Foreclosures hollow out a community

By Jasmin López | Published by

On a sunny afternoon, as a handful of tourists participated in guided tours and marveled at the Watts Towers, a National Historic Landmark, 19-year-old Jeremiah Cotton stood among a group of young men nearby gathered around a broken-down car.

As the men waited for mechanical assistance, Cotton stared pensively in the direction of a vacant home across the street. Cotton has lived in the South Los Angeles community of Watts since birth. He has experienced many changes within his community – the good and the bad.

Foreclosed and vacant homes are nothing new to Cotton – a common sight in his neighborhood. In an unaffected style, he discussed the high number of foreclosed, vacant, and abandoned homes.

Foreclosed homes are hollowing out the community of Watts in South Los Angeles. Photo by Jasmin Lopez.

Foreclosed homes are hollowing out the community of Watts in South Los Angeles. Photo by Jasmin Lopez.

“Just walk down the street. They’re worse. They’re everywhere. Everyday, everywhere,” he said.

Despite declining foreclosure filings in California and Los Angeles County, the short block alone had five recently foreclosed homes, and the community is ridden with hundreds more. The home-foreclosure rate in Watts is more than triple the national average, according to RealtyTrac, a real estate information company and an online marketplace for foreclosed and defaulted properties in the U.S.

The vacant properties raise concern with community members for a number of reasons, but the foremost concern is the number of displaced families. Families are forced to leave their homes, their communities, and sometimes end up homeless.

“They just move to the projects,” said Cotton. When asked if he believed that to be the fate of most families, he assuredly stated “pretty much.”

Legislation extends new rights

New legislation that aims to protect homeowners took effect on Jan. 1. The California Homeowner Bill of Rights extends key mortgage and foreclosure protections to homeowners and borrowers such as a guaranteed single point of contact and restrictions on dual track foreclosure – the practice of initiating the foreclosure process against a homeowner while the homeowner is seeking to renegotiate their loan terms.

According to a statement from the office of the Attorney General, the Homeowner Bill of Rights “will provide basic fairness and transparency for homeowners, and improve the mortgage process for everyone.”

“For too long, struggling homeowners in California have been denied fairness and transparency when dealing with their lending institutions,” said Attorney General Kamala Harris. “These laws give homeowners new rights as they work through the foreclosure process and will give Californians a fair opportunity to stay in their homes.”

Another key provision, tools to curb blight, assists local governments and receivers in combating blight and crime associated with multiple vacant homes in neighborhoods.

Some advocates think the Homeowner Bill of Rights came too late for the many families that were involved in unfair foreclosures, and fear that the positive impact will be minimal.

“It’s very little, and it’s coming kind of late. Certainly, it will help some troubled homeowners, but not to an extent that it will make a real impact,” said Arturo Ybarra, director of Watts/Century Latino Organization, a HUD-approved agency that provides housing education and counseling to troubled homeowners.

Ybarra, also a resident of Watts, witnessed the damage foreclosures have caused his community over the years. When homes are foreclosed upon, the negative effects extend beyond the displaced individuals and families and adversely affect the entire community’s health.

In Watts, many foreclosed homes become vacant, neglected or abandoned properties that increase the risk of blight and introduce community health risks such as crime, pest infestations, disorder, and violence.

Ybarra believes that Watts, Compton and Lynwood were hit the hardest by foreclosures. Entire blocks of homes that were in some stage of the foreclosure process were vacant, unattended, vandalized, and became eyesores as well as a health risk. Trash from foreclosed properties ends up in alleys and streets, invites pests and encourages further littering. Public services are also not responding as soon as they should.

Abandoned properties are used as drug houses, sleeping quarters for homeless people, and houses for prostitution.

“Many of those houses have been used as drug houses, some are taken by homeless people. There’s prostitution. One way or another, it affects our community, our neighbors, and other properties,” said Ybarra.

A study, soon to be published in the Journal of Urban Economics, found that recent foreclosures elevated the chances for criminal activity, especially on blocks with concentrated levels of foreclosure activity and in neighborhoods with moderate or high levels of crime.

Damaging the social fabric

Foreclosures have also contributed to decreased social cohesion and increased isolation within Watts. Relationships between families and neighbors have been damaged or strained, disrupting the health-promoting social networks and the sense of community. Residents that remain when families and neighbors are forced to leave the neighborhood are also often left with feelings of frustration, loneliness, and hopelessness.

“This automatically transmits a sense of hopelessness, not only for those that are affected but also for those that are witnessing the foreclosures. These situations hurt them because they know these people, too. This hurts us all; it hurts the social fabric,” said Ybarra.

Paying the price

A report published by the Center for Responsible Lending states that people who live near foreclosed homes lose significant home equity, with communities of color bearing the largest share of the cost – a huge setback for homeowners who had previously made economic progress in the neighborhoods.

When a home falls into foreclosure, it affects the property value of the foreclosed home as well as neighboring properties. The decline in property values diminishes tax revenue streams that fund municipal services essential to community health, and increase the local government costs of responding to foreclosure-related problems such as maintenance, inspection, trash removal, or public safety calls.

The Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE) and The Home Defenders League published a report that estimates that between 2008 and 2012, the neighborhood of Watts (zip code 90002) experienced property value losses (foreclosed and neighboring homes) of $896 million; property tax losses of $5.5 million; and local government costs of $25.2 million.

Declining property values also spur neighborhood disinvestment, another effect with long-term impacts on community health.

“The foreclosure crisis has decimated the homeowner constituency in Watts. The African American and Latino communities were targeted to receive predatory loans, and during the housing crisis lost the most. Every foreclosed home in the city of L.A. costs the city about $20,000 in lost tax revenue,” said David Mazariegos, lead organizer with ACCE.

“We need to keep the pressure on the big banks and make them pay for the damage they have caused our communities, cities, states, and country.”

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Los Angeles neighborhood bears the brunt of air pollution

By Jasmin López | Special to

Photo: Zackary Canepari

As summer temperatures rise, so do fears of asthma and other illnesses caused by all the air pollution converging on the east Los Angeles community of Boyle Heights.

With its proximity to freeways, industrial sites and shipping corridors, activists say the geography of Boyle Heights brings a disproportionate health burden to residents.

Determined to reduce the adverse health effects caused by air pollution, residents and activists of this historically immigrant community are taking proactive and innovative measures to improve their environment.

“It’s a low-income, mostly transit-dependent community, there’s a lot of walking that happens, there are a lot of people that are out, being mobile through that pollution,” said Vanessa Rodriguez, associate director at the Alliance for a Better Community.

Rodriguez said Boyle Heights wasn’t designed for a mix of residential and industrial uses, nor the density of traffic it bears today.

“A lot of their central arteries are being used as thoroughfares,” she said. “The freeways that dissect the community, their entrances and exits cut up children’s routes to and from schools.”

One community group is installing air filters and monitoring devices in schools, hoping to draw attention to the issue.

The Air Quality Advancement Project of Mothers of East LA is funded by settlement money from a class-action lawsuit, and will install high-performance air filtration systems in seven Boyle Heights schools, and study air quality in and out of the classrooms.

“It’s an opportunity to get us on the radar regarding the injustice that is happening. We’ll be able to really validate what we’ve been claiming,” says Diana del Pozo-Mora, MELA’s executive director.

Health advocates are particularly concerned about ozone and particle pollution from traffic, which recent studies link to childhood asthma, hypersensitive allergies, infant mortality, and a variety of respiratory illnesses. Diabetics, people with heart or lung diseases, older adults, children and low income communities are at greater risk, especially when they are physically active.

Los Angeles was recently ranked by the American Lung Association as one of the most polluted cities in the nation, with several vulnerable and disadvantaged communities at greater risk for exposure to ozone and particles [PDF] .

With plans underway to expand the nearby Port of Long Beach (the largest source of air pollution in California, combined with the Port of Los Angeles) and the 710 freeway, residents face an even greater density of cargo ships, loading docks, diesel trucks and trains.

Activists say that so far, little has been done to address the health impacts on neighboring communities.

“There is a huge body of information to support that living in close proximity to polluting sources, puts one at great risk. The current level of standards doesn’t protect people,” said Bonnie Holmes-Gen of the group’s California office.

Bill Gallegos, executive director of Communities for a Better Environment, claimed that official statistics “don’t even begin to capture” the high rates and impacts of asthma, cancer, heart disease, pregnancy and childbirth complications, and respiratory problems.

“The county health system is struggling to survive, just to meet people’s basic needs,” he said. “With all these budget cuts it looks like what we’re facing is going to get worse.”

Beneath the 5 and 10 freeways, a view of Hollenbeck Park. Photo: Zackary Canepari

Photo: Zackary Canepari

Photo: Zackary Canepari

Mission Street on the north side of Boyle Heights. Photo: Zackary Canepari

Young people define a healthy future for Boyle Heights

By Jasmin López | Special to

Whittier Boulevard and Soto Street in Boyle Heights. Photo: Zackary Canepari

New community collaborations in Los Angeles are giving young people a leading role in improving their neighborhoods.

Youth are setting goals and organizing action in the Los Angeles communities of Boyle Heights, City Heights, Coachella, Long Beach, Santa Ana and South Los Angeles — many convening over a recent weekend for a meeting of the Building a Healthy Boyle Heights Collaborative at a local computer access and education center.

News about Boyle Heights tends to be about crime, but young residents see it differently.

“Violence isn’t the biggest issue in Boyle Heights. I see health as the biggest issue right now — lack of healthy food and exercise. Diabetes and obesity are big problems in our community. Seeing my dad struggle with diabetes motivates me to exercise everyday so that I don’t have those problems,” said Carlos Jimenez, a Building Healthy Communities youth leader and volunteer with Proyecto Pastoral, which provides low-income community services in Boyle Heights.

Participants also joined in the 22nd Annual L.A. River Clean-Up, attended workshops on social-movement history, media and “Organizing 101″ — and developed their own workshops and priority issues, such as “access to healthy food options” and “reclaiming public spaces,” for a statewide convening on June 24.

The program “has been very empowering for the youth and assists in helping change behavior that would ultimately affect their health. They are identifying issues and making healthier choices in their lives,” said Eric Hubbard, director of development at Jovenes, Inc., an organization working to bring opportunities to disenfranchised youth and families to become active and integrated members of the community.

Building a Healthy Boyle Heights is the collaborative of organizations working through this initiative to outline and prioritize outcomes for the community based on resident and youth response. Most recently residents selected the outcomes chosen by the youth as first priority.

“Being involved in Building a Healthy Boyle Heights, one of the lessons that I walked away with was that community efforts — while they seem very extensive and complicated — do work. When you work with the community and create advocates out of the community, they’re the ones that really make the choices that ultimately become the right choices for the community. They’re the ones that bring progress into the community,” said Lucia Torres, director of Proyecto Pastoral’s academic-support program.

Lucia Torres, program director of IMPACTO at Proyecto Pastoral

IMPACTO youth speaks about her community

Building a Healthy Boyle Heights project is a project of the California Endowment, which also provided some seed funding for the Los Angeles Toxic Tour via a pre-existing grant to Spot.Us. The Boyle Heights series is produced independently of any editorial oversight or influence from Spot.Us.

In smoggy Los Angeles, one neighborhood pushes back

Hollenbeck Park, one of the few green spaces available to families in Boyle Heights. Photo by Zackary Canepari

By Jasmin López | Special to

News about Boyle Heights in Los Angeles tends to be about crime or gentrification. There’s little coverage of air pollution, lack of safe and green spaces, lack of access to affordable and healthy food options — or the residents and organizations that are determined to change this.

On April 5, the East LA Community Corporation gathered community members to discuss the Boyle Heights Clean Air pilot project in which residents will collect data on local pollution and health risks.

“People really want to engage with us. They want to mobilize, act, and learn more,” said Lina Stepick, community organizing fellow at ELACC.

In January, the Clean Up Green Up campaign was launched and proposed to bring greener industries and jobs to “toxic hot spot” communities where concentrations of environmental hazards have resulted in high levels of health risks, including cancer and asthma. Clean Up Green Up is led by Communities for a Better Environment, Coalition for a Safe Environment, Pacoima Beautiful and Union de Vecinos.

“We know that Boyle Heights is very polluted and it’s a concern in our community. The children have asthma and there are more and more illnesses. We don’t know if it has to do with the pollution, the freeways, and the cars and trucks in our community,” said Angela Gutierrez, a volunteer at Union de Vecinos and White Memorial Hospital.

A mostly working class Latino neighborhood east of the Los Angeles River and north of the industrial city of Vernon, Boyle Heights has long been home to immigrant families, rich social capital and strong civic engagement.

It also has experienced generations of environmental inequality.

In the summer of 2006, The Southeast Regional Energy Center proposed building a 943-megawatt fossil fuel power plant that would emit approximately 1.7 million pounds of toxic pollution per year as well as 2.8 million tons of green house gases. The plant would have affected the communities living in the six-mile radius around the proposed 27-acre site on the southeast corner of Boyle and Fruitland Avenues in Vernon.

Residents and organizations from surrounding communities, including Boyle Heights, formed an alliance and fought against the proposed project for three years. In 2009, Vernon abandoned its plan.

The alliance led mostly by immigrant Latinas, youth, and supported by several organizations including Mother’s of East Los Angeles, Resurrection Church and Communities for a Better Environment was a victory for low-income communities across the country that are suffering from political, economic and social inequities.

“Environmental issues are just one of many issues of structural inequality faced by poor people of color. You can’t understand this issue as separate from the attacks on undocumented immigrants, inequality in schools, housing, and employment, police brutality, cultural language repression, all of the facets of people’s repression,” said Bill Gallegos, executive director of Communities for a Better Environment.

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