“We love the students,” says Monic Uriarte, a community health promoter with the nonprofit Esperanza Community Housing Corporation as she leads the way along 36th Place near the University of Southern California. “Students have joined our coalition. Unfortunately, a lot of residents see students as the competition for housing because we are being displaced.” Uriarte is one of the Esperanza staff working with the Figueroa Corridor Coalition for Economic Justice on the UNIDAD (United Neighbors in Defense Against Displacement) campaign and she knows the problem well having surveyed neighborhoods around the campus going door to door to map changes in ownership and tenancy.
Now on 36th Place, building after building stands in silent testimony: placards designating student housing where families once lived; schools renting out or closing classrooms because the children the classrooms were built for have had to move away; “for rent” signs that used to be bilingual or in Spanish now displaying contact information for Property Management Associates, a business that rents exclusively to students; the congregation dwindling at St. Mark’s Lutheran. For a while, churchgoers continued to return here to worship, Uriarte says, but family by family they’ve stopped coming back.
The issue needs to be addressed now, says Uriarte, as USC’s University Park Master Plan moves forward with proposed housing, hotel, and retail development for university-owned property which will bring with it development in the surrounding area. The Figueroa Corridor Coalition wants to unite all stakeholders in seeking a transparent urban-planning process and a commitment to preserving low-cost housing, small businesses, and community identity by holding City, developers, and property-holders accountable for their actions. “We don’t blame USC,” she says, adding that the university is planning to build additional student housing with beds for 5,400 students but even that will provide space for only a tiny percentage of the 35,000 enrollment. “The problem isn’t USC, it’s the real estate speculators, but they come in because the students are here and create the market.”
USC used to tell students it wasn’t safe to live north of Adams, says Uriarte, but as she drove through the streets north of Adams and east of Figueroa, buildings in this area sported ubiquitous student housing signs and the area is so heavily populated now by students that the university runs a shuttle service to get them to and from the campus. Workmen are improving the buildings that suffered neglect for years while families lived there. “People have said to us, ‘Why didn’t you buy your own homes? Then they couldn’t displace you.’” This is why the community has to organize, says Uriarte, to be heard so people in power understand what it means to work minimum wage jobs, to struggle to support a family. “It’s easy to exploit people who are tenants instead of owners and who have difficulty expressing themselves in English.”
While her employer, nonprofit Esperanza Community Housing, owns and operates 12 properties in the area with 165 rental units, Uriarte says the waiting list is a long one and the law prohibits their giving priority to the displaced so the need for affordable housing is acute.
According to Uriarte, speculators aren’t just driving out longtime residents but taking advantage of the students, too. “Where a family used to rent a house, or apartments used to be rented as one-bedroom or two-bedroom, now the property-owners rent by the bed.” She says students pay between $500 and up around $2,000 to share a bedroom with others, with the highest prices charged for housing within walking distance, and students must pay a whole year’s rent even though they aren’t in residence for 12 months.
University Gateway Apartments, a private development of 421 furnished units just opened at South Figueroa and Jefferson offering a luxury alternative to dormitory life. But not every student can afford the lease and Monic understands why students–even those with resources–would want to live in the neighborhood. “One student said to me she could afford to live at Gateway, but she felt empty there. Here, when she comes home at night, the neighbor is looking for her. We have a community and that makes her feel protected, that somebody cares about her.” But as longtime residents are driven out, the qualities that make the neighborhood attractive are being driven out too. “It’s not healthy to live just with students,” says Monic. “A community should have children and older people. It’s healthy to live with variety.”
The last statement is typical of Uriarte’s expansive view of health and why a “health promoter” is now working in the urban planning field. “This is something I never understood about the United States,” says Uriarte who was born in Sinaloa, Mexico. “As promotora in Mexico, you do everything. You teach literacy, you deliver babies, you give inoculations. In this country, we mutilate ourselves. You cut pieces off. You go to a home and say, ‘Oh, my grant only allows me to talk to you about asthma. If you have diabetes, you need a promotora with a diabetes education grant.’ Everything is kept separate, but I don’t see community health that way.”
She also sees a future when zoning will protect the neighborhood’s character, when “USC will say, If your family is displaced, we will give a scholarship to your children. We will help subsidize your housing.” Monic Uriarte sighs and smiles. “Yes, I am a dreamer.”
Diane Lefer’s new book, The Blessing Next to the Wound, has just been published. Co-authored with Hector Aristizábal, it is a true story of surviving torture and civil war and seeking change (including change in how we treat our youth) through action.