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What to know about gentrification before buying a house in LA

Plus: How to be a good neighbor in a gentrifying city

No Los Angeles house hunting story would be complete without mentioning gentrification. At the center of this hot-button issue is Boyle Heights, and not far from it is South LA—one of the neighborhoods where my husband and I searched for a home in 2017.

It’s not breaking news nor an exaggeration that LA’s got a housing crisis on its hands. A lack of affordable housing, rising home prices, increasing income disparity, and historic “redlining”—a map by the government-backed Home Owners Loan Corporation in 1939 that “crystalized discriminatory lending practices and reinforced racial and class bias in home ownership,” writes KCET’s Ryan Reft—have created a recipe that angrily swirls into the City of Angels’ melting pot narrative.

As two college grads with fairly suburban upbringings who bring in slightly more than the LA median income, my husband and I looked at buying property in South LA as an investment opportunity. We reasoned that if we lived there for three to five years, we’d reap the economic benefits of the soon-to-open Crenshaw Metro line and the NFL Stadium.

Like many other self-professed “mindful” citizens, we recycle, try to buy locally-made goods, and pick up cage-free organic eggs.

But in our naiveté, we didn’t immediately consider that our quest to own a home might lead to another Angeleno’s displacement. Neighborhood experts, community leaders, and local officials agree that this is one of the main issues surrounding gentrification.

Before getting to tips on how to be a good neighbor in a gentrifying city, it’s necessary to unravel what that means. Experts agree that a person who buys a home in a lower-income area with the intention of flipping or staying there for a short time, or a new resident who’s unwilling to be part of the community can be considered a gentrifier.

“The displacement issue is absolutely critical in defining gentrification,” says Dana Cuff, UCLA cityLAB director and professor of architecture and urban design.

Most people think of their homes as investments, and everybody wants to see their neighborhoods improve. “But the problem is people are displaced unwillingly, and they’re priced out of the market in one way or the other,” Cuff says.

Low-income renters are the Angelenos most vulnerable to displacement. Although my husband and I previously rented, our steady paychecks and job stability afforded us options when it came down to choosing a new neighborhood. That’s not an advantage shared by many others in LA.

“In the past, there’s been neighborhood change—that’s where the whole ‘filtered down’ theory came from,” says Cuff. “But that doesn’t work anymore, because there’s not enough housing, and almost all the housing being built is only affordable to a very small category of people.”

Rudy Espinoza, executive director of the nonprofit organization Leadership for Urban Renewal Network says gentrification is the newest manifestation of how low-income residents continue to get hurt.

“We’re saying, ‘You should be able to buy a house; you should just save money,’ but when you’re making $35,000 or less, how do you ever catch up?” he says. “It’s a symptomatic of a capitalist system that is run on a speculative real estate market where values of property magically go up every year. It’s a system that helps people who already have money—and it’s leaving the majority of us behind.”

Boyle Heights residents witnessed this in neighboring and now-gentrified communities of Echo Park, Silver Lake, and Highland Park, says Steven Almazan, a former Boyle Heights Neighborhood Council member who spent two years as a special education teacher at KIPP Sol Academy in East LA.

As new residents began moving to those neighborhoods in the mid-2000s, rents increased and pushed lower-income renters east to Frogtown, Highland Park, Mt. Washington, and Lincoln Heights, to name a few, he says.

Sitting inside local-beloved La Moscata Bakery (which recently underwent its own revitalization) about a mile south from gentrification battle ground Weird Wave Coffee Roasters, Almazan explains why residents of Boyle Heights—a community whose roots in activism was documented in the film East LA Interchange and has become the symbol of the anti-gentrification movement—have defended their neighborhood so zealously.

Enter the controversial openings of Weird Wave and “artwashing” galleries like the now-shuttered PSSST in Boyle Heights, which have pushed the East LA community in the national spotlight. The media has painted the scene as “either you’re for the businesses moving in or you’re for the protesters who want to keep them out,” says Almazan. But “more people are actually in the middle; [they] appreciate good coffee but don’t want to contribute to the eventual displacement of families years down the line.”

The efforts of anti-gentrification activists “are more symbolic than anything,” he says. Artisanal coffee roasters and art galleries are not the sole cause of gentrification, but they’re “definitely part of the process, regardless of the intention of the coffee shop owners,” he says.

The conversation should instead focus on how newcomers—residents and businesses alike—can integrate within the community. In the case of Weird Wave, Almazan says the owners should have first determined how to best serve the needs of Boyle Heights, where the median income is $34,000.

Though investing—capital or otherwise—in communities also increases the city’s revenue, Almazan has a few of his own ideas for creating healthy communities with mixed incomes, especially in areas that have a track record for resisting low-income housing. Linkage fees are a great step, he says. But he also wants to see more housing policies that give incentives to home buyers to live in a neighborhood for at least a decade, prevent Airbnb-style apartments, or keep people from flipping homes within a year, to name a few.

Luciralia Ibarra, senior city planner with the Los Angeles Department of City Planning, says the city continues to find ways to boost and encourage the production of affordable housing. She cites California’s density bonus program and the recently-signed Unapproved Dwelling Unit Ordinance, “a voluntary program which allows property owners to legalize qualifying unpermitted units, assuming all life-safety conditions are met.”

“Finding long-lasting solutions to fit the needs of each community is challenging [and] what may work for one community may not work for another,” she says.

Complicating things further is the fact that LA is “not static,” says Cuff.

“You can look at any city, and it’s always either getting better or getting worse from somebody’s perspective,” she says. “It’s either getting more expensive or getting less expensive.”

Any change will always be in and against someone’s favor. LA’s ever-evolving nature, she says, “exaggerates the process that leads to gentrification.”

In LA’s market, it’s easy for buyers to adopt a no-holds-barred approach (as we did) to beat the already cutthroat competition. When it comes to seeking homes in ripe-for-gentrification areas, it’s likely that we aren’t the only ones who forget to consider who’ll be displaced.

“At the end of the day, if you’re going to [buy in a lower-income area], you’re going to displace someone,” says Almazan. “I don’t want to see this as a zero-sum game, [but] how can we leverage the opportunity that already exists in the neighborhood?”

It's a harsh reality. Throughout our home search my husband and I realized that our problems are first-world compared to the challenges of other residents with far lower incomes.

As the LA-born daughter of Filipino immigrants, I wanted to be mindful of Angelenos whose paths may mirror that of my parents and grandparents. If we moved to South LA, we'd vow to be the kind of people who our neighbors could count on to watch their homes while they're away and be active members of the community (and yes, send our kids to public school).

So how can prospective LA homebuyers be more mindful in choosing where to live?

“Another way of looking at this might be [to ask], ‘What does it mean to be a member of the 21st century neighborhood?’” says Cuff. You don’t necessarily need to be a homeowner who’s heavily involved in local politics while opting to send your child to a public school instead of a charter or private one.

“But I think we need to do some of those things and contribute in some way to the collective vision of our neighborhood,” she says.

How to be a good neighbor in a gentrifying city

Look elsewhere. One hard-to-swallow answer? Don’t buy in neighborhoods like Boyle Heights, says Cuff. “This is a pretty radical stance that I’m taking and that it feels uncivil,” she says. “But be cautious about moving where current residents have an active political protest against neighborhood change. I think that’s being respectful.”

Cuff recommends cities “like Koreatown, El Monte, Pacoima—really amazing neighborhoods where there hasn’t been much real estate pressure. Those are the kind of neighborhoods where you could contribute in a way that would be valuable.”

Take a cue from Mr. Rogers. “Talk to your neighbors, introduce yourselves ... even if you don’t speak [your neighbor’s] language, you can still nod and say hi,” says Espinoza. Understand the assets in a community rather than viewing them as things that you want to change, he says.

Plan to live in the neighborhood long-term. If you’re going to buy in areas like South LA or Boyle Heights and are worried about what unintended consequences you may have, live there for as long as possible, Almazan says. “Move into a neighborhood knowing that you’re going to be there for hopefully the rest or the majority of your life.”

Cuff agrees: “Stop thinking of your house as [merely] an investment, and start thinking of it in terms of where you could be a contributing neighbor,” she says. Be willing to volunteer at a local public school—and send your kids there, for that matter.

Play an active role in the community. “I encourage folks to become involved at the civic level and to attend community meetings in order to be a part of the discussion of creating sensible, long-term strategies,” says Ibarra.

Adding a constructive voice to the community’s decision-making is key, agrees Cuff. “Your voice should be one that adds to existing point of views or adds a new point of view that would not be resisted, but maybe adopted by open-minded people,” she says. “You have to be part of the public sphere of your neighborhood.”

Support the mom ‘n’ pops and nonprofits. Almazan suggests spending money at local minority-owned businesses and donating to local nonprofits working to empower community members. Organizations like LURN, for instance, seek to empower entrepreneurs in the informal economy with low-interest loans and advocate for the legalization of street vending.

Elect officials who prioritize effective solutions to gentrification. “At the end of the day, we have to come up with unconventional, creative policy solutions that address systemically racist policies that have prevented families in low-income neighborhoods from purchasing homes,” says Almazan. “I would argue that the majority of elected officials in LA do not see gentrification as an issue. In the public policy world, a city will intervene on an issue when they decide this is an issue impacting the majority of people in a neighborhood.”

Gentrification should be tackled with the same urgency as California’s water crisis, he says, and Angelenos should vote for local and state candidates “who are willing to take the risk of putting their name behind a policy that actually put the needs of the community first before profit.”

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