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, where the state of housing remains today.

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 working-class whites did.

The final nail in the coffin for federal 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 73 – JAMIE TIJERINA AND HISTORIC CULTURAL MONUMENTS IN HIGHLAND PARK

In our 73rd episode, we chat with Jamie Tijerina, a Cal Tech Researcher, president of the Highland Park Neighborhood Trust, and author of The Legacy of Redlining in Los Angeles, a white paper absolutely adored by yours truly. Jamie and I discuss the paper, as well as the city’s egregious pension benefits for L.A.’s former police officers and firefighters (exceeding the IRS limit of $200,000 a year), and her candidacy for Council District 14 (formerly Jose Huizar’s and now Kevin De Leon’s) in 2019. We also discuss Jamie’s successful, three-year long effort to designate the Chicano Arts Collectives of the Highland Park neighborhood as Historic-Cultural Monuments (HCMs) through an official voting process at the L.A. City Council, student debt, and more. A can’t-miss session for community organizers in Los Angeles.

J.T.

J.T. the L.A. Storyteller: A TRAILER

For those who search for and find their podcasts on Spotify, our first official trailer is now live!

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.

EPISODE 47 – HOW TO MAKE OUR NEIGHBORHOOD

In our 47th episode, we chat with Samanta Helou-Hernandez, our fellow East Hollywood resident and cross collaborator who’s also co-hosting with yours truly for Making Our Neighborhood: Redlining, Gentrification and Housing in East Hollywood this Thursday, March 4th, ’21. Samanta and I discuss the background for this special event for our community, and about the importance of our work together in the current media and policy landscape in Los Angeles. To help us complete our fundraiser for translation services on the day of the event, please do so via our FUNDLY.

J.T.

(Re)Making Our Neighborhood – An Excavation of East Hollywood, Part III

This is the third installment of a three-part series.

“The Marshalls were close to their Japanese-American neighbors, particularly the Hoshizakis and the Kakibas, who lived on either side of them. Their daughter, Barbara Marshall, remembers food and culture being exchanged over the hedges of their houses.” – Samanta Helou-Hernandez, This Side of Hoover

The Japanese American and African American families documented on This Side of Hoover were the types of families in East Hollywood whom a band of real estate appraisers & L.A. County officials in the 1940s would come to label “undesirable” for investment. Today, the area, east of Hollywood and west of Silver Lake, is a majority-immigrant community where nearly 4/5ths of the population rent apartments, and which is also disproportionately policed over increasingly valuable real estate for appraisers.

Now, nearly one hundred years since deed restrictions in Los Feliz–a wealthier neighborhood to the north of East Hollywood–stated in their clauses that only members of the “Caucasian Race” were allowed to own property in the area, Black residents there and in East Hollywood face the highest rates of homelessness and policing of their bodies. Non-white immigrant communities face the second highest rates of homelenessness and policing in Los Feliz and East Hollywood.

Data also shows that from 1980 – 2014, when areas like East Hollywood saw their largest waves of immigration from Latin America and Asia, rents in Los Angeles jumped 55%, while incomes increased only by 13%.

In 2018, according to the California Housing Partnership (CHP), “Renters in Los Angeles County [needed] to earn $46.15/hr – more than 4 times local minimum wage – to afford the median monthly asking rent of $2,400.” The CHP also estimated that Los Angeles County needs at least 500,000 additional affordable rental homes to meet current demand, a number that’s only increasing due to Ellis Act evictions.

Ellis Act evictions take place when landlords decide to convert buildings, including rent-stabilized (RSO) buildings, into condominiums. Since 2000, Ellis Act evictions have taken nearly 500 housing rent-stabilized units out of East Hollywood and nearly 27,000 RSO units from the city of Los Angeles overall. At the same time, since 2000, homelessness in the 13th district, of which East Hollywood is a part of, has accelerated, with at least 544 families without housing as recently as 2019. The total number of unhoused people in the 13th district is now at least 4,000, according to the most recent numbers from the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority.

As we discuss redlining in East Hollywood then, it’s also important to note that Los Angeles was not always segregated between wealthy neighborhoods on the west and north sides and impoverished neighborhoods in the central, east and south sides. Redlined neighborhoods in Los Angeles actually meant that neighborhoods were integrated, made up of Black, immigrant, and European-born residents. The clearest consequence of redlining and related policies was therefore explicit government investment in dividing cities by racial makeup, which came to promulgate the false notion that universal human necessities like housing, education, and healthcare should serve only some residents at the expense of others.

Also consider that Black and immigrant groups called “undesirable” for investment by the Homeowners Loan Corporation (HOLC) were groups of laborers, many of whom worked for the city’s biggest industries in the 20th century before WW2, that of service and agriculture. Black, Japanese, Mexican and other “minority” residents served wealthier white families in areas like Los Feliz as babysitters, nurses, fruit pickers, and more. Historically then, Black and immigrant communities in Los Angeles played critical roles in making the state of California the fifth largest state in the U.S. by 1950.

Redlining also entailed private and public officials marking people as inherently hazardous to one another due to racial difference, not unlike an unsafe “building condition.” For example, there were certain parts of the northern portion of Hollywood that were redlined not because Black or immigrant people resided there, but due to an unsafe dam.

Private and public officials feared–or at least professed–that racially different groups living together could only lead to racial rioting, which was prevalent from the 50s – 60s, though largely over the same issues: housing, employment, and police discrimination against Black and other non-white bodies. But if groups of different skin color could only lead to rioting, then what explains the inter-ethnic community between Black and Japanese American families like those noted by Making Our Neighborhood…The Panel Series?

Here are also a few interesting questions for readers to consider about any redlined neighborhood in the U.S. today: What would the area look like if Black and immigrant communities had actually been invested in, or allowed to own homes in “white” neighborhoods and supported sufficiently in doing so? How many unhoused “tent cities” would have been prevented in the decades after the 1940s? And how much crime and policing over the last 80 years could have been avoided in the neighborhood?

Now Los Angeles is witnessing the rise of a new generation of multi-ethnic groups organizing to advance justice and equity in the city, particularly in the area of Tenants Rights. More interethnic movements need to be forged, however, at the same time that the vast majority of L.A. and California’s public officials continue to seem as distant as ever from work on the ground towards equity.

But if Los Angeles needed a reminder that Black people have worked to advance justice for ALL groups, or create justice where it was left wanting, including in this city and not just the historic U.S. south, Ms. Marshall’s account of her family visiting their Japanese American neighbors preceding their internment with sweets and other shows of friendship demonstrate it loudly and clearly.

“I didn’t know we were in an integrated neighborhood until I learned about that word. To be able to walk down the street without fear of people calling you names because everybody was part of the neighborhood.” -Barbara Marshall

Ms. Marshall’s endearing description of everyone belonging to the neighborhood is precisely why the pamphlets for Making Our Neighborhood were translated into four of the most spoken languages in East Hollywood today, including Español, Thai, Tagalog, and Armenian. Our pamphlets have been well received by the community, and for good reason: In a city where at least 3/4ths of the population can trace roots to languages other than English, our informational pamphlets hint at what the next chapter of city planning and community engagement needs to look like.

In today’s Los Angeles, every resident, whether in the celebrity or political class, or not, is a part of this city. Indeed, this simple understanding is all that was missing during the days of deed restrictions, redlining, and other discriminatory practices in home-sales or home rentals to non-white communities. It’s the city that “should have been” built at the dawn of the twentieth century, but that we have to build–and fight for–now.

Consider that during the most fatal public health crisis in over a century, civic groups have had almost no break from hounding at L.A.’s political leadership to “seize the hotels” in order to temporarily shelter a fraction of L.A. County’s 67,000 unhoused residents, who are predominantly Black and immigrant residents, even while the federal government ensures 100% reimbursement for this procedure. But the fact is that given Los Angeles Housing policy for non-white and immigrant communities over the last 100 years, the neighborly thing for our civic and political leadership to do would be to ensure such common sense calls don’t have to be made.

At the same time that our communities fight to shelter the unsheltered, we also have to protect what affordable, rent stabilized housing remains in Los Angeles. This includes repealing the Ellis Act, which has damaged East Hollywood and other Black and immigrant neighborhoods throughout Los Angeles.

Finally, we need to amplify calls on our political leadership to stand up to developers on behalf of our neighborhoods as they were elected to do.

Remember: The CHP has noted that L.A. County is behind, by over 500,000 affordable housing units and then some.

Yet if there’s one thing L.A. was known for since before the 20th century all the way up to 1951, when talks of a baseball team coming to L.A. were just getting started, it was setting records, including building records and booms.

For our part as storytellers, our research and documentation work uplifts elders, activists currently on the ground in our communities, scholars, and even more of what makes East Hollywood and any neighborhood like it more than just “worth” honoring for a moment, but something worth honoring at length for a future.

Already, we have taken the historical truths of redlining and gentrification and flipped them to serve more than just one group or narrative. Our political officials can do the same, and then some. Find our recorded panel sessions on YouTube, and pose your questions for us at the new website for the rest of our community: Hope.xyz/MakingOurNeighborhood.

J.T.

You are Invited to Making Our Neighborhood: Redlining, Gentrification and Housing in East Hollywood

With our final Redlining poster, one thing is clear:

Racist tools designed to separate and dehumanize “others” can in fact be reckoned with and even “hacked” to serve a higher calling, that is, to bring “others” together for the purpose of humanizing all of us on our own terms.

Photography for this poster is courtesy of Samanta Helou-Hernandez: @sami_helou

Design for this poster is courtesy of Crisanto Simatu: @crisanto.illustration

Our panel series this March is being hosted by the East Hollywood Neighborhood Council: @easthollywoodnc.

Find our Press Release for Making Our Neighborhood…A Panel Series, HERE.

And RSVP to the hottest event in Los Angeles this March at EastHollywood.EventBrite.com.

J.T.