Boyle Heights has become a national symbol of California's housing crisis and longtime residents' battles with gentrification.
While communities like Echo Park and Venice have had their own political battles over redevelopment, retail boutiques and moneyed newcomers, some activists on the Eastside have escalated the dispute by employing vandalism, violence and discrimination, area Councilman José Huizar said. The U.K.'s Guardian publication has called the situation “hipster bashing.”
The opening of Weird Wave Coffee by Boyle Heights outsiders last month drew protesters, at least one of whom held a sign that described the area's gentrification as a “white wave.” Last year, a new gallery was tagged with the terms 187 (a California penal code for murder) and “fuck white art.” Even walking real estate tours have been threatened by activists. Last summer, the group Defend Boyle Heights demanded that “all art galleries … leave immediately.”
Huizar has had to walk a fine line in a majority-Latino community that faces low vacancy rates and rising rents — just like the rest of Los Angeles. In a recent statement addressed to “friends,” he essentially said enough is enough.
“While I share the concerns of displacement and rising costs of housing in Boyle Heights, race-based targeting or vandalism of any kind, like what has been leveled against small businesses and art galleries, and most recently the Weird Wave Coffee shop, is completely unacceptable and should not be tolerated,” he said.
“We all have the right to express our First Amendment–protected opinions — that is not in dispute,” he said. “But when that turns into destroying property, or violence of any kind, or targeting people solely based on race, that goes against everything Boyle Heights stands for.”
The councilman urged constituents to keep supporting locals, particularly Boyle Heights mariachis threatened with eviction and a Hollywood street vendor whose cart was pushed over by an angry transplant in Hollywood. And he noted that the community has long been home to generations of immigrants, including Jews and Japanese-Americans, so Latino activists shouldn't see it as exclusive.
Mainly he thinks anti-gentrification agitators are taking their eye off the ball.
The city is in the midst of a historic housing crisis in which residents officially have to be rich in order to be able to rent a typical two-bedroom apartment. Researchers say the county needs more than 550,000 new units just to keep up with the needs of Angelenos on the edges of homelessness. And evictions under the state Ellis Act, which allows landlords to tear down their buildings and start anew, have doubled since this time last year, according to a recent report.
According to Huizar's office, 75 percent of residences in Boyle Heights are rented; 88 percent are in rent-controlled units. “Instead of targeting business owners, particularly small business owners, we should instead focus our attention on tangible solutions to address the gentrification issues we face in Boyle Heights,” he said.
Huizar has introduced local legislation that would prohibit landlord harassment, post a list of affordable housing units online and establish a city housing office in Boyle Heights. “Whether we’re expressing our free speech, or working to create better policy, let’s not lose sight of who we are and what Boyle Heights is all about,” he said.