At rallies and events, long-term downtown residents sing the chant, “Hey my people! We’ll tell a story! We’ll tell the whole wide world this is the people’s territory!”
Almost a year after the heated debate over whether to include community benefits into the Downtown Plan, residents are still fighting to keep the integrity of their neighborhoods and improve access to quality affordable housing.
Twenty percent of Long Beach residents live below the federal poverty line, nearly double the national average of 12.5 percent. 1 in 5 renters in the city lives in severely overcrowded housing, impacting the health, safety, and education of families and children.
“We hear from a lot of community members that it continues to get harder and harder to find an affordable place to live,” said America Aceves, organizer at Housing Long Beach, a non-profit organization whose mission is to improve, preserve and increase affordable housing for Long Beach residents.
“Jobs are still scarce. The Downtown Plan could have helped to create some stability. We saw this plan as an opportunity.”
Adopted by City Council in January of this year, the Downtown Plan will expand Long Beach’s current downtown area by 725 acres. Proponents argue that the Plan will encourage new investments in Downtown, while at the same time ensuring environmentally conscious development and protection of the historic character of downtown neighborhoods.
A coalition of community leaders, stakeholders, homeowners, housing advocates, and youth in opposition of the Plan asserted that the Plan could render up to 24,000 residents vulnerable to displacement.
Seventy-five percent of current Downtown Plan residents are low income. Thirty percent earn less than $15,000 a year. Residents mobilized to demand that the Downtown Plan incorporate community benefits that would require mixed income housing, a commercial linkage fee, local hiring, and right of first refusal for low-income residents.
City Council approved the plan without including such agreements, a result that led the coalition of 1,500 residents to feel that their voices were not heard.
“Democracy is being able to share your input, have an opportunity to provide your thoughts and opinions on policy and at the end of the day the policy may reflect that,” said Councilmember Suja Lowenthal, who introduced the Downtown Plan to the City Council and voted in its favor, “I think if there’s a belief that people didn’t feel that they were included, the truth is they were included but they may not have seen all of their ideas in print. You were included … but that’s not what the council decided in the end. So the end product is not an indication of who was included and who was not.”
A new revitalization project will take place along Long Beach Boulevard between Anaheim and Wardlow Road. This development mirrors the Downtown Plan in that it does not include affordable housing or local hire requirements.
“Development is not bad,” said Aceves, “[Development] helps revitalize communities – if they’re done well. If they’re not done well you create silos and divisions where there shouldn’t be.”
[pullquote]“Development is not bad,” said Aceves, “[Development] helps revitalize communities – if they’re done well. If they’re not done well you create silos and divisions where there shouldn’t be.”[/pullquote]
When development brings in new investment, these businesses are often above the price-range that local residents can afford. While bringing new business and housing, development can push out established communities who cannot afford the higher rent and cost of commodities.
According to Aceves, the resulting gentrification changes the dynamics of a community. “We’re talking about people’s lives being completely shifted, completely uprooting people, uprooting families, uprooting children from their community ties,” said Aceves.
Finding a new home is even more difficult for residents who are disabled, according to Cynde Soto, who is bound to a wheel chair. Many affordable housing units do not have doorways large enough for her wheelchair, and landlords are often unwilling to remodel their property to accommodate Soto’s disability. Soto has been denied housing by landlords who have told her that she is a liability, and that renting to her will make the property’s insurance go up. Others have said that they did not want her wheel chair to damage the walls of their buildings.
Soto has lived in downtown for 15 years. She does not want to re-experience the discrimination she faced in the past when looking for housing. “I’m a person,” said Soto, “that’s not right.” In response to the possibility of losing her home due to increased rents and cost of living in the neighborhood, she remains determined, “I’m going to fight for what I have and for my neighbors too.”
Aceves believes that responsible development happens when planners meaningfully involve the local community. Though they lost their battle to include community benefits in the Downtown Plan, Housing Long Beach believes they succeeded in building community power by developing the leadership of residents who will continue to fight.
One of Housing Long Beach’s new goals is to seek the adoption of citywide progressive housing policies. Though she voted down community benefits in the Downtown Plan, Councilmember Lowenthal asserts that she believes there should be a discussion about implementing community benefits across all of Long Beach.
“My position on community benefits, while I support it I don’t think it should be isolated to one part of the city,” said Lowenthal.
In response to their former opponent, Executive Director Kerry Gallagher commented, “Housing Long Beach has always believed that we should have equitable development practices at a city-wide level. We are encouraged to hear Councilmember Lowenthal’s comments and are prepared to lead the effort on a citywide discussion of community benefits and equitable development. Housing Long Beach looks forward to working with community members and partner organizations and we invite our elected officials and city staff to participate and to make sure we best utilize this opportunity for a city-wide discussion.”