The ‘Good Neighbor’ Role In Gentrification

November 19, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

Just a few blocks from a major commercial corridor in Highland Park where storefronts have changed and property values have increased, east and northeast Los Angeles area residents gathered Saturday for a panel discussion on what it means to be a good neighbor.

Within minutes it was clear that for many gentrification and housing affordability are a big part of the equation.

The meeting was held at the Temple Beth Israel of Highland Park and Eagle Rock, a site that has withstood the many changes going on around the nearly century old synagogue.

“Renters are getting evicted because the cost of housing is very high, meaning renters get priced out of their homes in neighborhoods that are becoming attractive, like Highland Park, Lincoln Heights and Boyle Heights,” said moderator Helen Leung, co-executive director of the nonprofit LA-Más.

“The term gentrification is very loaded but I’m hoping we can discuss how we can minimize displacement,” she said, attempting to frame Saturday’s dialogue.

Panel speakers included Los Angeles Unified School Board President Steve Zimmer, Elena Popp, a Lincoln Heights resident and Executive Director of the Eviction Defense Network, and Shmuel Gonzalez, a community activists and historian from Boyle Heights.

According to Popp, when asked what it means to be a good neighbor her first reaction is to describe someone who is friendly and doesn’t have loud parties. But as “la abogada” (the lawyer), she knows it means helping your neighbor stay in the neighborhood.

700,000 tenants are evicted every year, Popp emphasized.

“We need to develop more affordable housing and make sure the number of [market rate] developers are restricted,” she said, citing the Wyvernwood Garden housing project in Boyle Heights as an example where a development could force longtime neighbors from their homes.

A panel Nov. 14 at the Temple Beth Israel of Highland Park and Eagle Rock discuss tenant displacement.  (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

A panel Nov. 14 at the Temple Beth Israel of Highland Park and Eagle Rock discuss tenant displacement. (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

For renter’s rights and affordable housing advocates, Wyvernwood has become synonymous with eastside gentrification. Plans to demolish and replace the 1,187 World War II era apartments to make room for a proposed mixed-use development project has led to mixed emotions in the community.

Many activists claim gentrification is just another word for racism because it displaces mostly low-income Latino families.

“We shouldn’t pretend there isn’t a significant amount of profit on the backs of the working class families being displaced,” said Zimmer. “It’s up to us affected and not affected to raise enough attention for this to be addressed,” he said, prompting applause from the 50 or so people in the audience.

In general, the panel agreed that both low income and market rate housing are needed to preserve a community’s viability and attractiveness.

“We need to have that option so people can get out of low-income housing,” said Gonzalez, referring to higher earning residents who want to stay in the neighborhood but want better housing options and amenities.

Zimmer said developers visit him throughout the year hoping to entice his support for a local housing project with promises of developer fees for a particular school. In his view, the fees are just “used to hush a particular neighborhood” so he’s inclined to deny giving his support.

Annabella Mazariegos of Boyle Heights says longtime community activist like her cannot be silenced.

“A positive change in property values and new businesses should not mean a change in the people who live there,” she said.

So, if that’s the case, then how does a community respect those individuals who have lived in the neighborhood for 50 years as well as those who moved in 50 days ago, Leung asked the panelists.

Citing from personal experience, Zimmer said while he felt blessed when welcomed into the Elysian Valley community he found it very important to check his “privilege and entitlement.”

“When you move into a neighborhood that doesn’t give you the right to take over a council or organizations,” the school board president said. “Buying a home doesn’t entitle you to control.”

It’s something he has witnessed firsthand at LAUSD schools, where some individuals or groups push their personal agendas or interests.

“When a parent advisory group is suggesting school funds be used for a garden and not an intervention program I’m going to ask who is on the council,” he elaborated.

Gonzalez pointed out that Eastside communities like Boyle Heights are already dense, causing parking issues and other problems that cause tension among neighbors.

“A lot of people don’t want dense housing because they are afraid of the demographics change,” he said. “Let’s be honest it’s because that means non-Latinos are moving in.”

Gonzalez said it’s a form of racism taking place on the Eastside and pointed to a 2014-firebombing in the Ramona Gardens housing project that many people believe was a hate crime. The firebombing targeted three black families and one Latino family in the public housing complex, where the vast majority of residents are Latino.

Landlord, Cecilia Dominguez, 62, of Elysian Valley, says the issue is complex. She told EGP she understands the dilemma of not wanting to displace a family, which reflects the key culture of a community, but as businesswoman she also has to do what she needs to stay afloat, and that could be to raise rents.

According to Dominquez, the properties she purchased decades ago have gone up in value, but so have her property taxes to reflect new higher property value assessments.

“I don’t want to [raise rents] but my property taxes are going up so I know I will eventually have to,” she said.

While Dominguez sees the discussion as a good start to framing and addressing the issue of renter displacement, she was disappointed no real solutions were reached.

She said she hears over and over that a change in demographics [to higher income] in the community will translate into better streets, betters school and better options.

“But for whom?” she asks. “The people who lived there for years and were displaced won’t see those changes.”


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