[Research help for this article was provided by UCLA student Mitchell Boswell]
The past 15 years have seen a hell of a lot of gentrification in LA. 15% of our poor neighborhoods have undergone gentrification since the year 2000, and it feels like things have only accelerated since the end of the financial crisis. That’s putting a huge strain on communities across the city, from Boyle Heights to Leimert Park. But before we get into why, let’s get one thing out of the way…
Academics love to debate about whether gentrification is good or bad for residents of poor neighborhoods. Maybe we should try listening to what people actually want.
Some argue that when a neighborhood gentrifies, more of the existing residents stay in the neighborhood than they otherwise would (one of the many, many hard things about poverty is housing insecurity, so folks tend to move around a lot no matter what), and also tend to be more satisfied after the change.
On the other side of the debate are people arguing that as gentrification occurs, the investment and new residents push up rent prices and drive out poor residents who made that community home. It’s not clear who’s right.
That all seems pretty academic – it’s an argument between folks who are well-off about whether or not people in poor neighborhoods should be happy. Instead of telling people how they should feel, maybe we should stop and listen, just for a minute, to what they want. And a lot of those people sure as hell don’t seem to want gentrification.
The lack of new housing on the Westside is driving gentrification
There are a lot of reasons for gentrification, but the lack of new housing on the Westside deserves a lot of the blame in recent years. As we’ve discussed, social and economic changes are pulling new people into LA, many of them young and affluent. A lot of those new people would probably like to live on the Westside, but we aren’t building any places for them to go.
This gif shows housing production across LA by decade. As you can see, since 1990 the Westside has gone quiet, while the Eastside has lit up with new construction. So when those new people arrive they’ve got nowhere to go on the Westside. Instead, they’re moving to South LA and the Eastside, driving gentrification in those neighborhoods.
But it isn’t development that causes prices to rise in low-income neighborhoods. It’s a shortage of housing.
Some people blame developers for causing prices to rise. But new developments are actually a symptom of the rising prices, rather than the other way around. When a neighborhood becomes more desirable, more people want to live there, and that new demand is what drives up prices. Then developers chase those rising rents, and start building.
New construction can even help alleviate the pressure on existing residents. Without any new construction, every new person who moves into the neighborhood will have to take a home that was occupied by a previous resident. If the new construction includes more places to live than what it was replacing (for instance, a new mixed use residential building where a one story storefront used to be) then it actually creates more room for those new residents without pushing existing residents out.
But neighborhoods which undergo gentrification will never be able build enough housing to stem the tide on their own. LA is growing too fast for a handful of neighborhoods to handle. Even if they could, it’s hardly fair to ask a few communities to accommodate every single new person who wants to come to Los Angeles.
To stem the tide of rising rents, we need to upzone Los Angeles. Every neighborhood and council district needs to pitch in.
Neighborhoods across the Westside need to pitch in, upzone, and do their part to accommodate LA’s growing population. The South and Eastside need to do the same, and allow construction of large, new buildings so all the new people who move in aren’t replacing existing residents.
I’m not saying we need to change every part of LA. I can’t speak for your neighborhood, and which places and streets are right for new construction. The people who live in each community are the best placed to make those decisions.
The mayor, city council, and planning department recently began updating the community plans that govern development across the city. This is an amazing opportunity to come together as a city, but it won’t happen without strong leadership. Some communities are going to drag their feet, and say that they don’t need to change. If everybody does that, we’re right back to the broken system we’ve got today.
I don’t know what it’s like to live in fear of gentrification. But I know we need to stand together as a city if we want to make it better.
I’m a privileged white male from the Westside, but it sure seems to me like poor communities of color are being asked to do too much of the hard work in our city. We need to grow, evolve, and change to make LA an even better place to live. But too much change can be hard to handle. If we all pitch in, it doesn’t have to be.
[Originally published on the blog LA Rent Is Too Damn High]