Image of 1st Street in little Tokyo

Ong on the Little Tokyo Community Impact Fund

Paul Ong, director of the Center for Neighborhood Knowledge, spoke to KCRW’s Greater L.A. podcast about community mobilization against gentrification in Little Tokyo. Local residents and business owners organized the Little Tokyo Community Impact Fund to raise $2 million to collectively buy a building in Little Tokyo and rent it out below market value to selected tenants. Ong, a UCLA Luskin research professor, said the group has the credibility to make it happen but asked, “Will they be able to get enough investors?” He commented, “In many ways, you have to factor in things that normal businesses would not think about. That is, what is the cultural value, for example, of these businesses? What do they represent symbolically?”


 

Ong Foresees Upscaling and Displacement in Crenshaw

Paul Ong, research professor and director of the Center for Neighborhood Knowledge, expressed his concerns about upscaling and displacement in a recent Curbed article on the community’s response to planned redevelopment in South Los Angeles’ Crenshaw district. Residents worry that the expansion of the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Mall will lead to higher housing costs, ultimately displacing low-income residents. Last year, Ong authored a study tracking economic progress in South Los Angeles over the past 50 years that found that 42 percent of renters in the region are “rent-burdened.” He predicted that the opening of the new Crenshaw Metro station will lead to a rise in housing costs in the area. “We certainly see that there are particular interests in developing that area that would lead to upscaling,” he said. The Crenshaw Subway Coalition, led by local community leaders, aims to inform residents about six major developments in the district and educate them about gentrification.


Ong on the Undermining of Ethnic Enclaves

Paul Ong, research professor and director of the Center for Neighborhood Knowledge at UCLA Luskin, spoke to the Los Angeles Times about the imminent departure of two Chinatown grocery stores following disputes with landlords. Such grocery stores act as anchors for ethnic communities, bringing foot traffic to barbers, bankers, restaurants, remittance businesses and other culturally specific vendors, the column noted. Ong said that ethnic enclaves such as Chinatown, Little Tokyo, Historic Filipinotown and Boyle Heights find themselves directly in the path of change because they’re located in the core of the city, where redevelopment is most intense. “There’s still a need for these culturally specific services in the urban core. But the question is, are we going to see these needs served?” Ong asked.

Grants Support Challenging Convention, Strengthening Communities

Four members of the UCLA Luskin faculty have received research grants from the Institute on Inequality and Democracy. The 2019-20 grants, among 10 awarded to faculty across the UCLA campus, support research, scholarship and teaching that challenge established academic wisdom, contribute to public debate and/or strengthen communities and movements, the institute said. UCLA Luskin recipients are:

  • Amada Armenta, assistant professor of urban planning, who will study undocumented Mexican immigrants in Philadelphia and their layered, complex relationship with the legal system in their everyday lives.
  • Kian Goh, assistant professor of urban planning, who will use the lessons of Hurricane Sandy to research the key role public housing and infrastructure play in the quest for climate justice.
  • Paul Ong, research professor and director of the Center for Neighborhood Knowledge, who will create multimedia public narratives that document the stresses of gentrification, displacement and other community changes.
  • Amy Ritterbusch, assistant professor of social welfare, who will develop a restorative justice initiative to take research to the streets, producing knowledge about historically misrepresented communities beyond the confines of academic publication traditions.

In addition to awarding faculty grants of up to $10,000, the Institute on Inequality and Democracy supports research by graduate student working groups. The six groups announced for the 2019-2020 academic year include several urban planning and social welfare students from UCLA Luskin.

Ong Joins Conversation on Controversial SB50 Proposal

Paul Ong, research professor and director of the Center for Neighborhood Knowledge at UCLA Luskin, was featured in a KPCC Airtalk interview along with Gov. Gavin Newsom about the controversial SB50 upzoning proposal that was recently tabled. Ong agreed that “we need to move to denser, more efficient urban development” but pointed out the shortcomings of the trickle-down economic theory behind SB50. A “marginal increase in supply is not adequate,” he said, because housing will continue to be controlled by those with the “greatest demand and greatest income.” One of the biggest challenges is implementation, he added, noting that he wants to see greater protections for current tenants. Ong agreed that SB50 is a move forward that “makes development possible and levels the playing field” that has historically favored the privileged, but he stressed the importance of “listening to people’s fears about the uncertainty of change” and “collectively thinking about what is best for society as a whole.”


Ong on Fried Chicken and Gentrification

Paul Ong, director of the Center for Neighborhood Knowledge at UCLA Luskin, spoke to the Los Angeles Times about the impact of Chinatown’s most popular restaurant, Howlin’ Rays. While Chinatown locals have struggled to stay afloat as office and housing costs rise,  the Nashville-style hot fried chicken restaurant has attracted masses of Los Angeles locals and visitors since it opened in 2016, resulting in lines up to five hours long. Ong explained that new businesses like Howlin’ Rays attract a specific clientele, prompting increased investment and property development in Chinatown that alienates locals. After realizing that many locals didn’t have the time or money to try Howlin’ Rays, L.A. Times reporter Frank Shyong waited two hours in line to buy chicken to distribute to nearby business owners. “The biggest challenge is understanding how we all play a role in a much larger dynamic,” Ong remarked. “More broadly, we have to talk about what we want our cities to look like.”


Ong, González Examine Ethnoracial Inequality in City

Center for Neighborhood Knowledge Director Paul Ong and Assistant Director Silvia R. González have co-authored a book on urban ethnoracial inequalities. “Uneven Urbanscape: Spatial Structures and Ethnoracial Inequality,” newly published by Cambridge University Press, draws from a vast trove of research and data to evaluate the causes and consequences of urban inequality, specifically looking at housing, employment and education. Focusing on Los Angeles, Ong and González studied small geographic units that approximate neighborhoods to determine how location relates to access and isolation. Los Angeles, they found, is “a powerful case study for understanding spatialized racial and ethnic stratification.” The authors describe the different elements that make up the urban spatial structure — place, relative location and networks — as a means to evaluate how spatial structure produces and reproduces ethnoracial inequalities in cities. “The material world reflects and projects socioeconomic realties and is instrumental in creating the lived experience,” they wrote. “By touching a broad range of human activities, the urban landscape, or urbanscape, becomes complicit in the production of socioeconomic injustices along racial and ethnic lines.” Ong and González said Los Angeles as a case study provides critical insights into the nation’s racial and ethnic hierarchies. They call for engaged scholarship with research such as theirs and conclude, “The academy is a privileged institution that should embrace societal responsibilities to directly combat socioeconomic disparities.”


 

Lewis Center Director Evelyn Blumenberg at the inaugural InterActions LA event on regional growth and equity. Photo by Amy Tierney

First Conference on Regional Growth and Equity Tackles Transportation and Communities UCLA scholars, nonprofit representatives discuss how to use multibillion-dollar investment to address regional inequities

By Claudia Bustamante

Los Angeles is populous and diverse, but that distinction also produces inequality. There are disparities in housing costs. Amenities vary across neighborhoods. Many low-income families struggle to make ends meet despite impressive gains in employment.

During an inaugural event focusing on regional growth and equity, the UCLA Lewis Center for Regional Policy Studies convened a group of experts to discuss how to leverage a sweeping, taxpayer-supported $120-billion investment in Los Angeles’ transportation system to address decades-old disparities.

Following the 2016 passage of Measure M, Metro committed $52 billion in sales tax revenue for capital investments throughout the county. The agency is looking to accelerate 28 projects by the time Los Angeles hosts the 2028 Summer Olympics. Senate Bill 1 approved in 2017 designated another $54 billion to fix roads, to relieve congestion, and to improve transit and trade corridors throughout California.

“The question is how can we improve the quality of communities by taking advantage of the ongoing and major regional investments in public transit,” said Evelyn Blumenberg MA UP ’90 Ph.D. ’95, director of the Lewis Center and professor of urban planning, at “InterActions LA: Inspiring Quality Transit Neighborhoods,” held April 18, 2019, at The California Endowment.

“It is precisely in these moments of rapid change when there is a window of opportunity to do something different,” Blumenberg said. “Hopefully, it’s to engage in more equitable outcomes that better connect residents to economic opportunities, that protect and expand affordable housing, and that improve the health and robustness of the L.A. region.”

Paul Ong, UCLA Luskin research professor and director of the Center for Neighborhood Knowledge, has done extensive research on the role of urban structures on the reproduction of inequality. He said this topic is an important one for discussion.

“We, as a society, make neighborhoods,” Ong said, “and neighborhoods make us. The type of neighborhood we live in determines not only today’s quality of life but the trajectory over generations.”

Multiple approaches to improve neighborhoods were discussed. They include progressive housing and land use policies, stationary design, neighborhood amenities and community engagement.

Key among the discussion was the need to focus on people who use transit and their specific needs. For example, women, older adults and people with disabilities make up about 60 percent of Los Angeles’ transit ridership. Those transit users have specific concerns about safety and security while walking to stations, waiting and riding transit, said Madeline Brozen MA UP ’11, deputy director of the Lewis Center.

“If we’re not planning for specific groups in an intentional way, it’s not likely we’re going to see the shifts we want to see from these investments,” Brozen said.

Julia Stein, project director at the Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at UCLA Law, said the city’s Transit Oriented Communities program, which provides incentives to developers to build near major transit stops and include affordable housing units, provides an opportunity to address some issues.

Since the program’s inception in 2017, about 2,400 affordable units have been proposed, of which 42 percent are reserved for extremely low-income households.

Attendees also heard about specific efforts being conducted in the city by nonprofit organizations, including improvements along Avenue 26 near Lincoln Heights and Cypress Park spearheaded by LA-Mas. The nonprofit agency engaged with community members to generate design improvements and creative wayfinding on a quarter-mile stretch near the Metro Gold Line station.

The end result was impressive, but Avital Aboody from LA-Mas said the permitting process was complex, expensive and time-consuming.

“We had the expertise and time to navigate this process, but that may not be the case for community members or grassroots organizations that may want to do this in their community,” she said.

Lessons Learned Outside L.A.

Outside California, the Twin Cities region in Minnesota has a reputation for being progressive. But the community deals with stark racial disparities, which date back to decades of systemic racism, like redlining, according to Owen Duckworth, director of organizing and policy at the Alliance, a Minnesota-based coalition of community-based organizations and advocacy groups.

Now that the region is investing in transit infrastructure such as an expansion of a rail line that connects downtown Minneapolis to St. Paul, there is an opportunity for communities to have greater impact.

“Government agencies want to deliver on equity. That’s the buzzword,” Duckworth said. “We can’t have equitable outcomes by continuing inequitable processes in planning.”

Another theme echoed by many panelists is community engagement — making sure residents’ input is not merely tokenized by developers and government organizations.

Community members provide valuable insights as experts in their own neighborhoods.

“Our partners want to be partners to government agencies in community development, but there’s no compensation for these organizations. They mostly volunteer their time,” said Thomas Yee of LA THRIVES.

“Everything from here on out needs to be collaborative. We need to get away from silos. We need to work together,” Yee added.

Multiple Objectives

Blumenberg ended the event by saying it is clear that multiple objectives must be met to ensure quality transit neighborhoods. To name a few, planners must consider housing, traffic, environmental concerns, access to opportunities, safety and security issues around mobility.

The solutions must be equally diverse — tailored to the different neighborhoods and communities throughout the region, she said.

 

Ong Weighs In on Progress of Transit-Oriented Communities Program

After a study by the UCLA-UC Berkeley Urban Displacement Project found that L.A. neighborhoods near transit hubs were seeing increases in white, college-educated, higher-income households and decreases in populations with less education and lower incomes, Los Angeles has taken various measures to combat gentrification. Construction in areas near bus and train hubs aiming to physically revitalize those neighborhoods has resulted in increases in rent. As new developments progress, policymakers are working to protect residents from being pushed out, according to the real estate trends site The Real Deal. The Transit-Oriented Communities Program in Los Angeles is fighting gentrification by offering density bonuses to developers building near transit, but only if they include affordable units in their projects. Research professor and director of UCLA’s Center for Neighborhood Knowledge in the Luskin School of Public Affairs Paul Ong commented that “the challenge is ensuring that progress is fair and just.”


Ong Comments on Temporary L.A. County Rent Stabilization Measure

Paul Ong, director of the Center for Neighborhood Knowledge at UCLA Luskin, was quoted in recent news stories on a proposed temporary measure by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors — approved in September 2018 — that would cap rent increases in unincorporated county areas. A Los Angeles Times story cited research by Ong that indicated no significant difference in rental housing in cities that have adopted some form of rent control as compared with the rest of the county. “The short-term solution is protecting those who are most vulnerable,” said Ong, professor emeritus of urban planning, social welfare and Asian American studies. “It needs to be complemented in the long term by strategic planning about increasing the supply of affordable housing.” Ong also spoke to LAist for a story on the proposal. “What we’re seeing is rents are increasing faster than inflation, and faster than people’s incomes,” he said. “We have reached a point now where many households are unable to pay their rents. … They quite often have to decide between paying the rent and paying for other daily necessities.”