|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
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
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
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
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.”