On Defending Boyle Heights

I’m writing to share my work and perspective on gentrification in Boyle Heights, especially in light of the recent public actions by Defend Boyle Heights, a collective of activists who are concerned about gentrification. This post is simply my perspective on gentrification and displacement; an issue that I’m deeply concerned about.

After Defend Boyle Heights’ recent action against Self Help Graphics & Art and my brief feature in their statement, I could only imagine that me and/or LURN may be a target too. I don’t agree with the targeting of Self Help Graphics, or community-based organizations in general, and I felt the interactions in-person and on social media were disrespectful and misinformed. Initially, I didn’t want to invest energy in the conflict.

 But who am I kidding? The truth is I care about what’s going on. 

I care what’s happening in Boyle Heights and in other communities of color. I care what my neighbors, friends, and partners think about these issues and the work I’m doing. I care what young leaders think, especially those that likely grew up in similar circumstances to me.

The people that know me, know that I live and breathe this work to improve the lives of working families of color. Although my Mom still doesn’t quite understand what I do (“no entiendo porque trabajas tantas horas y vives en un apartamento tan chiquito”), I’m committed for life to make sure that low-income families have a fair shot at getting the things they deserve: both here in Boyle Heights, and in other urban communities.

I’ll spare you the long story of my upbringing (crossing borders, violence at home, etc.), and just say that my personal experiences inspire my work, and there are at least two emotions that fuel it: love and anger.

 LOVE I love cities. I love neighborhoods. I love people.

I love the señoras in the streets showing us how to take care of our sidewalks. I love street vendors who work hard against all odds to take care of their families. I love the youth who use street furniture as a skate park. I love the activists who remind us that black lives matter, that we are all immigrants, and that gentrification is ruining lives. I even love the conservative business associations who fight us tooth and nail because they don't want street vendors near them; they too belong to our community although I disagree with their views.

I chose urban planning as a career because I loved too many things and my “radicalization” in college pulled me away from the business major I earned. I didn’t want to work for “the man,” I wanted to work for the people. To me, urban planning was the study of how we build a strong community that worked for the people within it.

I was drawn to the field by left-leaning professors at UCLA who were interested in expanding the field to be more than just zoning and general plans, but to be about how you build (or preserve) a community. Indeed, some of the insight I received from them and my classmates affirmed some deeply felt beliefs: that community development should protect the strengths of a neighborhood, and ensure that the residents that live in the community have a real opportunity to stay if they chose to. (I want to emphasize, a REAL opportunity)

My career has offered me a variety of experiences, but it all started here in Boyle Heights 12 years ago. After I graduated, I worked at a consulting firm that advised financial institutions. I worked with bankers to help them understand the value of working in low-income neighborhoods in a way that was mutually beneficial. This was challenging to say the least. One of the biggest issues impacting low-income communities is the lack of capital to buy homes, invest in small businesses, or even open up a bank account. In lieu of these resources, many of our community members rely on payday lenders (that charge upwards of 500% interest) to make ends meet. Every time we earn a paycheck, we get poorer, and I thought these financial institutions could help by providing better, more responsible financial products. My experience working at this firm was eye opening and frustrating at the same time, and I learned that even in the biggest companies, there were some people that were trying to do the right thing, but often needed a little help to land their intentions in an effective manner.

After that experience, I worked at the AARP Foundation, assisting them in designing a strategy to support low-income Latino and Black seniors. After a short stint there (they asked me to go to D.C., but I didn’t want to leave LA), I worked at a nonprofit in South LA administering a low-interest micro-loan program for micro-entrepreneurs like street vendors. Both of these experiences taught me the value of small teams, small budgets, and entrepreneurism. My most valuable teachers during this time were the folks I worked with “on the ground:” street vendors, residents, nonprofit leaders, etc.

For the last three and a half years, I’ve had the honor of serving as the Executive Director of Leadership for Urban Renewal Network (LURN), a nonprofit organization that was created to be a “laboratory” for the city. A space where we attempt to work with various partners to think “outside the box” so we can tackle some of the biggest issues impacting urban areas. It’s an organization that I helped shape, along with many of my board members, and it’s one that is experimenting with things like a low-interest micro-loan program for street vendors, a micro-equity program to invest in entrepreneurs of color in our communities (because few else are), a purchasing cooperative that helps small grocery store owners in low-income neighborhoods pool their purchasing power with other entrepreneurs so they can get better products, and the tenacious advocacy campaign working to legalize street vending in Los Angeles. Yes, after long discussions within our team, we decided to not shy away from the word “urban renewal;” we wanted to “reclaim” these terms and fight for ways where a community could be invested in to support existing residents, not displace them.

All my professional experiences, and especially my work at LURN, is fueled by love, but also anger. ANGER 

I’m angry at what is happening in communities of color. Here are some basic points that relate to my work:

  • We have no jobs. For years, unemployment rates in our communities have been higher than everywhere else. Sometimes it almost doesn’t matter if there is a recession or not; unemployment is always high in neighborhoods like Boyle Heights. As the economy shifts to a “service” economy, many of the jobs that are offered to us are retail jobs that hardly pay a living wage. Hundreds of millions in public subsidies go to incentivize retailers to come into our communities with a promise of jobs. I believe that in many cases, this is not enough. And for those of our neighbors who rely on street vending to fill the gap, our policies are criminalizing them. We are criminalizing poverty.

  • We don’t have enough housing. And if we do, it’s overcrowded and in poor condition. The housing crisis in Los Angeles is getting worse, and fueling issues like gentrification. In order to “ease” demand, some experts say that we have to build 500,000 units of affordable housing. A big challenge is figuring out ways that new rental units are affordable, truly affordable for the majority of families in communities like Boyle Heights that make very little. I believe everyone should have a place to live and if you’ve lived your whole life in a neighborhood, you should have an opportunity to stay in it.

  • The food in our communities is killing us. In California, almost 50% of people are diabetic or pre-diabetic. The most affected by these illnesses are Black and Brown people. I think about this all the time when I pass by that Dialysis Center on First Street (which is right next to the Funeral Home). It’s no surprise that in the same communities that are experiencing these health issues, huge companies like McDonald’s have a presence and are even showing up at farmers markets and community events. The food that is being offered to us is poisoning us.

  • The nonprofit industrial complex. I believe that one of the problems that is hampering progress in communities, is not nonprofits or the people that work in them, but the way nonprofits are funded. We simply don’t have enough unrestricted resources to support the work. I’m grateful for the foundations and philanthropic arms of corporations who donate, but I’m also clear that it’s not enough. We need more resources to truly make a dent in the issues our communities are facing. I don’t believe that we as a society value the work of people who dedicate their lives to solving poverty, curing illnesses, and organizing people around important issues. Since the inception of this country, we’ve marginalized these “charitable” acts to the fringe of our economy, forcing organizations with missions to rely on donations and grants. In some cases, we limit the salaries we’re able to offer high-caliber professionals who want to do good work, forcing them to find other work outside of our field so they can make enough to take care of their families. This is wrong. I think part of the solution is creating our own mission-oriented businesses that earn their own funds which can support innovative community work, and I also think there is some work to be done to recruit new funders to the table who can put some resources behind our ideas. The current system is not working.

  • We don’t own much. One of the biggest concerns that I personally have, and this relates to the topic of this post, is the fact that our communities don’t own much at all. Most of us are tenants. All but for a few policies here and there to protect us, tenants are subject to displacement. This is a huge problem, especially in a neighborhood like Boyle Heights where 75% of residents are renters. (Significantly higher than the City average, which is already high) Within the economic system that we live in, if we do not own property, we can be displaced. Plain and simple. The ownership of land has been in contention since the birth of this country, manifesting itself in the genocide and displacement of millions of indigenous people and more recently in the racially restrictive covenants in the middle of the 20th century that barred people of color from purchasing land in some areas. Land ownership is key and we have historically barred from it. We need to think critically about how we can help residents own land.

Clearly, this is an extremely short list of potential anger triggers, but at the end of the day, I'm angry because I believe we deserve the best and we are nearly always denied it. This is due to racism, capitalism, and mutations of these two things that turn into significant barriers towards maintaining a good quality of life.

 My “theory of change” 

I know I’m not alone in my feelings. I know most of us (if not all) love our community, and are also angry about what’s taking place. For many of us, these emotions drive our work.

Gentrification is probably the most important issue facing cities today. It’s one of the mutations of capitalism I described earlier, that feeds off irrational real estate speculation and combines racism and colonialism to drastically change lives of people who have invested their whole lives into creating a place for their families. I think the leaders that are sounding the alarm on this are justified and I do believe we have to work urgently to find solutions.

The solutions that I subscribe to, however, may differ than some. I’m comfortable with that. Given the fact that all of us contribute to the current economic system in some way (shopping at the store, walking the streets, checking our Facebook, getting a paycheck), I believe we have to think of radical and feasible economic strategies to preserve our neighborhoods sooner rather than later. It may even require tools that have not been created yet.

Here are some of the things we’ve begun looking into at LURN:

  • Micro finance - I think it’s a big problem that we do not have our own, autonomous financial institutions. It’s no surprise to many of us that it’s extremely difficult to secure a loan to buy a home or invest in your business if your credit score isn’t nearly perfect or you don’t have several years of “formal” history with your business. Cash rules everything around me (Wu-Tang’s CREAM rings so true), and I believe we have to figure out how we can organize capital in a way that serves us. This is why LURN is experimenting with the Semi’a Fund and the (Re)Store Fund; tools that we hope can demonstrate how capital can be used to support our community members who are undocumented, have poor credit scores, etc. In the end, I dream of a being part of a cooperatively owned financial institution that truly finances businesses in our communities and provides support to make sure those businesses stay in our neighborhoods.

  • Self-funding - We’re working hard to figure out a way to earn our own income so we can move beyond the support of foundations and corporations. This is hard. We’ve been fortunate enough in our short history to have attracted funders who are supportive of our work and don’t restrict how we use our resources, but the bottom line is that it makes me uncomfortable to ask for donations and rely heavily on grants. Relying on someone else is not freedom to me, and we are actively trying to design our own ways of raising money that don’t rely on traditional grant making. Some of this work has been done through our consulting practice that supports mission-oriented organizations with research and program design support, but I know it’s not enough.

  • Cooperative ownership - We need to own our own land. It’s hard to do that without money, and we’re researching ways other like-minded people have acquired land in other cities and countries. Community land trusts and mission-oriented real estate investment trusts are fascinating to us, but we’re also looking at how bigger companies acquire land. I’m interested in how major hedge funds move money around to acquire large parcels of land. These are the “invisible” forces influencing how are communities are changing. I’m interested in learning how they work.

  • Policy - I believe there are some crucial opportunities for us to influence gentrification through policy. Nearly everyday, activity is taking place in City Hall that will be influencing how all of our neighborhoods look. What’s more, major public investments will most certainly change the infrastructure of our communities, and attract investors that want to leverage the public monies that are going into the community. How can we be meaningfully “at the table” when those conversations happen? Our team is trying to be more intentional about keeping track of everything from local community plan updates, to major investment projects like Metro’s ballot measure and the LA River. These initiatives will bring hundreds of millions of public dollars into Boyle Heights and other communities. These public dollars will attract much more private funds too. Indeed, it already has. The public meetings for these projects are nearly always empty (so sad!). Community members are unaware that major decisions that will impact their lives are happening without them. We need to change that.

These and other initiatives we’re working on are guided by the principle that we don’t want things to stay the same. We don’t believe conditions in our communities should stay untouched. Things are not okay. It’s not okay to me that people live in overcrowded housing, it’s not okay that people are afraid to call their landlord if there is a problem for fear of a rent increase, it’s not okay that our entrepreneurs don’t have the resources that others have to hire more staff, renovate their spaces, and stay in their community. I believe we need more investment in our community, BUT I’m equally passionate about making sure that people that live here now have an opportunity to enjoy new investment. I don’t believe people should settle for what they have because they’re afraid of being displaced. I believe that’s wrong. We should expect more from our city, and we should get what we expect.

I want to work to get to that place.

I’m also guided by a belief that we should always be willing to talk to all stakeholders. This is just my personal style and method of work. I believe that to build effective movements we need all kinds of people and perspectives. Everyone adds value. I am always open to talking to anyone, be they a student, an activist, a nonprofit director, a Fortune 500 CEO, a real estate investor or whomever. I want to see it from their point of view, so that I can be more effective in my change making – even if it at the end of the day, we are not on the same page. I’ve been in terrible circumstances, especially in our advocacy with street vendors, where the most vile people in our city yell at me because they’re mad we’re not advocating that street vendors should only speak English and be forced to furnish permanent residency papers at a moment’s notice (ugh!!!). Even when faced with these people, I’m down to talk. Usually I hit a brick wall, and sometimes there is a glimmer hope.

I believe this level of engagement is important for our approach because solutions to the issues low-income communities are facing require a comprehensive outlook. We need different perspectives, not just our own or people who think like us.

In this spirit, I’ve had conversations with real estate brokers in Boyle Heights, gallery operators (e.g. PSST), and others; some that frankly don’t have Boyle Heights’ interest at heart. Sometimes I’ve left conversations with folks like this thinking, “Damn they suck!” and other times I’ve left thinking “Wow, I learned something,” or “Hmmm, there could be an opportunity in the future if this and that get worked out and more people are involved.” In all cases, I’m clear about the things I love, the things I care about, and the importance that everyone should consult with the community before they do work in Boyle Heights (or any community for that matter). To this day, I’ve never “claimed” that I represent Boyle Heights (I was born in East LA, but grew up in West Covina), and instead I try my best to be a conduit of what residents tell me they’re experiencing or a connector to leaders who I think understand issues better than I do.

Can I do more? Of course! Can you do more? Probably. I believe that in order to truly defend Boyle Heights and other communities, we have to work together and design solutions that have never been designed before. We need clear solutions and strong strategies, if not, we will lose all the things we love about our city. In that spirit, I refuse to work against people who care about the same things that I care about. I’m here for the long haul.

Thanks for reading!