Gina Fields talks almost wistfully about one of her favorite pastimes growing up in The Jungle, the part of South LA that most Angelenos now know as the rapidly gentrifying Baldwin Village.
“As a child, I went through Leimert Park to Audubon Middle School and looked at the houses and said, ‘One day I’ll buy this.'”
After years of traveling and renting apartments in New York and San Francisco, Fields did just that. “As an African American, this dream came true and being able to buy a property in Leimert Park was huge,” she told me.
But Fields, who currently chairs the West Neighborhood Development Council of the Empowerment Congress, is increasingly convinced that other blacks will not have the same chance.
“I’m afraid we’ll lose that,” she said of Leimert Park, where single-family homes are now fetching more than a million dollars and luxury apartments are growing along once-neglected commercial corridors. “We could lose this culturally significant neighborhood to overdevelopment.”
That fear – of gentrification, of displacement, of annihilation – has long been a part of life in South LA. It is nothing new that residents are pricing their historically black neighborhoods and are forced to move to cheaper cities in the high desert.
What is new is the level of despair and in some cases the sheer panic over a coincidence of – at least superficially – seemingly unrelated events that could change South LA forever
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First there was the sale of Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza to a corporate developer that ended a year-long search by activists to buy it and turn it into a community hub. Plans for the soon-to-be-revitalized mall include new condos, apartments, shops, offices, and restaurants, each costing about $ 1 billion.
Then, last week, Governor Gavin Newsom signed Senate Laws 9 and 10, which drastically change the zoning laws in the state by making it much easier to build apartments or condos on land that was previously only intended for a house.
And now, as my colleagues Jack Flemming and Andrew Khouri reported, there is the inevitable reality that the COVID-19 pandemic has solidified economic inequality in Los Angeles and is making million dollar neighborhoods the norm even in South LA
In Crenshaw, where rapper and activist Nipsey Hussle spent the last few years of his life buying back the “hood”, home values have doubled, reaching a price far out of reach for longtime residents, which is more than ever around fight the rent. In West Adams, where homes are also in the seven-digit range, it was only a decade ago that a typical home cost less than $ 320,000.
Suddenly it seems like South LA has reached a turning point. The only question now is what can be done about it.
“It scares us,” Fields admitted. “That’s the fear. That we can no longer live here. “
Full Disclosure: I’m glad Newsom signed the SB 9 and SB 10. I imagine it wasn’t an easy decision politically, even after surviving a recall, but it had to be done.
California is caught in a self-caused housing and homelessness disaster. The only way out is to build at least 180,000 new houses and apartments a year by 2025 – and maybe even 500,000 a year. Yet the state is still stubbornly striving for closer to 100,000 new housing units per year.
That simply does not work.
Cities need to denser and move away from the Southern California lifestyle that single-family zoning has made possible for so long. It just makes sense to force every neighborhood to allow at least two residential units on each property.
But I’ll admit, some of the NIMBYs in South LA make me pause because they make good arguments for what is being sacrificed to save the state. People like Robin René Cole, a longtime homeowner in Park Mesa Heights.
“I’m very worried,” she told me. “I see this as my African American cultural area. That’s far and wide in the city. We don’t have a lot. Every group has a place that they can say is their cultural mecca, and this is one of them. “
In fact, Leimert Park in particular is the center of black life in Southern California.
It is arguably also a center of black wealth in a state where there has long been a gap between black and white Californians on that front – and that only widened during the pandemic.
Fields understandably fears that rampant gentrification will turn the way Black Angelenos built it through home ownership and passed it down from generation to generation on its head.
“If we destroy the single-family neighborhood by allowing developers to demolish the single-family homes and build triplexes and duplexes and quads that we can’t afford to buy, we’ll be lost,” Fields told me.
Nobody knows exactly what will happen to SB 9 and SB 10. The latter, which enables the construction of up to 10 residential units on a single plot of land, is voluntary for the cities.
But there are many fears.
Fears that developers will arbitrarily target South LA for new projects because of the relatively cheap property.
“The first money that falls into your hands is the money the current owners give to the developers,” said Michael Lawson, president and CEO of the Los Angeles Urban League. “Everything else is a wing and a prayer.”
Fears that older black residents will sell their homes are tempted to make money in Southern California’s scorching housing market before it cools off. (And who could blame them?)
“You never see those ‘We’re buying houses for cash’ signs in Beverly Hills. They are not the people pressured to sell, ”said Damien Goodmon of Downtown Crenshaw, the activist group that tried to buy Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza. “They are not the ones who have been denied economic opportunity in so many other ways in American life as are the blacks and browns who make up many of the communities in which this activity takes place.”
Fear that once new residents move in they will act like gentrifiers and start calling the police about long-time black residents.
“We are diverse. We welcome everyone in our neighborhood. But we hope, just as if you move to Chinatown or Japantown, that you realize that this city is based on African American culture, ”Fields said. “I don’t want to run in front of my house and get chased by someone who thinks I’m causing trouble.”
So what can you do?
Carmen Hill, the homeowner of Leimert Park, wants to teach more black residents new avenues of defense, including using little-known government programs – from first-time loans to grants – to keep them from being evicted.
“We have to get the message across,” the longtime real estate agent told me. “Everyone just sits around and says, ‘Oh, they’re taking over our community.'”
Goodmon, meanwhile, hasn’t changed his tactics. He said that Downtown Crenshaw is not giving up buying the mall and that “we will end up being the legal owners of this property.”
How they plan to do this is unclear, which is why Fields is likely to act as if the Harridge Development Group will remain the new owner.
Harridge’s CEO told the Times that 10% of the condominiums and 10% of the apartments under construction at Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza will be below market prices. Fields and the neighborhood council are pushing for more, just as they are pushing other developers building homes in South LA for more.
There is more to it than just fear.
“I just hope that maybe the developers will be appeased if they build along the trade lines,” Fields said. “I hope our continued commitment inspires them to offer a fair amount of affordable housing. And that developers don’t think, oh yeah, let’s come in and destroy something beautiful. “