Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Blame NIMBYs, not Hipsters, for the gentrification of LA

Author's note, since I am interning in the Los Angeles Department of City Planning now, I am going to be writing a lot more on transporation and housing issues. Deal with it. 

A few months ago, after the rent on my family's apartment was raised, I did some research to assess whether we could afford to "move."

A quick search of apartments in nearby neighborhoods (on Zillow) revealed an average rent of 1750 dollars a month for one-bedroom apartments, most of which were well under 1000 square feet. The two-bedroom apartments that I sought ranged upward from the mid 2000s in West Hollywood and even in Palms, which made the revised monthly rent of 3300 dollars that we were soon to dish out for our posh (not especially fancy but far from shabby), leafy Beverly Hills street, quiet and yet coveniently located, still seem to be a bargain.

Alright, I then thought, surely I will get a better deal if I turn eastward, to the "up-and-coming" hoods of Silver Lake and Echo Park. Well, I should have known better (given the amount of time they had been talked for): two- bedroom rentals (which started at about 2000 dollars per month) were no longer priced much lower than they were on the Westside.

Only looking further afield, at neighborhoods such as Boyle Heights and Glassell Park/Echo Park, did I finally find two-bedroom apartments going for below two thousand dollars a month, enough of a difference for which to make a move.

Despite popular reputations to the contrary, I knew from Los Angeles Times profiles that these neighborhoods were no longer meccas of petty crime and gang vuikebce.

Indeed, on previous drives through both of these neighborhoods, I had been impressed by the charming architecture, (sense of community) and walkability. The proliferation of cheap and delicious Taquerias and Birrerias was an additional positive for this lover of Mexican food.

But within a minute, it dawned on me that I, in the course of my search, had embraced the process of "gentrification"! Excitement gave away to moral reflection as I realized the social implications of my quest for a better deal.

My problem with the "g-word" has nothing to do with the racial aspect of a light-skinned Eurasian moving into a brown neighborhood (though many commentators on both sides of the issue simplistically reduce gentrification to an ethnic conflict) so much as with the economic effects that a (whiter) middle-class presence in the neighborhoods has of jacking up rents in a neighborhood, incentivizing the displacement of the working-class.

I ended up not pursuing the deals on the eastside after some discussions with my mother. And yet, I know now that if I had not had my parent's financial support on rent (and relied solely on my own earnings), I would have seized on the properties in a heartbeat.

What drives an educated progressive like myself (and others who I know), who is perfectly aware of the ills of gentrification, to partake in gentrifying the Eastside of Los Angeles is the simple fact that  Los Angeles has the least affordable rental market in the country. (LA's rents are not the most  expensive in terms of price but they are the highest relative to the average per capita income) Therefore, whatever housing is still affordable, decent and in a (relatively safe) location will be snapped up by those of us who are not (financially)"loaded."

A steep rise in rent as a percentage of income over the last decade can be observed in cities across the country and yet what makes Los Angeles' situation particularly frustrating (though not entirely unique) is the fact that the crisis stems less from physical constraints than from political ones.

Los Angeles has far more room to grow than cities like New York and San Francisco (bearing only half the density of the former and one-third the amount of density of the latter two cities), and yet Los Angeles officials zone far less land for new housing than these cities (with fewer units being built in Los Angeles in 2014 than in spread-out Houston).

The root cause of this paucity of zoning, in turn, has been the disproportionate power afforded to LA's affluent single-family homeowners by participatory planning policies to halt multi-family housing development that is perceived to threaten their neighborhoods.

As UCLA Doctoral candidate, Greg Morrow, explains, a 1968 law that switched Los Angeles' planning regime away from the singular control of the City planning department to (what was supposed to be) joint decision-making (Morrow, page 54) between planners and community-based "Citizens Advisory Committees." (chosen on the basis of dividing into thirty-five "communities") gave growth-adverse homeowners groups the power to prevent zoning for development of large-scale multi-family housing in large swaths of the city.

This switch to a "bottom-up" approach to planning was supposed to empower ordinary citizens to have a say in planning issues: many progressives, indeed, hoped that a democratic planning regime would prevent the massive uprooting of poor neighborhoods carried out by city planners in the name of the city. (e.g. Chavez Ravine) (Morrow 71)

    In actuality, however, as Morrow notes, community participation in the planning process gave disproportionate weight to wealthier and whiter single-family homeowners residing in the city's western and hilltop neighborhoods, who had the time and expendable income to closely follow and act upon city planner's proposals.

Motivated by (mainly aesthetic) concerns about the environment and a desire to maintain their neighborhoods' secluded low-density character, wealthy Angelenos have utilized community-planning to fight any housing or transportation development that they perceive will bring even a modicum of congestion or density to their neighborhoods.

To give a example from my own career, just last week I overheard my colleague in the City Planning office inform her superior that she would take a major arterial street in Hollywood off a proposed "Transit-Enhanced Network" (meaning that it would be slated to receive increased or upgraded public transit service) because of staunch opposition from neighborhood councils in the Hollywood Hills.

Never mind that this arterial street was located a mile away from the hills or that a transit network (especially should it lead to rail development) could do much to alleviate the bumper-to-bumper rush hour traffic on the street. The neighborhod groups feared that the "corridor" would lead to an increase density that would eventually make its way up the hilltops... So they fought tooth-and-nail and won.

Though such stubborn opposition has repeatedly stymied development in the Westside, Hollywood, and southern San Fernando Valley, however, it has done little to discourage Los Angeles' continued population growth, not only through immigration but through natural increases in the existing few million inhabitants.

With more people (primarily earning lower or moderate incomes) to house but little new multi-family housing being constructed in or near affluent single-family neighborhoods, middle-class Los Angeles residents entering the rental market today face a difficult choice.  They can relocate to far-flung suburbs, which provide low-cost housing (primarily in single-family units) at the cost of an inconvenient commute (while additionally contributing to heavier traffic and environmental devestation).

Or they can enter into traditionally poorer, working-class communities on Los Angeles'  Eastside (many having reduced crime by gang injunctions in recent years), which initially boast affordable rental properties not only due to their less desirable reputatons but also because the single-family homeowners of these neighborhoods-who are often fewer in number to begin with-have not had the time, money or concern (given the myriad other issues they must deal with on a day-to-day basis) to fight dense multi-family development.

 Long before neighborhoods like Boyle Heights and East Hollywood entered the radar of the middle-class, they had become progressively more crowded through population inflows, and/or saw a net increase in the units of multi-family housing . Prior to the age of gentrification, the crowding of low-income immigrants into already-impoverished communities on the east and south sides of Los Angeles fostered a toxic concentration of poverty, urban decay and crime.
 (Morrow pps. 166-8)

And yet, in neighborhoods that have to come to be predominantly populated by low-income renters, a subsequent influx of young middle-class professionals  (quite ironically in search of bargains), by encouraging landlords to ensuingly jack up the cost of rent (to adjust to demand by a wealthier cohort) or, in some cases, demolish affordable properties to make way for higher-end housing, spells out displacement for the original (and in some cases, deep-rooted) inhabitants and a denial of the latter group's right to live in the city.  

 The logical conclusion to Morrow's thesis is that the power and intransigence of affluent homeowners is the driving force behind not only Los Angeles' suburban sprawl, but (especially, as the latter becomes less viable) gentrification.

This is not to deny that the gentrifiers themselves often carry problematic attitudes of privilege and saviorism that serve to justify (both to themselves and outsiders) their uprooting of low-income residents of color.

And yet, at the most basic level, gentrification is not driven by personal opinion so much as by economic calculus.

It is the entrenched westside NIMBYs and not the eastside hipsters who bear the blame for LA's rampant gentrification. Let's hope that the advocates for social justice take notice.

Morrow Thesis:
Morrow, Gregory D.(2013). The Homeowner Revolution: Democracy, Land Use and the Los Angeles Slow-Growth Movement, 1965-1992. UCLA: Urban Planning 0911. Retrieved from: https://escholarship.org/uc/item/6k64g20f