Renaissance in the Barrio

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.


But HOPE VI has also been controversial. Just as some believe Pueblo del Sol will jump-start homeownership and investment in Boyle Heights, a densely populated community where 75 percent of homes are owned by absentee landlords and there’s little available land for new construction, others deride the project as a real estate scam benefiting the private sector, a ruse to clear the way for the private market to claim the urban neighborhood next in line to become prime real estate. As real estate markets all around Boyle Heights sizzle and pop, and their property owners and businesses prosper, the success of the HOPE VI projects turns on their ability to reduce the density of poverty and crime. The question is whether that success comes at too high a price.

The anti-project: public
housing gets a new face.
Photo by Ted Soqui

The federal government has for decades been loath to invest more money in public housing; billions of dollars in deferred maintenance have reduced many projects to the point where demolition makes more sense than repair. When HOPE VI funds were used to demolish Chicago’s notorious Cabrini Green with explosives, former residents cheered. High-rise public-housing projects in the east had become towering "city-states of the poor," in the words of one writer, monuments to the futility of federal public-housing policy and the hopelessness of public-housing residents.

Aliso Village’s modernist garden apartments were just two stories and linked by ramadas, a pleasant design by no less noteworthy an architect than Lloyd Wright, Frank Lloyd Wright’s semifamous son. But the project’s demise met with enthusiasm: Father Mike Kennedy, who presides over Delores Mission, the parish serving the projects, marched down the street carrying a replica of the Virgin of Guadalupe to bless the demolition.

During the past half-dozen years, urban real estate values have continued to climb in neighborhoods near downtowns across the U.S., as intolerable traffic makes suburban locations less and less desirable. "The beauty of HOPE VI is that it has tapped the value of that real estate, which is valuable because of its location — next to transit, next to jobs, next to downtown," says Diego Cardoso, project manager of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s new East Los Angeles light-rail line, who sat on the L.A. Housing Commission when the L.A. Housing Authority applied for HOPE VI funds. "The key lies in thinking of public housing as an asset instead of a liability," he says. "The private sector has stepped in at the very moment that the federal government has literally abandoned hope."

HOPE VI was based on the principles of "New Urbanism," an urban design movement that seeks to encourage economic and environmental sustainability by building communities the way they used to be built — with a mix of incomes and housing types, pedestrian-friendly and transit-oriented. Housing in the old Pico-Aliso projects (as the combined Aliso Village and Pico Gardens were known) was concentrated in large apartment buildings surrounded by expanses of green space and parking lots that later got claimed as gang turf. Pueblo del Sol’s housing has been decentralized in townhouse-style apartments with doors and windows opening onto front and backyards — so that residents will have eyes and ears on the street and can take ownership over these smaller and more private spaces.

"The intent is to enhance public safety and crime prevention through environmental design that allows residents to be in control, rather than to create a fortress with fences and gates and bars that has to be patrolled by the police," says Pueblo del Sol’s lead architect, Quatro Design Group principal Ricardo Rodriguez. Rodriguez himself grew up in the Maravilla public-housing project further east; the success of his up-and-coming design firm is signified by his top-of-the-line German-built luxury car and cavernous design studio at an urbane downtown address. "New Urbanism encourages economic and racial diversity rather than concentrating and isolating so many poor people and their problems in one place. We worked very hard to create a positive space where only negative space existed."

It can’t be ignored that the number of public-housing units for the poorest residents in the new housing projects has been reduced by more than half — in the midst of what is an acute affordable-housing shortage. Tenant organizers estimate that only 250 to 300 of the 1,200 families that used to live in Pico-Aliso have come back. And the zero-tolerance policy of the new private-sector management company toward gang activity, guns and drugs has created a less-than-friendly neighborhood culture where neighbors spy on neighbors and former residents are viewed with suspicion by new residents.


Tenant organizers charge that the way demolition was handled caused so much fear and confusion that it seemed a deliberate disinformation campaign. Existing residents — some families had lived in the projects for three generations — were offered three choices: They could be housed somewhere in the project temporarily and be ensured of a new unit; they could use Section 8 vouchers to find temporary housing elsewhere and reapply for a new unit with no guarantee; or they could accept Section 8 vouchers and $5,200 in relocation assistance and give up their spots.

Which seems fair enough, if it weren't for the fact that in L.A.’s tight housing market, few landlords are willing to forgo market-rate rents for what the federal government would pay them through the Section 8 program. Available properties are mostly in neighborhoods that have at least as many problems as the old gang-riddled Pico-Aliso, or so far out of the city that residents are stranded without access to public transit, social services and jobs, or to the strong support network of families and friends that existed in the projects — a trend toward the suburbanization of poverty that is accompanying the increase in urban land values.

And residents who chose the Section 8 vouchers did so before President Bush announced that he was eliminating 250,000 vouchers by 2005 and another 600,000 vouchers by 2009 — a decision that renders many of the vouchers temporary. "Being poor is a state of mind, not a condition," HUD Secretary Alphonso Jackson explained to Congress last summer to justify the cuts.

"HOPE VI is just an excuse for the federal government to deconstruct and reduce housing for poor people," argues tenant organizer Leonardo Vilchis of Union des Vecinos (Union of the Neighbors), who worked with tenants displaced by the reconstruction of Pico Gardens, and now with those displaced by Pueblo del Sol. "HOPE VI funding was for demolition, not repair. If the intent was really to help poor people, then there would have been one-for-one replacement of demolished units. Was the point really to help people, or to move them and their problems out of the way of the real estate market?"

The privatization of investment and of space that HOPE VI offered is a reversal of the cooperative socialist ideals embodied by the first generation of public housing — an irony not lost on UCLA architecture and urban-planning professor Dana Cuff. In her recent book, The Provisional City, she chronicles the "politics of property" that play out in the creation of large-scale urban projects requiring the massive demolition of homes and relocation of residents. The result of these "convulsive urban upheavals" is inherently unstable, she predicts, "an episodic utopia" providing only a "momentary vision of a better life."

Hundreds of homes in Boyle Heights were razed to make way for construction of Aliso Village and Pico Gardens in the early 1940s. Thousands more were demolished for the construction of the 5 freeway, and the 10, and the 60, and then the 710 — "consistent with the national use of highway construction for slum-clearance purposes," Cuff writes. And now, with the demolition and reconstruction of Pico-Aliso, "Social problems with economic roots are again being redressed by utopian physical solutions. If gangs like AVK (for Aliso Village Killers) no longer have a home, then the problem will go away, or so this naive logic goes. Like overcrowding in the ’30s, gangs are to be defeated by new buildings, only this time the buildings look backward to a nostalgic America."

So was HOPE VI the cure or the curse? Deeply conflicted, I sought the counsel of Peter Dreier, a national guru on housing and the poor. The widely published director of the Urban and Environmental Policy Program at Occidental College, Dreier was housing director for the Boston Redevelopment Agency under progressive Boston Mayor Ray Flynn. Providing some big-picture perspective, Dreier explains that in the ’30s, progressive activists in the U.S. had tried to replicate public housing in England, which mixed the poor and the working class with other stable-income families in government-built "council housing." But the real estate lobby in this country didn’t want to have to compete with government housing, and worked hard with Republican lawmakers to make housing projects off-limits to anyone but the "poorest of the poor." In effect, he says, this set public housing up to fail, because projects were sited in the poorest neighborhoods and turned into ghettos — thereby stigmatizing both poor people and the public housing in which they lived.


"I’m not a big fan of concentrating poverty," says Dreier. "But nobody really knows what happens to the residents who get pushed out of the HOPE VI projects to make room for the affordable and market-rate housing. HUD has tried to track these residents, without much success. Most probably go on to find housing that isn’t as good. Those who stay in the new projects end up with housing that’s better. The question is whether the tradeoff is worth it. I don’t think much of public housing as it existed was good. But neither is it right to tear down more housing than is created."

The real problem isn’t HOPE VI, he says, but rather that Bush has made it clear he doesn’t care about the poor or about the cities they live in, where he doesn’t get many votes. "Thanks to his $1.3 trillion in tax cuts, mostly for the wealthy, Bush has made it impossible for Washington to provide any significant aid to the nation’s cities or to the poor," says Dreier. "Bush inherited a federal budget surplus from Clinton, but the combination of huge tax cuts and increasing military spending has led to record budget deficits, leaving hardly any discretionary funds for social or anti-poverty programs."

Adds Pueblo del Sol developer Tony Salazar of McCormack Baron Salazar, which has built HOPE VI projects in several U.S. cities, "Concentrating very low-income people in one place hasn't been successful anywhere in the country. HOPE VI has built economically integrated communities by bringing the middle class back into very poor neighborhoods to spend their money, and it has given existing residents more choice in the private housing market. There’s a very positive impact on the surrounding community, and there are beginning to be studies that show children do better in school, more residents get jobs and more private investment follows."

One afternoon, I wandered through Aliso Village and into Boyle Heights, asking people what they thought of the resurrected housing projects. "Who cares about the people who got kicked out? They were thugs," one young resident stated emphatically, interrupting a game of basketball to talk to me, with all the certainty of youth. A teacher leaving the school reminded me that gang warfare had been a real threat — school children routinely had to duck under desks as gunfire slammed into the school grounds — and that there have been no shootings or gunfire or even graffiti for two years. "If for no other reason, it’s good because of the kids," she asserted. But there are others who worry about the many residents who’ve been displaced. "Who is going to care about them if not us?" wondered Patricia Zarate, who worked at Delores Mission before opening her Plaza Café nearby.

Father Greg "G-Dog" Boyle is a pillar of Boyle Heights, a Jesuit priest who with his nonprofit Homeboy Industries provides former gang members, including several former residents of Pico-Aliso, with a job and a way out of "the life." Father Boyle, who in just this past year buried two of his homeboys — victims of gang retribution — has long included Pico Gardens and Aliso Village as part of his turf. He’s hopeful that the new projects really will provide the community with a new start, but he acknowledges the significance of what has been lost. "For all the problems in the projects, there was also a sense of community that was so strong it was palpable," he says. "As advocates for the poor, we had for years demanded more humane living conditions. And then one day, much to our surprise, the federal government said, ‘Okay.’ Should we have said, ‘No thanks’? My mind still isn’t made up about it."

Decades of persistent poverty have made community advocates desperate for a change of fortune in Boyle Heights — once a flourishing mixed-race, mixed-income community, its busy streets lined with shops and residences and trolleys until the combined effect of slum and freeway clearance set East L.A. on a half-century-long downward spiral, and many residents fled to the suburbs. But the reconstruction of the projects and the new popularity of urban neighborhoods has buoyed hopes of an economic renaissance. "What do I think about gentrification? I think it’s great," says Frank Villalobos of Barrio Planners. "Homeownership is the way to build wealth in America. Is there a reason Eastside property owners shouldn’t get the same return on their investment as Westside property owners?"

No shill for the real estate industry, Villalobos is an architect by vocation but a community organizer by avocation who has long soldiered in the cause of economic and environmental justice with the venerable Mothers of East L.A., a community advocacy group he helped found, and the Eastside Business Assistance Center. He’s tried to jump-start economic development in East L.A., if for no other reason than "I’d go broke trying to work here as an architect and planner. There’s no money here. So we have to make it, and then recycle it in the community."


Villalobos has incubated homegrown entrepreneurial efforts, helping to hatch El Pollo Loco and Pescado Mojado and other ventures, especially in the booming Mexican-food industry. "But our kids grow up and leave East L.A. They move to the East or the West, following economic growth. East L.A. has not been an economically dynamic community."

But East L.A.’s stars seem to be coming into alignment: The MTA will spend nearly $1 billion on the light-rail line and its nine stations, which should attract further public and private investment; $650 million is being spent on the new L.A. County/USC Medical Center; there’s the $150 million expansion of White Memorial Hospital; and two planned high schools, likely to cost another $100 million. And now there are conversations about a gigantic $350 million venture to convert the abandoned Sears distribution center and its vast parking lot, which overlooks the downtown skyline on 23 acres at Olympic and Soto, into an "open town center" that’s been likened to Westwood.

The Sears site was bought last year by a risk taker named Mark Weinstein, whose grandparents and great-grandparents had lived in Boyle Heights, and who vaulted into the spotlight last year with the redevelopment of five historic garment-district buildings downtown into 550 mixed-income lofts collectively known as Santee Court. Plans are being drawn up at Sears for 480 lofts and 180 apartments, stores and offices and a charter school, with a rooftop pool, gardens and tennis courts.

Villalobos is among those dreaming of restoring Boyle Heights to the vital community it once was, but bigger — expanded to include a revitalized L.A. River, its industrialized riverbanks reclaimed for new homes and schools and shops and parks. "The river will reconnect East L.A. to Chinatown and to Little Tokyo and to downtown from Aliso Village all the way down to the Sears site," Villalobos says. "We need a mayoral candidate with that broad vision. East L.A.’s time has come."


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