Longtime Residents Need to Stay One Step Ahead of Developers to Benefit From the Area’s Rise

By Benny Torres

[This article was originally published by Zocalo Public Square on April 30, 2015] 

The 1992 riots are what first drew me to work in South Los Angeles. I was a civically minded college kid back then, with an attraction to social and economic justice issues. At that time, South L.A. was brimming with newly formed organizations aimed at ameliorating the tensions behind that year’s explosion of civil unrest sparked by the acquittal of officers in the Rodney King beating.

My first job down here was as a community organizer, working with local residents to build their skills to demand improvements to their neighborhoods. At the time, our focus was on school reform. I’ve since gone on to create the Community Planning and Economic Development program at Los Angeles Trade Tech, where I train locals more broadly on how to translate their passion for their community into real political action. Over the years I have trained more than 1000 students on how to make concrete change in their community.

South Los Angeles today has changed a lot since the incendiary early 90s, and the neighborhoods are in many ways better off than they were. For example, crime rates are the lowest they have been since the 1950s. And public transportation continues to expand every year, providing South Los Angeles residents with connections to other parts of the city through the Blue and Expo Metro lines.

Policies do not require developers to create just and equitable opportunities for low-income residents. We know that benefits for low-income residents such as living-wage jobs and affordable housing don’t trickle down on their own.

However, true economic prosperity has proved elusive. In the neighborhoods that used to be known as South Central, the aggregated poverty rate is 45 percent, 25 percentage points higher than the city’s average. Unemployment rates in this part of town hover around 12 percent and high school dropout rates just below 50 percent.

South Los Angeles residents also experience a lower overall quality of life. Take the availability of healthy food. The area’s 60 full-service grocery stores serve an average of 22,156 residents, while the 57 stores in West Los Angeles serve an average 11, 150 resident. That means Angelenos on the west side have twice as many opportunities to purchase healthy fruits and produce when compared to their South Los Angeles counterparts.

Sorely needed change has been slow to arrive, but new developments along the stretch of the Washington corridor that borders Downtown indicate that South Los Angeles’ turn in the spotlight may finally be here. The Blue Line—the city’s oldest rail line, running through the heart of South Los Angeles on its way to Long Beach—is starting to attract developers who are eyeing the area for new high-rise buildings and trendy shops. Residents who have long wanted better neighborhoods welcome the prospect of positive change, but not without trepidation. They know by now that with every new luxury apartment or hip coffee shop comes the risk of displacement for families who have long called the area home.

These fears are justified. Gentrification has swept through places like Highland Park, Echo Park, and downtown Los Angeles, transforming blighted, low-income communities into hot new neighborhoods. I grew up and still reside in Echo Park, and while I can appreciate that our streets are better maintained and we have more local options for shopping, rents have skyrocketed, and many longtime residents have been priced out of their homes.

Change in South Los Angeles won’t be a debate between the pro and anti development factions. Longtime residents are hungry for change, and proposals to bring high-rise market rate housing and new retail to communities along the Blue Line mark the first time that large-scale private investments have come to South Los Angeles.

The Grand Metropolitan project on Washington Boulevard, for instance, will bring 160 new apartments to the area just south of downtown. This is across the street from the proposed SoLA Village, a $1 billion project that will include a 208-room hotel, a grocery store, and two condo towers that will be over 30 stories tall. Downtown L.A.’s renaissance is starting to creep south of the 10 freeway, and these projects will be game changers for an area that for now mostly features vacant parking lots and underused manufacturing spaces.

The truth is, development and the change it brings have the potential to be powerful, positive forces for neighborhoods that have long been associated with unsafe streets and stagnating economic opportunities. South LA residents aren’t trying to keep outsiders out of their backyards; they just want a fair opportunity to be able to stay. And keeping these diverse communities intact is good for everyone in our city. Research shows that income inequality is economically detrimental for cities, and that an equity-driven focus on development can help communities thrive.

To that end, the United Neighbors in Defense Against Displacement (U.N.I.D.A.D.) Coalition, made up of residents and community organizations from South Los Angeles, successfully negotiated with the developer of the Grand Metropolitan project for the inclusion of 24 units for low-income residents, including residents with extremely low wages.

U.N.I.D.A.D. was also able to negotiate construction and permanent jobs for local residents, space and financial support for small business development, and support resources for homeless families who camp near the project site by the St. Francis Center. These community benefits were not required by city officials, but rather negotiated directly between residents and the developer.

Unfortunately, project-by-project victories don’t solve the complex economic issues that cause gentrification. What happens if development outpaces the ability of local residents and community organizations to organize and demand benefits? Or when a developer refuses to include affordable housing or local business opportunities in new projects?

As of this writing, our city’s land use and development policies do not require developers to create just and equitable opportunities for low-income residents. We know that benefits for low-income residents such as living-wage jobs and affordable housing don’t trickle down on their own. We must embed access to these opportunities into the policies that guide future growth and development, by requiring developers to carve out a space for residents—transplants and old-timers, wealthy and poor.

The good news is that the Department of City Planning is currently drawing up community plans for South and Southeast Los Angeles that will dictate the rules for new development in these areas. It is crucial that these plans include community benefit requirements that give local residents a first shot at construction jobs, affordable space for aspiring entrepreneurs, and housing that doesn’t break the bank, along with new green space and community improvements.

So act now. We are a more vibrant city when our communities reflect the diversity and history that has long defined Los Angeles. Let officials know that you’re all for improvements in the city, but only when everyone can enjoy them.