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As Long Beach Luxury Development Booms, The Poor Get Left Behind

Photo by Renee Chartier.

It was a stifling mid-August afternoon when Jennifer learned she had until the end of the year to move out of her cramped studio apartment in the East Village of downtown Long Beach. She suspected the eviction was coming. For the past year, she had been looking for a new place as her landlord slowly remodeled her modest building, the place she’s called home for more than 13 years. He knew she could not pay the increase in rent, so he told her it was time to go. Jennifer, who is in her 50s, qualified for Section 8 low-income housing and searched futilely for an opening in the area. There was nothing she could afford to live in and not a single Section 8 apartment was vacant.

Five years ago, Jennifer lost mobility in her right leg because of diabetes. Confined to a wheelchair, she still managed to take classes at Cerritos College and work a part-time job. She slogged her way around town on the bus and never complained that her apartment was located up a narrow flight of wooden stairs. She simply collapsed her wheelchair and scooted her rear end up each step to her front door, making the trip more than once if she had groceries or extra bags to bring in. Her daughter used to help with the rent and daily chores, but she left Long Beach three years ago to attend a trade school on the East Coast. “It would have been better to be on the first floor, but I couldn’t afford to move,” Jennifer says. “I’ve been searching for a place to live, a unit that can accommodate my wheelchair and kitties, but I can’t find a single one, anywhere. My landlord sent me listings to Section 8 places, but they are ones I’ve already called about that don’t really exist. I’ll probably end up sleeping in an RV.”

I’ve known Jennifer for seven years, as well as the building she’s being forced to move out of. The landlords are an older couple who live in a well-to-do area of Long Beach, and according to public documents, they bought the rental building more than 20 years ago. The owners did not respond to several requests to be interviewed, but tenants believe they are nearing retirement age and may sell the apartment complex in the near future.

Jennifer’s rent of $700 is well below the current market value for the area, which has been rising almost remorselessly for the past four years. Once Jennifer and her two cats are out, her unit’s new cost could exceed $1,200, which is $200 more than her entire monthly budget. She’s in a definite bind, one created by her own misfortune, a housing market gone wild and a city that has virtually no protections for renters.

“If I can’t find a place, I’m going to be homeless. I won’t have a choice,” she confesses, as she tells me in a litter-strewn alley below her bedroom window. “If I’m living on the street in an RV, will you promise not to call the cops on me?”

***

“We don’t believe that rent control works or is the right solution,” Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia bluntly stated in January during a community meeting held at the Art Theater. “Just look at rent-controlled cities like San Francisco, the most expensive market in the country.”

With his jet black hair and made-for-TV grin, the stylish Garcia—who says he despises President Donald Trump and advertises his liberal credentials on his lively Twitter feed—is by all accounts a pro-growth, corporate Democrat and proud of it. Some might even call him a free-market neoliberal when it comes to his attitudes toward urban development and housing. In an April piece for The New York Times that touted the $3.5 billion of construction flooding Long Beach, Garcia championed the myriad of changes taking place in the downtown corridor, but he failed to mention any of the development’s negative impacts, such as the displacement of some of the city’s more vulnerable residents who can’t keep up with the rising rents. Much of Long Beach’s new development money is being funneled into luxury housing projects, thousands of units of which are currently planned or under construction. “The downtown is being reborn and re-created . . . and I’m really excited about the transformation,” Garcia boasted.

Garcia and fellow opponents of rent control may point to San Francisco’s high rental costs as a failure, but advocates counter that, while not perfect, rent control has largely worked in that city despite industry-created loopholes and speculator abuse, noting that even data in a study critical of the practice conducted by three Stanford professors showed that “rent control increased the probability a renter stayed at their address by close to 20 percent.” Keeping renters in their homes, say rent control’s proponents, is exactly what the protections are designed to accomplish.

However, the future of increased rent control in the state is uncertain. Voters across California rejected Proposition 10 last month, which would have allowed cities to expand local ordinances.

In 2012, the Long Beach City Council passed an expansion of the Downtown Plan, which mapped out development for 725 acres in the city’s urban core. The update helped to fast-track development by removing certain environmental reviews from the permitting process. Josh Butler, executive director of Housing Long Beach, and others opposed the plan on the grounds it could displace as many as 20,000 residents and increase traffic pollution. At the time, Garcia was a councilman and voted in favor of the development plan. He also opposed a motion put forth by Councilwoman Gerrie Schipske that would have set aside 10 percent of new apartments for low-income residents. “The Downtown Plan put the gas pedal down on gentrification and never looked back,” says Butler.

Data in a 2018 report by the Downtown Long Beach Alliance (DLBA) reveals that of the over 33,000 residents that lived in the city’s downtown, 59% reside in households that bring in less than $50,000 a year, which qualifies as very low-income according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Additionally, DLBA notes that since 2014, rental rates in downtown have gone up an average of 18%.

For the residents in our region who qualify as Extremely Low Income (ELIs), or households whose income is 30% below the median income line, affordable housing is severely lacking. According to data released in July by the National Low Income Housing Coalition, the Los Angeles/Long Beach area has a meager 17 affordable and available rental units per 100 ELIs. That means that over 80% of people in need of low rent are shit out of luck. An untold number end up living on the street.

By its own accounting, Long Beach is lagging grossly behind in the number of low-to-moderate income housing the city ought to be providing its poorer residents. In 2014, the city government adopted its General Plan, which included a Housing Element goal for affordable housing units. The Plan recommends a total of 4,009 units to be built by 2022. As of 2017, the city had only permitted 322 units. At this pace, Long Beach, on Mayor Garcia’s watch, will fall far short of reaching its own modest affordable housing goals. On the flip side, Long Beach is constructing thousands of market-rate units, most of which are located in the downtown area.

Garcia’s housing policy openly adheres to the “filtering theory,” which is akin to the trickle-down economic theory infamously promoted by President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s and has been more recently endorsed by Trump and the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party. In an interview with the Long Beach Business Journal in August 2017, Garcia, while admitting the city needs more affordable housing, also embraced the notion that construction of market-rate housing will eventually trickle down to those in need. “The only way to address affordable housing is to build housing of all types. . . . We’re building a lot of market-rate housing because you get folks into those homes, which then open up other homes that can be affordable,” he said.

The “filtering theory” has been directly challenged by researchers, most recently at UC Berkeley’s Institute for Policy Government Studies, which noted that in a city such as San Francisco, it would take at least 30 years for “filtering” to produce anything considered affordable. Additionally, the researchers argue, massive construction of market-rate housing would immediately accelerate rent increases in urban areas, adding that their analysis shows “subsidized housing has double the impact of market-rate development” in mitigating displacement. In short, new housing built for the more affluent doesn’t help poorer renters who are in need of assistance today. Housing advocates argue this data is proof Long Beach ought to be focusing on affordable and not market-rate housing if the city is going to protect its existing, lower-income residents.

Butler points out that Long Beach has the largest population of renters from San Diego to Seattle that lack any form of protections. If a popular Democrat such as Garcia, who was re-elected this year by 79 percent of voters, can’t get behind measures to protect his city’s renters, Butler wonders, what elected official will? “It’s a total crisis,” says Butler. “The city isn’t doing nearly enough to protect its longtime residents.”

Today, Long Beach landlords are only required to provide tenants with a 60-day notice of eviction for those who have been in their units for more than a year and a 30-day notice for renters who have lived in their residences for less than that. As long as renters are paying rent month to month, landlords can kick them out without any reason. Housing Long Beach is fighting to stop this by pressing the city to pass a Responsible Renter’s Ordinance, also known as a “just-cause eviction.” While it’s not rent control, the law—which is already on the books in large cities such as Chicago, Seattle and Oakland—is meant to stem the tide of mass evictions.

A more robust rent-control initiative launched by Butler’s group failed to garner enough signatures to qualify for the the November ballot after an intense anti-rent-control campaign was waged by a handful of worried property owners who feared the measure would cut into their profit margins. The attacks on the initiative were spearheaded by Keith Kennedy, president of the Small Property Owners Alliance, a group he formed to combat the community’s push for renters’ rights. “Unfortunately, certain special interest groups are using this opportunity to push radical, destructive and reactionary price-fixing policies that will help to turn back the city to . . . bleaker years,” Kennedy wrote in an op-ed for The Grunion. “Our local officials have wisely resisted rent control, and our organization will continue to work to ensure they embrace competition over destructive regulations.”

Kennedy, who is a landlord in Long Beach, isn’t the only one pushing back against renters organizing to protect their interests and fight the rising rents. Joani Weir, who owns a downtown rental complex, founded Better Housing for Long Beach, an astroturfing group that doesn’t so much advocate for better housing, but rather opposes all efforts to enact rent control and eviction protections. In KCET’s City Rising, a documentary that investigates the driving forces behind gentrification in California, Weir informs a room of agreeable onlookers that “renters have more rights than property owners.”

“That’s a fabricated narrative,” counters Susanne Browne, a senior attorney for Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles who has worked on housing and land-use issues in Long Beach for more than 20 years. “From my first-hand experience working with tenants, I can assure you that [Weir’s assertion is] unequivocally 100 percent false. We’re in the midst of an absolute housing catastrophe and renters in Long Beach have virtually no rights or protections.”

During the push to place rent control on Long Beach’s city ballot this year, Weir’s organization was accused of meddling with the signature gathering by employing real-life trolls, as well as passing out racially charged fliers in opposition to the measure. Weir denies the allegations.

“The whole experience was pretty disheartening,” admits Butler. “The tactics to disrupt our signature efforts were unlike anything I’d ever seen. It got very dirty very fast.”

Read the rest at OC Weekly.

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JOSHUA FRANK is managing editor of CounterPunch. His most recent book, co-authored with Jeffrey St. Clair, is Big Heat: Earth on the Brink. He can be reached at joshua@counterpunch.org. You can troll him on Twitter @joshua__frank.

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