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By Nate Berg
Published Apr 1, 2017 8:00 AM
What are the unintended consequences of building the city of tomorrow?
Orinio Opinaldo had been watching his West Adams neighborhood change for years. Throughout the 1990s, the area had gradually filled in with apartment buildings and higher-end housing. Opinaldo saw neighbors kicked out of rental units or bought out of homes by developers looking to reposition their properties. The pace of change quickened with the 2012 phase-one opening of the Expo Line light rail train connecting downtown, USC and Culver City. More buildings were either built or renovated to accommodate an increasingly affluent population, putting longtime residents like Opinaldo, a 77-year-old retired teacher, under even more pressure to leave. Through what he says were unscrupulous tactics by certain banks, Opinaldo’s mortgage was reconfigured and his home eventually foreclosed upon. In November 2015, he was forced out of his home. “I’d lived in that house since 1950,” he says. “They just took it.”
As the real estate market in L.A. has continued to undergo rapid change, many people like Opinaldo are being nudged or even forced out of their homes. “There’s a steady stream of folks who are getting sometimes shady notices suggesting that they need to leave, or getting harassed by the landlords, harassed by the managers,” says Joe Donlin, associate director of SAJE, a South L.A. nonprofit focused on economic justice. And according to new UCLA research, much of this displacement is happening in neighborhoods surrounding the transit stations in L.A.’s growing public transportation network. Where transit grows, development and displacement seem to follow.
That often leaves people like Opinaldo defenseless against overwhelming market forces, exploitative landlords and developers looking to serve a new class of residents. “They don’t care about us,” he says. “All they care about is money.”
It’s becoming a familiar irony that the populations most reliant on public transit are often the ones pushed aside as it expands. The L.A. County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, or Metro, is in the midst of a massive transit building spree, thanks to two voter-approved multibillion-dollar funding mechanisms. New light rail and subway lines are spreading throughout the region. Neighborhoods along these new and emerging transit corridors are seeing shifts in their community makeup and neighborhood character — sometimes gradual, sometimes breakneck — that underline the interconnectedness of transit and urban development.
Some communities have experienced enhanced mobility and economic opportunities, while others have seen displacement amid changing market conditions and gentrification. Using data that track shifts in demographic, socioeconomic and housing conditions, researchers at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs have mapped how the expansion of transit in Los Angeles has often led to the displacement of its most vulnerable citizens. By exposing links between transit development and displacement, this research aims to guide new policies that can protect residents from the unintended consequences of transit expansion.
The maps show that most of those unintended consequences have centered on rail stations. Since the 1990 opening of L.A.’s first Metro rail route, the Blue Line, through the 2016 completion of its sixth, the Expo Line, some of the neighborhoods closest to the system’s rail stations have undergone dramatic transformations. “They saw what we call neighborhood upscaling, where there’s a decrease in low-income households and an increase in high-income households,” says Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris, professor of urban planning and associate dean of the Luskin School. New transit often leads to new development, she says, which is often priced for more upscale households. In response, rents in the surrounding areas tend to rise, and existing residents get priced out.
Loukaitou-Sideris conducted this research with fellow Luskin Planning Professor Paul Ong as part of the Urban Displacement Project, a joint UCLA-UC Berkeley research effort focused on gentrification and displacement in urban communities. Using census data and real estate records, Loukaitou-Sideris and Ong mapped L.A. County to see where the biggest demographic and socioeconomic changes have occurred since 1990. They found that in some of the neighborhoods immediately surrounding transit stations, rents rose at a much faster rate than in other parts of the county. Compared with areas not close to transit, these neighborhoods — many being low-income and minority-dominated — saw greater increases in their populations of white people, of those who are college-educated and of those with higher incomes. Especially in and around increasingly residential downtown Los Angeles, the presence of transit stations closely correlates with rising costs and signs of gentrification.
“It’s not that everything is going to be gentrified because of transit — that’s not what we’re arguing,” says Loukaitou-Sideris. “But in Los Angeles, you have the highest possibility of gentrification near stations than in other areas.”
These findings have raised some concerns in L.A., where the growing transit network is seen as a positive change for a notoriously auto-oriented city, and where transit-oriented development, or TOD, is seen as a way to reduce people’s reliance on private automobiles while adding much-needed housing stock.
“I think that we now know there is a dark side of TOD,” says Loukaitou-Sideris. “That does not mean we should abandon designing TODs, but it definitely means that we really need to safeguard some of these communities.
“We believe that in many cases, it makes sense to concentrate development around transit stations to have more density,” she says. “But policymakers and planners need to know some of the side effects and prepare for them.”
For its part, Metro is not ignorant of the fact that its projects will affect the surrounding neighborhoods. Eugene Kim Ph.D. ’00, a deputy executive officer for Metro’s planning department who holds a UCLA doctorate in transportation planning, says the agency’s planners perform extensive studies and community outreach before beginning any new project. They make an effort to understand the community’s priorities and concerns, and they try to minimize any impacts or economic harm that a station or its construction might cause. “That’s all front and center for us in terms of how we think about the role that the station plays in serving a community’s goals,” Kim says.
More often than not, building transit is as much about adding new service to the network as it is about ushering in urban change. These dynamics are beginning to play out in South L.A. and Inglewood, where an 8.5-mile rail project, the Crenshaw Line, is currently under construction.
Stuart Gabriel, director of the UCLA Ziman Center for Real Estate, says the development of transit through these historically underserved neighborhoods is bound to have complex effects. “We don’t want to say that we don’t want rapid transit near low-income neighborhoods. It’s exactly the opposite,” Gabriel says. “These are neighborhoods that need and use other-than-automobile transportation, and need and can benefit from the economic development which comes with rapid transit stations.
“It’s not just that there’s displacement — there’s also retail development, there’s new employment development, there are other factors that may be entirely offsetting to some rise in residential rents.”
While the overall impact of a larger transit network can include wide-ranging benefits, the Urban Displacement Project’s mapping shows that many neighborhoods surrounding Metro rail stations have undergone rapid change and gentrification. In Highland Park, for example, the areas immediately surrounding a Gold Line light rail station have seen median rents, median household incomes and educational attainment steadily increase since 2000, making it a gentrification and displacement hot spot on the UCLA researchers’ maps. Another hot spot hugs the Little Tokyo/Arts District Gold Line station, which opened as part of an extension of the line in 2009 and accelerated the gentrification already evident in the area since the 1990s.
But new transit doesn’t have to result in gentrification and displacement. In the 1990s, L.A.’s first subway, the Red Line, was being planned to run between downtown and North Hollywood. One of its stations was to be built in the predominantly East Hollywood neighborhood that would officially be designated Thai Town in 1999. As construction got underway, community members began to express apprehension about the new subway’s impact on the neighborhood, especially the displacement of the burgeoning Thai population. Led by the Thai Community Development Center, a multi-ethnic group of community members met with elected officials, city planners and transit authorities to formally voice their concerns. As a result, the planning department contracted the Thai Community Development Center to conduct a series of focus groups and visioning exercises with area stakeholders to better understand how the subway could affect the community and what changes might be needed to avoid the worst consequences.
Residents, small-business owners, seniors and youth community members all participated in these meetings, according to Chancee Martorell ’90, M.A. ’93, the center’s founder and executive director. Through this process, they developed what’s known as a station neighborhood area plan, a planning document that lays out specific development standards and guidelines for the area immediately surrounding the Red Line station at Hollywood and Western, as well as other stations nearby. The plan limits the size and height of new building projects and tightly controls the development of new parking in the area around the station. Martorell, who holds a master’s degree in urban planning from UCLA, says these kinds of restrictions prevent displacement by discouraging large-scale commercial, retail and housing construction for higher-income residents.
This type of plan, though, is rare in L.A. “It’s sort of an anomaly to what’s happening now around transit developments,” Martorell says. “There are no other specific plans like ours in place.”
And though Martorell says the plan has helped many Thai Town residents remain in the neighborhood, the plan’s relatively tight restrictions have stifled some of the positive economic development opportunities that new transit stations often bring. “We protected and safeguarded the community from rampant displacement and rampant gentrification, but we also have to accept the fact that we were not getting as much economic development and investment,” she says.
Nevertheless, she argues that other communities can and should engage in these kinds of planning efforts to try to counteract or even prevent the displacement that can follow in the wake of new rail transit construction in Los Angeles.
A new city law may help. Proposition JJJ, approved by Los Angeles voters in November 2016, requires that new development projects set aside a certain number of affordable housing units and incentivizes the creation of affordable units near transit stations and corridors. The rule applies only to projects of 10 or more units that require amendments or changes to zoning and planning rules, but its advocates say it will help offset some of the displacement now occurring in what are increasingly desirable transit-accessible neighborhoods.
“This is happening at such a rapid pace all around the city,” says Laura Raymond, campaign director of the Alliance for Community Transit–Los Angeles, which helped draft Proposition JJJ with partners like the East L.A. Community Corporation and Koreatown Immigrant Workers Alliance. “We have the largest metro build-out in the entire country — in fact, the largest public works project in the entire country. So we can’t keep fighting project by project.”
She says there need to be more citywide policies to protect vulnerable communities from the unintended but undeniable consequences of transit development — policies like renter’s protections, revisions to the state’s eviction laws, an increase in affordable housing requirements, and more specific plans, like Thai Town’s, that govern transit-oriented development.
Loukaitou-Sideris is hopeful that the Urban Displacement Project’s research and mapping will help to bolster the case for these types of policies. The results of this research are clear indications that if the developmental impacts of transit stations are ignored, displacement and gentrification are very likely to take control of the surrounding neighborhoods. As Los Angeles grows its transit network, more and more of the city is at stake.
“The city is trying to concentrate a lot of its new development around transportation,” Loukaitou-Sideris says. “If there is a window of opportunity to incorporate some of these things into the plan, it is now.”
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