Renaissance in the Barrio | Features | Los Angeles | Los Angeles News and Events | LA Weekly

Renaissance in the Barrio 

Will mixed-income housing revitalize Boyle Heights? Or just chase out the poor?

Thursday, Nov 18 2004
Photo by Julius Shulman

"Public housing built in the ’40s now sits on prime urban real estate, once again attracting the attention of redevelopers, both public and private. In such places contradictions intertwine: abandonment and dreams, construction and demolition, utopia and dystopia. These immense places are themselves provisional, and the upheaval that brought them into existence will also characterize their demise, as the next generation’s utopia gains force . . ."

from The Provisional City, by Dana Cuff

Call it magical realism. Along what is now called Gabriel García Márquez Street in Boyle Heights, a new neighborhood is being raised where the largest and most dangerous public-housing project west of the Mississippi once stood. Young moms push strollers, and kids ride skateboards and bikes outside new two- and three-story stucco townhouses fronted by porches and balconies; a new community building and pool stand amid the fields of purple sage and orange day lilies planted around the Utah Street Elementary School. To the south, on First Street, a new light-rail line and station are under construction where the old streetcar used to run. To the north, there’s a swath of freshly painted for-sale single-family homes.

Homes for sale! For $300,000 and $400,000! The public-housing project formerly known as Aliso Village — where there was once a gang shooting every week — has been razed and resurrected as a mixed-income, transit-oriented community called Pueblo del Sol, and a for-profit developer is putting up brand-new homes on the narrow stretch of gang turf that had long been called the Flats — an area bounded by the 5 freeway on the north and east, and the concrete L.A. River to the west. Even more single-family homes are slated for construction just below First Street and across from the recently constructed Las Casitas and rebuilt Pico Gardens housing projects. Next to the light-rail station there will be a brand-new LAUSD college-prep "academy" high school.

This is the new face of public housing, built with significant private investment, privately managed and designed to add market-rate and affordable housing to a reduced number of public-housing units. Pueblo del Sol, like other housing projects around the nation, was made possible by the sixth incarnation of a program called Homeownership Opportunities for People Everywhere, or HOPE VI, modeled after Margaret Thatcher’s successful privatization of public housing in England and begun here by HUD Secretary Jack Kemp under President Bush Sr. One of those rare initiatives that enjoyed the support of Democrats and Republicans alike, HOPE VI was expanded by HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros under President Clinton, and then, earlier this summer, unceremoniously killed by President George W. Bush.

Photo by Ted Soqui

HOPE VI was intended to use public investment to leverage private-sector investment in neighborhoods stigmatized by housing projects, poverty and crime. Pueblo del Sol has proven a stellar example: Built with $23 million in federal funds, the development has leveraged, partly through the sale of low-income-housing tax credits, another $90 million in private-sector financing for the construction of market-rate homes. Sold to investors who use them to reduce their tax liability, the tax credits generate equity for the affordable-housing component of Pueblo del Sol.

During the past decade and largely without media attention, HOPE VI has invested $5 billion and leveraged billions more in private funds to demolish and rebuild public housing in 25 cities — representing the only new thinking about and significant funding for public housing since the first public-housing projects were built in the years following the Great Depression. Many of its advocates have hailed it as the last best hope for hardscrabble urban-core communities with intractable poverty and crime, such as Boyle Heights, where fortunes have not risen as quickly as they have in other urban neighborhoods benefiting from the recent tide of investment and new homeowners, such as Echo Park and even Highland Park.

While investment pours back in to Hollywood, Silver Lake, Atwater Village and Little Tokyo after decades of decline, Boyle Heights remains separated from the real estate boom by a span of underutilized and nearly outmoded warehouses sitting on the brownfield on the L.A. River’s east bank. But now, for the first time since WWII and the internment of Boyle Heights’ many Japanese residents, would-be home buyers from Little Tokyo, Chinatown and elsewhere across the river — most of them Asian — are coming to inquire about renting and buying in Pueblo del Sol. Utah Street Elementary School officials marvel that new parents are coming in to ask about the school’s test scores. And the waiting list for the new homes is long — 800 names for just 66 market-rate and 26 affordable homes.

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