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Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles: The Frontline Law Firm for Poor and Low-Income People in Los Angeles

City Rising is a multimedia documentary program that traces gentrification and displacement through a lens of historical discriminatory laws and practices. Fearing the loss of their community’s soul, residents are gathering into a movement, not just in California, but across the nation as the rights to property, home, community and the city are taking center stage in a local and global debate. Learn more.

 

Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles (LAFLA) is the first place thousands of poor and low-income people turn to when they need legal help for a crisis that threatens their shelter, security or basic needs. We take care of the most vulnerable people in our community, including the homeless, working poor, domestic abuse survivors and military veterans of Los Angeles, by providing free, life-saving legal services. LAFLA addresses systemic poverty through direct representation, impact litigation, legislative work (as permitted by federal regulation) and community empowerment. LAFLA serves communities as diverse as Long Beach, Skid Row, East Los Angeles, the Westside and South Los Angeles.

Over 2.1 million people are low-income in Los Angeles County and many of these individuals are in dire need of civil legal aid. In 2016, we served over 80,000 people, including more than 9,600 children.

Our direct service work and close ties to community organizing groups inform all of our policy work and community empowerment work. At LAFLA, our advocates are deeply rooted in impacted communities, allowing our advocates to spot emerging trends and respond in a timely manner. LAFLA’s lawyers, first and foremost, are community lawyers. As such, we don’t believe we have all the answers or that we have the definitive solution for any legal crisis. Instead, our job is to use our knowledge, skills and expertise to assist our clients and community partners to determine what solution is best for them. In this vein, advocates at LAFLA dedicate much of their time to building capacity among residents and community-based organizations to effectively participate in litigation, land use and policy processes that directly impact their lives. As legally permissible, we assist with the drafting and passage of meaningful and effective anti-poverty policies. Of equal importance, we assist residents with monitoring and enforcing policy victories, to ensure that these policies are truly meaningful. At the end of the day, much of this work is about community empowerment, not just about winning a case or policy. This work is centered around empowering residents and communities, and the long-term effects of this empowerment, which last well beyond the life of a lawsuit or a policy campaign.

LAFLA tabling at the Youth Exploitation Safety Symposium (Y.E.S.S.) hosted by the Long Beach Trafficking Task Force and Long Beach Unified School District at Cabrillo High School in 2015. | Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles
LAFLA tabling at the Youth Exploitation Safety Symposium (Y.E.S.S.) hosted by the Long Beach Trafficking Task Force and Long Beach Unified School District at Cabrillo High School in 2015. | Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles

We brought this empowerment to bear in 2012 when the city of Long Beach proposed the Long Beach Downtown Plan (DTP) — a massive gentrification plan that included 5,000 new high-end residential units, millions of square feet of new office, restaurant and retail development, and 800 new hotel rooms. What it didn’t include was a single unit of affordable housing or any protections against displacement of the area’s long-term residents, most of whom were low-income people of color. Accordingly, 24,000 low-income residents of color were placed at great risk of displacement. A large coalition of residents and community groups came together to ask that community benefits be included in the DTP, to help offset the negative impacts that gentrification would have on the DTP area’s long-term residents.

Through the DTP, the city gave developers four major incentives to rapidly gentrify the area: increased density; reduced parking; environmental clearance for 25 years (with a program environmental impact report the city paid for); and fast-tracked development that shaved 12 to 16 months off the development process. These incentives created a playground for developers, as they increased profits, increased land values, created greater certainty and limited public input on future DTP area developments. Despite these invaluable benefits for developers, there was nothing that benefited or protected long-term residents.

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LAFLA joined with over 30 community groups and more than 1,000 residents in a fight to include community benefits, such as affordable housing and tenant protections in the DTP. LAFLA’s community lawyers worked with residents and community-based organizations to explain the DTP and its potential impacts, to educate residents about zoning and land use laws and processes and to discuss potential community responses and solutions. LAFLA’s lawyers assisted with community outreach and education, drafting of extensive legal comments, representation of community-based groups at hearings, strategy discussions, community capacity building, and community empowerment.  

Despite unprecedented levels of community engagement, hundreds of pages of legal comments and City Council hearings that went into the early hours of the morning, the community ultimately did not have enough power to win this battle. It was a painful loss for all involved, but there were still victories. Community education and engagement around complex land use processes reached an all-time high in the city. Educated residents remain active, engaged and empowered. Many residents went on to form a new community organizing group called Long Beach Residents Empowered (LiBRE), a tenant organizing group dedicated to housing justice, affordable housing and tenants’ rights. Community groups throughout the city became educated about Long Beach’s housing crisis and became connected to the housing justice movement and equitable development in Long Beach, many for the first time. These community partnerships have delved into addressing the frequently connected issues around affordable housing, environmental justice, health, economic development and other social justice issues. Finally, elected officials were educated about the community’s needs and the relationship between housing and other issues, such as health and environmental justice. While the City Council did not vote to support the community’s vision, Council members did see an active, educated, engaged and empowered community. This will, hopefully, impact future policy decisions in Long Beach.

Long Beach development
Downtown Long Beach | Ken Lund/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Unfortunately, as expected, the DTP is causing massive displacement of long-term downtown area residents. With no rent control, no local revenue source for affordable housing and no anti-displacement protections in Long Beach, long-term downtown residents are quietly disappearing from their homes and neighborhoods. There is currently no tracking system in place to capture the magnitude of the displacement that is happening, beyond talking with impacted residents and watching the changing faces of downtown, as well as the changing buildings.

According to Downtown Long Beach Associates’ 2017 Economic Profile of Downtown Long Beach, nearly 3,000 new high-end residential units have been built, are under construction, or have been entitled, since the DTP’s adoption in 2012. Average household income in the core of the DTP area, where the majority of development has taken place thus far, has risen to nearly $72,000 a year. All of these so-called improvements to downtown Long Beach come at a very high price. The incomes of long-term DTP area residents have not increased. Rather, long-term DTP area residents, who were mostly low-income community members of color, have been displaced and replaced with higher income earners who can afford to pay the higher housing costs of new market-rate units. Long Beach leaders often tout the importance of the diversity of Long Beach residents, yet their policy decisions do not reflect this value. 

However, hope remains. Community groups continue to organize and mobilize around housing issues in Long Beach. LiBRE was recently successful in a Renters Day LB campaign, whereby the Long Beach City Council declared April 19, 2017 (and every third Wednesday in April thereafter) Renters Day in Long Beach, to acknowledge the importance of renters in Long Beach, who comprise 60% of the city’s residents. Moreover, the Long Beach City Council is currently considering a number of affordable housing production policies. These proposals are currently very light on details, commitments and timelines, but they are being discussed for the first time as potential solutions to our housing crisis. This shift in the narrative, in which the housing crisis is no longer being denied and ignored, allows us to move towards identifying and implementing solutions.

Top Image: Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles' Equal Justice Works fellows pictured together with the Honorable Consuelo Marshall, former LAFLA board member and a trailblazing attorney and judge in 2016. | Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles

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