Talking About Displacement

MTA construction along Crenshaw Blvd.

MTA construction along Crenshaw Blvd.

Speaking at a recent Los Angeles Current Affairs Forum, MTA CEO Phil Washington talked about how the growth of LA’s transit network has been accompanied in some areas by gentrification and displacement. Washington is concerned about the fact that low-income residents are being pushed out of the communities they call home, and he wants the MTA to do more to address the problem.

It’s good to hear somebody at the MTA talking about this. The question is what can actually be done. Earlier this year the MTA Board agreed that when new residential units were built on the agency’s land their goal would be to set aside 35% for low-income renters or owners. That’s fine, but it’s not nearly enough. What we really need is to have the City and the County commit to changing their planning practices. Mayor Eric Garcetti and Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas serve on the MTA Board. They should both support Washington and take a public stand against displacement. Then they should push for the City and the County to create policies to address the problem.

While gentrification is happening all over the city, the growth of LA’s transit system definitely seems to be a catalyst. Downtown, Koreatown, Hollywood, and Highland Park have already seen thousands of low-income residents displaced. Leimert Park and Boyle Heights seem to be next on the list as the MTA continues its rapid push to expand, bringing an influx of developer dollars to neighborhoods near rail stops. As property values skyrocket, rents go up, too, and low-income tenants who can’t afford to pay must find somewhere else to live. Tenants in rent-controlled apartments can be forced out by landlords who use the Ellis Act to convert their units to condos.

I’m really glad to hear Washington talking about displacement, and I hope others back him up on this issue. This is a conversation we need to have, and it should have started long ago.

MTA construction in North Hollywood

MTA construction in North Hollywood

Losing a World of Inspiration

Leimert Park

Leimert Park

All over Los Angeles neighborhoods are changing. Developers with deep pockets are buying up real estate in the hope of making a bundle. New projects are transforming the landscape from Venice to East LA. We need development, but there has to be a balance between business interests and community interests. The community needs to be involved, and that involvement has to be based on trust. The only way you can build trust is through honesty and transparency.

Unfortunately, we’re not seeing much honesty or transparency in LA these days. Many developers are doing their best to shut the public out by keeping their activities secret, and our elected officials often seem to be willing accomplices. As a result, communities across the city have suffered some terrible losses. Buildings have been demolished. Businesses have been driven out. Thousands of renters have lost their homes. People and places that defined our neighborhoods are disappearing.

The Vision Theatre

The Vision Theatre

In the last few years Leimert Park has drawn a lot of attention from investors. Built as a planned community in the 20s, Leimert Park was predominantly white up til WWII. After restrictive covenants were declared illegal in 1948, the demographics started shifting and by the 60s the area was largely African-American. For decades it’s been a center for black culture in LA, figuring prominently in the local jazz and hip hop scene. In Leimert Park you can find a beautifully preserved remnant of the past like the Vision Theatre sitting right next door to a cutting edge media lab like KAOS Network.

KAOS Network

KAOS Network

And just around the corner you can also find the World Stage, although that may change in the months to come. This is one of the saddest casualties of the redevelopment frenzy that’s sweeping across LA. Founded in 1989 by drummer Billy Higgins and poet Kamau Daáood, the World Stage has been a major part of the neighborhood’s cultural life for over 25 years. Back in the 90s it was an important part of the renaissance that breathed new life into Leimert Park. Even when the recession hit and neighboring shops and restaurants were closing down, the World Stage remained an anchor for the community.

The World Stage

The World Stage

But it looks like the World Stage will be leaving Leimert Park. The building it’s housed in changed hands a while back, and the new owners will not renew the lease. In fact, World Stage Executive Director Dwight Trible says the new owners have refused to even meet with him. Trible says that after months of discussion, the Board of Directors has decided that it’s best to look for a new location. So while the World Stage will still go on, it will be cut off from the community that has been its home since the very beginning.

The story of who’s been buying up property in Leimert Park and why is complicated, and if you’re interested in the details I recommend reading this piece that appeared in the LA Weekly a few months back.

Who’s in Control of Leimert Park’s Future? It’s Hard to Tell.

Papillion

Papillion

Briefly, the local real estate market started heating up back in 2012 when the MTA decided that the new Crenshaw/LAX line would have a stop at Crenshaw and 43rd. Since then a number of buildings have been purchased by limited liability corporations that seem to be controlled by Allan DiCastro. DiCastro is associated with artist Mark Bradford and philanthropist Eileen Norton, and together they’ve made a serious commitment to investing in the local art scene. To their credit, they’ve brought the non-profit Art + Practice and the contemporary art space Papillion to the neighborhood. That’s all to the good. Leimert Park has been struggling in recent years, and could certainly use a shot in the arm.

Shuttered businesses on Crenshaw Blvd..

Shuttered businesses on Crenshaw Blvd..

But DiCastro and his associates have not been open or honest with the community about their plans, and that’s a problem. People who’ve lived and worked in Leimert Park for decades can’t get straight answers about what the new owners have in mind. Unfortunately, this is a scenario that’s playing out all over LA these days. Investors with deep pockets and connections at City Hall move into a neighborhood and work behind the scenes to push their own agenda. Residents are told they should be happy about how their community is being “transformed”, but they find they have no voice in the process.

Music is one of the fundamental things that binds a community together. It’s a powerful, immediate way for people to connect and share their experience. For years the World Stage has been a place where musicians and audiences come together, where the distance between the people who come to play and the people who come to listen disappears. Leimert Park isn’t just its physical home, but also its spiritual home. If the World Stage ends up having to leave, it will be a terrible loss for the community.

Future site of the Leimert Park stop on the Crenshaw/LAX Line.

Future site of the Leimert Park stop on the Crenshaw/LAX Line.

Pros and Cons of Expanding Transit

It’s hard to even keep track of all the different projects that the MTA is working on throughout the county. New rail lines are being constructed, old ones are being expanded, and improvements are being made to increase safety and ease of use. The photos below represent just some of the projects that are currently under construction.

In Little Tokyo, work is beginning on the Regional Connector. This will be a 1.9-mile underground light-rail system that connects the Gold Line to the 7th Street/Metro Station. It will also make it easier for passengers to transfer to the Red, Purple, Blue and Expo Lines.

First and Central, future site of a stop for the Regional Connector

First and Central, future site of a stop for the Regional Connector

Material and equipment stored on the site at First and Central

Material and equipment stored on the site at First and Central

Construction on the Crenshaw/LAX Line started last year. This will be 8.5 miles of light rail running from the Expo Line to the Green Line, with below-grade, at-grade and elevated segments.

Crenshaw/LAX Line construction site at Crenshaw and Exposition

Crenshaw/LAX Line construction site at Crenshaw and Exposition

Another shot of the site from Crenshaw and Rodeo

Another shot of the site from Crenshaw and Rodeo

This project could provide a huge boost to businesses along the line, although there are already signs that it could encourage gentrification which may drive long-time residents and business owners out of the area. Click on the link below to see what may be in store for the community once the line is finished.

Plan to Turn BHCP into a 24-Hour Community

There are smaller projects going forward, too. In North Hollywood, a subterranean tunnel will connect the Red Line station to the Orange Line station just across the street. This is a great idea, and hopefully will reduce the number of riders dashing across Lankershim against red lights in order to make a connection.

Construction of subterranean tunnel in North Hollywood

Construction of subterranean tunnel in North Hollywood

Another shot of construction at the North Hollywood site

Another shot of construction at the North Hollywood site

The photos below are a few months old, but they show MTA crews working on the Purple Line expansion at Wilshire and Fairfax. By day, traffic flowed through the intersection as usual. But at night, construction crews would show up with barricades, heavy machinery and blinding lights. This project highlights the problems of constructing a major transit line in a dense urban area.

Crews working through the night at Wilshire and Fairfax

Crews working through the night at Wilshire and Fairfax

Another shot of construction at Wilshire and Fairfax

Another shot of construction at Wilshire and Fairfax

All this sounds great in theory, but this kind of rapid expansion brings plenty of problems with it. I don’t have a car, so I use public transit almost every day. If you ask a simple question like, “Are you glad that the MTA is expanding its transit network?”, I can give you a simple answer like, “Yes.” But if you ask, “What long-term impacts will this expansion have on the City of LA?”, the answers are much more complicated.

In my mind, the biggest thing to worry about is whether or not we can afford all these projects. The MTA is facing a long-term budget shortfall, which could seriously impact its ability to function. Last year they raised the cost of the day pass and the monthly pass by 40% and 30% respectively. But there are almost certainly more increases to come, and it’s uncertain whether riders will pay the higher prices. Here’s an article that LA Streetsblog published in January of this year. It explains that while last year’s fare increase brought revenue up, it may have brought ridership down. If that trend continues, we’re in deep trouble.

MTA Revenue Up, Ridership Down

The MTA is receiving tons of federal funding for these projects, but those funds depend not just on increasing ridership, but also on increasing the share of operating costs covered by fares. If we see a decrease in ridership and/or revenue, we may not be able to count on the money from the feds.

Some people will point to the fact that the LA City Council just voted for a huge increase in the minimum wage, saying that this will enable low-income riders to afford future fare hikes. I don’t buy it. First, the cost of living in LA is increasing at a phenomenal rate. The amount we spend on housing is skyrocketing, DWP rates could easily double or triple, and food is getting more expensive as the impacts of the drought become more pronounced. A significant rise in the cost of public transit will be just one more blow to the bank accounts of minimum wage workers. And there are thousands of MTA riders who don’t even earn minimum wage. LA is the wage theft capitol of the country. Lots of people who work in the restaurant and garment industries are already being paid below the minimum, not to mention the undocumented workers who will take whatever they can get. Many of these people need public transit to get around, and none of them will earn a nickel more after the minimum wage rises.

I’m not arguing that we shouldn’t extend the reach of public transit, but I do question whether this massive expansion is sustainable. I guess all we can do is wait and see.

Trying to Keep a Roof Over Their Heads

Protesters on Crenshaw Blvd.

Protesters on Crenshaw Blvd.

I was riding the bus along Crenshaw yesterday, when I saw a group of people gathered in front of a building holding banners and signs that read “Stop Evictions” and “Defend Affordable Housing”. I wanted to know what was going on, so I hopped off the bus at the next stop and walked back to check it out.

The protest was being held in front of the the apartment building at 1625 Crenshaw, and many of people involved were tenants there. Last December they’d been told they had 90 days to get out. Seems the owner has decided to kick everybody out in order to turn the building into high-end housing. Since it isn’t covered by the Ellis Act, the landlord is under no obligation to offer money for relocation.

Ms. Bannister and Frances Bell

Ms. Bannister and Frances Bell

I talked to Frances Bell, who’s been a tenant there for 22 years. Because she pays market rate for her apartment, she’s been given additional time to leave, but she hasn’t yet found a new place to live. Moving can be expensive, and covering the cost herself is a hardship. There’s a sad irony to Frances’ story, because she works for the Department of Mental Health. One of the things she does as part of her job is help people relocate when they’ve been forced out of their home. Little did she know she’d one day be in the same predicament as her clients at the DMH.

Mark Simon

Mark Simon

I was surprised to run into a friend of mine, Mark Simon, who was holding up one of the banners. Mark lives in Hollywood, and he had told me a while ago that his landlord was trying to evict all the tenants in his building. They’ve been fighting it in court, and have managed to delay the process, but they’ll have to leave in January of next year unless something changes.

Walt Senterfitt

Walt Senterfitt

Then I talked to Walt Senterfitt, who lives in Los Feliz. He’s dealing with the same thing at his building, and to fight the evictions he’s helped organize the Rodney Drive Tenant Association. He feels that renters need to band together in order to push back. In recent years, thousands of Angelenos have been forced out of their apartments as landlords decide to pursue wealtheir tenants. It’s hardly surprising that the homeless population has increased sharply if you look at the all the people who have been evicted so that owners can jack up rents.

Hopefully the passage last year of AB 2222 will put a stop to this trend. But it won’t help any of the people I spoke to yesterday, because their landlords started the process before the bill was signed into law. Rents are skyrocketting across the city, and tenants in rent-controlled buildings will have a hell of a time finding a new home for a comparable price. It’s especially hard for seniors who are living on a fixed income.

Here’s the link for the Rodney Drive Tenant Association, if you want to get in touch with them.

RDTA

And if you believe that the LA City Council needs to take action to create more affordable housing, send them an e-mail and let them know how you feel.

LA City Council

MTA Offers a Helping Hand

Crnsw 3

Just a follow-up to a post I did recently on the construction of the Crenshaw/LAX Line. In that post, I mentioned how difficult it was for businesses along Crenshaw to keep their heads above water with street closures and reduced parking. Local merchants have been complaining about a steep drop in revenue, and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority has been listening.

In September the MTA established a fund to aid small businesses affected by the construction. And in October, the MTA approved the creation of the Business Solution Center, which will provide assistance with marketing, financial planning and legal counseling, as well as help in securing loans. Here’s a link to the article in the LA Sentinel.

MTA Awards BSC Contract to Del Richardson & Associates

This is a smart move by the MTA. Sure, the Crenshaw/LAX Line will help the neighborhood in the long run, but it’s important to ensure the survival of existing businesses. By approving these two programs, the MTA has shown a commitment to supporting small merchants as they deal with the challenges of the construction phase.

Reconstructing Crenshaw

Crsw 01 Future

Last week I went down to Crenshaw and Exposition to see what was happening with the construction of the Crenshaw/LAX Line. Work is underway, though it will be years before the project is finished.

A view from the Crenshaw side of the construction site.

A view from the Crenshaw side of the construction site.

Another view from the Crenshaw side.

Another view from the Crenshaw side.

And here's a shot taken from the entrance to the site.

And here’s a shot taken from the entrance to the site.

While I was there I also took a look at the huge vacant lot that runs along Crenshaw just below the MTA’s construction site.

The fence surrounds a large empty parcel just across the street from the MTA site.

The fence surrounds a large empty parcel just across the street from the MTA site.

I was wondering if there were any plans to develop the parcel, so I got on the net and started looking around. Apparently this will be the home of the proposed District Square retail complex. For more info, follow this link to a post from earlier this year on Building Los Angeles.

District Square

Right now it’s just a lot of dirt, but the temporary fence running around this area does offer the candidates in the school board special election a place to post their ads.

School board candidates vying for your vote.

School board candidates vying for your vote.

You can see the barricades blocking off a good stretch of Crenshaw. Also the large signs letting people know that the businesses along Crenshaw are open during construction.

Looking at the barricades set up on the west side of Crenshaw during construction.

Looking at the barricades set up on the west side of Crenshaw during construction.

Projects like this can be really hard on business owners, since the work impacts both traffic and parking. And we’re not just talking about a few months, but years. In the long run, the transit line will probably bring more people to the area and be a boon to local merchants, but in the short term, the construction can cause real hardship.

Heavy machinery parked on Crenshaw.

Heavy machinery parked on Crenshaw.

If you haven’t already read about the Crenshaw/LAX Line, here’s a link to the overview at the MTA’s web site.

Crenshaw/LAX Transit Project

Lots of Hype, But No Jobs

I was checking the headlines at the LA Wave this morning, and came across an interesting story. There’s been a lot of hype about how great the Crenshaw Light Rail Line will be for the surrounding community, but I guess that doesn’t extend to providing jobs for local contractors. You can read the story by clicking here.

One aspect of the story that caught my attention is that the Young Black Contractors Association (YCBA) is planning a protest against the Los Angeles Urban League. The word is that the League has been chosen as the outreach coordinator for general contractor Walsh/Shea Corridor Constructors. The YCBA suspects that the League is going to take a few million from Walsh/Shea without making any real effort to bring local black contractors and construction workers onto the project. This is a fairly common ploy. In recent years non-profits have been starved for cash. Developers and contractors know this, so they offer a bunch of money to these groups to get their support. That way, Walsh/Shea can say, “Hey, the LA Urban League is backing us up!” Unfortunately, non-profits are sometimes willing to go along with this if they need the money badly enough. It’ll be interesting to see if the YCBA can make enough noise to bring jobs to a community where they are really needed.