A Lincoln Heights community practices being a "good neighbor" by connecting the dots between rising rents, scripture, and history
When Thomas Irwin moved into Lincoln Heights, Los Angeles, CA in 2014 as a Servant Partners intern, he rented a two-bedroom apartment with two roommates for $1250. Now, that same unit has almost doubled in price.
“If you’re already rent-burdened in a modestly priced housing market and prices skyrocket, you’re in a tough spot,” Thomas said. “Nearly everyone in the neighborhood will tell you: rent’s going up.”
Thomas is SP staff in Lincoln Heights, where he works with New Life Community Church and facilitates entrepreneurship training, helping neighbors start small businesses, discover opportunities for economic development, and find better jobs.
“Even if people get a job that raises their wages by 20%, they’re still struggling if rent goes up by 50%,” he reflected. This realization sparked Thomas’ awareness of the systemic issue of housing affordability–a crisis stretching from the neighborhood to the state and beyond.
“This work flows directly from what it means to be a good neighbor,” Thomas said. “There is a biblical imperative to care for our neighbors’ practical needs. At times, it means providing directly to meet the need. Other items, we have to ask: what’s upstream of the pain point? What is the big-picture reason why my neighbors are suffering? In this case, ‘Why is rent so high?’”
Thomas noted that in 2018 and 2019, many people left their Lincoln Heights neighborhood due to housing unaffordability. Rental subsidies during the pandemic slowed this turnover, but this year has seen rents spike again–and likely, another exodus of renters.
“We can’t fix this issue on a neighborhood level by ourselves, but if we listen to the concerns of our neighbors and tie them to issues at the state level, we might be able to get somewhere.”
After an affordable housing project was repeatedly delayed in Lincoln Heights, Thomas helped mobilize a group to advocate for the project–Caesar was a part of the group. Caesar is a homeowner, so he is not impacted by rents rising, but his adult son is an affected renter. Caesar realized that advocacy at the California state level had recently eliminated legal barriers to building additional property units, opening up the possibility for Caesar to build another unit on his property for his son’s family to live in.
“People are seeing connections with what’s happening in their neighborhood and families–and issues at the state-level,” Thomas said. “There are people in the neighborhood, who don’t go to our church, who are interested in this issue.”
Thomas teamed up with a local organizer to bring members from his church and sister churches Hope Community Church (East Los Angeles) and Epicentre (West Los Angeles) to discuss this issue with others from the community. During a collaborative housing advocacy effort, members from these communities met with state legislative representatives to advocate for specific housing policies.
“Meeting with state legislators is the last step of activism,” Thomas said. “As Christians, we have to root our activism in discipleship. What are God’s values? Then, we move to education: what are the things we need to understand about our city, to apply those principles? From there, who are the people that can help? Let’s go to them and advocate.”
Thomas is working with an Epicentre member to host a joint Bible study between churches, called “The Bible and Affordable Housing.” The five-week study combines Bible study of scriptures detailing economic principles and housing, with the history of Los Angeles housing policies and discrimination. Finally, the study extends into policies.
“Part of being a good neighbor involves looking at history and asking, ‘How did we get here?,’” Thomas said. “It involves looking in the Bible, for what God’s vision for economic life looks like. While this world is marked with scarcity, God’s world is about abundance.”