Working Folks, Not the Rich, Fight Density Near USC's Expo Line

Working Folks, Not the Rich, Fight Density Near USC's Expo Line
Illustration by Fred Noland

Like many homeowners in Los Angeles, Rocio Guerrero thinks there are too many people in her neighborhood.

The housekeeper, 35, lives with her extended family on a three-residence lot on Walton Avenue. It's a flat, narrow block in the Exposition Park neighborhood, two blocks south of a new Expo Line station and a stone's throw from USC and the Coliseum.

Parking on game day has always been a challenge. But now there are long waits to get her son into classes at the rec center. Her niece left Weemes Elementary, the local school, because of ballooning class sizes and fights in the hallways. And on Halloween, gunfire erupted on her street during trick-or-treating.

The last thing an unsafe neighborhood needs, she says, are hundreds of new renters. "The police can barely keep up as it is."

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Guerrero is part of the Walton Avenue Neighbors — homeowners and residents who urged the Los Angeles City Council to stop the long-sought redevelopment of Rolland Curtis Gardens, a battered, 48-unit, public housing complex down the street.

But the plan to turn the complex into a mixed-use, affordable development with three times the tenant capacity cleared a major hurdle last month when the City Council voted unanimously to rezone the land for much higher density. Now, Guerrero's group hopes to take its complaint federal, arguing that city leaders are failing to follow housing civil-rights laws.

Worries over crime and congestion usually are raised by affluent homeowners — less often by those struggling to make ends meet.

Los Angeles is facing a housing crisis, with studies naming it the worst rental market in the country. Renters of low-income units are suffering the most.

"Generally, it's clear that Los Angeles as a whole is becoming unaffordable," says Vincent Reina, a co-author of the USC Casden Multifamily Forecast. "Rents are consistently increasing, vacancies are consistently decreasing. All the market signs point to the fact that there is a huge need for more units."

Sandra McNeill, executive director of the community advocacy group TRUST South L.A., has advocated for community housing around USC since the early 1990s. She got involved with Rolland Curtis Gardens when its landlord attempted to evict the tenants and go market rate in 2004.

"We could see the writing on the wall. With the Expo Line in the works, it was clear affordable housing was at tremendous risk," she says, because owners could replace their old housing with pricier units aimed at USC students and commuters lured by the new rail line.

TRUST and Adobe Communities bought the badly aging complex for $9 million in 2012, and planned to raze it to build a much larger, mixed-use, transit-oriented development, or TOD. At five stories, with 140 residential units, 447 tenants and 8,000 square feet of freestanding commercial space, the complex would tower over rows of bungalows and townhouses around Walton Avenue. Construction could begin in late 2015.

It's not clear who, exactly, those new residents would be. If TRUST's organizing base is any indication, they would be renters now facing displacement in areas around USC, and would join some current Rolland Curtis Gardens tenants, who, McNeill says, will "absolutely" have the right to "first return" in two years.

She notes that current residents are likely to be among the poorest people who end up in the proposed complex. By her estimate, the newcomers, who earn only 30 to 60 percent of an average income in L.A., would still make "twice" as much as the ZIP code's average resident. Given those demographics, McNeill considers it a "mixed-income" project, even though no apartments will be priced at market rate.

But the Walton Avenue Neighbors urged the City Council to require market-rate units within the development, asking why their neighborhood had to absorb hundreds of new, low-income rental units while many wealthier areas of L.A. have none.

That's where things get interesting.

According to Department of City Planning documents, the answer is that South Los Angeles can "accommodate" these new low-income units. In fact, a report cited by TRUST's consultants says that L.A. needs 14,000 new units each year to address its dearth of housing, and that South L.A. has the "capacity" for all of it.

That dramatic projected demand is driven in part by the Expo Line itself.

City planners, former mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Mayor Eric Garcetti all have encouraged mixed-income, high-density development walking distance from train, subway and bus lines. Such transit-oriented developments have risen in Boyle Heights, Koreatown and Hollywood.

Though high-density buildings anger community groups such as the Walton Avenue Neighbors, they are expeditious for the city and cost-effective for developers.

Rolf Pendall, director of the Metropolitan Housing and Community Policy Center in Washington, D.C., suggests the development, to be constructed near the new USC Village, could set off a "virtuous cycle" of neighborhood upgrading.

Michael Lens, an urban economist at UCLA, views development along transit lines as a sign of a neighborhood's "improvement." At the same time, he also believes deeply that affordable housing should be spread across L.A., which he says is "unusually" segregated by race and income, thanks to its widespread, and fiercely protected, single-family zoning.

Lens doesn't think city officials have the political will to approve affordable housing in more upscale areas.

"Do we take a tiny amount of affordable housing," he asks, in areas where the cost of land and local opposition are much greater, "or do we take it where we can get it?"

Last summer, Deirdre Pfeiffer, an urban planning professor at Arizona State University, and Gary Orfield, a political science professor at UCLA, were contacted by the Walton Avenue Neighbors to petition City Hall to reject TRUST and Adobe's request to rezone the land to allow far more tenants.

The two professors have studied the preponderance of federally subsidized housing in California's poorest neighborhoods, those that feed into underperforming schools. They believe the Rolland Curtis redevelopment, by adding hundreds of low-income, minority residents, would exacerbate poverty among blacks and Latinos and concentrate residential and school segregation.

According to Pfeiffer and Orfield, that provides legal grounds for neighbors to file a civil rights complaint alleging that L.A. city officials failed to "affirmatively further fair housing."

Around Rolland Curtis Gardens, the neighborhood schools include Weemes Elementary, Foshay Learning Center, and Manual Arts Senior High — some of L.A.'s poorest and most underperforming schools, even compared with other low-income, heavily minority schools.

Two years ago, Weemes was the site of a brawl between mothers at a preschool graduation — fighting over a lone cap and gown provided by a disorganized teacher for photo shoots.

A group of local professors, including former city planning commissioner Regina Freer and legal advocate Gary Blasi, has suggested that the new influx of students living at Rolland Curtis could use the Expo Line, a short walk from their new homes, to leave the area and attend various charter and magnet schools.

But Orfield sees a different outcome. In an email to L.A. Weekly, he warned that if city leaders choose to concentrate "hundreds of poor people of color in an area already full of subsidized housing with very weak schools and assume that lots of middle-class people are going to move in and use the schools and the schools will simply get better, [they] are living in a delusion."


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