Building Hope with Community: The Right to Affordable Housing in South Central Los Angeles

The aftermath of nonviolence is the creation of the beloved community…
~Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., 1959

The narrative of South Los Angeles has been one of serial displacement. Community residents, primarily low-income people of color, have systematically been priced out of our homes and neighborhoods to make way for industry and for gentrifying trends. We’ve faced higher rents, skyrocketing property values, and a cost of living that has become unmanageable — even when working multiple jobs. This combination is a result of the city’s poor planning and spot-zoning policies, and the real estate development industry’s unchecked pursuit of profits without consideration of the human cost of housing, health, and security. This has put not only our homes at risk, but also our health, our identities, our livelihoods, and our environment.

Esperanza Community Housing Corporation has been part of the South Central community for the past twenty-five years, working with families who suffered waves of serial displacement before ever entering our units — some even tracing a path from Chavez Ravine, and then the Convention Center development, being pushed each time into worse housing conditions farther south until obtaining a rare opportunity at housing quality and affordability. Esperanza began as a response to displacement pressures on local, hard-working families. Responding to need, we organized our community around land-use rights and zoning. Esperanza cultivated the skills and a pipeline for developing quality multi-bedroom housing, affordable to families of low income. Esperanza continues to be the steward of affordable housing to this day, with a portfolio that includes nine buildings in the area, serving 165 households.

Further, Esperanza has never been alone in the work to make the universal human right to housing a reality. Every member of the United Neighbors in Defense Against Displacement (UNIDAD) coalition believes firmly in development without displacement and an essential human rights frame without which we cannot build a healthy and just community. We understand deeply that secure access to habitable housing is not only a fundamental human right, but a significant determinant of our individual and family’s health and well-being. Today, we are increasingly responsive to the health issues of families who are doubling and tripling up in rental units as a result of economic hardship, and to the shortage of affordable housing alternatives. We are increasingly being forced into substandard and overcrowded housing, or to our cars, as an alternative to the streets.

As developers begin to look south of the 10 freeway, we have a new opportunity to interrupt the trajectory of this historical narrative. From our collective experience in South Central Los Angeles, the impact of development without protections against displacement inevitably results in loss of homes and rent-stabilized housing, and forced migration of local families and individuals to other geographic areas far from our homes, jobs, and support networks. It also exacerbates the daunting challenge of community-based developers who have the political will and the expertise to acquire and develop land to meet the needs of our own community.

Our community is now faced with the Reef Project proposal. As part of the UNIDAD Coalition, we have commissioned a Health Impact Assessment (HIA) to better understand what’s at stake for our beloved community, and to prepare our response to the Reef Project developers’ proposed plan. For the community of South Central, the findings of the Reef Project HIA illuminate the potentially devastating outcomes of the project:

Residents of South Central have historically been people of color who have relocated to this neighborhood to seek economic opportunity and to escape discrimination and violence in other areas. They were forced out of their homes elsewhere – driven out by economic and racist forces – and found community and cultural spaces, here, to live, work, and raise their families.

Thus, numbers we see reflecting historical and current policy practice mean that:

  • Los Angeles has the largest homeless population of US urban areas, and the City Council District where the Reef project is located has the second largest Council District homeless population in the city.
  • 45% of South Central residents live in poverty, compared to 22% for the City of LA.
  • LA lost 65% of its funding for affordable housing between 2009 and 2014 and needs over half a million affordable rental homes.
  • Lack of affordable housing is the main cause of homelessness in the U.S.

We’re here to debunk the myth that all development is good development. Of course, all development has the potential to be good, but only if approached equitably by building better neighborhoods with the same neighbors.  We promote and unite around developments that recognize and celebrate the historic and cultural richness of the area, building economic opportunity and improving living conditions hand-in-hand with the families and individuals who call this neighborhood home. By amplifying our voices and demanding a transparent and open civic engagement process, policy-makers and developers will have the opportunity to do the right thing and invest in equitable development. This is our chance to intervene and create a new community narrative–one shaped by our own voices, centering on healthy, stable and inclusive housing and homes.