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Saving Public Redevelopment Agencies

Alvaro Huerta: I don’t blame Gov. Brown for seeking creative ways to save California from financial bankruptcy. The state budget, however, should not be balanced on the backs of the less fortunate—those who directly benefit from public redevelopment agencies to revitalize their communities.

As an urban planning scholar who grew up in a blighted area, East Los Angeles’ Ramona Housing Gardens project, I am against Governor Jerry Brown’s plan to eliminate the California Redevelopment Agency (CRA) and raid its coffers. If Brown prevails, we will also see the demise of numerous public redevelopment agencies throughout the state, setting a bad precedent for the country.

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Given that Brown is desperately attempting to clean up former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s mess, where the action hero relied on massive borrowing and other chicanery to balance the budget, I don’t blame the new governor for seeking creative ways to save California from financial bankruptcy. The state budget, however, should not be balanced on the backs of the less fortunate—those who directly benefit from public redevelopment agencies to revitalize their communities. This includes racial minorities, immigrants and other working class people who live in blighted communities in desperate need of transformative, urban redevelopment efforts.

In general terms, public redevelopment agencies exist to meet the needs of the public where the private markets fail. While individual entrepreneurs and corporations respond to profits and the bottom line, public redevelopment officials and agencies, in theory, respond to the public interest. Since it’s not in the self-interest of private market actors to create public parks, community facilities and affordable housing units in America’s barrios and ghettos, there’s a great need for redevelopment agencies to meet the public’s needs.

As public goods, for example, parks can’t exclude individuals from enjoying all the benefits that green open spaces have to offer. Thus, if not for public redevelopment agencies and locally designated funds, we all suffer from the pleasures of spending a Saturday morning at the park without worrying about spending $20 for parking and forking out an exaggerated entrance fee for entertainment activities, especially during this Great Recession.

By simply viewing the websites of redevelopment agencies in California and beyond, we can learn more about the role of local redevelopment agencies and their multi-million dollar projects in the areas of affordable housing, mixed-income housing, commercial / retail, industrial, community facility, open space / parks, public facilities and public improvement projects. These projects represent key economic activity for municipalities in terms of creating jobs, luring businesses, promoting tourism and improving the built environment.

However, if public redevelopment agencies aim to get the public in their corner for this important fight, the leaders need to do a better job of incorporating the general public in all areas of their operations and programs. For instance, in order to get community members to buy into the mission of public redevelopment agencies, officials and commissioners should hold town-hall meetings in underserved communities. These meetings should occur on weekends in places where community members can easily access them, like public schools, libraries and community centers.

Not only should translation be available at these public meetings, catering to the specific ethnic area, but public meetings should also be conducted in a language accessible to average community members and not simply to special interests, such as lobbyists, contractors and lawyers. What’s the point of inviting the general public to a meeting, if you need an advanced urban planning degree or law degree to understand the technical and bureaucratic language that dominate these meetings at the local, statewide and national level?

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Overall, there should be a bottom-up approach to planning when it comes to public redevelopment efforts, where impacted community members play a major role to identify the problems in their neighborhoods and participate in the overall process of designing livable communities without displacing the most vulnerable populations. This includes having community members serve as commissioners. On a positive note, in the case of the City of Los Angeles, I must say that the recent appoint of a civil rights activist and lawyer, Victor Narro, as a new commissioner to the local redevelopment agency, represents a positive and progressive move on Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s behalf.

Too often, unfortunately, the improvement of blighted communities translates into gentrification, where privileged outsiders displace long-term residents, especially in areas where Latinos and African Americans reside. This needs to stop. We should find create ways to improve the physical environment in poor communities without forcing out those individuals and families with the least resources to relocate.

In order to fully support local redevelopment agencies against Governor Brown’s plan, we need to learn lessons from the dark history of controversial urban redevelopment projects. As part of the urban renewal movement of the last century, for example, public officials and private interests colluded to displace a vibrant Latino community, Chavez Ravine, in order to build a baseball stadium in 1959 and bring a major league baseball to Los Angeles: The Dodgers.

Actually, we don’t need to go back that far to uncover the special interests behind many of these lucrative deals at the expense of the powerless. While at a smaller scale, public officials and privates interests colluded, once again, to displace hundreds of Latino residents from their apartments in downtown Los Angeles to build the Staples Center in 1998 and attract a major basketball team to Los Angeles: The Lakers. And let’s not forget the Clippers and Kings.

Speaking of these world-famous professional teams, I wonder if the displaced renters can even afford to attend a sporting event at Staples Center? It is nice, after all, for individuals and families to visit their old neighborhoods. Do the poor also have the right to become nostalgic of their past residential experiences? While the rich may have disdain towards cheap rentals, for the poor, an overcrowded apartment has value beyond the material conditions. I should know, since I too grew up in abject poverty and, I must say, still miss my childhood friends from the projects. The place we call “home” doesn’t determine our self-worth!

That being said, in a time when municipalities need more resources to rebound from this economic downturn, we need to rally behind local redevelopment agencies to keep much needed funds and projects in cities like Los Angeles—the nation’s second largest city. The fact that Latinos constitute half of Los Angeles’ population also makes this a civil rights issue.

Alvaro Huerta

In short, the public should ONLY support public redevelopment agencies under the condition that those in power serve in the public interest, instead of the status quo.

Alvaro Huerta