The ‘Hood is Changing: What is Next for South Central?

 (Photo credit: Joey Zanotti)(Muralist: Dario Canul of Tlakolulokos Activos) 

South Central Los Angeles is the last community bordering Downtown Los Angeles that has not been gentrified. We have an opportunity to do something different in South Central. For years, I have been telling anyone that will listen, that we must prepare residents (and small businesses) for the impending gentrification. Many shrugged me off: “South Central is always ignored!” “Who would intentionally want to move to South Central?” “It’s too ‘hood for people that didn’t grow up here!” But after a long history of neglect from elected officials, restrictive housing covenants, absentee landlords, and a dilapidated housing stock, the chips have been quietly lining up to draw in outside investors.

The recent approval of The Reef Project helped cement that for me. The flood gates of investment were finally opened. The Reef, a billion dollar development project that includes over 1400 apartments and condos (only 5% of the 549 apartments will be designated as affordable housing), a hotel, and various retail outlets was approved and praised by the LA City Council as a model for future developments. While The Reef shouldn't bare the fault of the City’s disinvestment in our community, it is a poignant symbol of what is planned for the future. Hundreds of residents united both for and against the development. Each side had a list of demands - all were absolutely valid. The situation reminded me of the feeling of being starved all day and someone finally asks what you would like to eat: you list everything that comes to mind, and you’re willing to accept whatever is offered, even whatever portion is served.

Is it enough to accept what they give us?

Do I want a yoga studio near where I live? That sounds nice. What about a supermarket that my neighbors and I can shop at? We would love that. More green spaces and places for entertainment? Absolutely! But we also need decent jobs that pay decent wages to enjoy all of these amenities.

In the 90011 zip code, 42% of the households fell below the federal poverty levels at some point in the previous 12 months according to the Census. The unemployment rate is above 9%, compared to the County’s 4%. Homeless rates have been on a steady increase too. Just last week, the LA Times cited a surprising increase of homelessness within the Latino population. Unfortunately, this isn't new, it just looks a bit different. Just a few days ago,  I got into a discussion with my mom about our own challenges with housing. I recall living with my uncle and his 8 kids in a one-bedroom apartment. At some point, we also lived in a 3x6 trailer. We were essentially homeless, relying on the goodwill of our family and friends to remain sheltered. Our situation was a result of a lack of income and a lack of affordable homes in our neighborhood. It is no secret that many of my neighbors today spend more than 50% of their income on housing; many of us are just a missing paycheck or two away from being on the street. It is difficult for me to reconcile these realities with the construction of luxury housing in the poorest district of the City.  

According to Zillow, there are approximately 700 properties (including SFR and multi-family units) on the market at the moment in South Central; ranging in price from the mid-$200K to $10MM. In the last 3 years, a little over 9,000 units have been sold. I wonder of those sold, how many were purchased cash and flipped by investors? There seems to a pattern of cash purchases, basic rehabs, and a $100K-$250K markup. It is a difficult market to compete in. (Yes, here in South Central!)

I believe we have an opportunity (and obligation) before us. Other communities like Echo Park have essentially missed their chance to get ahead of it. I want to believe it is still possible in South Central. As I have hesitantly entered the market for a home (again), I am encountering families that are seeking to move outside of South Central. One of my most recent talks was with “Ricardo,” a homeowner of 25 years who is selling because his wife is terminally ill and needs to downsize. He told me his home’s equity paved the way for his three children to acquire their own properties and grow assets. His story made me hopeful that we can systemize a solution.

The obvious way to circumvent gentrification is to own land. How can we support existing homeowners to responsibly leverage their equity to build more assets? How can we support people in building additional units on their property to create an alternative source of income (and increase the housing stock)? I believe we have an opportunity to do something different, an opportunity to support existing residents to purchase land, build more housing for our families, and avoid displacement.Will we seize the moment?