Sunset over East Hollywood, Los Angeles

REAL ESTATE SUBDIVISIONS (1949): A CASE STUDY

The following are a few passages from an article for the University of Miami Law Review in 1950, when Gary I. Salzman, a former Assistant Professor of Management at the University of Miami, provided a brief summary for a real estate book published just one year earlier, entitled REAL ESTATE SUBDIVISIONS (1949) by Stanley L. McMichael.

The excerpts are of particular interest considering that McMichael’s book came on the heels of the consequential U.S. Supreme Court decision in Shelley vs Kraemer (1948), in which the court outlawed racial deed restrictions as unconstitutional (emphasis J.T.’s):

ADAM was the first to be given possession of land, subject, however, to certain restrictions…Through the reported connivance of his co-tenant, Eve, these restrictions were broken and the first eviction occurred…Adam had been given no deed to the land and not even a one dollar consideration was on record as having been paid. Indeed, the first real estate transaction was actually a conditional lease in perpetuity, contingent upon observance of certain covenants. Violation of one of these covenants led, subsequently, to a long series of litigations, which have been responsible for more clogged legal dockets than any other phase of human behavior.” – McMichael, 1949

What immediately stands out about this passage are conflated themes of property, tenancy, gender, law, and violation of law. According to the author’s logic, these themes ground a claim that “land” and “ownership of land” based on respect for “certain covenants” or agreements, are characteristics that go back to the earliest days of humanity, as fundamental things that make humans, well, human.

McMichael’s passage conveniently forgets, however, that if such characteristics are supposed to be fundamental, and even sacred to what makes us human, then the United States as an entity was in deep and perpetual violation of their sanctity since its founding, having been grounded on Indian genocide, Afro slavery, and various other forms of oppression inspired by these acts, not to mention the U.S. government’s repeated failure to honor many of the agreements or “covenants” made with descendants of these and other groups in its constitution, bills of right, and more.

Additionally, this first passage is striking for how utterly inventive it reads, like something borrowed from the mischievous L. Ron Hubbard (whose Dianetics was published a year after Subdivisions in 1950, by the way); but the fact of the matter is that zoning, or land rules, themselves were–and remain–inventive tools by which to maintain class and racial dominance. This was true according even to real estate experts themselves at the time, as the next passage indicates.

“‘The legal aspects of restrictions are given from material by Melvin B. Ogden, member of the Los Angeles Bar, stating that private control over the development of subdivisions of land by means of ‘restrictions imposed in deeds, declarations of restrictions, agreements, and similar contracts between the subdivider and lot owners, is of comparatively recent origin.‘” – Salzman, 1950

From this second quotation, it’s certainly no surprise to learn that lawyers in Los Angeles contributed significantly to instructions for realtors nationwide on the maintenance of land as [white] property, but to see one’s actual name cited on the matter is quite the homecoming.

Yet if there’s still any doubt regarding the very, very racial elements of real estate and zoning in Los Angeles as practices by which to assert white racial dominance, let the next quote clarify for readers.

“Can a subdivider of land so restrict sales of his lots that he can prevent, legally, the occupancy of such by non-Caucasions?”

Gary I. Salzman on Stanley L. McMichael’s Subdivisions (1949)

According to Salzman, this is a question McMichael covers at length in his book, with up to eight suggestions (italics J.T.’s) “made to soften the impact of the blow that racial restrictions have received.”

That is, the utterly tragic blow to those racial restrictions delivered by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1948, when the court sought to honor the 14th amendment in the land of the free and home of the brave, which, don’t forget, had just returned from Europe and the Pacific after defeating fascists there, according to the prevailing narratives of the time.

However, it’s the final passage for this reading that is of most interest to yours truly.

“…the higher the quality of a subdivision, the more satisfactory it is to its creator and the more money can eventually be made out of it by both seller and buyer.” – McMichael, Subdivisions (1949)

After a trying month in March 2021 for hopes of a more equitable, politically informed public dialogue between realtors, city leadership, planning and communities today given L.A.’s racist showings in housing historically, this last passage from McMichael’s Subdivisions seems to be the one which continues to reverberate the most today for two reasons.

First, on March 18th, the L.A. City Planning Commission voted to adopt an utterly inadequate Hollywood Community Update Plan, declining to accept the Just Hollywood Coalition’s calls for language in the plan towards higher affordable housing requirements (as opposed to 10% “encouragements”) from developers, a Right to Return clause for tenants displaced by new building developments, and strong limitations on destroying current rent stabilized housing units in Hollywood, which are increasingly dwindling due to Ellis Act and “cash-for-keys” evictions in the area.

Many working-class and especially immigrant voices lent their time for these calls with the Planning Commission via Zoom during the public comment segment, but while commissioners nodded along and thanked callers for these inputs, their voices, time, and stories were largely ignored during the commission’s final deliberations.

Because the Hollywood Community Update Plan approved by the L.A. City Planning Commission also still designates or “zones” more than 4,500 acres of land in the Hollywood area for single-family homes, thereby allowing for only single family homes to be built on this land, it’s apparent that much of zoning’s racist legacy remains critically out of the sight of our public and private leadership, especially during their “leadering”!

Other than being a major impediment to creating new, multi-family affordable housing in the Hollywood area, single-family zoning is a legacy product of white supremacy in Los Angeles over the 20th century, which the above quotations show clearly, and remains as exclusionary in the 21st century for Black and immigrant workers, most of whom are still anchored in poverty due to wage inequality and other forms of discrimination across L.A. and the “Golden” state.

Secondly, on March 25th, Mitch O’Farrell’s lawless eviction of unhoused residents in Echo Park was another score for the owning classes in Los Angeles, a 21st century version of eminent domain, or seizure and destruction of the dispossessed and their time and resources, for the right of property values and their holders.

Remember simply that “the higher the quality of the subdivision,” as McMichael put it to his readers in 1949, the higher the sale and profit. By the same logic, the “safer” or “more secure” from adverse elements a property is, the greater its value. Of course, as in 1949, safety and security is dependent on whose safety and security we’re talking about.

In the case of Echo Park, violent removal of unhoused residents from the Lake area, predominantly Black and immigrant people, necessarily threatening their safety and security, is permissible under the current zoning or rules for the land. This is because their forced removal, however temporary, is still a boon for investors looking to cash in on Echo Park’s renewed “safety,” however temporary even that boon may be (it’s always temporary, isn’t it?).

As historic actions of the owning class in Los Angeles suggest, then, there are no rights quite like the rights of owners. And as both actions and inaction by so many of L.A.’s public officials in service of this class have shown–and continue to do so–the power of property over human rights in Los Angeles today is at least as strong as it was during McMichael’s day, following that tragic blow to racial property restrictions, for which the author devised his Subdivisions to navigate through, that only just so happened to entail a perverse and even “conniving” reading of “creation” stories to serve the narrow interests of the salesman.

Pray for us now, Los Angeles.

J.T.

New Year, New Inequality in Los Angeles

In 2021, given the last year, as well as the historic norm for rights-of way in Los Angeles, what this blog is certain of is that the gulf between the haves and the have-nots in our city will only continue to bulge, making L.A. ever less affordable for the historic, working class communities which have given L.A. so much of its form. At 1185 Myra Ave in Silver Lake, or the old apartment residence of the late Roger King, the chess & boxing coach, the 18-unit building, a structure originally built in 1964, is now on sale for approximately $7,000,000.

Former residents used to pay $1,200 a month for apartments at the rent-stabilized building as recently as a few years ago, that is, until they were bought out by the building’s landlords through the “cash for keys” program, which grants landlords the right to offer cash buyouts to tenants in order to have them leave their units more expediently than what’s legally allowed once owners decide to vacate their buildings for the purpose to sell.


Just 300 feet north of the $7 million deed, at 1215 North Myra avenue, the former site of a small group of single-family homes, as well as the Ikonic Auto Garage, not to mention the legendary, speedy Korner Grill for generations of local King Middle School students, including yours truly, is now being scaled for infill, or the repurposing of the land there for a new type of construction, in this case, likely more high-end apartments for renters of serious means only. Pictured are a group of presumably Central-American laborers preparing the land for the many months of work ahead, almost certainly being paid less than minimum wage for their time. This is Los Angeles.


In 2014, when Roger King first sat down for an interview with the blog, he told me of witnessing Los Angeles go from the provincial 1950s, when it was more of another city in the way of the mid-western tradition, into the 1960s as not just a metropolis, but a megalopolis.’

Yet if today the city is already a megalopolis with barely a lifeline to name for its working-class communities–to say nothing of the tens of thousands of people who sleep on the sidewalks in and around Silver Lake on any given night–what does the city become by just 2030? Something tells me that if Coach Roger was still here, he’d tell recommend we ‘lace up,’ because the battle for the answer to that question will surely rage on.

The late Roger King, chess & boxing coach and a group of disciples in Silver Lake, Los Angeles

J.T.

California left in Ashes by Suburban Expansion built on Decades of Exclusion and Criminalization of the Poor

What if I told you that in California working Black and Latina single mothers will be slapped with the bill for the untold millions in damages from the latest fire season in communities where they’re largely relegated to occupy space only as nannies or security detail? And what if you then learned that all of the discretionary or “unrestricted” social money for public goods supposed to be set aside for community development–not to mention emergencies such as COVID-19–in South Central Los Angeles and other impoverished, formerly red-lined geographies, are those which stand to lose the most from preventable fire emergencies? This is exactly what is happening in the “Golden state.”

As days of lungs ensnared in smoke in Los Angeles turn into weeks of suffocation, it might almost feel like all of California has been taken hostage by a force of wicked nature. But it would be more accurate to say that the city, and indeed the state’s fates have been sealed by real estate corporations and obsequious governments, whose ill regard for natural and cultural limitations, and whose collusion in land theft, “separate but equal,” police states, redlining, white flight, and now gentrification intermingle like a Fiesta salad of colonial residue, which tastes just as it looks: like heaps of ashes from a darkened sky over the “final frontier” that is–or that was–the Golden State.

Governor Newsom is correct to cite a “climate damn emergency” in his assessment of ‘this moment,’ but still fails to situate climate change within the observed history and present state of corporate control over millions of acres of formerly public lands, largely still unceded by Native peoples in California but retained by companies like Pacific Gas & Electric and other private corporations, whose executives have profited immensely from fire hazards, pollution, publicly funded subsidies and insurance coverage, and more than anything: the mass removal of poor people and even their natural, sacred geographies for the sake of racialized expansion projects such as suburbia.

While the most expensive damage from the latest preventable fires have mostly impacted suburban enclaves developed by real estate moguls away from inner cities, the present state of high alert and toxic air quality for communities across the Western hemisphere emphasizes how fire hazards are not–and never have been–relevant only to isolated suburbs.

Moreover, as urban space continues to rise in density at the direction of real estate firms and not that of working-class communities, there are likely more fires on the way to big cities like L.A. After all, it was only six years ago that smoke from the so-called Da Vinci apartments choked the skies above downtown Los Angeles and the nearby Pico-Union and Westlake neighborhoods, the latter of which has historically been prone to fire disasters as a result of outdated building and fire codes, not to mention lax enforcement from L.A. city inspectors on landlords over safety. While a taxi driver was arrested for allegedly starting the fire at the Da Vinci complex and sentenced to fifteen years behind bars, the blaze was also attributable to corporate exceptionalism to the rules when developer Geoffrey Palmer failed to install key fire prevention measures to keep the complex from incinerating so rapidly and threatening other nearby structures.

In 2016, in a blazing example of belated, half-hearted watch-dogging from local government, Mike Feuer, the City Attorney for L.A. sued Palmer for $20 million dollars for violating the city’s fire codes. Yet just one year later, Feuer settled for only $400,000 of that demand, or the equivalent of a small fine for the billionaire’s coffers, which another attorney for Feuer’s office called “an excellent result.”

Moreover, Palmer’s Da Vinci complexes were back in business as soon as 2015, offering non-rent controlled 746 square feet apartments for a minimum of $2,000 dollars a month to overlook the city’s sprawling tent encampments below the complexes. From 2013 – 2015, the city of Los Angeles alone saw an additional 1,300 people added to the streets. Today, there are more than 41,000 people without shelter atop the sidewalks and freeway underpasses of L.A., that is, according to LAHSA’s official estimates, which are always an under-count.

It turns out, however, that L.A.’s lame attempt at reining in Palmer was just one in a long list of Los Angeles officials’ rapid forfeiture of land to real estate firms without so much as a whimper, the result of which quickly forced into being cities like Malibu, Santa Clarita, and many more predominantly white enclaves, despite often being literally against mountainous terrain, and by extension, against the recommendations of sustainable planning experts.

Mike Davis’s Ecology of Fear (1998) documents key points of this history of L.A. officials yielding to the mighty developers’ expansionist dreams. Among several examples of how L.A. officials approved the city’s infamous “de facto” segregation over decades, Davis analyzes how twenty years prior to the mass gentrification of the Santa Monica mountains for the sake of Malibu–which was once home to tens of thousands of Chumash people–the urbanism firm EDAW reported that a then-projected 405,000 additional homes to the area would be ill-advised:

“They pointed out that Malibu, apart from major problems with earthquakes, flooding, and landslides, also had a fire history ‘unique in intensity, devastating in effect, and heightened during Santa Ana wind conditions.”

Twenty years later, the Malibu fire in 1993 proved this point, costing over $500,000,000 adjusted for inflation in today’s dollars, which, along with the Northridge quake in 1994 in the “de facto” segregated white valley, sucked up more state and federal dollars than the battle worn streets of South Central Los Angeles from less than two years prior. Davis noted even then:

“The fate of inner-city areas of Los Angeles in the aftermath of the Northridge earthquake vividly illustrates how people of color are doubly punished by natural and political disasters. The first casualty of the temblor was any residual official interest in economic recovery efforts and job creation in the neighborhoods traumatized by the 1992 riots. Rebuilding the Valley supplanted ‘Rebuild L.A..'”

Nearly thirty years after Malibu’s predictable smoldering, smoke now consumes streets from Los Angeles to Portland as bruised sunlight stares ominously from above, and you can bet Geoffrey Palmer to the tune of a billion dollars that the predominantly Black, Latino and also impoverished white communities laying unhoused, behind prison bars, and under police surveillance across the “Golden State” will be the same ones whose affordable housing and decarceration are again postponed due to elected representative spinelessness before Palmer and his contemporaries.

The state’s latest ineptitude during this fire season, like its hackneyed safety nets amid the pandemic this last half year, is thereby proof that the present struggle against police violence is not separate from the state’s conscription to unnatural catastrophes developed by corporate bottom lines one year after the next. In other words, the same annual budget that strains firefighting from “saving” precariously built structures in fire-prone areas is also the one which provides LAPD in South Central L.A. and across its immigrant communities with zealous field-days; but while the former present billions in damages that will cost the state’s public schools, public transportation, and hundreds of thousands of Californians without access to secure housing, the latter’s only threat is a skin color and some variant inflection of Inglés that continues threatening California’s intransigent white supremacist order.

As present-day neighborhoods like those in Malibu and Santa Clarita were built on top of the ruins of decimated Chumash people, whose residents now live in heightened anxiety every September through November, the past has not yet passed. Today, while Hollywood celebrities have access to same-day testing for COVID-19 as the poor are ordered to wait until they have a fever to show for it, inheritors of the Golden state’s tragic love affair with real estate moguls will watch as another generation of public “leaders” call for rebuilding California’s white suburbs with more expenses on the working poor, including through increased policing, displacement, incarceration, and thus shutting out or banishment.

The only conceivable way out at this late stage in the game is for more citizens to stand against such manufactured inequality by supporting movements across the soot-worn Golden state for tenants’ rights, for affordable homes instead of sweeping zones, for prison abolition and police defunding, and for community investment led by communities rather than parasitic billionaires. There is no alternative to this latter option; we are already living in the alternative, blanketed in ashes.

J.T.