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The region even has gentrification microclimates — Hollywood, Pasadena, downtown Los Angeles — where a surge in condo construction and new-home buying has been egged on by aggressive government intervention. Think of them as whirlpools spun off by a hot real estate market, dispersing longtime residents and reshaping entire blocks.
Some neighborhood groups refuse to see gentrification as a storm system, viewing it instead as something that can be halted, like a bulldozer. That, however, leaves them sounding somewhat clueless as they demand that the city put a stop to the phenomenon. Stop it? That’s like trying to stop the weather. The most rational thing to do is prepare for it, just as states along the Gulf of Mexico batten down for a hurricane, and hang on until the storm has passed.
The tropical-storm metaphor has been embraced enthusiastically by David Ewing, a resident of Venice who has spent the past year trying to help the remaining tenants at Lincoln Place, a 795-unit apartment complex being demolished and replaced by condominiums. Ewing described gentrification as a classic storm pattern, with a high-pressure system — a contingent of wealthy buyers — colliding with a low-pressure system — a community of lower-income residents. “With wars around the world, with tsunamis, you have a tremendous outpouring of sympathy for people who are refugees,” he said. “But right here in Los Angeles, we have a growing wave of refugees — renters who are being turned into refugees.”
With home sales finally starting to cool off, some tenants are determined to hold on and let the storm blow through. But for those who couldn’t hang on, the city must provide compassionate assistance, Ewing said. “When you have a force-5 hurricane, you better have emergency measures ready,” he added. “The city didn’t.”
The City Falters
Los Angeles County is a patchwork quilt of 88 cities, taking in Long Beach on the south, Claremont on the east and Palmdale on the north. Yet only four of those 88 cities have a rent-control law, the largest being Los Angeles. Even in Los Angeles, tenants don’t always know that their landlords can only raise their rent by 4 percent annually, or that they must receive a minimum relocation payment if they agree to leave.
Although real estate values have risen steadily over the past decade, city officials did not dramatically beef up the city’s force of housing investigators. Over the past three years, the housing department retained 17 investigators, charged with making sure that landlords are not evicting tenants illegally or raising rent by more than permitted by law. The only problem is, there are roughly 626,000 rent-controlled apartments stretching from Winnetka to Wilmington.
The head of the city’s housing department defended her agency, saying it scrambled over the past three years to open satellite offices, count every rental unit and clear a huge backlog of tenant complaints. But she also conceded that her agency cannot guarantee that anyone will get to stay in their own community.
“Unless you own something, it is difficult to say that life’s circumstances will always permit you to live in your neighborhood of choice,” said Mercedes Márquez, the housing department’s general manager. “That doesn’t mean, however, that the public sector shouldn’t do what it can to help maintain community stability, and create a sense of neighborhood cohesiveness.”
The City Council also created a $100 million housing trust fund in 2001, although it was not fully funded until four years later, after Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa took office. And in November, the council will ask voters to tax themselves to fund a $1 billion affordable-housing bond, designed to pay for 1,000 new units of housing over each of the next 10 years. By then, however, the storm easily could have passed through. Any aficionado of Los Angeles real estate knows that the region has a cyclical economy, and that for every boom there is a bust.
Housing advocates were equally vocal about the affordable-housing crisis of the early 1990s, right before the real estate market collapsed, flattened by the disappearance of aerospace jobs and the Los Angeles riots. By 1995, Los Angeles had once again become a buyers’ market, and a decent place for renters too. Is that the picture for 2007? Councilman Bill Rosendahl — the outspoken representative for coastal communities stretching from Westchester to Pacific Palisades — doesn’t think so.
Flanked by a half-dozen community activists, Rosendahl responded in early August with perhaps the most dramatic response to gentrification so far. Frustrated by his battle to save Lincoln Place, Rosendahl called for a temporary ban on all condominium conversions throughout his district — the wealthiest in the city, and a huge beneficiary of the ongoing economic boom.
Rosendahl’s coastal district has been at the epicenter of the condo-conversion craze, with neighborhoods like Playa del Rey, Venice and Brentwood losing 1,051 rent-controlled units in his district since January, according to housing-department records. Another 3,058 rent-controlled units disappeared between 2001 and 2005, comprising one-third of the citywide total. “We are losing the middle class in the 11th District, and we’re not going to tolerate it anymore,” said the councilman, standing just a few feet from cheering Lincoln Place tenants.