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A plan by USC to redevelop University Village into a mixed-use retail, residential and educational complex has turned the spotlight on one of the region’s most pressing problems–the need to create and maintain affordable housing.

Called the USC University Park Specific Plan, the development was discussed at meeting of the L.A. City Council Planning and Land Use Management committee (PLUM) held Tuesday that lasted more than two hours, featured a hour of testimony from a parade of witnesses and resulted in consideration of the item being continued until Sept. 18.

At that time, city departments are supposed to bring back answers to a laundry list of questions committee members had about the project; many of them revolving around the impact the project will have on affordable housing in the community surrounding the university.

As proposed, the University Park Specific Plan accomplishes a two-fold purpose, according Craig Keys, vice president for civic engagement at USC. It would replace the outdated University Village shopping center with one that better meets the needs of community residents, students and the university community; and it could, over of the course of 20 years and depending on demand, add up to 5,200 new student beds to the area. At least 1,000 of those would be built in the first phase of redevelopment.

Keys said it would take one year to demolish the current development and another year to build the new site.

Additionally, the new center is proposed to include 250,000 square feet of retail, a 150-room hotel and a 50,000-square-foot conference center.

Plans for the development have been in the works since at least 2005, and were put together in part with input from community members via a master plan advisory committee made of representatives from various neighborhood organizations, churches, museums and other stakeholders.

The committee was chaired by Jackie Dupont Walker, head of the Ward A.M.E. Economic Development Corp.

The new development is being planned in the midst of historical and current trends that have many community organizations and residents concerned and, in fact, a number of them combined forces to release a Rapid Health Impact Assessment of the plan.

Produced by Human Impact Partners with support from Strategic Actions for a Just Economy (SAJE) and Esperanza Community Housing Corp., the report, released  on April 30, points out a historic trend that has developed over the last decade and a half.

During that period, the report noted, USC has become more of a traditional residential campus than the commuter school it had once been.

As a result, students have begun to compete for affordable housing with local residents who have typically lived around the university. According to Beth Rodin of Esperanza, many of the families living around the school earn below 50 percent of the poverty line. They cannot compete with many of the students who have more available income.

Among the concerns the report noted was whether the proposed development will result in the continued and/or intensified displacement of existing residents. The study also pinpointed the lack of attention in the environmental impact report and associated nexus study to the current and past trends that are predictors of displacement and gentrification, and that impact housing in the area.

According to the report, there is also a lot of uncertainty among residents and nearby small business owners about exactly how the plan will impact them.

Among the findings in the Human Impact Partners report are that more than one-third of residents in the USC project rated their health status as fair or poor compared with one-fifth of residents in the city.

Rates of hypertension, diabetes, overweight and obesity are higher in the USC plan area than the average in the city and the county of Los Angeles.

Housing displacement can lead to physical, mental and social stress on the displaced population as well as costly school and job relocations and increased risk of substandard housing and overcrowding. This contributes to disparities among vulnerable groups, including the poor, women, children, the elderly and members of racial/ethnic minority groups.

The report also found that if the plan goes forward without key changes, displacement would be likely to continue and primarily impact Black and Latino residents, low- income and disabled people, the elderly and young children.

Sandra McNeill of Trust South L.A. says while her organization is excited about the prospect of the new retail development, there is major concern about the shortage of housing that could be caused by the total development. This is because, as proposed the project calls for the demolition of 1,200 student units. This means that instead of adding up to 5,000 beds to the total of available student beds, only 3,800 are being added.

Further, the executive director noted that even with what is proposed in the plan, the university would only house less than 30 percent of its students. “This is not quite what students want and should expect from a quality university like USC.”

McNeill stressed that the amount of housing proposed is simply not enough.

” . . . the documented demand for student housing is over 10,000 (beds), and that documentation goes back to 20007,” McNeill explained. “The university contracted with Enterprise to produce an extensive study, which pegged the need at 10,000.”

In addition to exploring the Human Impact Partners report, the study also developed a number of recommendations to address concerns. Among them are: USC should pay 5 percent of the total specific plan development budget into an affordable housing trust fund dedicated specifically to the USC Specific Plan area. The fund should have community oversight, and community organizations should be involved in its implementation. McNeill says the fund should be about $30 million, not the $2 million proposed by the school or the $8 million suggested by the city.

USC should also finance the preservation of the 1,300 currently affordable units whose covenants will expire in the next five to 20 years. That is because indirect and historical impacts of USC development have led and will continue to lead to reduced housing affordability in the area, which these units help alleviate.

The Human Impact Partners study also recommends that USC protect tenant’s rights by providing legal support and financial services for tenants, especially those living in rent-stabilized housing. This support could be used to stop landlords from unfairly evicting tenants in rent-stabilized apartments.

During a tour of the likely impacted neighborhoods, which activists say have already seen a significant displacement of families, the impact of the current situation on USC students was also discussed.

Max Hoiland, a recent USC grad, recounted his own experiences trying to find affordable housing.

“Freshman year you are guaranteed housing, but after that you had to find your own,” said the Minnesota native, who called the process intimidating. He eventually ended up sharing a two-bedroom apartment with three people and paying $670 per month.

Hoiland also told the story of one of his classmates, who could not find housing close enough to campus that she could afford, so she opted for driving in from Long Beach daily. He said she often ended up sleeping in her car a couple days a week in order to avoid the traffic and drive.

Major development around USC that displaces local residents is not new. In fact, the very project that facilitated the original development of University Village was responsible for turning a predominantly African American community into the ethnically diverse enclave the area is today.

Called the Hoover Development, the 1965 project enabled the university to acquire about 177 acres of land for expansion in part through eminent domain. The expansion was to include creation of the shopping center, educational facilities and affordable housing.

At least one group at the time–the Eastside Citizens Committee on Urban Renewal and Urban Development–accused the Hoover Redevelopment Project as being the “opening wedge” to drive Negroes and Mexican Americans out of the central part of Los Angeles.

But under the University Park development, USC already owns the land, and Dupont Walker says the school has made a great effort to include the community in the planning process.
She also noted that there is a history that has framed development in the area.

According to Dupont Walker, early neighborhood organizations did not want the university to develop west of Vermont, possibly out of fear the university would take over. But now, she said the neighborhood council is asking why the university is not going west of Vermont.

There is also the danger of oversaturating an area with affordable housing, noted Dupont Walker, who says that is what has historically happened in the Eighth Council District. She says that instead of spreading such housing city wide, it has often been clustered in one region.

While some of the community groups are demanding that USC be held responsible for making sure there is enough affordable housing in the area surrounding the university, the shortage of such housing is not a new problem within the city of Los Angeles. In a 2009 article, L.A. Weekly pinpointed some very troubling statistics.

At that time Los Angeles was ranked 49 out 50 in housing affordability, according to a 2008 survey by the San Francisco nonprofit

In 2008, the average cost of renting in the city was $962, which was 43 percent higher than in 2000. Additionally, 330 affordable units were constructed each year, on average, from 2003 to 2006, while 7,369 affordable units were lost during that same period, due mostly to conversions to luxury units but also to demolition connected with new construction.

From 2001 to 2007, the city lost 13,713 rent-controlled apartments and housing lost to demolition sparked by new construction and condo conversions.

Adding to the city’s affordable housing woes was the state’s decision to dismantle community redevelopment agencies.

Among the projects that were negatively impacted was Bethune Crossroads, planned by T.R.U.S.T. South LA and Abode Communities in conjunction with St. Mark’s Lutheran Church. This project was slated for the old Bethune Library site, located near the intersection of 37th Street and Vermont across the street from USC.

It would have consisted of 55 affordable homes and 15,000 square feet of retail space for a fresh food grocery. It was one of dozens of similar development projects impacted by Gov. Jerry Brown’s decision to defund community development agencies statewide.

Luckily, T.R.U.S.T. executive director McNeill, says Bethune Crossing is one of the projects that the successor agency to the CRA/LA is expected to transfer to the city housing department. So that means that while the project has been extremely delayed, it is not dead.

But the change in what city agency is responsible for developing affordable housing in L.A. has helped make an already difficult and sluggish task even more problematic to achieve.