NPR’s Ailsa Chang speaks with Santa Monica City Council member Kristin McCowan about the impact the city’s Right to Return program could have on families who were displaced for development decades ago.
AILSA CHANG, HOSTS:
This week Santa Monica tried to make amends for families whose homes were bulldozed to make way for the eponymous freeway and the city’s administrative center. This right-of-return program now aims to connect 100 families who were displaced more than half a century ago, or their descendants, with affordable housing in Santa Monica.
Last summer we covered the Santa Monica Freeway, the westernmost leg of Interstate 10 that runs east-west through Los Angeles. We examined the neighborhoods it destroyed, like upscale Sugar Hill, one of the few places Black Angelenos could actually own property in the 1940s and ’50s. Rha and Van Nickerson are siblings who reminisce about an idyllic childhood on Sugar Hill, and then…
RHA NICKERSON: I suddenly remember my father telling his family about the plans for the freeway and how upsetting it was because our community was being destroyed. And it still affects us today.
VAN NICKERSON: That paved the way for our family.
CHANG: The Nickersons you just heard about don’t qualify for this new affordable housing program because their family home was not within the Santa Monica city limits. But they tell us they are both currently facing unstable housing conditions.
R NICKERSON: My living situation is currently threatening to put me on the streets dangerously. I’m very, very interested in any kind of help I can get.
V NICKERSON: I just wish the powers that be in Santa Monica would somehow work their magic on the city of LA…
R. Nickerson: Yes.
V NICKERSON: …so that we can benefit from it.
CHANG: Well, we wanted to talk to one of those leaders in Santa Monica about how this program came about and what its future goals are. Santa Monica City Council Member Kristin McCowan helped launch the new program, and she’s joining us now. Warm welcome.
KRISTIN MCCOWAN: Hello.
CHANG: Hello. Okay, how did this program come about?
MCCOWAN: So we knew Santa Monica had let the 10 freeway through. We knew we had displaced people. And as people in the community began to raise issues of displacement and significant holdings, we knew we wouldn’t necessarily be able to return land or – to people who were displaced. But we knew we had an affordable housing program. We knew California was in the midst of an affordable housing emergency, and we thought there was a way we could do something right now to give people the opportunity to return to Santa Monica.
CHANGE: Okay. So I understand there are hundreds of families who qualify and I’m just curious. How do they prove they qualify?
MCCOWAN: Yes. So that’s the tricky thing, right? And we recognize and understand that this would be much more difficult than please surrender your previous deed. We are talking, in some cases, of people two generations removed from the person who lived here at the time they were evicted from their homes. We know that some people may only have a photo of a grandparent standing in front of a house with an intersection in the background. Or they may have an old vaccination record from a pediatrician they’ve seen that lists their home – former home address. That’s why we try to give people as many chances as possible.
CHANG: Well, one reason we were very interested in speaking to you specifically is because I understand that your family bought a home in the Pico area of Santa Monica that the 10 freeway now runs through. Your family home was spared, but how personal does this program feel to you?
MCCOWAN: So it’s really personal. I mean, I grew up with these stories. So my father was born in Santa Monica in 1946. He grew up about a block from what is now the 10 Freeway. So my family, my father, his 11 siblings and his parents were spared. And they could live in this house and continue to go to school and continue to live in this community. I also recognize that this highway has deprived people of their livelihood.
But in the nearly two years that I’ve had the privilege of serving on the City Council here in Santa Monica, my presence and vote alone can make a difference to future Santa Monicans and former Santa Monicans who now want to return to Santa Monica . And that’s a responsibility I take very seriously, and it’s never escaped my notice that this is my truth and my story and my past. But again, there are some that are far, far more difficult and traumatic than my own. And I think all my advice – our hope is that we live up to these people as much as we can.
CHANG: You say to meet as much as possible. Because this program has been criticized by those who say it just doesn’t go far enough, we spoke to a historian, Alison Rose Jefferson, and here’s what she had to say about the program.
ALISON ROSE JEFFERSON: You should offer them mortgage help. They displaced these people and inhibited their social mobility.
CHANG: What do you think? Do you think this program goes far enough?
MCCOWAN: It doesn’t go far enough at all, and I appreciate what Dr. Jefferson says. I appreciate what a lot of people said when criticizing the program. But the reality is we’re starting somewhere, which is a lot more than I can say for probably thousands of churches in this country. And we recognize that we want to get to a point where we can potentially provide mortgage assistance, where we can get people access to actual land ownership in the city. But right now, in the midst of COVID, this was one way we could possibly offer a new opportunity to some who are struggling in their current housing.
CHANG: Do you hope that one day this program can serve as some kind of local or national model, one that could benefit, say, the Nickersons, the siblings we’ve heard about before?
MCCOWAN: I’d like to see that. I think if we can be a role model for you, one that acknowledges the mistakes your community has made in the past and then says what can I do right now today to potentially make a difference in someone else’s life, then I hope that it inspires others. And for people who, you know, deserve more – and they’re right – and want more than just recognition, I’d say we’re just getting started. And we start somewhere and want to see how we can do better.
CHANG: This is Santa Monica Councilwoman and Mayor Pro Tem Kristin McCowan. Thank you for joining us.
MCCOWAN: Thank you.
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