By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
By Dennis Romero
The economic displacement doesn’t mean Echo Park no longer has gang graffiti. But it does mean that on the border between Echo Park and Silver Lake, many of the gang members who spray their tags on the cinder-block walls of Mohawk Street and Scott Avenue don’t actually live in the neighborhood. And that’s one of the strangest products of gentrification: commuter taggers. Gang graffiti, an act of marking territory, is being carried out by taggers who have been priced out of that very territory.
“You wonder why they keep coming back,” said LAPD Officer Sam Salazar, who serves as one of the department’s community liaisons, or senior lead officers. “They don’t live there no more, but they think, ‘Hey, that’s our old hood.’ That’s the only thing I can think of.”
In Echo Park, the nearest source of help for a struggling tenant can be found at Inquilinos Unidos, a nonprofit group that operates in a dingy upstairs office just east of MacArthur Park. On a typical Wednesday, the group will field questions from 40 or 50 anxious tenants, some needing help in securing repairs, others facing the threat of eviction. On a recent August afternoon, 51-year-old Abel Munguia had asked a counselor at Inquilinos Unidos what he should do about his home in Highland Park. Only a day earlier, a real estate agent called him to tell him the house he rents on Avenue 52 had been purchased —and that he needed to leave.
Munguia, a truck driver who came to Los Angeles from El Salvador in 1977, had moved into his rental house only a year earlier, trying to outrun the rising rent at another, nearby apartment. Because he lived in a single-family house, the counselor told him there was nothing he could do but look for another place while he awaits the 30-day notice.
A 17-year resident of Highland Park, Munguia has noticed the increasingly Anglo buyers who were willing to pay $500,000 for a house in his neighborhood. “The monthly payment is $3,000 and up,” he said. “Three thousand dollars for one family is a lot of money, I think. These people must have really good jobs.”
Asked how he and his wife would find an apartment to rent for less than $1,250 a month within 30 days, Munguia could not answer. “We might go to San Bernardino,” he said. “I hear it’s cheaper.”
Because Munguia’s family is renting a single-family house, his departure will not register on the city’s list of statistics regarding the disappearance of rent-controlled units. Indeed, city officials have been struggling to identify the scale of the housing shortage, in large part because of a history of poor record keeping. The housing department’s Web site shows an increase in L.A.’s rent-controlled apartments over the past five years, from nearly 463,000 to more than 626,000 currently.
Such an increase is mathematically impossible, however. Because rent control applies only to buildings that existed before October 1978, not newly constructed complexes, the number of rent-regulated apartments has nowhere to go but down. Although housing officials say that more aggressive inspections turned up a greater number of rent-controlled units, the city’s housing inventory has been a constantly moving target — one that makes it nearly impossible to know if the city is winning or losing the battle for reasonable rents.
Meanwhile, renters who can no longer afford much of Los Angeles have been moving steadily outward, trying South Gate, Florence and East Los Angeles, said Aníbal Valdez-Ortega, one of the tenant organizers at Inquilinos Unidos. What those families frequently do not know, however, is that they have moved just beyond the neighborhoods where rent control exists. Some think they have moved to Watts or South-Central, sections of Los Angeles, only to learn they actually live in Florence or Firestone — unincorporated sections of Los Angeles County where rent control no longer applies, Valdez-Ortega said.
“They find a place for $800, then a month later they get a letter saying it’s not $800 anymore, it’s $1,200,” he said. “And the only protection they have is a 60-day notice for rent increases, 30 days for evictions.”
South L.A.’s Westside Refugees
Perhaps gentrification isn’t a storm system at all. Maybe it’s more like the 100-year flood that accompanies the storm, washing over the economic barriers that are erected around a neighborhood. The greater the level of poverty, the higher the flood wall to keep gentrification from washing in. The Los Angeles Times wrote as early as 1971 about the arrival of middle-class residents to Echo Park, a community recognized even then as struggling and low income. But the transformation didn’t take hold, and the neighborhood found itself coping with more serious poverty and crime a decade later. The economic waves lapped even higher in Echo Park in the late 1980s, as the succeeding real estate boom took hold. But the financial floodwaters didn’t truly wash over the barriers until after 2000, when the spillover from Silver Lake arrived.
If gentrification is indeed a flood, then the highest levees in the city have been erected around South Los Angeles. The barriers are thicker and stronger for many reasons — poverty, racism, high crime rates, a reputation in the media and public that, to put it mildly, discourages investment. Yet the surge in real estate values has been knocking down barrier after barrier. White and multiracial middle-class home buyers who might never have looked south of the Santa Monica Freeway have taken the leap, discovering nice neighbors, clean streets and a killer housing stock — Craftsman bungalows from the 1910s and charming Spanish homes from the 1920s.