America's Worst Housing Project Is Being Gentrified
Photos by Nate Miller
Have you ever simultaneously regretted that the poor had been pushed out of a neighborhood, but wished you could have gotten in when rents were still cheap? Have you ever admired the pluck and ingenuity of the first few nonpoor bastards to move into a poor area? I have.
The Los Angeles City Council just unanimously voted to tear down Jordan Downs, nearly the oldest housing project in America and probably the title holder for ugliest. Jordan Downs is comprised of 103 spookily identical buildings in the low-income, violence-ridden neighborhood of Watts. While notorious for its gangs, its racially tinged police brutality, and its intractable poverty, Watts is also noteworthy for its cultural vibrancy and the palpable neighborhood pride of its residents. I wrote that last sentence by the way, not the Watts Chamber of Commerce, but they can have it for free.
They’re not just tearing down Jordan Downs, they’re turning this Orwellian nightmare-scape into an “urban village,” including four story townhomes, condos, retail restaurants, and a farmer’s market. Residents have been hearing about this pie-in-the-sky renovation for years, or even decades, but about ten months ago, a developer was chosen, and the City Council’s decision on Wednesday, April 17 marked a big step forward. But optimism on the part of lifelong residents might not be the most practical emotion.
(“Like” the Facebook page now. It’ll look good later when you apply to live there.)
COLD WATER BATH OF FACTS AND FIGURES
A group called The Michaels Organization is one of the principal entities taking the helm on this project, according to the LA Times. They’re responsible for the reimagining of the Robert Taylor Homes project in Chicago’s Bronzeville. As you might, expect, rents in the area have since gone up, quite a bit. The adjacent South Loop neighborhood now includes the third fastest gentrifying neighborhood in America, and from the 2000s to the teens, the percentage of whites in the 60604 area code went from 37.7 to 75.4.
The problem for developers trying to gentrify Watts is going to be the promise the city has made to maintain a “1:1 ratio,” with regard to subsidized rent. Currently all 700 units are being rented out at housing-project prices, and when construction is completed, 700 of the 1,100 new units are ostensibly still going to be subsidized. The fuzzy part in the middle raises three major questions: What will those subsidized rents be? Who will be paying them? Will these subsidized tenants be the same lifelong tenants currently living in Jordan Downs?
As a city in 2013, you have to partner with a private sector that hasn’t heard words like “our first priority is to protect families from homelessness” since the Carter administration.
Still, NPR’s piece on this redevelopment makes it clear that at least on paper, the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles (HACLA) wants this to go differently than Chicago, where in some areas, like Cabrini Green, 80 percent of the low-income population got nudged out in favor of those willing to pay a premium for the proximity to downtown and nearby rapid transit stops. Unfortunately Watts is a similar situation in too many respects. In fact, LA Housing Authority Chief Executive Douglas Guthrie worked on the Cabrini Green redevelopment. It’s hard to see this going too differently.
In other words, history teaches us that when your dilapidated housing project gets revitalized, you do not get to stay unless you stop being very poor.
SEPARATING THE POOR FROM THE VERY POOR
The new residents paying market rates for rent will only have to live side by side with the more savory, less scary, poor. The language the city is using is that all residents “in good standing,” will be allowed to stay, but it sounds as though residents in bad standing are only recently hearing about it.
What members of community outreach group SHIELDS For Families who were on site at Jordan Downs when I visited explained is that a “new enforcement of old rules,” seems to be getting people evicted now. After a lifetime of bad housekeeping, residents are newly subject to inspections for cleanliness, and then evicted if a certain standard isn’t maintained. The longstanding ban on pets, which in the past was (anecdotally) an unenforced guideline, is now also grounds for eviction after a warning. SHIELDS For Families is on the ground trying to help residents not get evicted as all this unfolds.
SHIELDS For Families Outreach Workers
Surprise evictions also come from the zero-tolerance rule for harboring fugitives. In a neighborhood with a drug problem, this means that in the likely event that someone staying in your house is involved in the drug trade in some way, or just using heavily enough to leave paraphernalia around, heavier enforcement could mean you’re out on your ass if they get caught. One strike. The end.
WHY SOME POOR AND NOT OTHERS?
John King, Policy and Planning Director for Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles explained to me:
“HACLA has a Flat Rent policy, which sets rents at a level below market rate but higher than the average rent which is about $300. This allows families who have relatively higher incomes to stay in public housing should they so choose. Therefore we currently have someone paying $100 per month for a 3 bedroom living next to someone paying $948 per month for a 3 bedroom.”
Mr. King also wanted to emphasize that the new “market rate” units are going to be “market rate for Watts.” Naturally, he points out, “it won’t be the market rate for Santa Monica.”
SPEAKING AS A GENTRIFIER...
Mr. King may not realize it, but I, for one, would rather live in Watts than Santa Monica. I’m like the guy in the Onion’s fake op-ed from 2006 with the headline “Sometimes I Feel Like I'm the Only One Trying to Gentrify this Neighborhood.” I’m a white guy who only likes small, nervous dogs, and despises yuppies.
Of course, Metro ads for Watts focus entirely on the Watts Towers, Simon Rodia’s deranged wonderland, a spot often visited and photographed with Holgas and parent-purchased DSLRs. What PR operation could ever include the hideous blight of Jordan Downs?
But as an alternative to homelessness, I could see myself falling in love with this place.
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