At a City Council debate in Boyle Heights a couple weeks ago, Gloria Molina took dead aim at gentrification. She noted that politicians have talked about bringing a Starbucks to Boyle Heights.
“We don't need a Starbucks,” she declared, to cheers from her supporters. “We need to take our own [businesses] and find a way to upgrade them.”
Molina was speaking to one of the central concerns in the race for the 14th Council District. Incumbent Councilman Jose Huizar has hailed the renewed vitality in CD 14, which stretches from downtown to Eagle Rock. As he sees it, he has worked hard to attract new businesses, clean up the parks and preserve open space. That work is paying off in the form of improved quality of life for his constituents.
But there is an underlying anxiety about those improvements, and Molina is trying to tap into it. As real estate prices go up elsewhere in the city, newcomers are buying up cheaper property on the Eastside. Rents are going up, and many are worried that they are being forced out.
“The developers are buying up all of Highland Park,” says John Nese, owner of Galco's Soda Pop Stop, and an ardent Molina supporter. “They called us 'low-hanging fruit.'”
Huizar often is accused of being too cozy with developers, many of whom have contributed to his re-election campaign. He was heckled in the parking lot after the Boyle Heights debate. “Bandito!” a Molina supporter shouted. “Developers love you!”
In an interview, Huizar said he has support from the real estate community because they buy into his vision for a revitalized downtown L.A. He accused Molina of trying to use that fact to scare homeowners in other communities.
“She's trying to spin it like I'm trying to do this in local neighborhoods,” Huizar said. “She's a smart politician. If you try to wrap that 'developer' albatross around people, it doesn't sound good.”
At the debate in Boyle Heights, Huizar noted that he took a stand against the Wyvernwood redevelopment project. The project's developers planned to tear down 1,000 older apartments along Olympic Boulevard and replace them with 4,400 apartments and condos. One of the key concerns around the project is that residents of the existing apartments would be forced out of the community.
For some, the project stirred up memories of Chavez Ravine, the low-income community that was cleared in the 1950s to make way for Dodger Stadium. Those memories still resonate in current debates about gentrification.
In an interview, Molina argued that more has to be done to help low-income renters buy homes in their neighborhoods. She suggested that the city should help out with second mortgages to make home ownership affordable.
“Change is a good thing, but change for who?” she said. “We like revitalization, but it has to be respectful of the people who are living here.”
Huizar defends his record on affordable housing, saying more affordable units have been built in the district during his tenure than under any previous councilman. He also argues that on balance, the changes in the community have been to the good.
“Boyle Heights is improving,” he said. “It was once known as the gang capital of the country. Now it's known as a place people are proud to live in.”
And as for Starbucks, if it were put to a vote, most people probably would love to have one in their neighborhood. Even Molina softened her position in a subsequent interview, saying, “We'd welcome a Starbucks.
“No one‘s going to object to that,” she said, adding that her point was that a Starbucks is not enough. “To make that the face of revitalization, I oppose. … We have wonderful coffees and pastries in our community, and we have to revitalize the community that is there.”