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.

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.

Deed Restrictions in Los Feliz and East Hollywood

T-RACES, or the Testbed for the Redlining Archives of California’s Exclusionary Spaces, is a powerful map and treasure cove of historical documents whose archives contain ‘area descriptions’ of L.A. neighborhoods as seen by former L.A. county and federal officials of the national Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC); to learn more about the HOLC, readers can visit Design and Violence, where a treasure hunt for the documents began.

I’ve gathered a few of the area descriptions of the “Los Feliz” and “East Hollywood” neighborhoods, respectively, all of them dated from 1939. It’s fascinating to see the old vecindades distinguished by their racial and class makeup. For example, in the Los Feliz neighborhood, the absence of “foreign families” or “negros” based on the “deed restrictions” banning their presence, as well as single-family residential zoning, led to a “high green” or attractive rating for the HOLC:

“[In Los Feliz] …Deed restrictions cover both improvement costs and racial elements. Zoning is single-family residential. Conveniences are as available as is desirable in a multi-car garage neighborhood. This area was subdivided some 15 years ago, and was engineered and platted to contour resulting in well arranged and improved streets. Construction, maintenance and architectural designs are of the highest quality. Population is of a high character and many of the city’ s wealthiest citizens reside here. Values shown above are somewhat conjectural as size and location of homesite affects prices. This also applies to rentals as quality of tenant is a large consideration. With a convenient location, ideal building sites and high caliber deed restrictions, this area should continue indefinitely to attract a substantial type of resident. On the basis of present development and future prospects area is accorded a “high green ” grade.”

By contrast, in East Hollywood, to the Western Side of the area, because of the ‘concentration of Jewish families,’ along with 5 & 6 room dwellings, or apartment buildings with 5 to 6 units, a “medial yellow” or “only fairly” attractive grade was accorded.

“[In East Hollywood] …There are no deed restrictions and zoning, while mainly single-family, also permits all types of multi-family residential structures in different parts and is also “spot zoned” for business and provides for numerous institutional developments. Two of the largest hospitals in the city are located within the area. Conveniences are all readily available. This area was originally largely occupied by the old Sullivan Farm and was subdivided approximately 25 years ago. Divided by and surrounded with business thoroughfares this far-flung area contains a miscellaneous array of multi-family residential development; however, the pre-dominating type of residence is 5 & 6 room dwellings which are generally of standard construction and fairly well maintained. It is said to be one of the community’s best rental districts. Rumors of scattered Japanese and Negro residents were not confirmed as none were located except upon the business thoroughfares. There is a concentration of Jewish families between Melrose and Santa Monica Blvd. east of Western Avenue. The population in general is heterogeneous, as is also the aspects of the improvements. There is a fair percentage of owner occupancy and many homes are still occupied by original owners. There is a decided trend at present toward business and income properties; however, it is thought that the major part of the area will remain predominantly single-family for many years to come. The area is accorded a “medial yellow” grade.”

Such standards beg the question, just who was the HOLC describing these conditions to? That is, just who determined that ‘negros,’ ‘foreign’ and ‘Jewish’ people and their dwellings reduced the overall quality of life? In literature it’s called the white gaze, or the white imagination that dictates a certain narrative or reality as though it were a universal understanding, when in fact nothing could be further from the truth.

“Los Angeles and Vicinity – Residential Security Map”

With these frameworks in mind, I was excited to read about just how the vecindad my family and I would come to call home during the eighties when mom and pops arrived here fared ‘in the ratings.’

In the eyes of the HOLC, East Hollywood towards the East side was considered ‘blighted’ for 15% of its residency consisting of ‘foreign’ families, and for 10% of it consisting of ‘negros,’ as well as for the neighborhood’s multiple family dwellings and bungalows. This led to a “medial red” rating, meaning bank lenders were advised against issuing loans for homeowners or prospective homeowners here.

“[In East Hollywood] …The few deed restrictions which have not expired are irregular and largely non-effective. The major portion of area is zoned for single family dwellings, but multiple family dwellings are permitted in scattered sections. Conveniences are all readily available. This district was subdivided over 25 years ago as a popular price home district and has largely maintained the characteristics. Many of the improvements are of substandard construction and maintenance is spotted, being generally of a poor quality. Scattered throughout the area are a number of small “B” grade apartments, bungalow courts and other multi-family dwellings. The population is highly heterogeneous with more than a sprinkling of subversive racial elements, there being several concentrations of Japanese and Negroes within the district. There is also quite a Jewish population adjacent to the synagogue which is located in the northern part. While by no means a slum district, the area is definitely blighted and is accorded a “medial red” grade.”

On the one hand, it’s astounding to think that there used to be more Japanese and Black people in the neighborhood. But it’s also sobering to consider how World War II and the Japanese interment which followed violently displaced such communities from the area. When one considers these events and the subsequent or concurrent modernization that followed or accompanied the war, such as the building of L.A.’s first freeway in America in the Arroyo Seco Parkway in 1940, one can see how modern development has always been a matter of some violence on communities and restrictions of their space for the benefit of wealthier, more privileged groups.

It’s rarely ever easy to take another field trip through the historical foundations which led to our modern dilemmas with access to space in the inner city. But in order to know where we’re going, we have to know where we come from, Los Angeles.

J.T.