Home Invasion

The critical housing crisis in Long Beach

Long Beach is many things.

It’s an arts and entertainment city still growing out of its naval and oil-based roots. It’s a city with a thriving DIY music scene and a place that’s home to the largest Cambodian population outside of Southeast Asia. It’s a culturally diverse city that houses nearly half a million people from different socioeconomic backgrounds.

But it is not, as a recent article by city manager Patrick West said, “a place for everyone to call home.” Although Long Beach and its residential developments continue to grow — in this year alone, a startling 59 residential projects are breaking ground —  so do two of its biggest issues: a lack of affordable housing and an uncertainty about who future residents will be.

At least 60 percent of Long Beach residents rent their place of residence. Seventy-five percent of citizens commute to a job outside of the city and despite that less-than-ideal statistic, we still only have a 4.6 percent vacancy rate, according to the Long Beach Business Journal, indicating that the people who already live here don’t want to leave.

However, it’s looking like the city doesn’t want them to stay. Since 2017, rent in the city has increased by roughly 4 percent. In the last five years, it’s gone up about 22 percent, creating an increasingly exclusive housing market that continues to push out established residents and generate fears about the changing city culture.

It’s something that resident Danny Lemos is seeing happen “in small pieces.”

Lemos, 61, has lived in Long Beach for 12 years. In that time, he’s watched the city grow and thrive with its small businesses, arts and diverse ethnic and cultural population. Now, he fears that these people are the very targets of this rent increase.

“First, you saw the old people leaving,” he said. “The people who couldn’t afford the new condos, that couldn’t afford the new rates, had to be relocated so development could occur.”

He went on to describe a renovation of an apartment complex on First and Lime streets last year, which transformed it into a more modern complex. Modernity meant more expensive rent, and many of the former tenants could not return, according to Lemos.

“We have been in a shortage of housing in Los Angeles county for decades,” Conn said. “We have been focused on developing expensive housing and vouchered housing.”-Henk Conn, Long Beach mayoral candidate

It’s a fear often brought up in affordable housing discussions. Local residents worry that their rent is being raised to drive them out and free up space for “younger, less ethnically diverse” tenants, as Lemos called them.

Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia

Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia, however, insisted the rent increase was only happening because of Long Beach’s low vacancy rate.

“The housing shortage is driving up the cost of housing,” he said in an email to 22 West Magazine.

However, his campaign opponent, James Henry “Henk” Conn, attributed the housing shortage to four external causes, such as “impersonal” developers with no emotional investment in their tenant and tenants’ inability to contribute to local revenue after using the majority of their paycheck for rent. He also attributes it to the expansion of the Queen Mary and Aquarium of the Pacific and trickle-down housing economics, the belief that moving tenants into new housing will make other housing more affordable.

“We have been in a shortage of housing in Los Angeles county for decades,” Conn said. “We have been focused on developing expensive housing and vouchered housing.”

As ambitious as the Downtown Plan was, it ignored important questions about the fallout it would have on current residents all around Long Beach.

Both candidates will face off in the mayoral primary elections April 10. Among his multiple proposed campaign promises, Garcia is focusing on the development of new residential units and new tech sector jobs. Conn’s sole platform is rent control. All three are controversial subjects in the city.

Although the target market for these new units is not being explicitly shared, the numbers are troubling. An estimated 3,300 residential units will come from the proposed projects; only about 800 of them are classified as “affordable.” Garcia defines that small number as units that “keep the rent affordable to families that make 70 percent or less of the median family income.”

In an interview with Long Beach Business Journal last year, however, Garcia said that “most of the city did not have room” for much of those developments. He added that “most of the housing responsibility has got to be with other cities in the state that actually have room.”

And in 2015, he told the Los Angeles Times that he wanted to make Long Beach “the next Silicon Valley.” The remaining 2,500 units were built to attract those tech fields, with Garcia saying that they would ideally “house workers in growing companies like Virgin Orbit and Zwift, which are growing rapidly here.”

But Long Beach isn’t a tech city. It’s a city where the main areas of employment in 2015 were in the education, leisure and professional sectors. Most of the people that currently live here don’t have high-paying tech jobs.

Lemos argued that the upcoming residential buildings were only being built for “those who can afford it.”

“I’ve seen what that kind of growth does to a quaint community,” he said.

Formerly from South Beach, Florida, a small business and arts community, Lemos watched the area experience rapid corporate growth and development in the early ‘90s, a city effort to “re-energize” it. Instead, he said, current residents were displaced and the spirit of the city was lost to tourism and wealthy tenants. It’s something he worries will repeat itself in Long Beach.

Conn shared a similar sentiment.

“The people who live [with] modest incomes, who live and work in our city, are being forced out because there are no longer rental units that [are] affordable to the working class,” he said.

His solution to the issue is rent control. The Long Beach Rent Control Ordinance measure headed for the November ballot is currently being petitioned by multiple rent coalition groups in the city. The measure would limit yearly rent increases to 5 percent and establish a citywide Rental Housing Board to monitor landlord-tenant disputes.

Conn clarified that he did not think that rent control was “something that would save the world.”

“It was about turning around and seeing our rents skyrocket and no new options being offered,” Conn said.

Opponents of rent control, which include landlords, developers and our current mayor, argue that regulating rent will slow down the creation of new and affordable housing. Garcia brought up that Long Beach already had rent stabilization ordinances in place. However, 22 West Magazine was unable to corroborate this claim.

Another argument against rent control is that the existing housing units would be unable to expand or develop further. Renovations, like the ones that changed Lime Avenue, are usually reimbursed by increased rent.

“But why couldn’t you have done this in the 30 years that you owned the building?” Lemos questioned. He continued on to say that although the city claimed to have residents’ interests at heart when renovating, they made no promise that current residents would be able to afford it.

Nevertheless, Garcia insisted that the way to alleviate the lack of housing was to start building more housing.

“New market rate housing is critical to keeping Long Beach an affordable place to live and raise a family,” he said.

But when those people aren’t the ones our housing is being built for, this seems like a public relations answer to a real citizen question. Although his answer is not awful, it’s simply not mindful of the city’s multi-generational residents and young, aspiring residents.

Long Beach California 02 1 min

In the past two decades, Long Beach has morphed from a modest port town into an emerging metropolis. Much of the transformation has been predicated upon a citywide focus on modernizing a community where urban professionals can thrive outside of other saturated cities.

In 2012, incumbent Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia, a city council member at the time, championed the enactment of the Downtown Plan, a project focused on the much maligned downtown area of Long Beach. The plan outlined sustainable improvements to infrastructure such as eco-friendly public transportation, an expansion of the city’s skyline and a renewal of historic buildings. A major bulk of the plan involved creating more than 9,000 new residential units, 2 million square feet of office and retail space and 3,200 new hotel rooms. These would be added to a square mile section of downtown in the next several decades.

“New market rate housing is critical to keeping Long Beach an affordable place to live and raise a family,” -Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia

As ambitious as the Downtown Plan was, it ignored important questions about the fallout it would have on current residents all around Long Beach. Proponents of affordable housing believed that the plan should have been delayed in order to research other affordable housing options before jumping into such a costly commitment.

Concerned citizens recognized that the city’s population growth and limited resources could cause an affordable housing crisis amid the fervor of expansion. In 2002, Housing Long Beach was formed to push for affordable housing options, as well as protecting renters’ rights. Housing Long Beach Executive Director Josh Butler has been a resident of Long Beach for the past 25 years and notes that the problems that have plagued the city for years still haven’t been fixed.

“Ninety percent of the housing stock in Long Beach was built before 1995, and what we have been building certainly hasn’t been affordable housing,” Butler said. “The housing stock hasn’t matched population increases and it’s aging without proper care. Housing that is being built has largely been luxury [housing] and not affordable to average Long Beach residents, especially in a city that has a poverty rate of 20 percent.”

The decaying stock is a large part of the problem because most of the landlords have been able to abuse the renter system or simply cut their losses at the detriment of the housing market, according to Butler.

“Two things are happening,” he said. “Landlords see the rents go up at the luxury buildings and raise the rent at their buildings. The other thing a lot of landlords do is break. They recognize that since their building is around several decades old, it needs a lot of work on it. [Housing code enforcement] is proactive in making landlords upkeep their buildings to proper standards, but landlords instead sell their buildings because of the price of renovations. New landlords kick out all their tenants to make repairs quicker and put these units back on the market at much higher rent.”

Seniors with disabilities that once benefited from Naturally Occurring Affordable Housing (NOAH) are forced out, regardless of their health. With less NOAH, there aren’t many options other than leaving the city, even if people have been living here their whole lives.

Long Beach Residents Empowered (LiBRE) is a grassroots organization that aims to restore depleting NOAH and rising rent by informing, educating and training low-income, working class, people of color, marginalized and oppressed communities of the city. By empowering the citizens, more of these affected communities can have their voices heard in promoting progressive policies defending housing justice.

LiBRE representative Jorge Rivera is another lifelong citizen of Long Beach that recognizes fighting against economic development is important to keeping the identity and culture of the city intact. 

“Long Beach is a very diverse culture, in race, ethnicity, income, age, gender, religion and so many other ways,” said Rivera. “The city has been described to me as having a small town feel in a big city. At the same time, its very segregated. There is not a lot of civic participation and the city governance has been described as being run by the ‘good ol’ boys club.’ Rent control, or rent stabilization, is something that is drastically needed in Long Beach. However, it is not a silver bullet and will not solve all our issues, which is why at LiBRE we are focused on building community power for long-term shifting of political will.”

Rivera believes that Long Beach can grow without compromising its roots and decimating communities filled with people of color, the very fabric of what makes the city so vibrant. Rivera wants Long Beach to expand in more fiscally responsible ways. Butler and Housing LB feel the same way.

“We aren’t against development, but we believe in development without displacement,” Butler said. “We can’t avoid modernization but the progress can’t come at the cost of our vulnerable residents. Our Cambodian community, our black community … nobody is talking about that decline.”

Unfortunately, the Downtown Plan is only the tip of the iceberg. The initial goal of revitalization has been lost now that Garcia is doubling down on a complete renovation of the city, residents and all. Since he was elected to serve as mayor, Garcia has expressed an interest in making Long Beach “The Silicon Valley of the South.”

According to the Los Angeles Times, Garcia plans to lure younger residents, all in the hopes of establishing a tech sector and furthering his vision of “Long Beach 3.0, a city that embraces open data and embraces innovation." A lot of these aspirations are also supplemented by projects for million dollar facilities for the upcoming 2028 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, projects that will be paid for by taxpayers in a Long Beach they might not be living in a decade from now.

It is still unclear why the city continues to ignore its lifelong residents. As Butler noted, Garcia is not being negligent, but rather laser-focused on his vision of modernization. The mayor’s proclamations in local news outlets to fix affordable housing are hollow claims that continue to lack physical evidence, as previously mentioned earlier in the article regarding rent stabilization. Rivera sees these issues firsthand, even with his neighbors.

“I have known my neighbor Jacqueline Le Kahl for seven years and the rising rent is hurting her,” Rivera said. “Half of the tenants in our apartment complex received rent increases and [Le Kahl’s rent] increased by 46 percent,  a $370 addition that made her rent $1095. My neighbors and I wanted to help her because she’s been there for about 40 years but were too frightened to even raise money for her publicly. This shows the level of fear people have of being displaced. The city is complicit and are guilty for doing nothing. Citizens are not opposed to development; we want our long-term residents to enjoy investment in communities which have not received any. However, in order to have both development without displacement, the city should be protecting residents from displacement by enacting policies to keep them here.”

Affordable housing doesn’t seem to be the focus, rather an obstacle for city council to fulfill their new visions of Long Beach. Butler believes that the city’s recent claims of wanting to focus on affordable housing are coming too late, since he believes the city’s plans were the ones that initially furthered the crisis.

“We are in a crisis and there is no crisis response,” Butler said. “It is the same old Long Beach response. It is too little, [too] late and the citizens need more. If you’re going to show up late to the party, you have to bring all the entrees and desserts, not an appetizer. You’re just serving us little in the way of action, even though this is our home.”

Update: A previous version of this article listed a six-year rent increase of a specific Long Beach area code rather than a citywide increase. It has since been corrected.