A History of Housing Practices in Long Beach | KCET
A History of Housing Practices in Long Beach
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When discussing housing in Long Beach, World War II marks the most significant pivot, both before and after the U.S. became directly involved in the war.
Dubbed "Iowa by the Sea," an influx of white Midwesterners migrated to Long Beach, part of the two million people that moved to Los Angeles County between 1920 and 1930. These out-of-towners largely shaped Long Beach, wanting a place that suited their more conservative Midwestern philosophy, as compared to that of Los Angeles, while still having access to the region's jobs and weather.
The discovery of Long Beach's rich petroleum supply paired with the expansion of its port and harbor, largely between 1921 and 1936, caused its population to triple to 164,000 people. Unlike Los Angeles, however, which saw its Black population grow by 25,000 during the Great Depression, Long Beach's Black population sat stagnant, with around 600 Black folks living in the city, not to see a boom until WWII.
The Great Depression turned the county, and Long Beach and the nation along with it, into a place of haves and have-nots, with slums running rampant throughout the Southland. This, along with crises in New York, Chicago and other metropolises, cemented the creation of the United States Housing Act of 1937 (also known as the Wagner-Steagall Act) that authorized the U.S. Housing Authority to make loans to local housing agencies.
Come 1938, the creation of Housing Authorities for both the City and County of Los Angeles were complete — and North Long Beach was to be home to the County Authority's first order of business: the Carmelitos Housing Project, Southern California's first affordable housing complex.
Designed by Long Beach architect Kenneth S. Wing and beginning construction in August of 1939, Carmelitos was a massive undertaking that spanned 67 buildings across 50 acres at the cost of nearly $2.6 million. It was the precursor to the Ramona Gardens complex, which replaced the infamous Beaudry Street slums, and the Harbor Hills complex in San Pedro, both completed in 1941. This was all part of the Garden City Movement, where architects and planners were seeking to create cost-effective design through apartment living as housing shortages across the nation sparked more and more New Deal programs.
The housing crisis across the L.A. region — one which architectural critic Esther McCoy claimed 30% of all dwellings had no inside toilet, 50% had no bathtub and 20% were unfit for humans — proved the essential need for Carmelitos. Less than a year after completion, the complex's 607 units were full.
As defense plants became the primary source of work while the U.S. remained indirectly involved in WWII, Carmelitos eventually had to raise the maximum income to be considered for housing.
A few months later, the U.S. would become directly involved in WWII.
Within weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Long Beach — like Honolulu, San Diego, San Francisco and other port cities — would become a bastion of military activity, economy and production.
Terminal Island was once home to thousands of Japanese but was annihilated as Long Beach cooperated with the government-led internment of people of Japanese descent. Other groups, such as Greeks and Portuguese who had made the port an integral part of their American existence, were also displaced though not arrested.
By 1943, 200,000 people were engaged in war production in the region and Long Beach, according to then State Assemblymember Ernest Debs, "was wholly unprepared." According to Long Beach historians Julian DelGaudio and Craig Hendricks, the lack of housing had detrimental effects on the war itself. With service members having to live farther and farther from the army and naval operations on the coast of Long Beach, absenteeism, high turnover and loss of production plagued war efforts abroad and quality of life at home.
By 1944, housing became so scarce, that evictions were rampant and residents were resorting to house sharing. Eugene Weston Jr. of the County Housing Authority announced 1,000 new units. He said the units would be "a mere splinter in the actual need" and, even worse, the housing demand wasn't slowing down.
Simultaneously, Long Beach's Black population skyrocketed. By 1944 it had grown to nearly 6,000 — accounting for a sizeable chunk of the 85,000 new residents that moved to Long Beach between 1940 and 1946.
By the end of the 1940s and into the early 1950s, Long Beach would eventually become a central player in the fight for fair housing amongst people of color.
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On May 12, 1953, Mrs. Jay Garland and then-President of the Long Beach Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People stood before the Long Beach City Council to defend their need for public housing.
Representing the tenants of the Cabrillo Housing Project in the increasingly Black neighborhood of West Long Beach, the Council had decided weeks before to "eliminate sub-standard housing" in the development — and thereby displace most Black folk from the much-needed affordable housing.
The council's suggestion? Move the displaced tenants to a Truman Boyd Manor, another affordable complex, as "vacancies arise." Mrs. Garland called foul exclaiming "the prevailing practice of segregation" is leading to the marginalization of Black communities.
"The local housing agencies state that there is a waiting list of 800 families for these homes at Truman Boyd," Garland told the Council. "Truman is also temporary housing and offers no permanent solution … These people must even pay $1,500 down for a termite-ridden home. Eighty-five percent of them live in Long Beach. If they are unable to find housing, it will be a severe hardship on them and their families."
Two years later, the firing of Black advisor Dr. Frank Horne from the Federal Housing Administration after declaring dissent toward segregation paired with increasing discrimination toward people of color led to Assemblyman William Byron Rumford — the first black person from Northern California to serve in the State Legislature — to create a civil rights bill known as the Unruh Civil Rights Act.
Unruh was clear in its intentions, that "all persons within the jurisdiction of the state are free and equal, and entitled to the full and equal accommodation, advantages, facilities and privileges or services in all business establishments of any kind whatsoever."
Despite substantial Republican opposition, Unruh passed.
By 1962, Governor Pat Brown declared that the State must look into solutions that will create more low-income housing, inspiring Rumford to tackle the subject yet again.
In 1963, Rumford succeeded in passing the Fair Housing Act of 1963, dubbed the Rumford Act, that prohibited property owners to discriminate sales based on "ethnicity, religion, sex, marital status, physical handicap or familial status."
Less than a year later, during the election of 1964, racists led by the California Real Estate Association (CREA) turned this act into the focal point of everything American and sacred. They put Proposition 14 on the ballot, one of the most bluntly unconstitutional propositions every put on a California ballot.
Here's how it read:
Even more, the CREA became incredibly powerful in its marketing strategy and held its mission of "the promotion, preservation and manipulation of racial segregation as central — rather than incidental or residual — components of their profit-generating strategies," according to historian Robert O. Self.
Prop 14 passed two-to-one and, in its passage and before its dismissal as unconstitutional in 1966 by the U.S. Supreme Court, prompted a fear that led to what was called "blockbusting" in West and North Long Beach.
Real estate agents would go into the prominently white areas, convincing them that minorities were on the move into their neighborhood following the political movements set forth by Rumford's advocacy; this, in turn, would prompt many white families to sell their homes, often at significantly lower prices than their worth. In turn, these same realtors would sell the homes to newly affluent black families at a higher price.
It was the creation of a new form of segregation and disinvestment that was intimately tied to the passage of Prop 14 and its subsequent battle at the Supreme Court. It prompted the creation of the Long Beach Fair Housing Foundation (FHF) in 1964, with a mission "devoted entirely to the promotion of fair and open housing practices in our community."
Made up entirely of women, the FHF knew the fight would be anything but easy — and it had to eventually get a larger power, mainly the City of Long Beach itself, on its side.
Journalist George Weeks, writing for the Press-Telegram, noted that in 1965 — at the peak of tensions between the passages of the Unruh Act, the Rumford Act and Prop 14 — fifty West Long Beach residents testified in front of the City's Human Relations Committee. Their accusation was not light: they accused California realtors of creating a "reservation of Negroes" on the West and North sides while "talking down the area to discourage Caucasians from viewing and buying homes [there]."
By 1966, the Navy decommissioned its yard in Brooklyn, moving many Naval officers, including black folk, to its Long Beach yard — something the Chamber of Commerce welcomed with pamphlets advocating Long Beach as a "fair city" with "abundant housing." Now the FHF was flooded with not just local families of color seeking help, but veterans of color, therefore amping up the Foundation's efforts.
From "double escrow" — convincing the seller who is buying is white, getting the house into escrow, but open a second escrow to a qualified black person — or "testing" — sending a white person to see if a house was available, learn it was, and send in a black person with the same qualifications to see how treatment differed — the FHF knew that such tactics were necessary from a legal angle to evoke the Unruh Act in court.
By 1967, Prop 14 was ruled unconstitutional, and this allowed the FHF to take discriminators to court — and Long Beach led the way by successfully taking to court six cases and winning.
"No other city in California has had anything approaching this amount of court action on housing," the Foundation reported in Newsletter #22 in 1967.
The influence of their work in court — led by FHF co-founder and lawyer Myron Blumberg facing all-white juries and still finding success — resulted in the submission of their evidence to the Department of Justice in June of 1970 after the Office of the Attorney General began examining 8,000 rental and real estate agencies across the county.
On top of that, FHF had 75 volunteers investigate over 200 apartment complexes in Long Beach specifically — and what they found was remarkable:
Out of 243 buildings covered in the investigation, fully-documented evidence of racially discriminatory practices emerged from 114 buildings. These represented a total of 1,450 units, and the owners of these properties also owned an additional 875 units not included in the investigation. There was a total, then, of 2,325 units directly or indirectly involved in the reports sent to the Justice Department — all in the immediate Long Beach area. The last reports went to the Housing Section, Civil Rights Division on September 15, 1970. FHF was assured that prompt action would follow.
Despite overwhelming evidence, the DOJ eventually decided not to file a suit, instead sending officers to the areas to offer warnings. However, the efforts of the FHF continued — even leading to a landmark case in 1972 that rewarded a black couple $10K after dealing with a racist landlord, one of the largest during its time — and those efforts altered the local, regional, state, and national attention toward discriminatory housing policies.
Like many countries freeing themselves from imperial rule, Cambodia showed great promise when it had received independence from France in 1953. Less than a decade later, students were being accepted into the nation's top universities — including four Cambodians into Cal State Long Beach by 1961, none of whom knew that Long Beach would eventually become home to the largest populations of Cambodians outside the country itself.
By 1970, the country became involved in a bitter civil war that evolved into one of the history's most ravaging genocides.
The militant and destructive Khmer Rouge regime was led by Pol Pot. It eventually grabbed full hold of the country in 1975 after it overthrew the then-U.S.-backed government once the U.S. left neighboring Vietnam, ruling until 1979. It then led to the murder of millions of Cambodians, with estimates claiming the loss of 2.4 million Cambodians (of the 3.3 million deaths that occurred during the time of civil unrest).
The lesser known of genocides, the Khmer Rouge — through the push of fundamental communism — destroyed Cambodia's middle-class. What was truly going on was the systematic killing of hundreds of thousands of the Khmer Rouge's so-called enemies, many of which were simple Cambodian people.
An entire community was almost annihilated from history.
Two waves of Cambodian immigration came to Long Beach: during 1975 alone, an estimated 4,5000 Cambodians were evacuated to the States, followed by over 100,000 Vietnamese. These refugees were processed in two places: Fort Chafee in Arkansas and Camp Pendleton at the northwestern most edge of San Diego County, the vast majority of Cambodian refugees processed at Pendleton on May 5, 1975. This led to the creation of the organization known as Khmer Solidarity of America, later re-named the Cambodia Association of America.
The second wave, triggered by Vietnam invading Cambodia in 1979 to overthrow Pol Pot, prompted a huge surge in the Cambodian population within the States. Some 130,000 Cambodian refugees moved into the U.S. between 1979 and 1986.
This made Long Beach not only the stronghold of the Cambodian resistance in the 1980s — rebel commanders would use Long Beach as their post to recover their health or renew their residency documents before returning to the fight with Vietnam that plagued the Thailand-Cambodia border—but it also cemented Long Beach as home to Cambodia Town, stretching along the Anaheim Corridor in Central Long Beach, and turned the city into one of the most racially diverse places in the nation.
As Long Beach headed into the new century, its demographics began to change slowly, with an influx of Latinos coming in and an exodus of its Black population that was integral to West, Central and North Long Beach — and along with it, a boom in building after decades of stagnant development.
Long Beach became two cities in terms of housing: the vast suburban living of East Long Beach and Bixby Knolls, largely filled with single family homes and massive lots, side by side with the rest of the city, a patchwork of apartment complexes and high-rises.
This was prompted by the vast reinvestment into the Downtown after the now-dissolved Redevelopment Agency (RDA) designated the area as one of its main projects. With the closure of famed Pike amusement area due to the growth of the Anaheim-area Disneyland resort and a downtown falling into disrepair, the city focused more on attractions and entertainment than it did housing.
The late 1970s and early 1980s saw the construction of the Long Beach Plaza Mall and the Long Beach Convention & Entertainment Center, with the addition of the Long Beach Grand Prix and Shoreline Village center coming shortly after. This brought the city its first contemporary high-rise hotel, the Hyatt Regency, and with it more hotels into the 1990s.
But housing remained stagnant, with a handful of luxury high-rises making their debut on Ocean Boulevard — each of which initially struggled to get their units sold. As prices dropped and more people sought cheaper rent by 2010, plans for housing finally made their way into the conversation.
Market-rate housing that is.
After Governor Jerry Brown's dissolving of the RDA, Long Beach was left with multiple city-owned lots that had no more money being funneled into them. The Long Beach City Council then became the "successor agency" in 2012 for the RDA properties, managing everything from payments and leases to land transactions and other obligations totaling $1.28B.
According to Mayor Robert Garcia, to "improve neighborhoods throughout the city, eliminate blight and generate vital revenue for the city," the city had to sell off the former RDA properties. Approved by the State in 2015, Long Beach's Long Range Property Management Program (LRPMP) provided the city the ability to appeal to developers by selling off 27 former RDA parcels.
And sell they did: by 2016, every single piece of city-owned property made for residential development was sold to private developers, with proceeds from their sale distributed as property tax to taxing entities and the city receiving 22% of that amount — and there was not a single clause which required developers to create affordable housing in their projects.
Sold at a desirable cost, every single lot was purchased, and each is now slated for development, ranging from a 25-story hotel at Ocean and Pine to multiple residential high-rises throughout the Downtown.
As of this piece, of the thousands of units coming online, 585 of them are affordable, with an additional four single-family homes thanks to Habitat for Humanity.
Top Image: A Midway, Long Beach, Calif., between 1910 and 1920. | Library of Congress
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City Rising shows how gentrification is deeply rooted in a history of discriminatory laws and practices in the United States.