The city of Los Angeles is 48.5 percent Latino and only 28.7 percent white. So any ballot measure had better have something to offer people of color, even if it was hatched on the 21st story of a Hollywood high-rise by the president of a billion-dollar nonprofit, Michael Weinstein of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation. The Weinstein-backed Measure S was born as a ballot measure that would nip big development projects in the bud by prohibiting the City Council from approving special zoning deals.
The initiative, seen by critics as a not-in-my-backyard measure designed to put a lid not only on development but on traffic and growth, has since tapped into minority groups and leaders of color in an effort to convert the largest demographic in town to their cause. Backers of Measure S found a sore spot in common with communities of color: gentrification.
The Coalition to Preserve L.A., the ballot measure committee set up to spearhead Measure S, has hired minority leaders, such as Crenshaw Subway Coalition executive director Damien Goodmon, and held community meetings in minority neighborhoods, such as Boyle Heights, to make its case. Backers of Measure S say that big developers are building projects that aim at high-income renters and buyers, which will speed up the gentrification of communities south of the 10 freeway and east of downtown. Yes on S also argues that in the process of erecting luxury complexes, developers are tearing down affordable units.
Amid a red-hot battle over gentrification in places like Highland Park and Boyle Heights, where art gallery owners have been targeted with protests, it's an issue that resonates with L.A.'s people of color. A recent campaign mailer from Yes on S equates writer James Baldwin's righteous fears over urban renewal with today's gentrification. It uses a photo of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who's got a hand on Baldwin's shoulder.
"There are a bunch of well-meaning white liberals who don't give a damn about South L.A. and East L.A.," Goodmon says. "The reality of what we're feeling is that gentrification is the most significant threat to our well-being."
Yes on S has used a high-rise planned for La Cienega and Jefferson boulevards near Culver City as an example of planned gentrification in a black neighborhood. In Boyle Heights, S proponents have rallied around the Wyvernwood Garden Apartments, where luxury-style redevelopment is planned.
"The process of gentrification is being aided significantly by the creation of luxury housing developments, massive in scale, that lead to indirect displacement of thousands of people," Goodmon says.
Yet housing experts, including Jonathan Spader, a senior researcher at Harvard's Joint Center for Housing Studies, have long argued that adding housing units, even high-priced ones, to a burdened market like L.A.'s ultimately helps to alleviate demand and lower rents. Experts say that new high-priced units will take a high-income renter out of the competition for existing apartments.
Last year the State of the Nation’s Housing report from Harvard's Joint Center for Housing Studies concluded that Los Angeles needs to build 382,000 new housing units for extremely low-income renters. Measure S would prevent many of those from being being built, critics say.
"We are steadfast in our belief that Measure S is in fact going to increase gentrification, increase evictions and do nothing to build more affordable housing and housing for the homeless," says Rabeya Sen, director of policy for Esperanza Community Housing Corporation. "It actually puts in danger a lot of what we have been working toward, which includes safe, affordable housing."
"We need to allow new development and have those projects have affordable units," adds Margarita Amador, a member of the Boyle Heights Neighborhood Council.
Larry Gross, executive director of the Coalition for Economic Survival, says some of the concerns of Measure S supporters — a town where rents are out of control and people of color are being forced out of neighborhoods now desired by whites — are valid. "But Measure S will only make the situation worse," he says.
"It will stop the building of affordable housing, which will directly benefit low-income communities and communities of color," he says. "They're the ones in greatest need of affordable housing. It will then incentivize developers to tear down rent-control units. This will increase displacement. We want them to build on vacant lots and commercial properties where they're not displacing people. This will increase the bull's-eye on low-income tenants throughout the city."
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Critics wonder if a campaign that started on the 21st floor of a Hollywood high-rise really has the interests of L.A.'s minorities in mind. "You wonder if it really is for our communities of color or if these folks even come to our communities," says Tamika Butler, executive director of the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition. "Their message is, 'We want to keep L.A. great. We want to keep L.A. the way it is.'"
In the end, it's up to Tuesday's voters to decide if Measure S is the right path forward.