One of our agents created a flyer last week inviting renters downtown to a bike tour of Boyle Heights, a close-knit, working class, majority Spanish-speaking community east of the Arts District, with the intention of showing people the neighborhood so that they could possibly buy homes or small apartment buildings there.
The flyer ended up circulating on the internet and dragging the agent, Adaptive, and me personally into what is obviously a very heated debated about gentrification in Boyle Heights.
I got a phone call last night from an eloquent woman who wanted to let me know how upset she was about us assisting or accelerating the gentrification of the neighborhood.
Obviously, she and I disagree about many things. However, she made some points that I think are worth addressing here.
Most importantly, she noted that my use of language on this blog is sometimes insensitive and dehumanizing. I sometimes refer to a specific area as “awful” or a “disaster”. What I mean by that is, to over-simplify, “an area that has experienced massive disinvestment by government and private capital”. However, she and other people perceive my words as a slight against the people who live in those neighborhoods.
I want to state here that she is right, and I am wrong.
Compared to the people who are upset about the tour flyer, I have an unbelievably privileged life. And I spend most of my time speaking about real estate with people far richer than I, people who are about as far away from the struggle of existing on a day-to-day basis as a working person in LA as it is possible to be. And so, while I like to think of myself as a sensitive guy, it is very easy for me to fall into using a kind of short-hand that is undeniably hurtful / insensitive.
Yes, my words were just words. But, some of them have been pretty hurtful and I am sorry for that.
2. The effect of gentrification
In addition to the effects of my poor choice of language, it’s also worth exploring another point my interlocutor made over the phone. I am going to butcher her exact words on this subject, but they were something like “If we lose Boyle Heights, we will have no neighborhood left in LA. Then we’ll just have to live far away and take the bus back into the neighborhoods where we work for rich people”.
On this point, she’s also got me: I often talk about gentrification on this blog as if it’s a settled issue that it’s a good thing. It’s obviously not. So far as I am aware, the research on this topic is mixed: Some research has found that the “original” inhabitants of a neighborhood undergoing gentrification fare better as a result of increased investment in their neighborhood by both private capital and government. Other research has indicated that the “original” inhabitants suffer, mostly due to displacement resulting from higher rents. I’m no sociologist, so I’m not going to settle the debate here.
However, it is worth pointing out that Los Angeles has some extremely powerful laws which serve as a break on gentrification. Every single tenant in LA living in a pre-1978 apartment building is protected by rent control, meaning they and their kids have the right to remain in their apartments forever with limited rent increases (so long as they follow the rules, of course). And Prop 13, by limiting increases in property tax assessments, prevents long-term owners from being forced to sell when values rise sharply in their neighborhoods. So, owners and renters are fairly well-protected (though people renting single family homes are not protected, which is a legitimate cause for concern in Boyle Heights, where many SFRs are rentals).
Even with the protections outlined above, it is fair to say that, people who live in the affected neighborhoods (and their political allies) fear that they will lose their homes. That’s a powerful, primal fear and it’s important that people like me recognize it and try to empathize. Being poor in Los Angeles, and indeed, anywhere in the US these days, is an incredibly raw deal and people like me need to remember that.
Obviously, there’s not going to be a tour of Boyle Heights. We don’t want to put anyone in an uncomfortable situation.
But I’m personally pretty determined that this not be the end of the conversation. We at Adaptive have a special duty to hear people out, to listen, to try to do our business of fixing up old buildings in a way which is as respectful as possible of the communities in which we work.
So, to my new readers who have come to this site because of our flyer, I make you two offers:
1. If you approach me in a civil manner, by phone or email or whatever, I will listen and respond. I’m not saying we’re going to agree on everything or anything. But I recognize that we’ve touched a nerve and it’s important that you know that I value your perspective and I am sincerely interested in hearing it.
2. I want people who live in Boyle Heights to write me emails describing gentrification from their perspective, why it’s scary, why it’s wrong, etc. I will select one or more of these emails and post them on the blog, because I think it’s important that my usual readers (mostly investors, etc.), get a sense for the other side of this issue.
I make these offers in a spirit of respect. I hope my new readers will accept them in that same spirit.
[Update 5/28/2014: Just posted a piece with some very practical information about protecting your family from being pushed out of your neighborhood. You can read it here.]
[Update 5/29/2014: If you’re interested in exploring the option of buying a property in Boyle Heights, join our mailing list. We’re very happy to help people who’ve lived there forever or people hearing about the neighborhood for the first time. Hablamos espanol un poquito y todas personas estan bienvenidas.]