All photos by Brian Addison.
Like Long Beach itself, the story of gentrification and housing is a complex one. It’s an issue that affects both those who have been here awhile as well as those who have just discovered Long Beach.
DeVaughn Little and her daughter are among the thousands across the area who are taking a direct hit.
In 2017, Little drove into Bixby Park in Long Beach, a medium-size patch of green space that runs to the edge of the ocean, because she was seeking a safe haven to act as her temporary home with her daughter.
In November of 2016, her apartment complex in South L.A. had been bought—and with it, new lease agreements distributed. Living paycheck to paycheck, Little had no way of compensating for the sudden increase so she asked her daughter where she wanted to go. Her answer? The beach.
“It felt safer than our old neighborhood to sleep in the car,” Little said. “And, to be honest, we were shocked that rent was so much cheaper here.”
That didn’t prevent Little from re-experiencing the nightmare.
For a brief period, between late March and early May of 2017, Little and her daughter found an apartment here in Long Beach, on the west side just off of Santa Fe Avenue—only to experience a very frightening case of déjà vu: Her complex was sold and new owners submitted new leases. Since Long Beach lacks rent control, the 35 percent increase in her rent was paired with a 60-day notice. Once again, Little either had to comply or, as is her case, return to her vehicle.
“At least we got us a car,” Little said. “I see more and more folks out here. They from all walks of life: Long Beach, Compton, Inglewood… Just met a man who hitchhiked from the Bay. I couldn’t imagine hitchhiking down the coast with my daughter.”
Little felt one thing was quite strange: No one approached her face-to-face to let her know of the sudden hike in rent. Instead she was greeted with an envelope attached to her door. Even after insisting upon talking to the building’s new owner, she was told that wasn’t possible by her building’s property management company, Ernst & Haas.
New property owners, often removed from face-to-face communication with their tenants because management companies handle such interactions, drive these impersonal forms of displacement.
“What we’re seeing are mainly foreign buyers doing building flips, but it’s hard to keep track of ownership changes,” said Josh Butler of Housing Long Beach. “If the property management company doesn’t change, a resident would likely have no idea the building they live in has changed hands.”
While other cities like Paris and Berlin have taken drastic measures to prevent foreign buyouts of housing—Paris is committed to building 7,000 units every year, including the insertion of affordable units in the city’s most expensive neighborhoods while Berlin has been buying up housing stock at the municipal level at the request of its citizens—Long Beach has officially sold every piece of empty property it owns.
After the dissolution of Redevelopment by Gov. Jerry Brown in 2012, Long Beach was mandated by the State to sell off its public properties in a highly promoted sale to attract investment. The properties, empty for years and often blights, were sold to investors at market value, with a handful sold at below-market, in order to attract what Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia and the City Council were ultimately hoping for: unique, quality structures that they felt should reflect the uniqueness and quality of Long Beach.
According to Garcia, the plan was essential in upping the housing in two very specific areas: Downtown Long Beach, where density can easily be permitted, and along corridors close to transit, mainly along the Blue Line. In the eyes of Garcia, the selling of these properties will improve neighborhoods throughout the city, eliminate blight and generate vital revenue for the city.
The current lack of housing is also connected to our lack of affordable housing. Cuts in annual federal and state funding, including the elimination of Redevelopment, have reduced our county’s investment in affordable housing production and preservation by more than $440 million annually since 2008, a 62 percent reduction.
The low-income renters of the county also bear huge burdens.
While median-income renters spend an average of 28 percent of their income on rent, leaving the other 72 percent of their income to go toward things like food and transportation to work, lower income folks aren’t as privileged. Households earning half of the median income or less spend a staggering 71 percent of their income on rent alone. What this ultimately results in is not only less money for essentials like food but having to heavily consider issues like the cost of travel (not just for errands but for jobs and therefore the ability to accept certain jobs).
When it comes to rent burden—that is, 50 percent or more of one’s income being solely relegated to rent—the numbers are even more alarming: 83 percent of extremely low income households, 57 percent of very low income households, and 19 percent of low income households are burdened by rent.
Even more, the type of housing—not just where it goes—is important, which is why groups like Housing Long Beach are fighting for affordability clauses to be built into development code while fighting for tenant rights and rent control.
As Butler pointed out, the concern over housing and homelessness is one which is starkly divided between creating housing for those in the higher-income bracket while homelessness resources are geared not toward those on the edge of it but experiencing it.
Or, in the words of Tim Robbins, a man who has experienced homelessness off and on again while living in Long Beach and working: “It’s like, if I want to get help I have to be homeless again. I’ve been homeless already; I feel like I got more help when I was. I wish more attention was paid to making formerly homeless something permanent and not temporary. How can our elected officials just stand by and watch? It really makes you lose faith in our leaders.”
Within this complex thread, housing advocates—and I admittedly include myself in this—are missing the fact that we need to start figuring out how to not just make new housing but create housing for everyone.
There is, on a very technical, heady note, one thrust shared among all housing advocates: “More housing is good housing.” And, in fact, I echo Michael Massie—an affordable housing builder whom I invited to Long Beach to talk about how we can make more housing affordable—when he says that he truly believes housing the cure to many of our social ills.
“More housing is good housing,” we repeat, over and over.
And we urbanists—myself included—shout this from the rooftops because we’re in a crisis. And that crisis has largely been driven by our lack of new housing, our lack of building it, our lack of supporting it. And that lack has led to a lack of affordability because our population keeps increasing but we have yet to see a housing boom that will comfortably accommodate that population.
And even more, I have plenty of numbers and charts and studies to prove all this.
LA and Long Beach’s housing stock—over 80 percent of it—was built before 1990, per Abundant Housing LA and the American Community Survey. The lack of housing across all types has led to an uptick in living costs that is prompting the eradication of the working class—something that is beyond detrimental to our overall economy because the vast majority of new jobs are service-based—and has been noted through a study by both the Legislative Analyst’s Office of the State of California and a trio of studies conducted by Beacon Economics/Next 10.
But the one thing we are consistently failing in addressing is asking one very simple question: Who is this housing for? That is the thrust of this piece.
Yes, we are addressing market-rate housing in a very thorough way and, to an extent, we are addressing affordable housing. But that latter part, the affordable part, is largely for very specific populations; these affordable complexes are for those experiencing homelessness, veterans, seniors, or those federally defined as low-income.
The other issue of this tale—one that Little herself is experiencing—is that the majority of this new housing isn’t for the working class. It doesn’t, on any level, help “the missing middle,” that is, working families and individuals that make too much to be federally defined as a low-income and make too little to afford the exorbitant rents at luxury towers like The Edison and Current in DTLB. (Though it should be noted that Scott Choppin, a Long Beach developer, is creating housing for multi-generational, middle-class families—something that few if any developers are doing at all.)
Liberal, urban-minded folks are the ones with the biggest lessons to be learned from this question; huge, massive, glaring lessons to be learned from problems I myself have sometimes promulgated: the exclusion of low-income families and communities of color from the planning process, from expressing their sentiments about projects we support, from having an opinion that matters, from being involved.
How, you ask?
We constantly interrupt those concerned with their neighborhoods with terse remarks like, “But the facts are [insert intelligent wypipo urbanist stat rant here].” (Stats, mind you, usually cherrypicked from another urbanist not from the community we speak of.)
When the conversation about gentrification arises from those mostly affected by it, we seemingly always preface it with how “there are multiple sides to this issue…”
When people express emotionally driven concerns—ones about histories, culture, identity, and place—we have the analytical, fact-driven monkeys in our heads turn their ever-efficient Wheels of Facts and, in turn, we vomit a ton of academically sound, nonprofit-endorsed charts, stats, figures, numbers and theories.
We’ve even just said, “It’s not your time.” It’s not your time to live free of the worry of being removed from the community you invested in before others would. It’s not your time to enjoy life. It’s not your time. If that isn’t a genuine moment of bafflement, I don’t know what is.
In other words, we aren’t always listening the way we should and that lack of listening has led to a huge social disconnect—and it very well could lead to a crisis just like the one we’re facing, where all of a sudden we stand around, surrounded by tall, shiny, pretty buildings, and ask where all the workers went, where all the culture went, where all the nuances and idiosyncrasies of the urban ballet danced off to.
As for the now, since we’ve successfully gotten the world to understand that we are indeed in a housing crisis, perhaps we can begin to look at how we can create housing from all angles, especially and including housing for the group that is largely being displaced from our city and state.
It’s time, in other words, to stop screaming, “All housing is good housing!” and start including the communities we invade with development and ask them what they need in terms of housing and services.
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