Posts by Author: Alejandra Molina

Mapping Intersectional Feminist Resources in Los Angeles

(AP Photo/Reed Saxon)

Janelle Ketcher had recently moved to Los Angeles from Iowa and was looking to familiarize herself with her new neighborhood.

She was looking for feminist arts and community programming and found the Women’s Center for Creative Work, a feminist space in the Elysian Valley neighborhood that runs along the Los Angeles River.

There, Ketcher met other women like her, who had recently moved to L.A. “and wanted to learn about L.A.” She also learned and got involved with an effort that was already underway at the center: Angelena Atlas — an intersectional feminist mapping project of the Mapping Feminist Los Angeles working group.

Spearheaded by Leana Scott, 30, the project’s goal is to build a crowdsourced online and print map to share intersectional feminist resources, services, and events for people who identify as women across L.A. County, not just the city. The map will include organizations and events that focus on anti-racism work, improve the lives of women, and that serve low-income communities.

Los Angeles resources to be featured in the map so far include: Inquilinos Unidos, which works for tenants rights; the Coalition for Human Immigrant Rights, which advocates for immigrant rights; and the Social Justice Learning Institute.

“There are so many resources in L.A. and you don’t know how to look for them until you start looking for them,” says Ketcher, 25.

On the surface, Los Angeles County can be often be regarded as an area known for the Hollywood industry, palm trees, and beaches. L.A., however, has a more multi-layered reality. Do-it-yourself maps and atlases help feature the nuances of daily life, community organizers say.

Llano Del Rio Collective, for example, has for years created guides and maps that showcase L.A.’s cooperatives, art spaces, gardens, beekeepers, and cooking collectives. Its most recent guide, Rebel City, features grassroots organizations advocating against evictions and in support of public banking.

Robby Herbst, with Llano Del Rio Collective, has said such guides can hopefully “challenge people to see and use the city differently.”

The Mapping Feminist Los Angeles working group — which includes women who are city planners, community organizers, and visual artists — began brainstorming in 2016, and is now fundraising for web design developers to build the crowdsourced map. The working group is hoping to crowdsource more resources to feature on the map, as well as the resources to build it. A GoFundMe page went live Saturday, Sept. 22. The goal is to have the digital map live by 2019. There are also plans to print the map and distribute copies to public libraries.

Working group members also include Brittany Arceneaux, 28, a New Orleans-native working as a planner and GIS analyst at the City of Los Angeles Planning Department, building this map is about making it easier for the general public to access this type of information.

“Access to these type of things is almost like a privilege … you have to be a part of social media groups (and/or activism groups),” she says.

Arceneaux says data for the digital map will be crowdsourced and maintained by volunteers.

Yasmine Batniji, 24, is another member and an interdisciplinary artist based in Los Angeles who uses sound, video, and 3D animation, the map is a tool to help and engage with people.

“The day we get actual feedback to say, ‘Hey, you don’t have this location’ (or) ‘This isn’t the right address,’ that will be the day we’re really excited because that means someone is using the map,” Batniji says. “That’s the kind of conversation we’re looking to have.”

 

California Organizers Don’t Want This Kind of Bail Reform

One social justice advocate calls a bail reform bill passed in August by legislators in the Sacramento Capitol, above, a "tragedy."

In late August, Raj Jayadev and Jose Valle led a group of Bay Area residents to the California Capitol in a last-ditch effort to prevent Gov. Jerry Brown from signing a bail reform bill that is a revised version of a measure that Jayadev, Valle and many activists once supported.

The measure, known as SB 10, would “mass incarcerate our people,” Valle told a state representative after handing him a letter signed by community organizations that share Valle’s concern.

Jayadev advocated for “real bail reform,” urged the governor not to taint his legacy by signing the bill, and with the others chanted, “Veto SB 10, Veto SB 10!”

This encounter took place Aug. 23, just days after the bill, which eliminates money bail in California, passed the Assembly. It will replace a cash bail system with “risk assessment” tools. Counties will have to use computer algorithms to determine how likely it is that a person facing trial will flee before a court date or commit a crime if not held in jail.

On Aug. 28, the governor signed SB 10.

In a statement, Brown said the new law guarantees “that rich and poor alike are treated fairly” when accused of crimes.

Research shows that in California, most people held in county jails have not been sentenced and are serving time because they’re unable to pay for pretrial release. That’s why many criminal justice advocates spent two years rallying for a different version of SB 10 and helped state Sen. Bob Hertzberg, a Democrat, craft a measure.

Valle, Jayadev and other criminal justice reform organizers fear the version that’s been passed gives too much power to judges.

“It’s definitely a fake bill,” Valle says. “It’s a tragedy that it passed.”

Starting in October 2019 in California, people accused of committing low-level misdemeanors will be released within 12 hours of being booked. They won’t undergo a risk-assessment exam.

People accused of felonies and who are deemed “low risk” by the assessment test will be released. The release of those considered medium risk will depend on the courts. Offenders deemed “high risk” will see a judge at arraignment. “High-risk” defendants may await trial in jail if they’ve been convicted of a serious or violent felony in the last five years.

As big data-driven decision-making has become more popular, many critics have pointed out that computers have failed to remove racial bias — often to the detriment of marginalized communities. A ProPublica study in 2016 found that software designed for pretrial risk assessment was often inaccurate and biased against black people.

Human Rights Watch, which also opposes SB 10, says risk-assessment tools “tend to reinforce the system’s ingrained biases and lack transparency.”

“The data they use, especially arrest and conviction history is greatly skewed by racial and class bias in policing and court outcomes and social inequities,” the organization noted in an Aug. 23 statement.

American Civil Liberties Union of California officials — who supported earlier versions of the measure — in a joint statement that same day said they “welcome an end to the predatory lending practices of the for-profit bail industry,” but said the measure does not “provide sufficient due process nor adequately protect against racial biases and disparities that permeate our justice system.”

Oakland-based Essie Justice Group, a nonprofit helping women with incarcerated loved ones, has long advocated for cash bail reform but opposes what passed in Sacramento. The group released a statement that included: “In a sad twist after years of work, this bill as amended in the final days subjects nearly everyone arrested to a new system of expanded pretrial incarceration and preventative detention. People who could get out and go home today pretrial, albeit at great cost to a bail bondsman, would have to stay incarcerated the moment this bill goes into effect.”

Some Democratic lawmakers, however, see this bill as a crucial first step.

Assembly Member Reggie Jones-Sawyer, as quoted in KQED, said the Legislature will have to revisit the issue next year.

“We are going to have to come at it again and again … until we get the system that we want … until we build a system that is equitable and provides justice for all,” he told KQED.

Assembly Member Shirley Weber called the bill a giant step forward, according to KQED.

“It requires courage sometimes to step forward and not just make that change, but work to make that change right,” she said.

For Valle and Jayadev, who are part of Silicon Valley Debug, a San Jose-based organization that helps families with incarcerated loved ones, the bill’s passage is bad news for the people they serve.

Their organization often helps families who go to them when their loved ones are arrested.

Valle says he helps families navigate the court system by encouraging them to do more than just depend on their attorneys. He helps them understand the court process and penal codes. He guides them through testimonies and evidence. He helps them create biography packets for incarcerated people because it “humanizes them,” he says.

“Money bail is an issue, but we can’t replace the bail industry with the prison industry,” he says. “[Bail companies] are only businesses that were able to capitalize off of the enemy, and I think the enemy is injustice in our courts, in our policy and laws, and in bail.”

 

Would You Tax Twitter to Help Address a Housing and Homelessness Crisis?

The rooftop lounge at Twitter's San Francisco headquarters. (Photo by Oscar Perry Abello)

To Joe Wilson, who runs the San Francisco homeless outreach service Hospitality House, having the city commit itself to a source of funding to address homelessness can go a long way. Wilson, who in the past sought shelter from Hospitality House himself, says residents have a “collective responsibility to improve the quality of life for everyone in the city.”

“If it takes devoting some additional resources to do that, to tackle both income inequality and housing affordability, it’s in everyone’s best interest to do that,” Wilson says.

In San Francisco, a city that has been referred to as a metaphor for income inequality in America, tens of thousands of residents have joined Wilson to push for a measure that would direct millions of dollars toward housing and mental health services through a tax on businesses that make more than $50 million annually.

The measure— known as “Our City, Our Home” — gathered enough signatures in July to qualify for the November ballot. Advocates estimate it could bring up to $300 million for homelessness prevention and the city’s affordable housing programs through the annual gross receipts tax they’re proposing.

A similar measure passed city council in Seattle earlier this year, after much controversy. A month later, bowing to pressure from business groups, the city council repealed the measure. Voters never got the chance to weigh-in at the ballot box.

But Seattle’s failed attempt to make big businesses pay for affordable housing quickly inspired others to consider doing the same, including cities in Silicon Valley. Cupertino, home of Apple, ended up shelving its proposal until at least 2020. Mountain View, home to Google, did end up putting its measure on the ballot for this fall.

In San Francisco, the Coalition on Homelessness helped craft “Our City, Our Home” by working with community organizations and people who have experienced homelessness.

“It’s really a holistic and comprehensive measure that attacks the homelessness crisis at many different angles,” says Sam Lew, policy director for the Coalition on Homelessness.

Under the measure, at least 50 percent of the funds would go toward housing families, youths, and adults. It would pay for subsidies of about 4,000 units of housing. The rest of the money would go toward public health for street-based care of those with mental illness. Funds would also be directed to families needing temporary subsidies to stay in their homes. Money would also be used to add new shelter beds.

Enthusiasm for this initiative is high, according to Lew. Volunteers and community organizers helped gather 28,000 signatures for the measure, more than 18,000 than they actually needed.

“I think that’s very reflective of how excited and ready San Franciscans are to have a measure like this on the ballot,” Lew says.

Not everyone is on board with the proposed new tax on large businesses.

According to The San Francisco Chronicle, the Office of Economic and Workforce Development sent a memo to the mayor’s office, expressing concern that the tax would disproportionately impact employees in mid-level jobs.

“There is a limit on how high taxes can go before you decide to go to Oakland, where the taxes are much, much lower,” said Jim Lazarus, senior vice president of public policy for the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, according to the Chronicle.

Lazarus told the Chronicle there are companies in the city that pay more San Francisco tax than they pay in other states. Some businesses that could be impacted by the measure would be grocery stores like Safeway and Whole Foods, he said, according to the Chronicle.

Interestingly, the proposed measure would affect some companies that are already receiving a tax break from the city for locating in the Tenderloin, a neighborhood next to downtown San Francisco that the city is actively seeking to re-develop. The Tenderloin has had a history of being home to a large concentration of homeless individuals as well as a concentration of affordable housing. Companies that receive the tax break must also sign a community benefits agreement with the city. Twitter is one of the companies receiving the tax break. As Next City reported previously, the Tenderloin tax break has brought some benefits to the neighborhood, but at the cost of tens of millions of dollars in foregone city tax revenues and counting.

So far, over a hundred community groups, nearly 30 public officials, and nine businesses in San Francisco have endorsed “Our City, Our Home.”

 

Sparking a Mini-Movement of Worker Cooperatives in Southeast L.A.

(Credit: COOP LA)

Kateri Gutierrez yearned for her hometown in Southeast Los Angeles County. The region is made up of working-class cities like Lynwood, South Gate, Bell, and Maywood, which have become known as gateway cities for immigrants to the United States.

While Southeast L.A. has been mired by city government corruption scandals and life-threatening pollution amid train yards, manufacturing, and battery recycling plants, the region is also defined by community perseverance. To address the lack of art spaces in the area, one substitute teacher hosted popular open mic nights in his parents’ garage. Earlier this summer, thousands of people flocked to Lynwood for the first SELA Arts Festival that featured Chicanx performers, local vendors, and artists along the LA River.

Born and raised in Lynwood, Gutierrez left for the University of California Berkeley after high school and immersed herself in business and consumer courses. She gained corporate experience working for Disneyland and top accounting firms. Eventually, she left the corporate world to move back home.

Gutierrez was determined to spur economic change and, to that end, decided that her neighborhood needed more community-minded businesses in which workers shared management and ownership — in other words, it needed more worker cooperatives.

So, taking her experience in running a business, she helped open Collective Avenue Coffee, a pop-up coffee shop in Lynwood that, within three years of existence, has helped spark a mini-movement of worker cooperatives in Southeast L.A. The coffee shop will soon be one of four worker cooperatives that will co-locate in COOP LA — a venture that workers say could be the first commercial space in California to be comprised only of worker cooperatives.

“We’re going to revamp small business development, not from outsiders, but by strengthening existing communities,” Gutierrez says. “We’re not keeping the community separate … We’re including them as part of the process.”

COOP LA will include Collective Avenue Coffee, De La Luna Catering, Salazar Landscaping, and Semillas Wellness. Worker-owners of these businesses knew of one another from pop-up events around town and began meeting in hopes of finding a space where they could all pitch in for rent. The COOP LA space became available after the landlord sought Collective Avenue to complement an already-established bakery by serving and selling coffee. The landlord later agreed to lease the space to the four businesses, Gutierrez says. COOP LA is also hoping to raise $15,000 by Sept. 7 through a GoFundMe page to help cover plumbing and other build-out expenses and to help cover costs of community workshops and events.

“We’re all very community-minded in our business structure,” Gutierrez says. “No matter the industry.”

Across the United States, there are nearly 360 estimated small businesses that are worker cooperatives, according to the Democracy at Work Institute, a nonprofit that supports worker co-ops. The typical worker cooperative employs nine workers who make nearly $16 an hour and work 30 hours a week, the Institute says. The Institute found that cooperatives show a workforce that is 63 percent people of color.

Worker cooperatives appear to be increasing across the U.S., but L.A. lags other cities with only four such businesses reported in 2016, compared to 50 in San Francisco, the Democracy at Work Institute says. And, as Next City previously reported, New York City saw 36 new worker cooperatives launched in 2017 alone.

Gutierrez says she would sometimes drive up to the Bay Area to research cooperative models. She knew she wanted a worker-owned coffee shop “that the community can call its own.” She figured she’d take care of the business side of things and find a partner who would focus on the coffee. Gutierrez, along with Jonathan Robles, also from Lynwood, have been operating Collective Avenue Coffee out of a community center concession stand.

Southeast L.A. is hungry for the kind of businesses COOP LA will be housing, such as vegan food options and wellness services, Gutierrez says.

Growing up in South Gate, Lisa Luna, 27, is all too familiar with the abundance of car dealerships and abandoned spaces in disrepair that have left her feeling “incredibly vulnerable to judgment and gentrification.”

“It needs a familiar touch,” says Luna, who grew up in South Gate near the location of COOP LA, and also plans to offer writing workshops in the space after it opens.

Erik Rodas, 30, is the chef at De La Luna Catering. Raised in a working-class family, Rodas wanted to start a business “that would give opportunity to other people.”

According to Rodas, chefs in the restaurant industry are notorious for not giving credit to other workers.

“It’s not equal pay. It’s very hierarchical,” he says. “I didn’t want that for a business.”

De La Luna Catering has three workers, including Rodas. Everyone has a say on important decisions surrounding the food they cook, the money they make, and the events they participate in.

Rodas is looking forward to providing healthy “grab-and-go” food options to complement the coffee shop.

He sees COOP LA as an active way to resist gentrification.

“There’s a lot of anti-gentrification movements but … they don’t provide any alternatives,” says Rodas. “We just see this as an opportunity to hold space.”

 

This Fast Growing City Has Major Concerns about New Investor Tax Break

The Texas Capitol and downtown buildings fade into the fog in Austin, Texas. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

A new federal tax break encouraging investment in poor communities has some Austin officials and residents worried about potential development that could price out the very residents it’s claiming to help.

Mark Rogers, who builds affordable housing through Guadalupe Neighborhood Development Corporation, says some residents “are sick and tired of all the investment … making things less affordable.”

Now, more investment could be pouring into the city.

Tucked into last year’s tax overhaul bill is a provision that offers capital gains tax breaks to investors in exchange for investing in poor neighborhoods across the United States. Under this program, governors designated a limited number of low-income census tracts in their states as “opportunity zones,” where investments eligible for tax incentives would take place. Although the idea for the program had been floating around for several years, the tax break’s inclusion in the tax reform bill was a surprise to many, igniting a scramble to understand what it is and how would it be regulated by various agencies including the Internal Revenue Service.

Projects that opportunity zone investment can finance are broad, according to the nonprofit Urban Institute. Through “opportunity funds,” vehicles created under the law to channel investment into opportunity zones, opportunity zone investors can finance commercial and industrial real estate, housing, infrastructure, and existing or start-up businesses, the Urban Institute says.

Texas Governor Greg Abbott submitted and designated 628 census tracts in 145 counties as opportunity zones, according to a city report. Twenty-one of those tracts are in Austin, including four the city submitted. Public and private entities could provide nominations to the governor.

The program has not yet provided guidelines requiring investors to consult and work with local officials and residents, the city says. That worries city leaders, who, despite concerns, nominated the four Austin census tracts to be considered as opportunity zones.

“[The program] could lead to supporting businesses that aren’t really assets in our community,” says Christine Maguire, the city’s redevelopment division manager. “Often, it’s not a lack of capital. It’s the lack of the right kinds of capital in fast-growing areas like Austin.”

In Austin, a city that has twice been deemed by Forbes as “America’s Fastest Growing City,” hundreds of residents have reportedly faced displacement threats because of redevelopment plans. As Next City previously reported, Austin recently became part of the initial cohort of the “All-In-Cities Anti-Displacement Network.

In a June 2018 letter to the Internal Revenue Service, the city urged the agency to craft regulations requiring investors to work with local stakeholders.

“As it stands, the City fears that these local stakeholders will not necessarily have an opportunity to work with Opportunity Fund investors, fail to meet local needs and priorities and could possibly exacerbate existing problems or impose hardship on the communities the legislation is intended to help,” the letter reads.

The letter also notes how the city’s recent growth has disproportionately impacted low-and-moderate-income people, “the very people Opportunity Zones are meant to help.”

Maguire says the city is hopeful that national advocates will be able to positively influence the way the new program is handled.

Rogers is less optimistic.

“Those folks that want to make money will feel like they’re doing a good thing by eliminating vacant land … and bringing in better-paying jobs, and the people who are there will get washed away in the tidal wave,” Rogers says.

To Rogers, the best solution is simply not to have opportunity zones in Austin.

Such development projects, “need to be done with the existing population,” he says. “I do not see these opportunity zones doing that.”

 

This Inland Empire Community Says Enough with the Warehouses

A 2012 Amazon warehouse opening in San Bernardino, Calif. (Eric Reed/AP Images for Amazon)

Nearly 10 years ago, Carmen and Enrique Jaime decided to sell move from their Los Angeles County home and move 50 miles east to Bloomington, an unincorporated area in California’s Inland Empire that offered spacious homes, panoramic views of the mountains, and enough tranquility to spend their retiring years.

“We were attracted to the everyday life (of Bloomington) … large terrains and access to the mountains,” says Enrique Jaime, 74. “The tranquility here is not something you find in other places.”

Now, that ideal life is under threat.

The San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors on Aug. 21 will vote on a plan that would rezone 17 acres of land from residential to industrial in order to make way for a 344,000 square-foot warehouse. It would be about half a mile away from the Jaimes and their neighbors. The county planning commission, in a unanimous vote, already approved the project in June.

The proposed facility is described as a “high cube” warehouse, which means it would have a ceiling height of 24 feet or more and would be primarily used to store goods prior to distribution to retail locations or other warehouses. It would be built near Bloomington High School.

It’s not the only such facility in Bloomington. Last May, county supervisors approved a nearly 680,000-square foot warehouse not far from an elementary school.

“It’s becoming chaos,” Jaime says.

“What are we going to leave our kids? A house surrounded by warehouses?” Jaime adds. “This is affecting our children, too.”

Bloomington has been referred to as a type of place where residents ride their horses. About 24,000 people call this area home and roughly 84 percent of residents are Latino, according to 2017 estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau. The median household income between 2012 and 2016 was about $49,200, according to census bureau estimates.

Residents in Bloomington worry this project would bring additional pollution, traffic, and noise. But county officials see this project as a profit-making source for the local economy.

Nearly 300 jobs are expected to be created by this facility, according to a county report. County officials say this project will generate additional tax revenues, including an estimated $5.9 million in property tax by 2029. Additionally, county officials say the developer, would annually contribute $30,000 toward road maintenance and other enhancements for the Bloomington community.

As an unincorporated area, Bloomington has no Mayor, city council, or planning commission of its own to whom residents can plead their case. Unincorporated areas can make for some interesting political situations, like those in East Los Angeles.

To Jaime, it’s hard to separate this issue from race. He’s seen residents with respiratory issues in tears, urging county supervisors to ban this project that they fear would affect their health due to the pollution the additional trailers would bring to their community. But despite being the largest county by land area in the lower-48 states, San Bernardino’s Board of Supervisors has only five members, and only one is Latinx. (There is also one Native American currently elected to the board, the first ever.) The Latinx member, Supervisor Josie Gonzales, voted to approve the other 680,000-square-foot warehouse, although two of her fellow supervisors opposed it.

“Because we are Latino, they think we don’t have any rights,” Jaime says. “They want to build warehouses because they want to make money.”

Carmen and Enrique Jaime. (Photo by Alejandra Molina)

The Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice began advocating against the 344,000 square-foot warehouse about two years ago when residents went to the organization for help.

“We decided that it was of high importance for us to push against this project and hopefully begin to set a tone for local elected officials as well as developers, so they don’t think that coming into communities of the Inland Empire would be easy when it came to develop projects of this magnitude,” says Ericka Flores, an organizer with the Center of Community Action and Environmental Justice.

Flores says this kind of warehouse would only add to the “disastrous air quality that we already have in the Inland Empire.”

San Bernardino and Riverside counties, parts of which make up the Inland Empire, ranked as the top two of 25 counties most ozone-polluted counties where people are at risk, according to the American Lung Association State of the Air 2018 report. Often synonymous with “smog,” ozone is harmful to breathe because it aggressively attacks lung tissue, the American Lung Association says. Children, elders, and people with asthma are most at risk.

“Residents are fully aware, educated, and informed [of] the health impacts,” Flores says.

County officials in their report said the projected daily and yearly emissions generated by the land use change will meet regional air quality requirements.

Flores says organizers are not anti-development or are trying to ban warehouses, which are part of a growing e-commerce economy.

“The issue with this is the irresponsible placement of these industrial facilities so close to homes, schools, and community hubs,” she says. “If this warehouse were to be somewhere else … away from community, we would not be as tormented and appalled by this.”

 

What It’s Like to Open a Locally-Owned Coffeeshop in Compton

Patria opened in May. (Photo courtesy of Geoffrey Martinez)

It’s not so unusual for tourists to flock to Compton to get a glimpse of the hip-hop culture with which the city is still largely associated.

Not long ago, Geoffrey Martinez, 39, of Compton, came across two tourists visiting from the Netherlands who wanted to see the city they knew from references in the Grand Theft Auto video game.

They wound up at the independent coffee house that Martinez recently opened in Compton.

“When they were there, they were shocked,” says Martinez. “This is not what we thought we would see,’” he envisions them thinking.

Martinez opened Patria — which in English translates to “homeland” — in May, after years of roasting coffee from his Compton garage. It’s thought to be the first independent coffee house in the city. Martinez says he would often have to drive out of Compton for a decent coffeehouse experience and would think, “Why can’t we have one in our city?”

“I waited years for someone to do it and I realized no one was doing it,” he says.

“It becomes a quality of life (issue) where we lack destinations or communal spaces where we could walk or ride our bicycles to,” he says.

Martinez already had a location in mind — a 950-square-foot space he would often pass by on his way to work. It’s in a small shopping strip on Alameda Street, next to a hair salon and near a park. Martinez liked that it was close to homes and green spaces.

He created a crowdfunding page on Indiegogo and raised more than $14,000 to help open up shop. He also took out small business loans, received private donations, and used earnings from selling the coffee he would roast. It cost him about $75,000 to open the coffee shop, which included getting plumbing and electrical work done along with other necessary permits.

Opening the coffeehouse in Compton was a process, Martinez says.

The space never had a certificate of occupancy, Martinez says. He had to make the necessary improvements to bring it up to certain building codes and California energy efficiency standards.

Martinez envisioned getting local contractors who would hire employees typically shut out of the labor market. It was tougher than he thought. He found there was a shortage of licensed contractors in the city, and other contractors he sought from other cities wouldn’t follow through once learning the project was taking place in Compton.

“There’s a stigma,” he says.

About three months in, Patria has six employees. Martinez says he was intentional about hiring people of color. Most of the people who walk into Patria are from the community or nearby cities, he says.

“I wanted to hire people who look like us in the community,” Martinez explains.

Martinez also started an apprenticeship type program teaching baristas how to operate an espresso machine and other techniques. To Martinez, it’s important that the people of Compton get a quality cup of coffee.

“That’s part of giving people a service with dignity, not just treating them nicely but bringing quality product,” he says.

Martinez, who was born in Los Angeles, spent his childhood living in his mother’s native Guatemala. His single mother, who in the 1970s emigrated from Guatemala to the U.S., had Martinez and his younger brother live with his grandmother for some time. They eventually reunited with their mother in the U.S. once she became a legal permanent resident, after being granted amnesty under the 1986 immigration reform legislation.

They settled in South Los Angeles, with Martinez living in different cities across L.A. as an adult before buying a home in Compton in 2010, after he got married.

It was his childhood in the rural coastal region of Escuintla that Martinez learned about coffee in its fruit form while playing at his best friend’s backyard in Guatemala. He remembers how important freshwater sources were for the campesinos (farmers) and their families who live in the countryside where coffee is grown.

That’s why Martinez and his shop specialize in serving organic coffee. He gets their coffee from a distributor in Oakland.

“Organic coffee is harder to source,” he says. “I feel that it’s in line with some of the values we’re trying to practice.”

To Martinez, the coffeehouse is not meant to be a profit-making source. He says he breaks even operating Patria. His source of income comes from the coffee he roasts and sells.

Instead, Martinez says, he wants to facilitate community enrichment. Patria recently raised money for a nonprofit helping the people of Guatemala after a deadly volcano explosion. Students and professors from nearly public colleges are among his customer base. Martinez is also seeking to make connections with artists and authors.

But there are also people in the city falling on hard times, living out of their cars in parking lots. If they come into Patria, they can use their restroom, get a cup of water or ice, or even coffee if they have extra, Martinez says. He also keeps coffee drink prices affordable, between $2.30 and $4.50.

“We try to treat everyone with the same respect no matter age, appearance … That’s one of our values to treat everyone with dignity,” he says.

 

Rent Strike Wave Comes to Highland Park in Los Angeles

Avenue 64 Apartments, where tenants are currently on a rent-strike to protest living conditions and exorbitant rent hikes. (Photo by Alejandra Molina)

For more than a year, Gerardo Urbina and his family have had to place a bin in the middle of the bathroom floor to absorb water dripping from the upstairs apartment.

They’ve had to kill centipede-like bugs that emerge below the bathroom sink, observe rats darting from the apartment complex dumpster, and withstand the smell of gas that permeates their home while they use the kitchen stove.

These are all issues Urbina, 44, and his family has been dealing with for months as other empty units in their complex were renovated under new ownership. Upgrades haven’t been made to units already occupied by tenants.

That’s why Urbina was taken aback when in March he received notice that rent for his two-bedroom apartment would be raised from $1,160 to $1,860. He found out he wasn’t the only one. Tenants living there between five and 20 years were informed their rents were going up by $500-$700 per year, the L.A. Tenants Union says.

Now, Urbina and eight other families, are among the latest group of Los Angeles tenants who are refusing to pay rent as a form of protest. Led by the L.A. Tenants Union, tenants organized a rent strike until their landowner negotiates what they describe as fair leases and addresses the habitability issues in the building. July is their first month on strike.

Rent strikes are emerging across Los Angeles and across the country as the price to live in cities continues to rise. More than a handful of rent strikes are occurring in neighborhoods across Los Angeles alone. Many renters say they’ve been inspired by a group of mariachis living near Mariachi Plaza in Boyle Heights who successfully reached an agreement with the building’s owner to remain in place after going on rent strike. As of now, median rents in Los Angeles stand at $1,360 for a one-bedroom apartment and $1,750 for a two-bedroom, according to a report from Apartment List.

“It’s a lot of stress,” Urbina says.

He says his 11-year-old son has asked him, “Are we going to live in the street? … Are we still going to have a home?

Urbina and the other tenants — who are mostly working-class Latinx households — live in a 24-unit building in the Highland Park neighborhood of Los Angeles. The complex is now owned by Avenue 64 Apartments LLC, which is listed as having the same address as the Silicon Valley-based Interstate Equities Corporation, the company that sent Urbina the rent increase notice. Online real estate records show the building was sold for $6.7 million in late September 2017.

Soon after, the company made superficial renovations to the complex, repainting the building’s façade and replacing the carpeting and cupboards of all the non-occupied units, the L.A. Tenants Union said.

Next City reached out to Interstate Equities Corporation but did not hear back from the company.

From the outside, the building on Avenue 64 now mirrors the assortment of flipped homes (houses that are purchased, renovated and resold for profit) across Highland Park. What used to be a white structure is now a gray building with colorful orange doors and minimalistic fonts. This design pattern has been referred to as the “Ikea-fying” of Los Angeles.

The renovated units are listed at monthly rents of $1,699 for a one-bedroom and $2,250 for a two-bedroom apartment.

Highland Park is a largely Latino community that’s been described as one of the most gentrifying Los Angeles neighborhoods. Vogue in 2017 published an insider’s guide to Highland Park, “where elote vendors sit at curbs across from record stores.” Famed chef Nancy Silverton recently opened a pizzeria in Highland Park.

The way the L.A. Tenants Union sees it, the Silicon Valley corporation is “invading” a community of largely low-income Latino renters by treating their housing “as assets to bring profit to their shareholders rather than recognizing them as homes,” says Julian Smith-Newman with the L.A. Tenants Union.

The rent strike is a “pretty drastic, strong, and courageous step,” Smith-Newman says. The Northeast Local chapter of the L.A. Tenants Union helped the renters form an association, which newer tenants of the building have also joined. Tenants were then encouraged to post fliers on their windows to protest rent hikes and living conditions in the complex.

“Greedy Owner = Displaced families and children” one poster reads, and “STOP PRICING US OUT OF OUR HOMES!!!” another one declares.

Attempts have been made to negotiate, but the corporation has continued to refuse, Smith-Newman says. Additionally, the apartment complex does not fall under the city’s Rent Stabilization Ordinance, which only pertains to units built before October 1978. This November, California residents will vote on a ballot that would expand rent-control options for cities across the state.

The rent strike, at this point, is the only tool that remains available to them, the L.A. Tenants Union says.

“It feels worse than ever to live here,” says Rosemary, a tenant who lives there with her elementary school-aged daughter. (She requested to withhold her last name for privacy.) “A lot of my friends here, they’ve had to say goodbye to a lot of people who have been priced out of the community.

“Highland Park, we’ve been hit so hard,” Rosemary says. “We really need a win for the people here.”

As for Urbina, who works as a dishwasher, he’s the main provider of his home and can’t imagine affording to live elsewhere. He has lived in that complex for 20 years with his partner and three children.

“My kids have their lives here, their friends and their schools,” Urbina says. “They don’t know any other place. They’ve lived here all their lives … I don’t know where we’d end up if we leave.”

 

Who Do You Imagine When You Imagine Biking in Cities

First held in 2010, CicLAvia has become an annual event in Los Angeles, attracting tens of thousands of participants to ride streets closed to cars for a day, and helping build public support for biking policies and programs that take into account bike riders of all demographics. (AP Photo/Richard Vogel)

José Umberto Barranco was a 32-year-old Orange County man killed in 2007 by a drunk driver who struck him as he was riding his bicycle home from work at a Denny’s in San Juan Capistrano, Calif.

He was one of many working-class people, day laborers, and Latino immigrants who ride bicycles as a necessity.

That incident helped one Chicana activist from San Juan Capistrano realize bicycle advocates weren’t discussing the needs of riders like Barranco, who in the transportation world are considered as “transit-dependent” or “captive riders.”

“What Jose Umberto Barranco’s death said to me was that this wasn’t just a matter of vehicle choice, bikes versus cars … Race and class hierarchy were mixed up in how we traveled and whose safety mattered,” writes Adonia Lugo in her new book, “Bicycle/Race.”

Lugo, 34, opens her book with a tribute to Barranco, but much of what follows is her own journey of coming to terms with race and class identity as she navigates biking advocacy and racial justice spaces. Neither side, she found, was guaranteed to be open to the other.

Lugo’s biking activism began in Los Angeles, the city that taught her about being Mexican-American. The term ‘Chicana,’ was not one she heard growing up in a Latino enclave of mostly first-generation immigrants in Orange County’s San Juan Capistrano, Lugo tells Next City in an interview.

Lugo, who has a Mexican father and a white mother, became a bicycle rider after moving to Portland, Ore., for her undergraduate studies. She came back to Southern California and lived in the L.A. area while attending graduate school at the University of California Irvine. On bicycle, Lugo has traveled across Los Angeles, Portland, Seattle, and Bogotá, Colombia, to conduct research.

The way Lugo came to see it, bicycle culture was focused on people who opted to be “car-free,” meaning those who could afford to drive but chose not to. Discussions centered around attracting new riders and funding for new bike lanes and public space that would, in turn, increase a community’s property values. It was about trendy urban design, she says.

Funding for bike lanes wasn’t the answer she was looking for. What was needed on the street level were bike crews at high schools and stipends for those repairing bikes for kids in the neighborhoods — human infrastructure around biking. Also, she makes a case that poor people should get compensated for using bicycles “and being part of the growing network through which more sustainable transportation cultures could flow.”

As Lugo immersed herself in the biking scene in L.A., she began envisioning an open-streets event in the city, inspired by the “ciclovía” (bike path) culture of Bogotá, where major thoroughfares are closed to car traffic on Sundays.

It was a process that took years getting buy-in from local transportation and elected officials. What helped jumpstart the event, Lugo says, was an injury then-L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa suffered while bicycling on a congested Venice Boulevard. A motorist pulled out in front of the mayor who hit the brakes and fell off his bike. He fractured his elbow.

For Lugo, the event, dubbed CicLAvia, was a way to create a shared space for both the so-called “captive” bicycle riders and those who chose to be car-free. “I wanted to provoke dialogue on the wiggle room between official infrastructure and everyday street life,” she writes in her book. “What seemed genius to me about bringing the ciclovía to L.A. was that it would show who was already there on our streets.”

The first CicLAvia event was held in 2010, and as Lugo recalls, about 40,000 people rode bikes through historically Chicano Boyle Heights in East L.A., through Little Tokyo and Downtown L.A., into Central American neighborhood of MacArthur Park, and Koreatown, and ending in East Hollywood’s bicycle district, a hub for the cycling community in central Los Angeles. Now an annual event, organizers say it has led to the creation of more than 140 miles of open streets across the L.A. area.

Lugo also writes in her book about her time as managing an equity initiative for the Washington, D.C.-based League of American Bicyclists, hoping to build a “multiracial movement” within the bicycle advocacy world.

“I was worried because I was a Chicana anthropologist focused on human infrastructure, not a white person with a planning degree ready to fight for bike lanes,” she writes.

Her worry turned out to be warranted. Seeking to make connections in the D.C. equity landscape, she attended events related to racial and environmental justice to find collaboration opportunities.

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“But when I chatted with other kinds of advocates, what I heard was that they saw bicycling as something for white men, not a cause for people of color,” she writes. “The image of the white entitled cyclist … obscured the reality of bicycling as a survival strategy for the same communities of concern that were the focus of transportation and environment justice”

Meanwhile, in her workplace at the League of American Bicyclists, Lugo faced scrutiny in the tone she used when talking about racial equity. Later, her scope of work changed to focus on Vision Zero, a strategy that aims to eliminate all traffic fatalities. Lugo thought this plan problematic given its emphasis on police enforcement of traffic laws.

“The timing for Vision Zero seemed way off,” she writes. “This was right when the Black Lives Matter movement had made racialized police violence into national news.”

Leaving D.C., Lugo returned to L.A., where she now works with the group People for Mobility Justice. She’s also part of The Untokening, a network of people with marginalized identities who work in transportation.

While her work in the bicycle advocacy world has had its difficulties, Lugo says she’s grateful for current discussions taking place now surrounding white supremacy.

“It was socially acceptable for white people to deny that they had been somehow complicit in racism,” she says. “I think it’s really neat that, as difficult as my work felt a few years ago, this is a time when our country is working on having those same conversations.”

 

Competing Public Visions over Large Vacant Lot in South Los Angeles

Plans have been made for a mixed-use development, that includes some retail and a boarding school for the county’s child welfare and criminal justice systems, to occupy this 4-acre site on the corner of South Vermont and Manchester Avenues in Los Angeles. (Photo by Alejandra Molina)

In the 20 years Rosalind Farr has been living in South Los Angeles, she has seen investments and improvements materialize in surrounding cities while her own neighborhood remains the same, she says.

“This community has been like this since the riots,” Farr says.

Farr would like to see more grocery stores, restaurants and retail fill abandoned lots that have been vacant since the 1992 riots erupted in protest of four police officers being acquitted in the beating of Rodney King. Farr says her community is being left behind while neighboring cities like Inglewood have seen retail development and renovations to The Forum, turning the former home of professional basketball’s Los Angeles Lakers into a concert venue. The city is also undergoing construction for a new NFL stadium complex.

Now, one of the largest tracts of vacant land in South L.A. has been the focus of attention as residents and county leaders ponder the role it can serve to revitalize the community.

Plans have been made for a mixed-use development, with 180 affordable apartments, a public boarding school for the county’s child welfare and criminal justice systems, a transit careers training center, open space and 50,000 square feet of retail space, to occupy a 4-acre site on the corner of South Vermont and Manchester avenues.

The county of Los Angeles, through the use of eminent domain — which allows for privately-owned land to be seized for public projects — was in April granted control of the site that housed a swap meet (also called a flea market) before it burned down during the riots. In December, the county sued to acquire the property from developer Eli Sasson, who had left it largely vacant for 26 years. Sasson’s firm, Sassony Group, planned to build a shopping mall dubbed the Vermont Entertainment Village, but delays emerged due to a lengthy process in buying the necessary parcels to build the project, Sassony Group representatives have said.

The county set aside $15.7 million for acquisition of the site as part of the eminent domain transaction — so Sassony Group isn’t at a complete loss.

“This project is about economic development — the kind of sustainable, ongoing investment this community has long deserved,” County Supervisor Ridley-Thomas, who represents the area, has said.

U.S. Rep. Karen Bass, D-Los Angeles, said that with the land acquisition “revitalization is finally on the way.”

On a recent weekend, residents went to the vacant site for a community meeting aimed to gather insight about the kind of businesses that should move into the lot. Many people chose a small grocery store and a job training center, the county says.

“In the last month, I’ve seen more action on this site than I have since I was a child,” said Moises Rosales, president of the Southeast Neighborhood Association. “I’m hoping it’s going to be a catalyst for all of Vermont.”

Not everyone is happy about these proposals, however, including Farr.

At a meeting Wednesday, July 11, more than 50 gathered at Community Coalition, a nonprofit space a few blocks away from the vacant lot.

Farr and other residents envisioned a more retail-oriented use of the land and expressed concern over the lack of resident input on whether the school would be the best choice. They expressed fears their community could be defined by housing and a school with foster kids that could potentially bring disciplinary issues to a neighborhood that has seen its share of violence.

The way Farr sees it, why should she and her neighbors have to venture to other communities like Inglewood to do their shopping?

“We want a Starbucks in our area. We want a decent grocery store that sells decent food,” Farr says. “Why should we have to leave out of our community to drive down to Crenshaw and Century to patronize that community?”

County representatives say the land must serve as public use because it was acquired through eminent domain. The school and housing units would not only fulfill that use, but also address the needs of the community, they say.

Sassony representatives have criticized the county’s move, saying it came came less than a month after the company finally secured the remaining site parcels. Sassony officials could not be reached for comment, but in a Los Angeles Business Journal story said the county’s decision “might have more to do with the proximity to Inglewood’s new stadium complex.”

To Farr, when people get off the 110 Freeway, “They’re going to fly right through ‘the ghetto’ to get to Inglewood, to get to The Forum, to get to those stadiums and we’re still missing money right here on this end.”

“We deserve to have revenue come back here, too,” she says.

 



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