During a recent public hearing at Los Angeles City Hall, Michelle Levy — a planner with the city of L.A. — scrolled through slides of maps and figures showing what USC’s three million square-foot development would bring to the Figueroa Corridor: new retail businesses, restaurants, a grocery, and up to 5,400 new student beds. All this would rise on property that already belongs to the university.
That last piece of information is key - officials say USC will not acquire new land to build these amenities. But those officials recognize that the project has the potential to greatly affect many of the university’s South L.A. neighbors’ quality of life.
“In the last 20 to 25 years we have been intimately involved with the neighborhood, and we’ll continue to do that. And I think it’s carried over to the way we’ve approached our Specific Plan,”, says Thomas Sayles, USC’s senior vice president of university relations. He takes pride in the school’s philanthropy and its efforts to create jobs. Indeed, the university is the largest private-sector employer in Los Angeles. He also maintains that the institution has done plenty, and then some, to accommodate a student population that’s grown by 8,000 in a little more than two decades.
“By building on-campus housing we’re going to free up 900 units in the community that can be transferred from students to residents. So we think we’re doing our part by building student housing, which all of us want," Sayles says.
As private high-rise student housing has gone up on the periphery of the campus near downtown, the availability of local, affordable student housing has turned into a headache for the university and for its neighbors. Lauren Ahkiam, who graduated from the school with an urban planning degree seven years ago, says this was an issue when she was an undergraduate. She continues to pay attention to it now.
“There’s a lot of new luxury student housing in the neighborhood, but those rents are incredibly high," Ahkiam says. "And when students are coming in from rural America or China and these other countries, they’re not necessarily coming in with the money or ability to be able to afford that housing."
A recent study by L.A.’s Department of City Planning indicates that about 20 percent of USC’s 38,000 undergrad and graduate students live in university housing. That can cost up to $1,000 per person per month. Another 40 to 50 percent of students at the school commute from beyond South L.A.
A few blocks from campus, there’s a “for rent” sign outside a big white building with 26 units. Its studio apartments go for $700. Since the beginning of this semester two new tenants - both of them USC students - have signed leases here.
Francisca Mireles has lived at one of the one-bedroom apartments here for 36 years, since she and her family moved to L.A. from Mexico. She pays $860 a month, and she says she probably wouldn’t be able to find anything else this cheap nearby.
“I’m going to be honest with you: I don’t ever want to move from this apartment," says Mireles from her crowded apartment, where five of her relatives also live. "This is where I landed when I arrived in the U.S., and I’m only leaving for my funeral.”
But Mireles says she has seen other tenants leave over the years because it’s getting more expensive to live here. The building’s gone downhill, she says. There are cockroaches everywhere, leaks in some of the bathrooms, peeling paint and old carpets. Apparently, the landlord would only fix units after the long-term tenants left. After she’d complained about the roaches for more than five years, Mireles says somebody responded.
“They told me they were going to send someone to take a look," Mireles says. "And they did send some people— like a city inspector, but I don’t know what’s going to happen next.”
The building’s landlord did not respond to an interview request for this story.
Strategic Actions for a Just Economy (SAJE), a South L.A. organization, has documented cases of many working-class black and Latino people in this area whose landlords preferred to rent apartments to students instead of fix longtime tenants’ problems. David Robinson is the organization’s political director.
“What we are seeing was this wave of displacement; families were being pushed out of their homes and their neighborhoods," says Robinson. "So what unscrupulous landlords would do — and that’s not all landlords — they would sometimes just tell people; ‘You have to leave, we’re only renting to students now — and that’s completely illegal. Or harass people out, and in particular, to run the building down to really egregious slum conditions.”
There are no solid numbers on how many people may have left the neighborhoods close to USC because of higher rents or housing conditions in recent years. Ultimately, it’s hard to say whether the university is at fault.
In its latest version of its redevelopment plan, USC has agreed to increase its contribution for local affordable housing initiatives from $2 to $8 million, and it’s vowed to include a provision for hiring and training local people for jobs.
The next L.A. City Council Planning and Land Use Management Committee hearing is likely to be the last before the city and the university agree on the project’s final details.