Crenshaw Line shows transit cuts both ways in housing crisis

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169133 full

In the search for answers to Southern California's housing emergency, building high density housing along transit lines is often raised as one solution. But conditions near the future Crenshaw Line show that creating affordable housing near a rail line is not as simple as laying down tracks.

Neighborhoods around the Crenshaw district are preparing for a new light rail line that will connect the city to Los Angeles International Airport in 2019. The line is increasing interest from investors and developers in the area and has many longtime residents excited about new shopping, dining and housing opportunities.

Other residents, though, fear that rising rents and property values will force them out, another Los Angeles community changed by gentrification and displacement.

The route of the Crenshaw Line, which will open in 2019 and connect to LAX.
The route of the Crenshaw Line, which will open in 2019 and connect to LAX. LA MTA

Patrice Anderson, a Leimert Park resident and neighborhood council board member, counts herself among those eagerly awaiting a planned redevelopment of the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza mall, at the site of the future Martin Luther King station on the Crenshaw Line.

The plans call for an upscale outdoor shopping center, similar to the popular "Americana" in Glendale, and includes a hotel, condominiums, apartments, retail, restaurants and office space.

"I think it’s long overdue for the community," Anderson said. "We’re constantly having to leave the area and go to get other resources and so it just brings it closer to home."

A rendering of the planned upscale redevelopment of the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza mall, which is located at what will be the Martin Luther King station on the Crenshaw Line. Some residents are worried the upscale development and the luxury housing that will be built with it will push out longtime residents.
A rendering of the planned upscale redevelopment of the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza mall, which is located at what will be the Martin Luther King station on the Crenshaw Line. Some residents are worried the upscale development and the luxury housing that will be built with it will push out longtime residents. LA City Planning Commission

But for Baldwin Hills resident Jackie Ryan, who owns a small business in Leimert Park, the construction signifies something different.

"What it does is it displaces and replaces us out of our own communities," she said.

Ryan runs Zambezi Bazaar, which specializes in African-centered items from clothing to art. For three decades, it’s been a cultural touchstone in this majority black community, one she fears is already losing its footing as housing and rental prices go up with the anticipated light rail line.

She remembers that shortly after Metro announced a light rail station at Leimert Park, a new company bought out the building where her store used to be. She said many longtime businesses, including hers, were pushed out. She was able to reopen nearby, but not everyone has. And there are more signs of change.

"It’s called white people with their dogs," she said. "Everyone is seeing it, and that’s symptomatic of what’s happening."

As prices go up, Ryan says, fewer African Americans are able to stay or move into the neighborhood.

Recent figures from the real estate website Trulia show property values in neighborhoods adjacent to the Crenshaw Line have gone up faster than anywhere in the city since construction began in 2014. Some experts think it’s not a coincidence.

"There’s no question. There is a link between public investment in transit and gentrification and displacement," said Paul Ong, a professor of urban planning at UCLA and the director for the Center for Neighborhood Knowledge.

Ong led a project with colleagues at UC Berkeley to map gentrification and displacement along transit lines.

A team at UCLA mapped gentrification and displacement along transit lines and found clear correlations between public investment in light rail and neighborhood changes.
A team at UCLA mapped gentrification and displacement along transit lines and found clear correlations between public investment in light rail and neighborhood changes. UCLA and UC Berkeley Urban Displacement Project

He looked for signs like demographic change, where low-income people of color were replaced by white, college-educated residents or where mom-and-pop ethnic eateries gave way to high-end coffee shops.

"It’s a stereotype but it also is actually a leading indicator of change," Ong said.

Big transit investments make neighborhoods more accessible for jobs and commercial activity, and signal to investors that there’s a long-term public commitment to an area. That can lead to rising property values that displace longtime residents and businesses, particularly in areas that have other desirable features, like a central location, charming old houses or, say, a fancy new mall.

Ong sees all of these conditions in the Crenshaw district. Almost two-thirds of residents are renters in the 90008 zip code, which covers Crenshaw, Leimert Park, Baldwin Hills and Baldwin Village. He said that puts residents at greater risk of being priced out if rents increase and landlords seek to get more value from their housing units. Some may resort to illegal means, he said, like neglecting properties to push a tenant out.

He said its incumbent on agencies like Metro to ensure that new transit projects don’t harm existing communities. 

Metro CEO Phil Washington agreed in an interview with KPCC last year. He said pushing low-income communities further away from the transit that they often use is not only socially irresponsible, but bad for ridership.

"It impacts my bottom line," he said. "We need to look at how we can make it easier for people that live around there to stay there."

Metro now requires a minimum of 35 percent low-income housing units for new developments on its properties. But while it’s an ambitious goal, Metro doesn’t control a lot of real estate along its lines. It has only one two-acre site near the Crenshaw Line.

Most of the land is held privately, like the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza that has become a flashpoint in the neighborhood fight over affordable housing.

In July, the Los Angeles City Planning Commission held a contentious meeting where more than a hundred residents debated the thousand-unit development. The city eventually approved the plan with an added 5 percent low-income housing requirement.

That's on top of the already proposed 5 percent of units dedicated to "workforce" housing for households that make 150 percent of the neighborhood's median income, or about $100,000.

But Professor Ong says no single development will solve the region’s housing crisis.

"I don’t think there’s a panacea, so we need policies and programs that manage the change to a certain degree," he said.

Managing change means enforcing existing protections, like rent control and requiring developers to provide more benefits to surrounding communities, whether in the form of affordable housing or jobs. Other benefits include increasing government incentives for building affordable housing through programs like the state's cap and trade market, and giving longtime residents like Jackie Ryan, a larger say in the process.

"We intend not to be moved, and we intend to struggle and stay," she said, gearing up recently to attend more public meetings on the development underway. "We’re organized and we’re going to stay here and flourish."

Series: L.A.'s Housing Crisis

This story is part of KPCC's in-depth coverage of Southern California's housing crisis. Follow along as we try to answer: How did we get to this point? What’s being done to fix the problem? And where do we go from here?

Read more in this series and let us know your thoughts and questions below in the comments section or on our Facebook page.

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