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“Transit Revolution”: Will Los Angeles Become Gentrification Ground Zero?

The tension between improving LA’s public transit infrastructure while not driving families out of their neighborhoods is ongoing.

Studies from around the country show that as public transit improves, housing costs in the surrounding area rise, and low-income residents, often in communities of color, are priced out. (Photo: Oran Viriyincy)

In diverse, working-class neighborhoods across Los Angeles, an unprecedented $40 billion mass transit expansion is being met with mixed emotions. On the one hand, low-income residents are by far public transit’s biggest users, and expanded transit routes promise greater mobility and better access to job opportunities. But the very real prospect of displacement and gentrification looms. Studies from around the country show that as public transit improves, housing costs in the surrounding area rise, and low-income residents, often in communities of color, are priced out.

Already, large new developments of market rate and luxury housing are coming to areas in LA near new rail stations under the idea of “Transit Oriented Development,” or what is commonly referred to as TOD. TOD seeks to build more housing near transit hubs and is a major strategy in combating LA’s infamous traffic issues and greenhouse gas emissions.

However, a new white paper just released by the Alliance for Community Transit -LA (ACT LA), warns that without significant, ahead of the curve, affordable housing policies, low income residents who ride transit will be replaced by higher-income, multiple car owning households who are less frequent transit users. This would be devastating for LA’s communities, posing serious economic and health risks to people who must leave their neighborhood support systems, as well as self-defeating to the entire point of expanding the transit system and focusing on TOD: increasing transit use.

But if it adopts a forward-thinking strategy, Los Angeles can address housing needs, link quality jobs to the transit build out, and protect existing small businesses from rising rents and competition from chain stores. These will be key factors in ensuring longtime residents are able to afford to stay living near transit and are not pushed out to the margins of the city without access to the transit system that their tax dollars funded.

Various community organizations have done extraordinary work in their neighborhoods to address the prospect of rising land values and gentrification around new transit stations. One example is the youth organizing done by the Southeast Asian Community Alliance in Chinatown, where high school students worked with policy and urban planning experts to come up with innovative new development standards. The resulting plan prioritizes low income housing for new development in a huge area that borders Chinatown’s Metro station. The students, over a three-year campaign, were able to build enough momentum for a victory at City Hall and their plan – called the Cornfield Arroyo Seco Specific Plan (CASP) – was recently touted by the Los Angeles Times as “a model for LA planning.” Other community organizing around TOD projects, for example in Little Tokyo or in South LA near the Blue and Expo Lines, have resulted in strong community benefit agreements. But given the intensive resources that go into working on the project-by-project level and the sheer scale of the current transit expansion, it is clear that a citywide approach is necessary.

This is especially true when some of the current land use policies moving forward at the city level are taking LA in the wrong direction. The Master Planned Development (MPD) ordinance, for example, which would fast track massive developments while requiring very little in the way of housing and employment policies and other community benefits that serve existing communities, was recently passed by the City Planning Commission and is moving toward the City Council for adoption.

Given the scale of the climate change crisis and the urgent need for cities to move away from car dependency, LA’s leadership in ensuring core transit riders are able to live near transit will have implications for cities across the country that are facing similar issues.

One thing is absolutely clear: LA is at a major crossroads. City residents of all income levels must be involved in making decisions about what the city will look like in ten years. Only then will LA be able to establish the transit system it needs – a system that is accessible to its thriving communities of transit riders.

Read the white paper here.

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