As Long Beach Luxury Development Booms, the Poor Get Left Behind

Thursday, December 13, 2018
Joshua Frank
OC Weekly

It was a stifling mid-August afternoon when Jennifer learned she had until the end of the year to move out of her cramped studio apartment in the East Village of downtown Long Beach. She suspected the eviction was coming. For the past year, she had been looking for a new place as her landlord slowly remodeled her modest building, the place she’s called home for more than 13 years. He knew she could not pay the increase in rent, so he told her it was time to go. Jennifer, who is in her 50s, qualified for Section 8 low-income housing and searched futilely for an opening in the area. There was nothing she could afford to live in and not a single Section 8 apartment was vacant.

Five years ago, Jennifer lost mobility in her right leg because of diabetes. Confined to a wheelchair, she still managed to take classes at Cerritos College and work a part-time job. She slogged her way around town on the bus and never complained that her apartment was located up a narrow flight of wooden stairs. She simply collapsed her wheelchair and scooted her rear end up each step to her front door, making the trip more than once if she had groceries or extra bags to bring in. Her daughter used to help with the rent and daily chores, but she left Long Beach three years ago to attend a trade school on the East Coast. “It would have been better to be on the first floor, but I couldn’t afford to move,” Jennifer says. “I’ve been searching for a place to live, a unit that can accommodate my wheelchair and kitties, but I can’t find a single one, anywhere. My landlord sent me listings to Section 8 places, but they are ones I’ve already called about that don’t really exist. I’ll probably end up sleeping in an RV.”

I’ve known Jennifer for seven years, as well as the building she’s being forced to move out of. The landlords are an older couple who live in a well-to-do area of Long Beach, and according to public documents, they bought the rental building more than 20 years ago. The owners did not respond to several requests to be interviewed, but tenants believe they are nearing retirement age and may sell the apartment complex in the near future.

Jennifer’s rent of $700 is well below the current market value for the area, which has been rising almost remorselessly for the past four years. Once Jennifer and her two cats are out, her unit’s new cost could exceed $1,200, which is $200 more than her entire monthly budget. She’s in a definite bind, one created by her own misfortune, a housing market gone wild and a city that has virtually no protections for renters.

“If I can’t find a place, I’m going to be homeless. I won’t have a choice,” she confesses, as she stands in a litter-strewn alley below her bedroom window. “If I’m living on the street in an RV, will you promise not to call the cops on me?”

“We don’t believe that rent control works or is the right solution,” Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia bluntly stated in January during a community meeting held at the Art Theater. “Just look at rent-controlled cities like San Francisco, the most expensive market in the country.”

With his jet black hair and made-for-TV grin, the stylish Garcia—who says he despises President Donald Trump and advertises his liberal credentials on his lively Twitter feed—is by all accounts a pro-growth, corporate Democrat and proud of it. Some might even call him a free-market neoliberal when it comes to his attitudes toward urban development and housing. In an April piece for The New York Times that touted the $3.5 billion of construction flooding Long Beach, Garcia championed the myriad of changes taking place in the downtown corridor, but he failed to mention any of the development’s negative impacts, such as the displacement of some of the city’s more vulnerable residents who can’t keep up with the rising rents. Much of Long Beach’s new development money is being funneled into luxury housing projects, thousands of units of which are currently planned or under construction. “The downtown is being reborn and re-created . . . and I’m really excited about the transformation,” Garcia boasted.

Garcia and fellow opponents of rent control may point to San Francisco’s high rental costs as a failure, but advocates counter that, while not perfect, rent control has largely worked in that city despite industry-created loopholes and speculator abuse, noting that even data in a study critical of the practice conducted by three Stanford professors showed that “rent control increased the probability a renter stayed at their address by close to 20 percent.” Keeping renters in their homes, say rent control’s proponents, is exactly what the protections are designed to accomplish.

However, the future of increased rent control in the state is uncertain. Voters across California rejected Proposition 10 last month, which would have allowed cities to expand local ordinances.

In 2012, the Long Beach City Council passed an expansion of the Downtown Plan, which mapped out development for 725 acres in the city’s urban core. The update helped to fast-track development by removing certain environmental reviews from the permitting process. Josh Butler, executive director of Housing Long Beach, and others opposed the plan on the grounds it could displace as many as 20,000 residents and increase traffic pollution. At the time, Garcia was a councilman and voted in favor of the development plan. He also opposed a motion put forth by Councilwoman Gerrie Schipske that would have set aside 10 percent of new apartments for low-income residents. “The Downtown Plan put the gas pedal down on gentrification and never looked back,” says Butler.

Data in a 2018 report by the Downtown Long Beach Alliance (DLBA) reveals that of the over 33,000 residents that lived in the city’s downtown, 59% reside in households that bring in less than $50,000 a year, which qualifies as very low-income according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Additionally, DLBA notes that since 2014, rental rates in downtown have gone up an average of 18%.

For the residents in our region who qualify as Extremely Low Income (ELIs), or households whose income is 30% below the median income line, affordable housing is severely lacking. According to data released in July by the National Low Income Housing Coalition, the Los Angeles/Long Beach area has a meager 17 affordable and available rental units per 100 ELIs. That means that over 80% of people in need of low rent are shit out of luck. An untold number end up living on the street.

By its own accounting, Long Beach is lagging grossly behind in the number of low-to-moderate income housing the city ought to be providing its poorer residents. In 2014, the city government adopted its General Plan, which included a Housing Element goal for affordable housing units. The Plan recommends a total of 4,009 units to be built by 2022. As of 2017, the city had only permitted 322 units. At this pace, Long Beach, on Mayor Garcia’s watch, will fall far short of reaching its own modest affordable housing goals. On the flip side, Long Beach is constructing thousands of market-rate units, most of which are located in the downtown area.

Garcia’s housing policy openly adheres to the “filtering theory,” which is akin to the trickle-down economic theory infamously promoted by President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s and has been more recently endorsed by Trump and the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party. In an interview with the Long Beach Business Journal in August 2017, Garcia, while admitting the city needs more affordable housing, also embraced the notion that construction of market-rate housing will eventually trickle down to those in need. “The only way to address affordable housing is to build housing of all types. . . . We’re building a lot of market-rate housing because you get folks into those homes, which then open up other homes that can be affordable,” he said.

The “filtering theory” has been directly challenged by researchers, most recently at UC Berkeley’s Institute for Policy Government Studies, which noted that in a city such as San Francisco, it would take at least 30 years for “filtering” to produce anything considered affordable. Additionally, the researchers argue, massive construction of market-rate housing would immediately accelerate rent increases in urban areas, adding that their analysis shows “subsidized housing has double the impact of market-rate development” in mitigating displacement. In short, new housing built for the more affluent doesn’t help poorer renters who are in need of assistance today. Housing advocates argue this data is proof Long Beach ought to be focusing on affordable and not market-rate housing if the city is going to protect its existing, lower-income residents.

Butler points out that Long Beach has the largest population of renters from San Diego to Seattle that lack any form of protections. If a popular Democrat such as Garcia, who was re-elected this year by 79 percent of voters, can’t get behind measures to protect his city’s renters, Butler wonders, what elected official will? “It’s a total crisis,” says Butler. “The city isn’t doing nearly enough to protect its longtime residents.”

Today, Long Beach landlords are only required to provide tenants with a 60-day notice of eviction for those who have been in their units for more than a year and a 30-day notice for renters who have lived in their residences for less than that. As long as renters are paying rent month to month, landlords can kick them out without any reason. Housing Long Beach is fighting to stop this by pressing the city to pass a Responsible Renter’s Ordinance, also known as a “just-cause eviction.” While it’s not rent control, the law—which is already on the books in large cities such as Chicago, Seattle and Oakland—is meant to stem the tide of mass evictions.

A more robust rent-control initiative launched by Butler’s group failed to garner enough signatures to qualify for the the November ballot after an intense anti-rent-control campaign was waged by a handful of worried property owners who feared the measure would cut into their profit margins. The attacks on the initiative were spearheaded by Keith Kennedy, president of the Small Property Owners Alliance, a group he formed to combat the community’s push for renters’ rights. “Unfortunately, certain special interest groups are using this opportunity to push radical, destructive and reactionary price-fixing policies that will help to turn back the city to . . . bleaker years,” Kennedy wrote in an op-ed for The Grunion. “Our local officials have wisely resisted rent control, and our organization will continue to work to ensure they embrace competition over destructive regulations.”

Kennedy, who is a landlord in Long Beach, isn’t the only one pushing back against renters organizing to protect their interests and fight the rising rents. Joani Weir, who owns a downtown rental complex, founded Better Housing for Long Beach, an astroturfing group that doesn’t so much advocate for better housing, but rather opposes all efforts to enact rent control and eviction protections. In KCET’s City Rising, a documentary that investigates the driving forces behind gentrification in California, Weir informs a room of agreeable onlookers that “renters have more rights than property owners.”

“That’s a fabricated narrative,” counters Susanne Browne, a senior attorney for Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles who has worked on housing and land-use issues in Long Beach for more than 20 years. “From my first-hand experience working with tenants, I can assure you that [Weir’s assertion is] unequivocally 100 percent false. We’re in the midst of an absolute housing catastrophe and renters in Long Beach have virtually no rights or protections.”

During the push to place rent control on Long Beach’s city ballot this year, Weir’s organization was accused of meddling with the signature gathering by employing real-life trolls, as well as passing out racially charged fliers in opposition to the measure. Weir denies the allegations.

“The whole experience was pretty disheartening,” admits Butler. “The tactics to disrupt our signature efforts were unlike anything I’d ever seen. It got very dirty very fast.”

The quaint neighborhood on the east side of St. Anthony High School is quintessential urban Long Beach. Bungalow craftsman homes are surrounded by older apartment complexes with sun-faded paint. Bars remain on some windows, remnants of a bygone era when this part of town was haunted by gang violence and petty theft. Most of the people who live on this stretch of Lime Avenue are renters; some remember the old days and appreciate the changes, but they are wary of what the future may hold.

It’s mid-September and nearly 90 degrees at 7 p.m. A fresh hint of marijuana floats by as I stroll down the sidewalk. Two stray cats wrestle in a front yard before scurrying for cover under a parked work truck. Mumbling under his breath, an older black gentleman with a graying beard pushes a shopping cart full of bottles and cans across the middle of the intersection as a car honks in annoyance. Nearby, a group of boys bounce a tennis ball back and forth, while one of their mothers plays video poker on her smartphone, wishing the small fortune she had accumulated was real.

The mother, Rosa, who is in her late-20s, brought her children out to the street to escape the stale humidity in their apartment. The family has one rickety air-conditioning unit jangling out the bedroom window, but it doesn’t do much good, she says; it only circulates hot air and sucks up too much electricity. They are on a budget these days. Rosa, who grew up in the South Bay, says her young family has lived in the one-bedroom apartment for three years, and even though she feels at home in this colorful community, she fears it might not last for much longer.

“Rents are going crazy,” she says, pointing to a “For Rent” sign on the building next door, which is asking $1,250 for a studio—an apartment that just two years ago would have gone for $800 or less. “If ours goes any higher, we’ll have to move out. My husband and I both work, but it’s not enough. We’ll probably end up with family in Carson.”

Rents are going up fast everywhere in Long Beach. Just two blocks north of Lime Avenue lives Dione McCrea, who saw her one-bedroom apartment climb last spring from $1,050 to $2,000 and was given 60 days to decide if she could pay the increase. If she couldn’t pay the new cost, her property manager told her, she’d have to pack it up. “In my building, there were four units—everyone got an increase,” says McCrea, who described her building as dilapidated and in need of major updates. “The total property was 11 units, and everyone got varying increases unless they had been there less than a year. A family with 6-year-old triplets was even forced out and relocated to Anaheim.”

After McCrea was given the ultimatum by her landlord, Eric Kessler of West Hollywood, she texted him, complaining the increase was unfounded and unfair. “Can’t raise rents after rent control passes,” Kessler tersely responded via text message. “You are welcome to get a roommate and charge whatever you want to them.”

McCrea moved out. She wasn’t willing to share the apartment or put up with Kessler’s antics; plus, she says, the increase was way more than market rate.

Off East Fourth Street and Redondo Avenue, Jeremy Rodriguez was served a 60-day notice to vacate in early November, when his one-year lease was up. Despite always paying his rent on time and never having been in trouble with his landlord, he was provided no reason for the eviction and offered no option to stay. Rodriguez, who manages a craft-beer tasting room in Long Beach, is now forced to find a new place for his child, girlfriend and small dog in the middle of the hectic holiday season.

After speaking with dozens of longtime renters throughout Long Beach, it’s clear there is a sense of trepidation about their living situations, especially among those who fear they can’t afford any type of rent increase, the costs associated with moving or a hefty deposit on a new place. Salaries have not kept up with rising inflation. “It’s totally stressful to find out it’s your home one day and not the next,” says Rodriguez. “Thankfully, some friends who have a truck and a garage are helping us out so we can slowly pack up and prepare to move. Everyone isn’t so lucky.”

Angel George, who grew up in Pittsburg and has lived in Long Beach for the past five years, says she might be an introvert, but she’s no pushover, especially when she feels someone has been wronged.

Last June, George was served a 60-day notice to vacate her studio apartment in Long Beach’s Wrigley Village, but she wasn’t having it. The 12-unit building had been sold, and a new group of owners was planning to renovate the units and increase the rent. George pre-empted her eviction by paying her August rent online, which was erroneously accepted, forcing the building’s property-management company, WestStar, to give her another 60 days. When she attempted to pay her September rent, it was immediately refunded, so she took matters into her own hands and organized six of her fellow tenants to go on “rent strike.”

Her bold move was not without risk. George and her neighbors could have been served an Unlawful Detainer, which would have prompted a court hearing and likely resulted in their physical removal by the LA County Sheriff’s Department. “I understand this is a business, but we are people,” says George. “We weren’t about to just let them steamroll us.”

The rent strike made a bit of a splash in the local news, and soon after, the building’s tenants were contacted by WestStar via email to set up a meeting to discuss their concerns.

That meeting, which took place in September, was attended by a representative of WestStar, its attorney and one of the building’s owners, Nathan Levine-Heaney, who is a Los Angeles-based cinematographer, as well as the rent-striking tenants. “[Levine-Heaney] said he was unaware of all of these issues and it was not his intention to have it go this far,” says George, who recalls telling them, “This could have been all avoided if you guys would have come to us when you first took over the building and said, ‘Hey, this is what is going on, this is what the new rent prices are going to be. Can you guys do it; do you want to sign new leases?’”

Levine-Heaney and WestStar did not respond to requests to be interviewed.

For his part, George says, Levine-Heaney was receptive and helped to negotiate a solution for each of the striking residents. George agreed to move into another unit in the building and pay the increased rent in exchange for a two-year lease. Others were offered cash for keys to help them with relocation costs.

According to Butler, strikes such as the one organized by George are likely to become more frequent. “Desperate times call for desperate measures,” he says, adding that rent strikes are of a more a cry for help than a real policy solution.

“Long Beach has a great opportunity to leverage the county’s Measure H dollars, which are for wrap-around services for homelessness and homeless prevention. If Measure H was coupled with a local housing construction bond, it would create a powerful tool,” says Browne. “In addition, private developers should be required to do their part to address the housing crisis with robust inclusionary-housing requirements, developer-impact fees and no-net-loss policies.”

Garcia doesn’t entirely agree. In a September interview with the Long Beach Business Journal, the mayor pondered, “Could a bond help us achieve [more affordable housing]? It could, but I think that bonds are complex, and they require two-thirds of the population to vote for them. That’s a hard lift for Long Beach. I’m glad that that’s not something anyone rushed into. I think that would have been a mistake.”

Even so, advocates believe rushing to fix Long Beach’s housing crisis is exactly what needs to happen.

George looks back on her ordeal as an emotional roller coaster that is “not for the faint of heart.” Nonetheless, she says, the experience has transformed her. She doesn’t intend to stop speaking out any time soon, even if few in city government are listening. Last month, George took her case before the City Council and pleaded for them to work on protecting renters such as herself. As George began telling her story, Garcia “got up and left,” causing her to speculate, “Is that the kind of leadership Long Beach needs right now?”

That’s a question Long Beach voters will likely address if Garcia runs for re-election in four years. In the meantime, however, advocates such as Browne and Butler and a growing number of fed-up residents will keep pushing for reforms, especially those that help to increase affordable-housing development in the city and protect them from out-of-control rents. The City Council continues to discuss renter-protection measures, but nothing formal has been announced.

“The crisis is changing the fabric of our city,” says Browne. “We should be working to protect Long Beach’s existing, long-term residents instead of trying to attract new ones with luxury developments.”

FAIR USE NOTICE. Tenants Together is not the author of this article and the posting of this document does not imply any endorsement of the content by Tenants Together. This document may contain copyrighted material the use of which may not have been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Tenants Together is making this article available on our website in an effort to advance the understanding of tenant rights issues in California. We believe that this constitutes a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the U.S. Copyright Law. If you wish to use this copyrighted material for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use,' you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.

Help build power for renters' rights: