South L.A. Pushes Back Against Gentrification

Friday, January 12, 2018
Charlene Muhammad
L.A. Weekly

The fight to protect the culture, character and condition of South Los Angeles is escalating just as quickly as the community's home values.

The median cost of a house in the Crenshaw District rose 47.3 percent from 2014 to 2017, from $444,000 to $655,000, according to online real estate hub Trulia.

Housing-rights activists and organizers say they are disturbed about what's happening right in their own backyard, and they refuse to sit by idly.

"Gentrification is a crisis that threatens all elements of the work that we do. It's a workers issue. It's a public health issue. It's an education issue. It's an environment issue. It's a civil rights issue," says Damien Goodmon, director of Housing Is a Human Right.

"The community's culture is in the process of being erased, and we're being weakened as a people because of it," Goodmon says.

He rallied nearly 50 organizations last month for the Resist Gentrification Action Summit at Audubon Middle School in Leimert Park.

More than 800 local activists, national leaders and organizers participated in daylong workshops on developing protective strategies. Some focused on empowering tenants and fighting evictions, while others looked at expanding renters' rights through rent-stabilization ordinances.

"The thing about gentrification is that when people are displaced, black people are displaced and pushed out to far places like Moreno Valley and Victorville. You don't just weaken a black community. You weaken black people. You weaken black political potential," Goodmon tells the Weekly.

Potential, he elaborates, because the ability to elect candidates committed to advancing the community's agenda — including better wages and quality parks and schools — is almost impossible without the numbers.

Gentrification means an influx of privileged people who haven't had to endure that challenge, or the reality of being black in America. Instead, the conversation shifts to dog parks as a community priority, according to Goodmon, who is also founder and executive director of the Crenshaw Subway Coalition, which is working to create a safe, equitable and quality rail line that revitalizes Crenshaw Boulevard.

"We have to recognize that because of the white supremacist, patriarchal, capitalistic structure of this country, one of our greatest assets as black people is actually living next to each other and being able to determine something, being able to engage in some form of community economics," Goodmon says.

He and other activists posit it's not as if blacks are being pushed out into better places, as occurred with integration. They are being pushed into communities farther from economic centers, with fewer resources and poorer quality of life.

To survive, Goodmon says, black people have had to create their own social networks. "Those safety nets are chopped up when we're forced to move away from our family, away from our church home, away from our block, where you're able to call a neighbor to pick up a kid late because you've got to pull a double," he adds.

To make matters worse, activists say, there's the new Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Mall project.

The $700 million master plan includes 961 condos and apartments, a 400-room hotel, a 10-story office building, retail stores and restaurants.

"That is going to drive up the rents in surrounding communities, and those rents will not be able to be afforded by the people who currently live there," says Greg Akili, director of the Fannie Lou Hamer Institute.

Quintin E. Primo III, chairman and CEO of Capri Investment Group, which has owned the mall since 2006, told Black Enterprise he believes "its redevelopment holds the potential to become the new city center for South Los Angeles, a chronically underserved minority area."

The group has agreed to set aside 10 percent of the units for affordable housing. But that's only a promise, and too much is at stake, Akili, who is also a longtime organizer and national civil rights activist, argues.

"Within five years, the whole character, culture and condition of our community will have changed because of that one development," Akili says.

In the long term, Housing Is a Human Right's directors insists gentrification is just a weakening of minority communities and furthering of the injustices and persecution people of color face living in the United States.

"People are being pushed out, and given the challenges that we have as a people, you're only digging a deeper hole that will mean it will take a lot longer for us to get out of," Goodmon says.

Unfortunately, there is no one solution, according to activists. They feel a viable answer requires the cooperation of public sector, foundations and social justice groups committed to preserving the unique cultural makeup of black communities.

"There is beauty in having these working-class, low-income — and no-income even, in the cases of some of our people — centers of culture, 'ethnic' communities in a city that's supposed to be diverse," Goodmon says.

"The first thing is that gentrification is not natural," Akili says. "It's deliberately designed, and the result is displacement, but we want development without displacement."

Gentrification may mean more development, housing and stores, but there are alternatives to hold on and attract more community wealth, according to Akili.

"When we say more, we don't necessarily mean we just want what other communities want. We want to make sure that what's in our community is identified, supported and sustainable," Akili explains.

Key goals arising from the Dec. 2 Resist Gentrification Summit include stabilizing rents and eradicating problematic laws, such as 1995's Costa-Hawkins Rental Housing Act, which prohibits cities from adopting rent-control initiatives.

"What we attempted to do there was to get people to understand that this concept of a solidarity economy, this community wealth building, are ways in which we're able to see better neighborhoods with the same neighbors; cooperative developments; community land trusts; worker-owned businesses; mutual housing associations; structures in which the people have a say and get primary benefit from the improvements in their community; and that the most vulnerable — the homeless, the low-income tenants — are protected," Goodmon says.

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