The following is the final essay for Making Our Neighborhood: Redlining, Gentrification and Housing in East Hollywood, featured in our brand new print magazine for readers. It’s also an epilogue for “An Excavation of East Hollywood,” the series.
When mama and papa first stepped foot in Los Angeles from Mexico and El Salvador in the 1980s, they didn’t know that the humble places they would call home were disinvested areas, borne from a city and state that could only see people like them as laborers and not as neighbors. Likewise, they could have no idea that this stretch of land our family would come to know as the neighborhood, east of Hollywood and west of Silver Lake, would become a predominantly immigrant community for decades, where nearly four-fifths of people, including our family, still rent rather than own the places they live in.
My brother and I, following in our parents’ footsteps, also couldn’t anticipate that poverty in the neighborhood, which seemed to keep kids like us trapped inside of it, would be the same thing facilitating the process of pushing kids like us out. But studies show that from 1980 to 2014, as Los Angeles saw its largest waves of families coming from Latin America and Asia, household incomes rose only by 13 percent, while rents in Los Angeles rose by 55 percent. At the same time, reports show that by 1997, when my brother and I were in our earliest years of school, nearly one out of every six renter households in Los Angeles County lived in overcrowded or severely overcrowded conditions. Like our parents, and generations of Indigenous and Black Americans before them, we inherited racist policies that would only become more pronounced over time.
Thirty years after our parents’ arrival to Los Angeles, investment in a whiter, more luxurious L.A., coupled with growing homelessness for Black and immigrant communities here, spreads like a malign enclosure upon more neighborhoods, surrounding the 600 square foot apartment our family shares with only more unaffordability, exclusivity, and racist dispossession of space.
Ellis Act evictions take place when landlords decide to turn rental buildings, including rent-stabilized (RSO) buildings, into condominiums or vacant land, in the process kicking out any and all families who rely on paying stabilized or affordable rents at those buildings. Each time a household or family in East Hollywood is evicted because of the Ellis Act, it not only destabilizes local family health and support systems, but also reduces the number of affordable housing units for working-class families, especially Black and immigrant communities in Los Angeles.
There is little legal protection for renters faced with an Ellis Act eviction because the law is by and large a handout to landlords. But families can pressure landlords and the city for greater compensation when they’re forced to leave their only homes, especially if they can organize with fellow families paying rent at buildings set for conversion.
Since 2000, Ellis Act evictions have taken nearly 500 RSO housing units out of East Hollywood, and nearly 27,000 RSO housing units out of the city of Los Angeles, with each unit lost being another opening for more gentrification, or pricing out of long-time community members. Our city, state and planning officials are supposed to protect such housing, but have largely derelicted this duty. Thus, when organizations like the East Hollywood Tenants Union and the Eviction Defense Network take a stand against these and other evictions, they’re actually filling a leadership vacuum left by many of the city’s supposed officials and representatives.
In the near future, outlawing the Ellis Act at the next opportunity, which overwhelmingly impacts Black and immigrant families in Los Angeles, as well as educating renters on their rights before they face an Ellis Act eviction are key areas for our communities to focus on. Supporting tenants associations as volunteers, funders, or providing other services to these groups will also prove fruitful in the fight to prevent more racist dispossession of the places we call home.
UNHOUSED IN EAST HOLLYWOOD
Each time a new tent is laid across the sidewalk in East Hollywood, it not only places the person sheltering in it in a dangerous environment, but also impacts the elderly, children, and residents in wheelchairs who rely on public space to move across our communities. According to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA), in 2009, when Eric Garcetti was in his eighth year as the Council Member for the 13th district, where East Hollywood is based, there were an estimated 2,200 people in the district without a roof over their heads.
Since 2019, by Mitch O’Farrell’s sixth year as the Council Member for the 13th district, LAHSA reported just under 4,000 unhoused people in the district, or an increase of 81 percent, approximately 3,200 of whom had no shelter on any given night. LAHSA’s counts are also widely considered undercounts, since families who are “doubling up” in living rooms and other such arrangements are not counted in the annual tally by the organization.
The question for many residents in East Hollywood, then, and in nearly any formerly redlined neighborhood in Los Angeles, remains: Why does homelesness only increase every year?
When the feds redlined neighborhoods in the 1940s, they decided where housing would be funded by the federal budget, and where it would not be funded. Assessors for the government walked through our neighborhoods, and after seeing homes in our communities that included Black, Asian-American, and Latinx residents alongside those of white or European immigrants, decided funding for housing would not be assigned here. By contrast, when the feds saw strictly white communities, or vacant land that could be made strictly white by a “deed restriction,” they encouraged their colleagues at federal offices to write the checks and developers to bring on the building. This was a consequential form of what author and prison abolitionist, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, has called “organized abandonment,” or institutional racism, that continues affecting our neighborhoods.
As a result of redlining and related policies, working-class whites, many of whom would later become “NIMBYs,” or activists against integrated and more diverse neighborhoods in today’s Los Angeles, received a wide array of housing opportunities at the expense of Black and immigrant communities. This meant that many Black and immigrant people in places like East Hollywood had to crowd together inside of rental apartments originally built in the 1920s, when the city of L.A. housed less than 600,000 people. But by 1940, L.A.’s population had more than doubled, even as the city still reneged on the need to house non-white immigrant and Black workers. As World War II progressed, only more such workers migrated to L.A., and that’s when homelessness first came to be regarded as a serious threat to non-white communities here.
Los Angeles now contains nearly four million people. But Black and immigrant families here remain overcrowded in rental housing, and are increasingly crowded out onto the street. As of 2020, Black and immigrant families are nearly three-fourths of L.A. County’s estimated 70,000 unhoused people, according to LAHSA’s numbers.
And what kind of support exists for these residents? As of 2018, a patchwork system between L.A. City Council districts, the L.A. County Supervisors, and LAHSA offered less than 17,000 shelter beds for people with nowhere to live, or 24 percent of the need. However, in several cases, L.A.’s shelters have been found to be unsanitary, infested by bugs and vermin, inadequately staffed and maintained, and even containing abusers, all of which are why many unhoused people largely decline their “services.”
It’s also important to note that the unhoused population’s demographics nearly replicate that of L.A. County’s incarcerated population. According to former director for LAHSA, Peter Lynn, “there is probably no more single significant factor than incarceration in terms of elevating somebody’s prospects of homelessness.”
Yet as recently as 2019, approximately 111,000 individuals were placed behind bars at the L.A. county jail system, according to the L.A. Almanac. 53 percent of these inmates were Latino, while 29 percent were Black, even while Black people account for less than 9 percent of the L.A. County population and Latino inmates are likely undercounted.
For each Black or Latino resident placed behind L.A. County bars– which costs taxpayers up to $50,000 per inmate, according to Justice L.A.–their chance of becoming homeless is substantially increased. After all, going to jail means missing work, educational, and family obligations, and a criminal record that affects both housing as well as employment opportunities. Gilmore has also pointed out that as recently as 2006, 40 percent of the state’s prisoners came from L.A. County alone, meaning that addressing homelessness in the region also necessitates apprehending California’s elaborate prison industrial complex, the largest in U.S. history.
These historic and ongoing racist legacies in Los Angeles, abetted by state legislators and their benefactors, are important to be familiar with to see why the city, state and federal governments have historical wrongs to account for on housing as much as they do on policing, particularly for Black, immigrant, and Indigenous communities; and to see why, instead of pinning the “blame” on unhoused people simply because they’re “in front of us,” frustrations are better channeled at public leaders tasked and paid by our tax dollars to oversee services for our communities.
L.A. CITY PLANNING
It is a historical fact that L.A. City officials have long been for sale to luxury, condominium, and other major real estate developers, and all the more so because of weak state and federal housing policies largely drafted by landlord and realtor groups themselves. Recent guilty pleas for bribery schemes by former L.A. City Council Member Mitchell Englander, and former L.A. City Planning Commissioner, Justin Kim, showed this most recently, while Jose Huizar, the former L.A. City Council Member for Boyle Heights, awaits trial for an elaborate luxury hotel-building scheme in none other than downtown L.A..
But discoveries of “sell-out” politicians in L.A. should not be considered aberrational. Rather, it’s part of an “old” legacy of business between wealthy groups and government offices in major cities across the U.S. As far back as 1955, in Forbidden Neighbors: A Study of Prejudice in Housing, housing policy expert, Charles Abrams, noted that one of the main obstacles in creating equitable housing were City Planning officials interested more in profit than fair policy:
“Their main interest, like that of private operators, is financial success. If in the process prejudice becomes part of public policy, it is only the price of profit.”
At the March 2021 Hollywood Community Update Plan’s public hearing, a meeting held by the L.A. City Planning Commission regarding “updates” to land rules in Hollywood, planning officials once again showed more concern for the financial rather than racial implications of their proposed “changes” to the rules. Commissioners were largely out of the loop when it came to their own staff’s dizzying and bureaucratic recommendations on the plan, and hesitant to call for any language in the “updates” in outright defense of Black unhoused people, Latinx domestic workers, and other low-income or no-income residents in Hollywood.
Yet expecting planning commissioners chosen for their seats by the mayor’s office to stand up for working-class people’s homes might be as fanciful as expecting the L.A. County sheriff to call for permanently closing the $3.5 billion L.A. County Jail after hearing from wrongfully incarcerated people. In reality, not unlike the sheriffs, whose very uniforms depend on securing property rights and not those of working-class people, commissioners at the Hollywood Community Update plan largely lacked terminology, and much less experience with standing up to hotel and shopping district developers for elderly, Black, immigrant and other residents historically left out of the city’s “future.” And since commissioners for the Hollywood update didn’t know how language in the plan meant to preserve affordable housing or rent-stabilized units would be taken by development groups and their lawyers, they stayed away from any meaningful stand for these residents altogether, leaving it for the L.A. City Council to do.
These commissioners also failed to even mention concerns by callers about more than 4,500 acres in the Hollywood area being zoned or recommended for single-family homes, effectively blocking multi-family and affordable housing projects from entering areas like the Hollywood hills for another 20 years.
In the 1940s, areas like the Hollywood Hills were greenlined, or praised by real estate assessors for “deeds” in their neighborhoods based on exclusivity against non-white homeowners. But today, while zoning for the Hollywood Hills contains no explicit bans on housing for non-whites, “preserving neighborhood character” for largely white, single-family homeowners there accomplishes the same, ensuring that especially low-income renters stay out of the Hollywood Hills until at least 2040. Thus, Abrams’ words from 1955 were just as applicable to the commissioners’ effects at the Hollywood Update’s Public Hearing from March 2021:
”They have not only ignored the racial problem in their calculations but the problem of mixed social and economic groups generally. Their vision is too-often restricted to new neighborhoods developed as all-white, all-one-class, all-exclusive enclaves. Thus another great reform may go the way of others, to be perverted into another device for exclusion and oppression.”
In the immediate future, city planning commissions not only need to be electorally chosen, but also more representative of people who actually live in planning areas due for “updates” in their zoning or land rules. The commissioner’s hearings also need to be more culturally competent for the city’s non-white groups in both their structure and order; the “old” way of official business in Los Angeles, a system largely crafted by and for white men of means, is as much in poor taste in the 21st century as it is undemocratic. Individuals with a seat at commissions also need to be masters of the long list of racist planning policies against “minorities,” and well-read on how to require preservation along with expansion of space from developers for these communities in the name of equity.
GENTRIFICATION AS A NEW CIVIL RIGHTS ISSUE
While research has defined gentrification in several ways, here is a final scenario to consider the issue: Gentrification is when a public official sees a neighborhood where families are barely making monthly rent on crowded housing, yet still approves luxury and market rate housing entering into those families’ neighborhood. This is an inherently discriminatory call because such developments only increase the cost of living for those working-class families, recalling previous forms of racist, yet also legal, dispossession for communities of color such as redlining.
Just as when the feds labeled Black and immigrant groups “undesirable” for investment, when these groups were actually laborers for service and agricultural sectors crucial to California and the U.S. leading up to and during WWII, today it’s just as discriminatory to burden these communities with unaffordable living options and market rate housing that is not meant for low-income wage earners, or essential workers.
Here’s another note for future L.A. City Planning officials and constituents to keep in mind: If Black and immigrant communities had been invested in during the making of the modern Los Angeles, or “allowed” to own homes in “white” neighborhoods and supported by federal and municipal governments in doing so–the way they need to be supported in doing so now–there is no telling how many “tent cities” would have been prevented from cropping up in Los Angeles and California.
Fortunately, in response to the racist policies, Los Angeles is now witnessing the rise of a new generation of multi-ethnic groups organizing to advance human rights over unchecked profit agendas abetted by public policymakers, including Street Watch L.A., the L.A. Tenants Union, and more; these groups need to be partnered with and grown. While donating money is helpful, just as critical is “people power,” or “boots on the ground” to support their efforts in building a more humane Los Angeles. In community with these efforts, here are just a few more humane possibilities for housing in Los Angeles going forward.
RECLAIMING AND REBUILDING OUR COMMUNITIES
At the same time that calls increase on our public officials to support not luxury, but housing for low-income workers in Los Angeles, a growing number of people are also calling for more Community Land Trusts (CLTs). CLTs maintain community ownership–or shared stewardship–over land and housing to maintain permanently affordable housing options for community members.
CLTs require participation from homeowners and tenants, as well as other community members in their governing board meetings or governing structure. Renters in areas covered by CLTs can also work with local CLTs to acquire a property together, facilitating the process of acquisition for tenants and the non-profits as stewards.
In an effort to create more Community Land Trusts across Los Angeles for the County’s 10 million residents, five local CLTs have formed a coalition and are urging L.A. residents to learn about the Tenants Opportunity to Purchase Act.
The Tenants Opportunity to Purchase Act (TOPA) is a proposed law that would give tenants in unincorporated areas of L.A. County the first opportunity to buy the building they live in if and when a building’s owner decides to sell the property. While the law would begin with unincorporated areas, the goal would be to spread its span across Los Angeles.
Locally, in East Hollywood, the Beverly & Vermont CLT can provide more information. According to Joe Linton, of Streetsblog L.A., “The BVCLT is focused on providing affordable housing within a walkable distance from the Beverly & Vermont Metro Red Line Station [between Koreatown and East Hollywood]. BVCLT currently owns three apartment buildings (50 housing units, all below market rate, with a dozen covenanted for specific low income categories) and manages a community garden site owned by the school district [LAUSD].”
In El Sereno, the El Sereno Community Land Trust has stated official interest in taking stewardship over dozens of empty homes in the area, some purchased by Caltrans as early as 1950, for a 710 freeway expansion project the agency officially abandoned in November 2018. at At the beginning of the pandemic, after families calling themselves “Reclaimers” moved into a dozen of these empty homes without official approval, Caltrans negotiated with the group to approve a select number of the homes as temporary shelter. But when a few more families attempted to do the same in November, California highway patrol officers quickly descended on them, manhandling women and children and charging them with trespassing. Yet the effort signaled both the growing crisis of homelessness for families in L.A. as well as the growing risks they’re willing to take for a roof over their heads.
This leads to another simple, yet practical ordinance that planning and public officials can immediately apply to save hundreds of thousands of housing units in Los Angeles over the next few years as cities “recover” from the global health crisis: no rent obligations for working-class families who experience sudden financial or personal loss.
When working-class people, particularly in redlined or disinvested communities, experience tragedy in their lives, like the sudden loss of a loved one, they should not be compelled to pay rent at the end of the month. Expenses for a roof over one’s head, among other accounting to do after a sudden death, is only an additional burden, especially when those lost supported the household rent. Deaths and accidents for families who have been historically discriminated against should not have to lead to homelessness, as has been the de facto norm for far too long in our city.
This would not be an entirely new innovation either. During World War II, rent control in the U.S. was officially enacted nationwide to ensure workers had a place to rest for the next day’s work assignment. In the “war” against pandemic, rent forgiveness will prove just as much as an investment. It was also just in 2008 that, at the height of the great recession, the federal government doled out over trillions of taxpayer dollars to U.S. banks. Today, after the year of the great pandemic, why shouldn’t the government allocate as much for working-class families?
BRING OUR HOUSING HOME
In Los Angeles County, as recently as 2019, an estimate of nearly 900,000 residents in Los Angeles, or enough to fill up seats at more than 15 additional Dodger stadiums, were qualified as poor by the Public Policy Institute of California. For these residents, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) lists 811 buildings in L.A. County officially recognized as affordable housing options. But even if all of these buildings were to contain up to 100 units of housing–which they certainly do not–that would still be merely 81,000 affordable housing units, or just 24% percent of what L.A. County’s most vulnerable residents need.
An additional problem is that the HUD website lists units that are affordable under the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit program, which is a government tax break for private real estate developers to keep a certain amount of their housing units below market rate prices, but only for a duration of about 15 to 20 years; in other words, even “affordable housing” by the federal government’s definition is just affordable on a timer, not permanently affordable for families in need.
Therefore, even if L.A.’s low-income families manage to find an affordable apartment tomorrow, they could pay rent for only a single year before the housing’s affordability “deed” expires. A recent report by the California Housing Partnership (CHP) shows that nearly 9,000 such homes are due to turn into market rate housing through 2021 alone, while 32,000 more are set to become market rate units by 2030. Coupled with Ellis Act evictions, these policies are set to wipe out at least 50,000 affordable homes in Los Angeles by the supposed start of the 2028 Olympics.
In 2018, the CHP also estimated that L.A. County needs more than 500,000 housing units to keep up with demand. Here’s what should be clear about these units: they need to be permanently affordable, or extremely low-income housing for low wage earners, and built not only by for-profit developers, but by non-profits and the federal government’s own entities across Los Angeles. These low-income homes also need to be built in Hollywood Hills, Pacific Palisades, Santa Clarita, and anywhere else land can be reasonably integrated, both racially and in terms of income.
While many claim that land in Los Angeles for such units is simply too expensive in today’s dollars, even if a single one of these half a million units costs up to $500,000, requiring a $250 billion investment, the expense would still constitute less than five percent of all money borrowed by the federal government for wars in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001. Put another way, if the U.S. had taken those war dollars and spent them domestically over twenty years, it could have funded 500,000 affordable housing units in Los Angeles and 47.5 million more units all over the country. Instead, as recently as 2018, just 1.1 million public housing apartments spread across the 50 states housed an estimated 2.1 million low-income residents.
Mom was in her first year as the owner of her newsstand on Santa Monica boulevard, while yours truly was just a first-year student at Thomas Starr King Middle School in 2001. As we watched the twin towers fall, little did we know that the event would spark twenty years of fighting phantom enemies abroad instead of fighting racism against communities historically called and treated as enemies here. In April 2021, Biden announced the withdrawal of all U.S. troops in Afghanistan by September 11, 2021, yet mom and I await another “homecoming” in Los Angeles; we watch patiently as for the first time in three decades, 187 units of extremely low-income housing are set to enter East Hollywood for renters like our family.
The Little Tokyo Service Center has worked hard to establish various bonds for these 187 units atop L.A. Metro’s Vermont and Santa Monica Red Line station. Yet non-profit housing developers like the LTSC, as well as the Beverly & Vermont CLT, and our families, should not have to go it alone for another two or three decades. Our government has to take on new housing responsibilities for communities as nothing less than a defining matter of public infrastructure.
Our municipal government must work in coordination towards the same; as recently as 2019, Los Angeles County produced more than $725 billion worth of goods and services, the largest amount of any county in the nation. In other words, today’s local, state and federal officials can find more ways than one to create expansive public housing, community land trusts, and comprehensive policies for workers and families spread across every neighborhood in Los Angeles, regardless of income or “property values.” Most importantly, as was the case during Mr. Albright’s Reconstruction, our communities today stand just as ready to raise these fruits across the land.
Because our calls and movements for housing are not just about places of residency or zip codes in which to reside for work and schools; in this city and across the nation, they are about the life-blood of our communities and how humane policies can finally “give back” to those who continually tend to our cities’ health and well-being despite even the greatest odds continually stacked against them.