Public housing residents of Boyle Heights face an uncertain future

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Grant Slater/KPCC

Looking out from near Mariachi Plaza, the sun sets over downtown Los Angeles on the evening of Sunday, March 27, 2011.

It’s the Ellis Island of the West Coast, the community in which the first immigrants from a myriad of different ethnic and religious groups settled and one of the oldest neighborhoods in Los Angeles. Boyle Heights, at one time home to Jewish and Japanese immigrants and now predominantly Latino, is the focal point for how the city of Los Angeles has served low-income families and whether future development will protect the most vulnerable residents.

That future is still uncertain, especially for inhabitants of public and low-income housing who fear they could be the next victims of gentrification. It has transformed neighboring downtown L.A. into a high-rent, high-income area. Could Boyle Heights be next?

Elizabeth Blaney, director of the community advocacy group Union de Vecinos, estimates that 21 percent of all of the public housing in Los Angeles is located in Boyle Heights.

Her group is working to preserve the public housing projects that are in place and expand them if possible. At the same time the owners of Wyvernwood Gardens are preparing to tear down the old buildings and replace them with more densely packed condominiums and apartments.

Blaney fears that as public and affordable housing is redeveloped the number of affordable units will disappear.

This might be by design, as the planning department of Los Angeles envisions housing for people in various income brackets in Boyle Heights and the entire city.

Faisal Roble, senior planner at the Los Angeles City Planning Department, pointed to the redevelopment of the Jordan Downs housing project in Watts as a model for Boyle Heights, where many different types of families earning a mix of incomes could live together.

“The logic here is, 'How can you mix social groups that are diverse economically in a parcel of land where they can live together and interact?'” Roble says. “It can completely change the fabric of the society.”

The problem is that the idyllic-sounding plans are not always what is best for the residents of the neighborhood, according to community leaders in Boyle Heights.

Maria Cabildo, executive director of the East L.A. Community Corporation, pointed to the redevelopment of the Pico Aliso housing project, which she says brought in higher-income tenants while shutting out the neediest low-income residents.

“There’s a mismatch between what’s proposed and what are the actual needs of the community,” Cabildo says.

Her East L.A. Community Corporation, a nonprofit dedicated to working for social, political and economic justice in that part of the city, is close to finishing construction on a new building for low-income tenants. The 42-unit Las Margaritas project, at First and North Soto streets, is scheduled to be completed by June. So far, 900 people have applied to become tenants.

Cabildo says this highlights the need for more affordable housing.

Be patient, pleads the city’s leadership.

L.A. City Councilman Jose Huizar, himself born and raised in Boyle Heights and now representing his home neighborhood on the City Council, acknowledged that there aren’t enough affordable housing units.

He's hopeful that many of the parcels in the neighborhood that were used as staging areas for the construction of the Gold Line light rail extension can now be used for new affordable housing. And he’s hopeful that public works projects will improve the area and bring economic development that will benefit everyone.

“Three or four new schools have opened in the last two years," Huizar says. "A new police station, the Gold Line, and every park has had some improvement to it. A lot of times for me growing up here, I would stay away from some of the parks because of safety issues. Now you go around to a lot of the parks in Boyle Heights and you see families there, you see kids recreating.”

Huizar sees economic improvement as the path toward evolution for Boyle Heights.

“The next stage for Boyle Heights needs to be more private investment, more retail and improving every commercial corridor that we have,” Huizar says.

The question for the City Council and community leaders is, will economic development come at the expense of the rich and unique cultural history of Boyle Heights? And will the most vulnerable residents of Boyle Heights be left behind?

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