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Houses in El Sereno tagged with anti-gentrification graffiti

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Homeowners say they still want to be part of the community: “It’s not going to scare me away”

A house in El Sereno tagged with a message: “fuck gentrification.”
By Nadra Nittle

Just three weeks after a family from the Inland Empire moved into their El Sereno home, they found graffiti on their fence signaling they weren’t welcome in the Northeast LA neighborhood.

“Fuck gentrification,” the graffiti said.

The homeowner, who did not want to be named, said the fence was spray-painted the night of January 4. Her residence, a flip on Templeton Street, is one of several that has been defaced with anti-gentrification messages.

Since late October, pictures of flipped or newly constructed homes in El Sereno marred by tagging have made the rounds on social media sites like Nextdoor and Instagram. An advertisement for real estate agent Mike Antonelli was tagged with the word “gentrifier,” and his image was defaced with a tail, pitchfork, and horns to liken him to a devil.

The Templeton resident and at least one other homeowner had filed police reports about the graffiti left on their properties, and detectives with the Los Angeles Police Department’s Hollenbeck Division said 20-year-old Sebastian Schiff was arrested Thursday on suspicion of felony vandalism.

In an email to Curbed, members of El Sereno Against Gentrification said they condemn the arrest and questioned why a young man was in jail, because “some gentrifiers’ feeling got hurt, and they needed to buy an extra can of paint.”

In nearby neighborhoods, including Boyle Heights and Highland Park, stores and art galleries have been vandalized and picketed by gentrification foes over the past several years. Homeowners, however, haven’t typically been targeted.

In El Sereno, that appears to be changing. Three homes in the 5300 block of Templeton have been tagged, as have at least four homes in the University Hills enclave near Cal State LA. Some properties have even been hit twice, with graffiti left on the horizontal slat fences colloquially known as “hipster fences” and on the walls of other homes.

An Instagram post from October by a user named Cheladito13 includes pictures of the Templeton homes tagged with graffiti after an earlier spray-painting spree. It also criticizes “horizontal fencing,” calling the style “nothing more than a wide ladder to an intruder.”

Several commenters seemed to take pleasure in the graffiti, calling the poster a hero, remarking that it’s ridiculous that El Sereno now has $1 million listings, and wishing that Highland Park homes would be defaced too.

While much of the graffiti bears the same message—“fuck gentrification,” with a happy face as a signature—some of the tagging is more detailed and less profane. One home was spray-painted with the statement: “Your house raises our rent.”

“We would like to nominate those pieces for best public art so far in 2019,” El Sereno Against Gentrification members wrote in their email. “It tells house flippers (who only see dollar signs when they invade our neighborhoods with horizontal fences) and realtors (who hop from neighborhood to gentrifying neighborhood selling homes to upper middle class people all while speculating on the next gentrifying neighborhood) that they are not welcome in El Sereno.”

Some of the houses hit are newly built and unoccupied, but others already have residents, like the family on Templeton Street who moved into their home in December.

“On one hand, it’s disconcerting,” said the homeowner. “But on the other hand, it’s not going to scare me away. I believe in the future of this community. That’s why I bought my house here. The anti-gentrification people are taking it as though we’re here to take away from them, but that’s not the case. We just want to become part of the community.”

Tak Suzuki says his El Sereno house was tagged with anti-gentrification graffiti on Monday night.

Suzuki, who works for a nonprofit that aims, among other things, to offset the effects of gentrification, says he wishes he could have had a dialogue with community members concerned about rising property values.

“The people who are behind this, they’re not open to discussion,” Suzuki, who is also an appointee on the county’s Community Development Commission/Housing Authority, said. “They don’t want to be involved in policy-making, community planning, and updating processes... It’s just really a very narrow approach they’re taking.”

Suzuki relocated to El Sereno four months ago from City Terrace. He says his partner’s family has lived on the Eastside for nearly a century, and the incident has deeply troubled her. He guesses their home is an easy target, because it’s new.

“It was new construction that was built on a vacant piece of land,” he said. “It’s unfortunate. It’s really misguided.”

El Sereno is hardly overrun with the gastropubs, art galleries, and vintage boutiques peppered throughout other neighborhoods like Highland Park, but home values are rising. According to Zillow, prices have spiked 9.1 percent over the past year to $599,600 and are predicted to increase by 7.5 percent within the next year.

Members of El Sereno Against Gentrification have previously expressed concerns that rising home prices threaten to displace longtime community members, especially renters.

“A lot of new people coming in are a real problem: They call the cops on kids, they go to neighborhood council meetings to block low-income housing developments, they demand that the city ‘do something’ about their neighbors living in RVs, because the rent is too damn high,” they wrote in an email to Curbed.

El Sereno is hardly overrun with gastropubs, art galleries, and vintage boutiques, but home values are rising.
LA Times via Getty Images

But Anthony Manzano, president of LA32 Neighborhood Council, which represents El Sereno, supports gentrification of the largely Latino and working class neighborhood.

“There are some renters who feel like they’re being displaced. Maybe they’re born and raised here and have been pushed out,” said Manzano, himself a fourth-generation resident. “Me, as a person, I would rather property values go up and there be clean streets and educated and professional neighbors than the transients, the drug dealers, the gang members, people who leave trash on the streets, rob from cars, and tag on the walls.”

Sergio Delgadillo, who photographed anti-gentrification graffiti on the wall of a newly built home in University Hills, agrees with Manzano. A native Eastsider, who moved into his University Hills home 20 years ago, said few people wanted to live there back then. He says his house had sat vacant for seven years before he purchased it.

“Nobody lived there,” he said. “Now they’re doing all of this remodeling and gentrifying. It looks good. I love it.”

During the economic recession, however, Delgadillo nearly lost his home, he said. He now uses Airbnb to rent out part of the property, a practice that, thanks mostly to commercial operators, has helped fuel LA’s housing crisis. But he says he depends on the income.

“I refinanced my home and got into a bad deal, so I decided to do Airbnb,” he explained. “It’s guaranteed money, but I do hear the stories about Airbnbs making all the rents go up and making people homeless.”

Several homeless encampments can be found on the median of El Sereno’s main drag, Huntington Drive. Homeless residents also camp on Elephant Hill, 110 acres of green space in the neighborhood. Developers tried for years to build luxury condominiums on the site but were blocked by a coalition of community groups who wanted to preserve the space for the public and wildlife.

That victory has not stopped new development and flipped homes from sprouting up elsewhere in the neighborhood.

The impact of flipping, where a house is purchased and quickly resold with the intent of making a profit, hasn’t been studied in depth in Los Angeles. But an April 2018 report from the Center for NYC Neighborhoods found that flipping has contributed to gentrification and displacement in New York City.

“Very few home sales in New York City can be considered affordable to first-time homebuyers. Flippers have captured many of those homes, further limiting the already constrained options for families looking to buy,” the report finds.

The Los Angeles housing market is similarly constrained, and affordability here is at a 10-year low.

Mike Antonelli, the El Sereno realtor whose image was caricatured on an ad, has made a living on the trend in Los Angeles. But he’s also a longtime resident.

He says houses on his block in Rose Hills were dilapidated when he moved there in 2000.

“I gentrified my street,” he said.

That was before El Sereno became popular with flippers, developers, and transplants, a shift some people trace to 2012 and Antonelli traces to more than a decade ago, when the housing market collapsed.

Now that the neighborhood is changing, he says he fears that gentrification opponents might resort to tactics more dangerous than tagging.

“I have a concern that this might escalate,” he said. “We’re all concerned.”

While seeing her home defaced has been painful, the Templeton Street homeowner, whose identity Curbed is keeping anonymous, said the outpouring of community support she’s received has softened the blow.

“People are upset,” she said. “I’m upset but also heartened by the fact that people are reaching out, expressing their anger, their remorse for what’s going on.”

Debora King, the real estate agent who represented the seller of the Templeton house, said that she’s also been encouraged by the support of community members.

“El Sereno is a great [neighborhood] that is embracing change, and when we had an open house there, about 75 percent of neighbors that stopped by were homeowners and were very welcoming of the change,” King said. “When the listing we had got tagged, a couple of neighbors called me and apologized for their neighbors. They mentioned how what was tagged was not a representation of everyone that lived there.”

King, born in Mexico City, said that being an immigrant allows her to understand how hard change can be. She respects the feelings of gentrification foes, she said.

“However, I do not approve of their methods of making their voices heard,” she added about the tagging on Templeton. “I would like to think that there are more productive ways to disagree.”

The graffiti is still on the fence at the Templeton house. The homeowner isn’t sure how she will remove it since the wooden slats are coated with varnish and cannot simply be painted over like tagging on walls. She’s considering turning the slats on the fence covered with graffiti inward. But, then, the gentrification message would be facing her home instead of the street, and she doesn’t want her family to have to look at it.

She says she wants the tagger (or taggers) to know that “he will have to pay for what he’s done.”