The Misrepresentation of Our Neighborhood: To the Feds Who Redlined Us

In 2015, a seventeen year old Latino youth named Leo Ramirez was shot and killed at an intersection I’ve walked to and from home for nearly three decades. I wondered why in our neighborhood specifically, young men like Leo seemed to lose their lives each year, with only candlelights and graffiti-sprayed “R.I.P”s to show for it. Had our neighborhood been forgotten, or set up to fail? At that time, I hadn’t known about the history of redlining in Los Angeles, but since then, I’ve uncovered more than a handful of cuentos about such policies to consider why so many of the places we call home are shaped as they are.

Almost a hundred years ago, in the 1930s, the U.S. population was 89% white, and its cities were filled with over 13 million people without work. Of these jobless masses, at least 2 million were recorded without housing, or living in “Hoovervilles,” rivaling today’s myriad of encampments across Los Angeles, colloquially known as Garcetivilles. Fortunately for many, however, a “New Deal” was on the horizon.

From the late 1930s to the late 1960s, the federal government teamed up with states and cities to build housing, recognizing that a stable place for residents to call home was a basic necessity for their ability to work and raise families. But there was just one caveat to Uncle Sam’s massive building experiment: If housing developers wanted subsidies or tax breaks, they had to build residential areas where only members of the “Caucasian Race” were allowed. This effectively barred nearly all Black and immigrant people from a shot at improved housing, and by extension, improved work opportunities and the ability to raise healthy, stable families in their communities. 

By the time the federal housing program came to an end in the late 1960s, housing was segregated across U.S. cities everywhere. And one of the most lasting consequences of the program was the creation of the “NIMBY,” or “Not In My Backyard” activists. After benefiting heftily from thirty years of redlining, these groups would and continue to successfully oppose attempts to integrate their wealthier, largely white vicinities with non-white, lower-income residents on the basis of protecting “property values.” This is what left neighborhoods like the one Leo and I grew up in largely stranded.

We jump forward from the 1960s to the present momentarily. Today, many Black and immigrant families in Los Angeles whose neighborhoods were redlined see higher levels of homelessness due to segregation, wage inequality, neglected housing, and other forms of disinvestment concentrated in our vicinities. As recently as 2019, for example, just three of fifteen districts on the east and south sides of Los Angeles contained 41% of the city’s homeless population, all of which were heavily redlined for their Black and immigrant residents during the Feds’ building boom. Neighborhoods in these areas include Skid Row and Boyle Heights, South Central, Leimert Park, the Crenshaw corridor, and more. Additionally, according to a point-in-place count from 2019, of an estimated 70,000 unhoused people, nearly 80 percent are Black and Latino residents. And with unabated gentrification, or increasingly less housing options for families due to a growing number of luxury lofts and other exclusionary, unaffordable living options, these numbers stand to rise further.

Gentrification in Los Angeles is also a segregated phenomenon of sudden, unseemly investment in land once considered “undesirable”–according to the U.S. government–on the basis of race, i.e. redlining. The Pacific Palisades, Malibu, and Brentwood, for example, or historically greenlined, largely white communities, have not seen such rapid, unorderly development. Rather, NIMBYs in these areas have mastered “slow growth,” or litigation to prevent new, more affordable housing units that would benefit Black, Brown, and white and asian communities all over the city. Yet this could have been avoided if Black and immigrant communities’ calls for fair housing policies had been taken seriously by federal and state offices over the decades, especially in the 1960s.

From Harlem to Watts, the 1960s counted the highest numbers of racial rioting in the history of the United States. While popular narratives about social movements during this decade focus on voting rights and desegregating the U.S. South, the fact is that social unrest in the 1960s was largely due to derelict housing conditions and minimal work opportunities, especially for Blacks, in the U.S. North. By 1968, then, when the assassination of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. set off hundreds of riots in cities everywhere, Lyndon B. Johnson appointed the Kerner Commission to name the root cause of the unrest. The Kerner report’s conclusions were cut and clear:

Fifty-six percent of the country’s non-white families live in central cities today, and of these, nearly two-thirds live in neighborhoods marked by substandard housing and general urban blight. For these citizens, condemned by segregation and poverty to live in the decaying slums of our central cities, the goal of a decent home and suitable environment is as far distant as ever.

Young Evacuees at 41st and Central, where the LAPD bombed the Black Panther Party Headquarters on December 8, 1969.

In hindsight, the commission’s report was simply describing “the hood” before it became common nomenclature to identify redlined communities as such. Despite the report, however, federal action to desegregate housing after 1968 would be minimal to non-existent. While the Fair Housing Act, signed in 1968, technically banned any form of racial discrimination in private or federal housing such as redlining, it largely lacked enforcement provisions and thus did little to integrate suburbs originally divided from the inner city along racial lines. This left Black and immigrant neighborhoods to depreciate, especially as manufacturing jobs and other employment available to “low-skill” workers would disappear in the following decades. In other words, even after civil rights gains were made on paper, policies of racial disinvestment were largely left intact.

By the early 1970s, moreover, housing by the Feds was in for makeover, as the Nixon administration suddenly froze all funds for new housing initiatives by the Department of Housing and Urban Development in a four-year moratorium or “shut-off” for the agency. This was followed by a devolution of authority in 1974, or passing the responsibility to build new housing to state and city governments.

Just like that, after 30 years of sponsoring all-white suburbs, the Feds abruptly left the business of housing when Black and Brown communities needed it most–including as veterans from these groups returned from war in Vietnam–and despite how they never saw even a tenth of the housing investment whites did.

The final nail in the federal coffin for housing was that devolution failed to account for how most city and state budgets did not rake in enough revenue to invest significantly in desegregating neighborhoods–and thus, environments–via housing. The 1970s then saw the rise of Section 8 housing vouchers, which proved to be far more lucrative for landlords than for renters, and which now make up the Fed’s largest housing assistance program, providing an estimated 2.2. million people in the U.S.–and their landlords–with rental support annually.

Following Nixon’s moratorium, the 1980s saw less housing construction in the U.S. than in the previous decade. But in the “Golden State,” the rate for new housing construction fell abysmally; two decades after Nixon’s moratorium, the average rate of new housing fell from 215,000 new housing units a year in 1970 to just over 110,000 new units a year by 1999. This benefited older, white populations, while simultaneously burrowing Black and Brown communities further into strained housing environments–including Central American refugees displaced in the 1980s through “anti-communist” U.S. policy in the region, as well as Mexican migrants escaping an economically “lost decade” in their country due largely to U.S. debt obligations.

It’s conditions like these that youth like Leo and I inherited without our knowledge. But what I still had to learn at the time of his passing was how to outline the housing and living conditions ill-suited for the healthy development of most families in our community. Now, I can state for a fact that the census tract for the area Leo and I called home shows a Median Household Income of $34,000 a year, or roughly half of L.A. County’s, placing the majority of families in the area within the federal poverty level. Public records also state that at least 20% of people living on this tract rely on food stamps to pay for meals and groceries, a rate second only to that of the tract below, where 23% of residents rely on food stamps.

East Hollywood, or the larger area encompassing the blocks we grew up in is also 60% Latinx, where almost 90% of residents rent their housing. The area also saw at least $5 million in expenditures between 2012-2017 to arrest and incarcerate its Black and Brown residents, more than twice the rate spent in the adjacent Silver Lake and Los Feliz neighborhoods, which were bluelined and greenlined for their “desirable” white residents in the days of the Feds’ aforementioned building boom. Our neighborhood was in fact marked from the beginning, then, but now we mark its cuento to uplift a different future for Leo, yours truly, and more.

J.T.

EPISODE 64 – CISCO, CBS CREW ON GOING ALL CITY

In our 64th episode, we chat with the legendary “Cisco,” of the CBS graffiti crew in Los Angeles. Stefano Bloch is an L.A. native and the author of Going All City: Struggle and Survival in L.A.’s Graffiti Subculture. He is also a professor of cultural geography at the University of Arizona! An excellent discussion for all cultural geographers or mappers of the place called Los Angeles.

J.T.

From Venice to Echo Park: Unroot the Red Line

The next time you find another angry message board about unhoused people in Venice, please refer them to these facts.

Venice was redlined in the 1930s for 15% of its area containing families of “Mexican, Japanese, and Italian” origins and 4% “Negroes,” according to written records. The decision in the 1940s to funnel money for housing away from the area is no small part of why today’s homelessness along its beachsides, followed by policing, have markedly increased over the years.

A screenshot of a map from 1939 by the Home Owners Loan Corporation, marking Venice for disinvestment from federal dollars for housing.

Appraisers for the federal government arrived to Venice in 1939 and misleadingly claimed, “Many mortgage institutions will not operate in area.” They also went on to call the community “blighted” for its multi-ethnic workers and families. At this point, if you’ve read about redlining on this blog, it should be clear that such language was not only malicious, but consequential in that disparaging language against non-whites was an instrumental tool used by federal government officials and their counterparts in states and cities to decide where wealth and poverty would reside.

Over time, as the militaristic takeover of Echo Park this past March showed, public officials in L.A. would largely choose to expend public tax dollars to formerly redlined areas in the form of policing, that is, policing poor people in these communities on the basis of “Neighborhood Watch” and also “super-predator” theories, which supposed that youth and working age-adults in such “slum” areas were simply more predisposed to commit crime given their impoverished living conditions. Of course, in order for these theories to work, city officials just had to ignore the fact that opportunities for wealth and home-ownership for Black and immigrant communities in “slums” were choices first taken away from them by the federal government and complicit municipal and state actors.

A screenshot of a map from 1939 by the Home Owners Loan Corporation, marking Echo Park for disinvestment from federal dollars for housing.

But don’t let what escaped real estate appraisers in the 1940s escape you in the 2020s: Disinvestment in non-white communities and the inverse for whites was and remains backwards planning since whiteness could not and still cannot survive as an investment without supportive non-white labor pools nearby. The very development of the Venice canals in the early 1900s was only possible because of Black labor, after all. In fact, Black labor was so crucial to the construction of Venice beach that families were moved out to what would become the Oakwood neighborhood in order to speed up work for the grand opening of the famous beachside in 1905.

Canal scene in Venice Beach’s inductive year of 1905; Photo courtesy of the L.A. Public Library

Yet when federal appraisers arrived in 1939, on seeing “Black, Mexican and Japanese” residents alongside white European immigrant households, they were under strict orders from the Federal Housing Administration’s 1936 manual:

“The Valuator should investigate areas surrounding the location to determine whether or not incompatible racial and social groups are present, to the end that an intelligent prediction may be made regarding the possibility or probability of the location being invaded by such groups. If a neighborhood is to retain stability it is necessary that properties shall continue to be occupied by the same social and racial classes.”

Ironically enough, this logic, claiming that any and all whites interested in a home near Venice beach would turn away from the area on learning of Black and immigrant communities like Oakwood, was proven false by white influxes into Venice starting in the 1980s. Yet it’s nevertheless the logic of entitled homeowners associations in the neighborhood today, who assert as unscientifically as their peers did when “separate but equal,” or Jim Crow policy, was still law, that the very existence of unhoused people in the area depresses property values and “brings in crime,” something we’ll get back to in a moment.

For now, just note that housing shortages for Black and non-white immigrant communities in Oakwood would only be exacerbated in the decades after the World War II population boom because of this L. Ron Hubbard-like pseudoscience of real estate assessments against their “compatibility” with the dominant white order.

Racial disinvestment against areas like Oakwood would continue well after the Fair Housing Act of 1968, when redlining was outlawed, with the exception of policing budgets and details to patrol Black and Latino families in the vicinity, who, like their contemporaries to the Southeast in Watts, were not only discriminated in housing but also in employment and educational opportunities, thus making them more vulnerable to L.A.’s expanding carceral state.

A real estate boom would hit the community in the late 1980s, abetted by an accompanying surge of policing, pushing major swaths of Blacks out of the historic neighborhood in particular. By 1990, the Black population in Oakwood fell by eight percentage points down to 22% of the area, a considerable drop from a high of 44% in 1970. Latinos and whites, by contrast, increased by five and three percentage points, to make up 50% and 26% of the Oakwood population in the years before the Rodney King rebellion, respectively.

By 2000, the Black population in Oakwood fell again, by another seven percentage points to 15% of the area, while the Latino population saw its first decline after four decades of growth by three percentage points down to 47% of the area. Over the course of the new millennium, however, Latinos would continue to leave Oakwood, following in the footsteps of Blacks, whose displacement from the area began as early as when Latinos grew to comprise half of households there in 1970. As of 2019, the percentage of Black families in the area was less than 12%, while the Latino population decreased to 30%. White families, by contrast, now form 73% of the Oakwood neighborhood, something that must have seemed unimaginable to many Black and Latino youth policed up and down its corners in the early 1990s.

A gang injunction by the LAPD in Oakwood was initiated in 1999, even as research showed that “gangs” across L.A. by the 2000s were largely inactive compared to the 1970s and 1980s.

An LAPD gang injunction map from 2013, allowing them to stop, harass, and arrest any “suspected” gang members.

Compounding a dearth of housing and employment opportunities, the injunction would harass and jail generations of working-age Black and Latino residents in the area until an ACLU lawsuit slowed it down in 2016. Yet by the early 2010s, as Brown families to the northeast in Echo Park would also find, the damage was done. As one life-long resident of Oakwood noted in a 2018 interview:

“Families moved out to get their kids away from the gang injunction because you couldn’t be anywhere in Venice and not get stopped or harassed or arrested by the police if they deemed you a gang member.”

Additionally, an inspection of data from the Million Dollar Hoods project shows that over a five year period, from 2012 – 2017, police made over 3,300 arrests in the Venice beach area, with Black and Latinos accounting for 57% of arrests despite making up just 27 percent of the area’s population by 2008. Black men in particular were arrested at a rate seven times higher than their share of the population.

Conservative estimates of LAPD expenditures on arrests in the Venice beach neighborhood from 2012 – 2017.

Today, Council District 11, where Venice and Santa Monica are based, stands to see a continued decline of Black and Latino households at the same time that homelessness continues to soar for these two groups across Los Angeles. Since 2011, CD-11’s rate of unhoused people has grown by 160% to more than 3,200 people without shelter, making it the sixth most impacted district in Los Angeles today, and by extension, another hub for hostile police activity.

This is because while the number of unhoused people in L.A. grew by leaps and bounds over the 2010s, research suggests that homelessness, followed by policing, grew most in formerly redlined areas. For example, in 2019, just three of fifteen districts in L.A. contained 41% of the city’s homeless population, all three of which were heavily redlined or marked for disinvestment for their Black and immigrant residents during the federal housing administration’s development programs. Neighborhoods in these redlined areas include Skid Row and Boyle Heights, South Central or South Los Angeles, and Leimert Park and the Crenshaw corridor, where rapper Nipsey Hussle was slain in March 2019.

We also now return to the question of “crime,” particularly as it’s said to concern unhoused people. In the 1980s and 1990s, white liberal and conservative politics asserted that crime in L.A. was largely due to Black and immigrant “gangs.” Today, homeowners associations and their backers increasingly attribute crime to unhoused people, nearly 3/4ths of whom are Black and Latino in Los Angeles. Yet since the early 1990s through 2019, while homelessness increased in the city, reports of violent and “property crimes” across the nation–and in L.A. County–generally fell by more than half.

As recently as 2019, there were approximately 555 violent crimes per 100,000 people, compared to nearly 1,800 such crimes reported in 1990. There were also 2,200 property crimes per 100,000 people (not including arson) in 2019, though compared to 5,700 such crimes reported in 1990. The point is so important it merits repetition: Even while homelessness in Los Angeles has increased yearly since the early 1990s, both violent and property related crimes have largely continued to fall in the county since their 1990 levels.

An analysis of the crime rate by the Pew Research Center showing fallen crime rates from ’93 to…”infinity”?

But contrary to pseudoscience from police unions and their public official liaisons, “more cops” have not equaled more public safety. As Aya Gruber recently noted in a brilliant essay on “bluelining,” or police-patrol as a new form of redlining against historically discriminated communities of color, experts have long held that random preventative patrols, along with rapid response time to calls, neither reduce crime nor induce fear in people considering a criminal act. Additionally, Gruber points out:

“Researchers have also determined that ‘proactive policing,’ which includes ‘quality of life’ offenses, street sweeps, and stop-and-frisks, does not reduce, and in fact, may increase, crime.”

Yet, if not for the continued policing of non-white bodies, as demonstrated above, and increasingly, the policing of unhoused non-white bodies, exactly where would police have gone over the last 30 years? Something tells this writer that “preventing,” or rather responding, to 500 violent crimes per 100,000 residents and roughly 2,200 property crimes per 100,000 households to the tune of billion$ would be more difficult for police unions and public officials in L.A. to justify before city councils and communities. Yet it’s increasingly the case as more of us bear down on the city and county’s historic over-expenditures for a police state.

As author Alex Vitale noted in The End of Policing (2017): “The reality is that the police exist primarily as a system for managing and even producing inequality by suppressing social movements and tightly managing the behaviors of poor and nonwhite people: those on the losing end of economic and political arrangements.”

Moreover, in Los Angeles, there is overwhelming evidence to show why policing non-white communities into submission is not a sustainable path for the city, state or federal government. This August will mark 56 years since the war-zone in Watts, when the LAPD and Mayor Yorty called on National Guard troops to descend on Black bodies in the South L.A. community after their rebellion against continued police brutality there. The war-zone in Watts led to the police murder of 26 civilians, the injuries of thousands more, and subsequent “riots” in response to over-policing and disinvestment against Black communities in sister cities over the following years. Yet it would not constitute the worst damage in Los Angeles, after all.

This past April marked 29 years since 64 people lost their lives across Los Angeles, including ten murdered by police, while 54 others were killed amid looting and civil unrest during Mayor Bradley’s tenure. As with Watts twenty-seven years earlier–and thousands of other deaths and damages in cities all over the U.S. following the 1960s–each loss of life and damage was preventable, if not for civic institutions and policies continually demoralizing non-white, impoverished people as undeserving of fair and equal treatment in virtually every walk of life, pronouncing the indignity of the “red line” well beyond the 1930s.

What’s also true is that a major part of why L.A. & Cali have always operated–dangerously–in isolation is because of Washington D.C’s refusal to rein in the states when acting unilaterally against our historically discriminated communities. Yet as the progenitor or “forefather” of the Federal Housing Administration program that has segregated [verb] Black and immigrant neighborhoods in the inner city for nearly 100 years now, and marked them for disinvestment, Washington D.C. is not extricable from discussions of equity, reparations, and reconciliation for housing, employment, and other opportunities robbed from us.

In concert with a new civil rights movement, then, picking up where our first civil rights leaders left off, it’s now time for communities, from Oakwood and all of Venice, to Echo Park and beyond, to mark every dollar lost on policing rather than resourcing our neighborhoods. In a fair hearing, whether on the streets of D.C., or before the United Nations, each dollar represents what we are owed—with interest—in a new, New Deal through the 21st century.

J.T.

EPISODE 5 – THE CALIFORNIA READER FROM PATREON THIS WEEKEND

Are you subscribed yet? Episode 5, titled “Locked Out! California’s Affordable Housing Crisis,” is based on a May 2000 report of the same name by the California Budget Project. We discuss sharp changes in California’s housing construction from the 1970s through the 1990s, as well as how the 2008 recession continues to impact the Golden State’s abysmal building rate, demonstrated most recently by the fact that in 2019, during Governor Newsom’s first year in office, the state built the lowest amount of new housing units since 2009.

Also, see our “Newsom Card” for Governor Newsom’s promise on housing, provided by the Construction Industry Research Board (CIRB), in case you spot the governor campaigning to keep his job near you one of these days.

J.T.

Letter to Congressman Schiff: In Support of Little Tokyo Service Center’s Santa Monica & Vermont Apartments for East Hollywood

Dear Honorable Congressman Schiff,

I hope this letter finds you well. I am writing to you today to express my support for the Little Tokyo Service Center’s (LTSC) transformative housing project in partnership with L.A. Metro at the Vermont/Santa Monica intersection in East Hollywood.

This past March, along with members of the East Hollywood Neighborhood Council and a coalition of storytellers, scholars, and other community members, I discussed historic redlining practices affecting East Hollywood in the critical years before the onset of WWII. You may or may not know that East Hollywood, along with a number of other neighborhoods in the Central L.A. area, was historically redlined by federal and municipal government officials who saw Black and immigrant families as “blight” and “too risky” or unworthy of investment.

As offensive as redlining was for racist language that discouraged private banks from lending to working-class families in East Hollywood, what was more consequential was redlining’s discouragement of building development to break ground for needed housing in the community.

This is still relevant today. The World War II era, for its myriad of unique particularities, continues bearing key connections to the current housing crisis in Los Angeles. In 1939, the national economy was still emerging from a decade of the Great Depression. Therefore, when the U.S. officially joined the conflict, while California’s ports and aerospace industries began employing masses of new workers, labor shortages threatened to stifle the state’s service and agriculture economies, which could have almost certainly cost the U.S. the war effort.

In bouts of heroism and bravery alike, waves of Black families from the historic U.S. south came to the rescue, especially for the Golden State’s service economies. Simultaneously, Latinx workers from the global south, particularly from Mexico, came to California as the first “Braceros” for the state’s agricultural industry.

Yet while these workers were sure to be hired in Los Angeles, what was entirely uncertain was their housing. After decades of racial covenants, deed restrictions, campaigns against housing for non-whites by an L.A. chapter of the Ku Klux Klan and their collaborators, and homogeneously white city councils, courtrooms, and police, Los Angeles left Black, Latinx and APPI communities with housing conditions that would only worsen with time.

Twenty years after the end of WWII, these conditions erupted in Watts. A generation later, less than twenty years after the world recession of 1973 – 1975, these conditions erupted again in South Central Los Angeles.

And today, even as research shows Black and Latinx people make up to 70% of the unhoused population in Los Angeles, and virtually the same rate of the incarcerated population in the L.A. County Jail and across California prisons, during the “war” against COVID, Black, Latinx and AAPI workers have unflinchingly and resiliently supported L.A.’s service, agricultural and transportation economies, including in East Hollywood. This is why LTSC’s project at Vermont/Santa Monica is as timely as it is appropriate. It is breaking the ground for families needed as early as the years before WWII.

I write in support of Little Tokyo Service Center’s Santa Monica & Vermont Apartments because they will provide 187 units of overdue affordable housing for people of color in the community, as well as permanent supportive housing that communities of color in East Hollywood have missed as the homelessness crisis, which is undoubtedly a humanitarian crisis, has only grown by leaps and bounds.

You are likely aware, Congressman Schiff, that in L.A. City Council’s 13th district, where East Hollywood is based, nearly 4,000 people are unhoused, and also that job losses due to the pandemic threaten to unhouse waves of more families of color in our community.

Therefore, while federal and municipal officials have still yet to officially account for discrimination in housing in East Hollywood due to redlining and related policies, LTSC’s extremely low-income housing is what beginning to “turn the page” looks like.

Congressman Schiff, the current moment for our state and nation calls for both bravery and urgency from our leadership, most of all in regards to historic issues of racial and economic justice in the U.S.

As you can recall, Lyndon B. Johnson was the first in Washington D.C. to officially declare “war” on poverty, but could only see the work unfinished as subsequent, “reactionary,” and corporate-bound leadership jeopardized the effort to bridge the wealth gap in our country. The moment now calls for that unfinished work to be resumed with utmost haste, and so we await your affirmation of this through your urgent support for LTSC’s housing work in East Hollywood.

Sincerely, and in community, always

J.T.

EPISODE 50 – THE FIGHT FOR HOUSING

For the 50th episode of our podcast, catch the LIVE recording of our third and final panel for Making Our Neighborhood: The Fight for Housing. Guests include Nina Suarez of the East Hollywood Neighborhood Council, Samanta Helou-Hernandez of This Side of Hoover, Chancee Martorell of Thai Community Development Center, Roderick Hall of Pacific Urbanism, and Caroline Calderon of Little Tokyo Service Center.

J.T.

MAKING OUR NEIGHBORHOOD: THE MAGAZINE

**DIGITAL, ONLINE COPY COMING SOON**

Making Our Neighborhood: The Magazine

A magazine about the past, present, and future of East Hollywood, featuring essays and photos by This Side of Hoover & Jimbo Times. Currently SOLD OUT!

J.T.