Smart Growth: Coming to a Neighborhood Near You?

April 22, 2013

By Joan Ling

In 1984, I bought a modest house in a transitioning working class neighborhood where the original residents who moved into their homes in the 1940s and 50s were selling to investors and first time home buyers.  Over the last three decades, I have seen great changes.  My home value has grown in excess of what I can afford to buy today, notwithstanding a successful career and steady salary increases.  My renter neighbors have mostly given way to a new crop of first time owners.  My neighborhood has become fashionable.  Higher quality shops and eateries are popping up around me, with a farmers market and an annual sustainable garden tour to boot.

I have been lucky.  I got into the neighborhood as a homeowner before it became desirable to live here.  But I often wonder about my renter neighbors who had moved out.  Where might they be?  Are they enjoying similar improvements in the quality of their neighborhood life?  Los Angeles is a majority renter city (62%).  Life is just a little more precarious, with no control over landlords and investors ‘ decisions to sell or keep their properties, maintain or not their buildings, “milk” their cash flow, get out of the rental business all together, or demolish their structures to make way for denser, higher profit development.

With the planned public investment of $40 billion in rail transit in Los Angeles, the station areas are poised for a renaissance as we rediscover walkability, the lure of letting someone else do the driving, and the importance of living sustainably.  But what would it mean to the renters, and for that matter low-income homeowners, who do not have much say about the private investment decisions stimulated by this massive public investment?  Research points to gentrification (good) and displacement (bad), with higher income newcomers moving in and lower income residents moving out.

Can we keep the good and ensure that the bad does not happen?  Sitting low-income residents should be able to reap the benefits of the transit investment along with the private property owners who stand to financially gain.  Furthermore, low-income people make up the bulk of the core transit riders and to displace them is to work against the effectiveness of our rail transit system.

Grass root community groups are coming together to voice their desire to have these station areas grow in an equitable and sustainable fashion.  It would mean enforcing current regulations that protect tenants, adopting land use policies that encourage density AND a range of housing options accessible to households in every income group, and passing public investment measures that preserve and create affordable housing.

Philanthropic organizations are standing with these groups to find ways to improve neighborhoods without kicking out the neighbors.  For example, California Community Foundation last year provided more than $500,000 to 15 groups to research, plan, advocate, and organize for equitable “smart growth”.  It is part of a Funders’ Collaborate, including Kaiser Permanente, Liberty Hill, and California Endowment, to bring together businesses, governments, and communities in shaping a new Los Angeles where diversity, inclusivity, equity and justice are found in every neighborhood.  I hope that my neighborhood will benefit from that vision.

Joan Ling provides development and land use policy advisory services, after 30 years working in the real estate financial analysis and affordable housing development fields.  She teaches at UCLA and Occidental College.


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