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For those higher up the economic food chain, the transformation wrought by gentrification can be a heady, if occasionally disorienting, experience. Homes have tripled and even quadrupled in value. Fix-’n’-flip artists are buying up cottages and adding the telltale signs of the comfortable class — ornamental grasses on the outside, refinished floors on the inside, earth tones throughout. Low-income neighborhoods long dominated by 99-cent stores, with their discount tube socks and corn flakes from Mexico, are suddenly sporting Zagat-worthy businesses. Can you believe there’s a terrific wine bar on Spring Street? It’s practically in Skid Row! Did you see that gelato place on Sunset? Finally, a place I can take my kids! Those who live in comfort are happy to see Los Angeles behave like a big city — with big-city comforts and a steady arrival of new amenities.
For those on the lower rungs of the economic ladder, the dislocation is far more precarious. Landlords, developers and even government agencies are pushing tenants out of hard-to-find rental units, sending them to the outer reaches of Los Angeles or even neighboring counties and states. With rents reaching historic highs, the departure of a single roommate can throw a household into disarray, leaving those behind to scramble for a new roommate or another scarce apartment.
Everyone wants to talk about gentrification — unless, of course, that conversation is on the record, printable in a newspaper. A shopkeeper on the Eastside did not want to be named as she voiced fears that one day her neighborhood could lose its Mexican-American residents. A contractor, rehabbing a house in South Los Angeles, would not produce a business card after he explained how he had cleaned out a house once occupied by prostitutes and addicts. In other words, the conversation gets uncomfortable once the topic shifts from real estate to class, or race. Yet shouldn’t the neighborhood rejoice that a drug house has disappeared? And why can’t we talk openly about a whole class of people moving out?
And that, in a nutshell, is the most maddening thing about gentrification — its very duality, the way in which it simultaneously delivers pleasure and pain, miraculous benefits and terrible consequences. As middle-income residents move in, neighborhoods that once heard low-flying helicopters and automatic-weapons fire have found a greater measure of peace. Working-class families who scraped together the money to buy homes in the mid-1990s have happily cashed out, making hundreds of thousands of dollars en route to a five-bedroom home in Fontana, Las Vegas or Phoenix. Those who stay behind, however, frequently find themselves in a neighborhood they don’t recognize. And those who rent in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood discover that they gained physical security while losing economic security, with rents rising steadily and the inventory of reasonably priced homes shrinking.
“If you’re a long-term tenant with low rent, you are walking around these days with a bullseye target on your back,” said Larry Gross, executive director of the Coalition for Economic Survival, which has been pushing a legislative package to counter mass evictions. “Because that landlord is going to do whatever they can to get you out and raise the rent.”
The nine architects, academics and land-use experts who serve on the L.A. City Planning Commission got one glimpse of the out-of-control real estate market last March, sitting patiently through a three-hour study session devoted to the balance between jobs and housing. The marble-lined chambers were packed with lobbyists and land-use lawyers, many of them representing real estate developers like Trammell Crow and the Kor Group. But on that day, a small band of critics also emerged, stepping forward to issue dire warnings about a city hellbent on creating new upscale housing.
One speaker warned that loft and condo dwellers too often move in with a sense of entitlement, then try to push out anyone who is loud, messy or beneath their aesthetic standards. A second accused the city of engaging in “spot zoning,” putting high-density condo projects in places where they would not normally be permitted. A third, an angry woman from the Westside, voiced her fear of condo developers like Miami-based Lennar Corp., then implored the commission to protect her “pristine” section of West Los Angeles.
The thing is, these critics weren’t from homeowner associations looking to block high-density housing, or tenants’ rights groups trying to protect renters. They were the owners of industrial property, manufacturing businesses that need vast amounts of space, like cold-storage companies and food-processing plants. Like Giannotti, they weighed the prospect of being priced out or pushed out, as the city decides whether to turn manufacturing zones in Hollywood, West L.A. and downtown Los Angeles into the latest loft hub.