LONG BEACH, Calif. — On the corner of First Street and Cherry Avenue on a gray Saturday morning, locals at Bixby Park crowd into an exposed U-Haul truck. A red and white “NOTICE OF EVICTION” sign stands beside the truck, but the wooden picket fence bordering the ramp entices the curious. Inside are the stories of 10 people, whose experiences with unstable housing are told through photographs, poetry and illustrations.
The Art of Displacement Tour made its debut, “Picket Fences,” as an art exhibit in a U-Haul truck. The collaboration between nonprofit organizations City HeART and Housing Long Beach translated the issues of renter displacement through art.
Over a dozen art pieces were featured inside the truck, where organizers offered informational pamphlets and surveys about renters’ experiences. Inside, visual art, short stories, music and spoken word recordings told the stories of the region’s housing crisis.
City HeART, an organization that addresses community struggles through art, followed a strict nonfiction policy for the exhibit. Artists were asked to portray real issues in Long Beach, working closely with the organization Housing Long Beach, which advocates for tenant protection policies.
Housing Long Beach executive director Josh Butler calls renter displacement “the best kept secret in Long Beach” since most people focus on the positive developments – such as the Civic Center and the new businesses added at The Pike Outlets – rather than looking at how gentrification has led to displacement.
Long Beach apartments faced the the largest rent increase statewide with 10.8 percent growth since May 2015, according to a June report by Apartmentlist.com.
With a two-bedroom apartment running about $2,000 a month, the city has become the fifth most expensive city in California to rent an apartment.
“We have an eviction problem in Long Beach, we have a displacement problem in Long Beach, and people are getting squeezed right now,” Butler said.
To highlight the urgency, housing advocates, some long-involved in city council lobbying, are now using art to spread their message.
Artist Kimberly Snyder based her large charcoal illustration on a photo of a
homeless man living in a tent near the Los Angeles River. She said the image of the man, Arturo, and the tent where he lived caught her eye – and she wanted to emulate the texture of his skin and his muscular arms, jaw and neck.
“All of those things really speak to me towards the rough life that he’s had,” she said.
Snyder, one of the several artists collaborating with City HeART, said she enjoyed being part of the exhibit because it showed the real lives of people who have been displaced.
“They’re just as much flesh and bone, just as much soulful and personality and everything, as anyone else,” she said. “Just because they’ve been displaced or are going through some struggles that no one can relate to doesn’t mean that they’re not that much different from us, actually.”
City HeART artist Carolyn Canzano said the art project’s message, which includes the dangers of rising rents and lack of renter protections, resonated with her personally.
As a recent Cal State Long Beach graduate, she is now facing rent hikes living in a 1300-square-foot three-bedroom apartment with four other girls.
“The stress came when we got that 30-day notice saying that the rent was going to increase by $150, which would make about $30 per person,” Canzano said. “There was nothing really we could do about it. It just came.”
Long Beach resident Betty Johnson, one of dozens of visitors to the display that day, said the eviction signs drew her to the urban exhibit. Having lived in Long Beach for two years, she has noticed a large homeless population.
“If you get a three-day notice, and you don’t have a good savings, you’re going to be homeless for a while,” Johnson said.
But Housing Long Beach organizers are hoping to be a resource displaced tenants can count on. Lashan Brown, 37-year-old chef at the Long Beach City College kitchen, has relied on them for support.
Brown stepped near the edge of homelessness, he said, when his property owners on Linden Avenue displaced him earlier this year. Brown, who had lived there for nine years, said that property inspectors would enter the units to take photos, saying they were making miscellaneous repairs – but the disguised visits were really meant to evaluate the units for sale. Then, after the property was sold to another owner, all of the tenants were given notices to relocate.
“I was surprised, and I wasn’t,” Brown said. “I knew they were up to something up in December. They were in the unit a lot.”
Fortunately, another displaced tenant helped him find an apartment across the street, but he now pays more for less.
“Yeah, it’s not right, and to be honest, the unit I’m in now is a little smaller than the one that was across the street,” he said. “It is a little smaller but, dang, I can’t complain.”
For Butler, Long Beach needs “development without displacement,” such as property owners offering relocation assistance, or the city establishing “just-cause” eviction protections through the proposed Responsible Renter’s Ordinance.
The Art of Displacement Tour is set to continue throughout the summer with City HeART and Housing Long Beach organizers planning more installations at surprise locations. Meanwhile, rising rents and low vacancy rates continue to threaten tenants’ living spaces.
Last month, Brown noticed inspectors visiting his new apartment – much like his last unit – finding himself in the same predicament again.
“Based on my experience on this past apartment,” he said, “I fear it’s going to happen again.”