Gentrification and Concentrated Homelessness

If you look at downtown Los Angeles today, you wouldn’t imagine that there was a housing crash seven years ago. Luxury condominium development in downtown is bursting at the seams, as young professionals flood previously low-income districts in their efforts to minimize the crushing commute along the I-10 freeway. Many great writers have discussed the rising tide of gentrification and its impact on low income and minority communities. But its impact on homeless populations has been severe: cities like Los Angeles have begun to shift homeless encampments --- horrifyingly, under the guise of municipal ‘trash cleanup’ laws.

Earlier this year, Los Angeles passed two city ordinances instructing police to remove and impound personal belongings of the city’s homeless, including but not limited to mattresses and tents. The laws also make it easier for police to give tickets to people who try to collect their possessions that haven’t been thrown away. Skid Row, the nation’s largest concentration of homeless, has been specifically targeted: in June, the city embarked on a $66,000 cleanup effort that scattered the homeless population, a test run of sorts for LA’s newly adopted policies. Compound this with LA’s affordable housing crisis, and the effect is obvious: the new policies sweep homeless populations east, away from police enforcement of the new ordinances.

It’s no coincidence that these thinly veiled homeless sweeps come on the heels of major commercial housing development in LA’s growing downtown area. Below is a map of LA’s gentrification by district; as we can see, Skid Row is right in the middle of major downtown gentrification efforts.

The racial overtones in LA’s homeless sweeps have become evident with the city’s new policies. 39% of Skid Row’s population is African-American, and 25% is Hispanic. In the last few years, neighborhoods surrounding downtown have seen an influx of young, white professionals, which has coincided with soaring real estate prices. For housing developers and owners alike, homeless encampments in plain sight of luxury high rise condos represent a negative externality that lowers housing prices.

The city of Los Angeles, in a bid to remove obstacles from local economic growth, has adopted a set of policies that are both institutionally racist and target the city’s worst-off populations. As we think about the pros and cons of gentrification on low-income minority communities, we must also consider policies like those adopted by the city of Los Angeles, which literally sweep homeless encampments out of the way under the guise of municipal trash cleanup ordinances.

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