STEPHEN CARR — STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Long Beach residents in an apartment in the 600 block of Linden Avenue worry that rents will rise due to gentrification of the area.
Long Beach resident Paula Lopez lives in an apartment in the 600 block of Linden Avenue. She lives in the one bedroom apartment with her husband and three children. Viola worries that her rent will rise due to the gentrification of the area. Long Beach Long Beach Calif., Thursday, August ,18, 2016. (Photo by Stephen Carr / Daily Breeze)
Near the corner of Linden Avenue and East Sixth Street in Long Beach, a decades-old apartment building, with a skirt of dead grass out front and a back laundry room with piles of dead flies, slouches in the shadow of a building with new lofts offering wood-style plank floors and pendant lights.
A one-room apartment in the 1963-built Linden building goes for $795 a month. A studio in the other building, a mere few steps down the alley past an overflowing dumpster, fetches $1,650 a month.
As the landscape of the neighborhood changes, residents in the Linden building such as Paula Lopez, who sells handmade tamales and lives with another adult and three kids, fear new property ownership will translate to rising rents and eventual eviction, as investors in the area look to spruce up buildings and collect more money from higher-income tenants.
Lopez’s building sold earlier this year.
“We have major concerns that they’re suddenly going to kick us out,” Lopez said through a Spanish translator.
The scene continues to play out in neighborhoods throughout the downtown area of Long Beach, with repeating dialogue overheard in Santa Ana, Santa Monica, Oakland and other cities. Officials prefer to talk about the wonders of “development and revitalization,” while affordable housing advocates bemoan “gentrification and displacement.”
Josh Butler, executive director of the nonprofit Housing Long Beach, is conversant in the debate.
“If you stand from a position of wanting to increase your tax base, it’s great,” Butler said. “If you stand from a position of being a low-income resident who’s been living in Long Beach for 30 years, you see displacement. The building seller wins. The person who bought the building is the winner, if they play their hand right. But the tenant is the loser.”
‘Not going to stop’
As one follows Pine Avenue south to the shore, rents hit the $2,600 mark for two-bedroom apartments near Fourth Street and then balloon to $3,150 when heading east on Broadway toward Long Beach Boulevard, according to zillow.com, a real estate and rental website.
As the city for two decades made over the area with a variety of entertainment options, new boutiques, craft beer bars and restaurants serving less meatloaf and more duck confit, word got out and neighbors from other Southern California cities came in.
Indeed, demand has met money, as professionals, hipsters and young people with means have scooped up apartments that, while too pricey for many native renters, are still cheaper than units in many parts of the Los Angeles area, such as Koreatown and Echo Park, which have seen explosive growth in property values and rental prices.
Downtown Long Beach Associates, a business improvement district charged with improving downtown Long Beach’s business climate, in its 2016 economic profile categorizes one group of residents as “enterprising professionals,” who make up 18.1 percent of the area. They are typically near 35 years old and earn about $77,000 a year in median household income.
Its “trendsetters” category makes up 14.2 percent of the area population, is just over 35 and earns about $51,000 annually in median household income.
Both groups are identified as renters, and the demand is so great that Eric J. Christopher, a senior investment associate with Inco Commercial, a Long Beach-based brokerage firm, said that in some parts of the city offers are pouring in on rentals, with many apartment hunters renting sight unseen.
“There’s been an overall increase in demand in the last 18 to 24 months, and now a growth in fundamentals, which is income, and that’s not going to stop,” Christopher said.
Most apartment complexes in Long Beach were built between 1900 and 1990 and contain between 5 and 50 units; Christopher said their average rent has risen from $1,205 to $1,495 in the past two years.
Christopher said Long Beach is experiencing a perfect storm of economic factors: low interest rates on building sales, the prices of buildings rising as landlords increase rent, and a large population of renters who can’t afford a down payment and mortgage on single-family homes.
“We’ve got career renters that are built into this market,” Christopher said. “Without some undue change, and being silly in lending 100 percent of the home, you’re going to have a built-in rental market that’s never going away.”
‘Part of the marketing’
Gentrification is in the eye of the beholder, according to Oliver Wang, an associate professor of sociology at Cal State Long Beach. What people are talking about when they use the word isn’t often clear. It may refer to the early stage when a developer buys property and bets on a boom in new businesses, Wang said.
The primary driving economic force behind gentrification is property value speculation, when developers and investors see opportunities and start pouring in hundreds of millions of dollars, Wang said.
“There’s a sense that the neighborhood is changing,” Wang said. “Oftentimes, they use that phrase in a vague way, but what they mean is, people don’t look like us.”
Gentrified neighborhoods are typically neighborhoods once marked by a lack of services and government funding, poor schools and high crime. But when the investors come in, the services, shops and amenities follow, as do the higher rents as the area becomes more coveted, Wang said.
And cities rebrand the neighborhood, not only to draw in new residents with deeper pockets but visitors looking to discover new bars and shops.
“What you’re selling to people is the veneer of the neighborhood, and when you’re able to successfully do that, more people want to go there, live there,” Wang said. “It drives up the cost of the real estate, which is good for the property owner and good for the city.”
From ‘druggies’ to art
The downtown area in the mid-1990s stood out in the city as a place still infected by high crime. From 1995 to 1997, the downtown area, then home to just 3.5 percent of Long Beach’s population, accounted for 25 percent of all crimes reported in the city.
However, city and community leaders had already launched efforts to “clean up” downtown neighborhoods and capitalize on the urban renaissance that was taking shape around the county.
One spot was the East Village, which was rebranded as the East Village Arts District. Bounded by Long Beach and Ocean boulevards, Alamitos Avenue and Seventh Street, the area was home to an arts colony in the 1920s and 1930s, but by the early 1990s few artists lived in the area.
“People were afraid to come out of their homes because of all the druggies, the crazies,” said Jim Brophy, president of October 5 Fine Home Builders, and former president of the East Village Association. “There was a guy walking down the middle of Broadway swinging a crowbar at cars. Every morning you had hypodermic needles in the gutter and on benches. You had the older people living in the Lafayette and Cooper Arms who were trapped in their apartments, and at the same time you had an influx of immigrant families who had come in for the affordable housing and they were afraid to let their children go outside and play.”
‘City leaders say talk of Long Beach catering to the haves and neglecting the have-nots is unfounded.
“The city has a long-standing tradition of building quality housing, both market rate as well as affordable,” Mayor Robert Garcia said. “I think what’s happening right now is there is clearly an economic boom that’s happening across the city.”
Garcia noted the city’s focus on senior housing. That includes the recent sale of land — formerly belonging to the city’s shuttered redevelopment agency — to BRIDGE Housing Corp. of San Francisco and Long Beach-based The Children’s Clinic. The $2.5 million deal on a 67,200-square-foot Cambodia Town lot near the southwest corner of Anaheim Street and Walnut Avenue calls for construction of senior housing, a restaurant and a community health care facility. Affordable housing units include those such as the $33 million Cabrillo Gateway project, which features 80 affordable housing units, with 16 set aside for households where at least one person has a severe and persistent mental illness. The development debuted in 2015.
Garcia said “folks with disposable income are moving into the city in numbers we haven’t seen in the past,” but Long Beach must continue to take care of its longtime residents, including the most vulnerable, as development moves forward. A vibrant community isn’t one with empty lots fenced off and covered with graffiti, he said.
“Right now what we’re focused on is building quality housing both for seniors and for all ends of the spectrum,” Garcia said.
Back at the Linden building, Lopez has heard rumors of neighbors getting eviction notices if they don’t pay higher rents. Some, she said, have moved within the neighborhood as new owners have pushed them out, but then face eviction again, as landlords try to keep pace with rents and avoid vacancies.
“I am worried, and concerned,” Lopez said.
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