, but you need major incentives to make the math work,” Simril said.

Hisserich, the deputy mayor, added that a number of city incentives to help developers bridge the cost gap for affordable units are on the table for discussion. Those include density bonuses, expedited permitting, discounts on land purchases for properties in redevelopment areas, and access to low-interest loans or bond monies.

Mandate ‘unfair’

Atkins of Merlone Geier said he supports the goal of building more mixed-income projects in the city. But he believes a mandate would drive up the price of new market-rate housing.

“You’re pushing the burden of subsidizing affordable housing on to a very small group of people, the buyers and renters of new market-rate units, instead of all homeowners or taxpayers,” he said. “That’s fundamentally unfair, both to these buyers and the developers of market-rate housing, which this city desperately needs more of.”

But city officials said they’ve tried other solutions, including asking voters to support a $1 billion affordable-housing bond in fall 2006. The bond narrowly missed getting the required two-thirds majority. Former Mayor James Hahn and current Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa have also set aside general fund dollars to build up an affordable-housing trust fund. The budget crisis has temporarily stalled contributions to the fund.

“This city faces an acute shortage of affordable housing and we desperately need to do something,” said Andrew Westall, deputy for housing, transportation and planning in the office of Councilman Herb Wesson, a backer of the affordable-housing set-aside ordinance. “The key is to do it in such a way that it does not impede the building of more housing.”

Business leaders said a citywide mandate for low-income set-asides would hinder new housing construction.

“We oppose a citywide mandate,” said Stuart Waldman, chief executive of the Valley Industry and Commerce Association. “This has to be done on a case-by-case basis and should be targeted more to areas around transit centers.”


L.A. city leaders want developers to include affordable housing units in their projects or pay into a fund that would create below-market units in other projects.


Two proposals to create an “inclusionary zoning” ordinance in the past were defeated by developers who said they’d lose money, and homeowners who feared poverty, crime and lower property values.


A new “mixed-income housing” ordinance will be introduced in draft form later this year and could go to a City Council vote next year.

Los Angeles Business Journal, Copyright © 2009, All Rights Reserved.
This article was purchases for re-use.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

A Sermon for Your Reactions: The Changing Face of America and Its Meaning for the Jews

Here is Rabbi Stern's recent sermon addressing the challenge or America's tremendous ethnic and religious diversity and what it means for the future of the Jewish community. We'd love to hear your thoughts and responses to the issues he raises. Due to the limitations of YouTube it's in two parts. Both are linked below.

Part I

Part II

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Community Organizing is Jewish!

This article is from the current edition. A good history of Community Organizing and places the work we are doing at WiseLA in a broader perspective.

June 10, 2009
Saul’s Children

By Rob Eshman

This is the week to honor a Jew whose influence extends from your neighborhood council, to the field where your grapes are picked, to city halls from Los Angeles to Newark, to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. This week, say a little Kaddish for Saul Alinsky.

Alinsky was born in Chicago in 1909 to Russian Jewish immigrant parents, the only surviving son of Benjamin Alinsky’s second marriage to Sarah Tannenbaum. He was the Johnny Appleseed of justice. Roots he planted 50, 40, 30 years ago — he died June 12, 1972 — are spreading like dandelions in dichondra.

Consider President Obama.

“Barack Obama’s training in Chicago by the great community organizers is showing its effectiveness,” L. David Alinsky wrote to the Boston Globe following the 2008 Democratic Convention. “It is an amazingly powerful format, and the method of my late father always works to get the message out and get the supporters on board. When executed meticulously and thoughtfully, it is a powerful strategy for initiating change and making it really happen. Obama learned his lesson well.”

“When [Obama] announced his candidacy for president last month,” Ryan Lizza wrote in The New Republic in March 2007, “he said the ‘best education’ he ever had was not his undergraduate years at Occidental and Columbia, or even his time at Harvard Law School, but rather the four years he spent in the mid-’80s learning the science of community organizing in Chicago.”

Alinsky was the scientist. In two best-selling books, “Reveille for Radicals” and “Rules for Radicals,” he laid out a step-by-step approach toward empowering the have-nots in society. There are two fundamentals: Clearly communicate the bedrock values of the movement, and organize around these values from the ground up.

“One can lack any of the qualities of an organizer — with one exception — and still be effective and successful,” Alinsky wrote in “Rules for Radicals.” “That exception is the art of communication.” The key to communication, he wrote, is speaking to people where they are, at their level, appealing to their self-interest. Communicating is half the equation, he believed. The other is rooting that message in common values.

Alinsky never lost sight of what his struggle — all successful struggles — was about: “the preciousness of human life ... freedom, equality, justice, peace, the right to dissent.”

In 1939, Alinsky first organized Chicago’s Back of the Yards neighborhood, helping the poor, slaughterhouse-adjacent residents win better wages and living conditions.

He applied the techniques he learned there to organize the residents of Rochester, N.Y., to train the activists who helped a young man named Cesar Chavez organize grape pickers in California; to galvanize Chicago’s all-black Woodlawn neighborhood; where religious leaders like Arthur Brazier fought the all-powerful Chicago machine for better living conditions.

In turn, Brazier and other 1960s community organizers influenced by Alinsky inspired and influenced a young man named Barack Obama to work as an anti-poverty activist in Chicago in the 1980s.

The right loathed Alinsky and continually tried to brand him as a pro-Stalinist communist (he wasn’t). The ‘60s left accused him of selling out because his focus was to help people make it in society, not to destroy society itself. But Alinsky’s lessons endure because they are rooted in one basic idea: “.... No ideology should be more specific than that of America’s founding fathers: ‘For the general welfare,’” Alinsky wrote.

I saw some of Alinsky’s genius incarnated last week when I moderated a discussion at UCLA Hillel between Rabbi Shmuely Boteach and Cory Booker, the mayor of Newark, N.J.

After graduating Stanford University, Booker attended Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship, where he met Boteach, then a Lubavitch-affiliated rabbi and founder of the L’Chaim society, a Jewish student union. Boteach made Booker, who is African American and a devout Baptist, the head of the society, to the dismay of the Lubavitcher movement. And the friendship endured, after Booker graduated Yale Law; after Booker, raised in a privileged Palo Alto home, moved into Newark’s worst projects and began organizing residents; after Booker beat an entrenched, corrupt Newark machine to become the city’s mayor.

The key to Booker’s success — beyond a fearsome intellect and enough charisma to make Obama look like Richard Nixon — is a burning desire to confront injustice through grass-roots organization — as Alinsky developed and taught it.

Our dialogue was about bridging America’s cultural and political divide. I asked Booker how such a feat is possible, considering how just days earlier a madman on one side of that divide had assassinated Dr. George Tilley, a Kansas doctor who, despite years of death threats, had continued to protect the lives of his women patients by performing abortions.

Booker said it’s a mistake and a waste of time to focus on the extreme right or left — the key is to find common values and language that will bring together the greatest number of people in the center. Booker, by all accounts, has done that in Newark, and Obama is doing it (again) with his Organizing for America, a reconfiguration of his grass-roots Organizing for Obama election campaign, this time aimed at bringing together a consensus for change in America’s health care system.

And it all goes back to Alinsky, the roots of whose passion for social justice and radical change are not all that mysterious. Until he was 12 years old, Alinsky, the son of Orthodox Jews, was steeped in Jewish learning.

“But then I got afraid my folks were going to try to turn me into a rabbi,” he told Playboy in 1971, “so I went through some pretty rapid withdrawal symptoms and kicked the habit. Now I’m a charter member of Believers Anonymous. But I’ll tell you one thing about religious identity: Whenever anyone asks me my religion, I always say — and always will say — Jewish.”

If Alinsky rebelled — a very Jewish thing to do, by the way — he didn’t abandon the prophetic directives that are as plain as day in the ancient texts: to do justice, to love mercy, to walk humbly. His entire life was motivated by belief in the dignity of the human being, by the idea that we are all created in the image of the Divine. And his life’s work was inspired by the awareness, embedded in the daily “Shema,” of universal oneness.

“A major revolution to be won in the immediate future,” Alinsky wrote, “is the dissipation of man’s illusion that his own welfare can be separate from that of all others.”

They teach Alinsky in some college courses, but I suggest his books become required reading in our Jewish day schools — in Hebrew schools, even. You can trace the words of the prophets from ancient times through this man’s life and writing to our modern-day leaders — and you will learn every thing you need to know about the Jewish contribution to civilization.

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Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Acérquense a La Gente - Get Close to Your People

Reported by Diane Kabat

Throughout Jewish literature, we are called to tear down the walls that silent the voices of the poor. A Talmudic story tells of a righteous man who was on such a high level that Elijah the Prophet visited him regularly. One day, this righteous man built a gate in front of his courtyard. The cries of the needy were shutout, and Elijah the Prophet ceased visiting him. By shutting himself away from the poor, he blocked the gate between heaven and earth.

Our society as well has put up gates that prevent these cries for help from being heard, especially in our cities divided by neighborhood boundaries, language, and culture. With the advent of the Internet and the immediacy for global news, we hear more about impoverished areas in Southeast Asia, Central and South America, or Africa before we "see" that which is before us.

On Sunday afternoon, May 31, Rabbi Stern opened a conference of over 100 Los Angeles community leaders at the Hollywood 7th Day Adventist Church with this story and message from the Talmud. Nearly 20 faith-based-groups affiliated with LA Voice PICO were represented as we assembled for this bi-annual Leadership Assembly to strengthen our bond with other religions and ethnicities in our greater L.A. community.

At the retreat, with the aid of a Spanish interpreter, we talked about the issues that LA Voice is tackling (affordable housing, immigration reform, health care issues), but most importantly, we spent time getting to know one another, sharing our congregational successes along with our challenges. We were one of two synagogues present. Stephen S. Wise Temple and IKAR were there to "open the gate."

Each congregational leader reported on their work to date. It was empowering to hear and be supported in our work thus far. All congregations are having similar one-on-ones and relationship building sessions with their members. The residents of Boyle Heights, along with other communities, were impressed with our 6 areas of potential engagement (see below). But along with this positive exchange, many questions were asked.

Why does LA Voice PICO exist with such strength at this time given all of the challenges in our city? What can we do differently now? One of the leaders of LA Voice Pico, Zach Hoover, outlined our cyclical vision of community interaction each item flowing into the next around a wheel: NECESSITY - What is lacking in our communities and what do we care about? CAPACITY - What are we capable of accomplishing together? OPPORTUNITY - Is there an opportunity today that meets our needs?

We need to take this opportunity and test and talk about current issues and realities. How does Stephen S. Wise Temple as a congregation respond to this call to action, to this need and opportunity at this time? What is our story going to be and how will we get closer? Acérquense a la gente. For the sake of our spiritual health and tikkun olam, we must start to open these gates and connect our lives to those who are most vulnerable. Do these actual and symbolic walls that we have built permit our apathy and passivity?

To become more engaged in our LA vision, attend the Town Hall Meeting at Stephen S. Wise Temple on Wednesday, June 17, 7:30 p.m. We'll roll out our Social Justice Plan with personal testimonials, a text study, and breakout groups.

As Rabbi Stern, Sharon Almany and the Social Justice Leadership team continue to reiterate to our Social Justice Leadership Team, at House Meetings, and from the bima, "This is among the most meaningful experiences that I have as a rabbi -- I want you to have that potential as well."

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Progress on the Affordable Housing Ordinance

LA City Council Votes Unanimously (13 - 0) to Pass a Framework for a Mixed-Income Housing Ordinance.

Energy filled the Los Angeles City Council Chambers on Wednesday, May 27th as momentum built for a Mixed-Income Housing Ordinance. After hearing a report from city staff, the council listened attentively as Housing LA leaders eloquently told the story of why we need this ordinance. Following on testimony by County Federation of Labor leader Maria Elena Durazo, and preceding testimony by an ACORN community leader, Hollywood Adventist Church Pastor Ryan Bell, speaking on behalf of LA Voice, gave compelling testimony of congregants who are homeless or "couch surfing" with supportive friends. Housing LA coalition members cheered after each speech.

While council members asked specific questions about issues to be dealt with moving forward, the tone was one of seeking cooperation and shared leadership on this issue and a building consensus to make these ideas concrete. Garcetti, Hahn, Rosendahl, and Reyes all gave rousing remarks -- with Hahn speaking to the reality of a city where half of all workers earn less than $25,000 a year and Rosendahl bellowing for a 25% set-aside.

The consensus to move forward firmly encourages us all. Councilmembers Perry and Garcetti both spoke directly to the importance of the organizing work being done by LA Voice congregations and Housing LA. Don't hesitate to call your council member and tell him or her "thank you" for taking this step and asking them to lead the way on creating and implementing a bold Mixed- Income Housing Ordinance that will create thousands of units for hard working Angelinos and their children.

While the next report back is scheduled for September of this year, you can be sure that LA Voice clergy, leaders, and congregations will continue to pray and move our feet for the transformation of our city's housing crisis.

Monday, June 1, 2009

What is LA Voice

Our congregation is associated with LA Voice the regional network of the PICO National Organizing Network. LA Voice works to give power for change to communities that are more often than not powerless. As one of two Jewish congregations (the other is IKAR) connected with LA Voice we have the opportunity to engage with the people of the city of Los Angeles in ways we never have before. LA Voice is leading the charge on the Affordable Housing ordinance and has been mobilizing the community to act on its behalf. Additionally, LA Voice is the conduit through which we have found our path to Boyle Heights and the work that we are doing to strengthen our community.

Follow this link and consider making a small contribution to help LA Voice do the good work it does.

See the "new" poster child for LA Voice and a particularly bad picture of yours truly below.
LA Voice Fundraiser LA Voice Fundraiser R Stern LA Voice, Social Justice, Community Organizing