Inclusive Approaches Encourage Gentrification Talks

Non-Profit Groups Help L.A. Get Input from Neighborhoods

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Mike Dennis is director of community organizing at the East LA Community Corporation.

Amanda Daflos is director of the Mayor’s Innovation Team, funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies.

Helen Leung is co-executive director of LA-Más.

Posted: Wednesday, March 30, 2016 2:12 pm

Nonprofit organizations, community development corporations and city officials are working separately toward a unifying goal in Los Angeles:

Giving a voice to the under-represented communities that typically don’t speak at planning and zoning meetings, but are directly impacted by policies and decisions aimed to revitalize their urban neighborhoods.

The approaches for encouraging meaningful engagement with this demographic varies slightly depending on the organization.

The community development corporation, East LA Community Corporation, scrutinizes residential investment that lacks affordable housing components and empowers residents to take anti-gentrification action.

LA-Más, a non-profit community based organization, hosts bilingual workshops to explain land-use polices without the city planning jargon.

In addition, the Mayor’s Innovation Team, funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies, is breaking down barriers between government officials and low-income residents through creative approaches.

All of these avenues for community engagement hinge on one key principle: inclusion.

“Smart growth has to be inclusive and needs to be engaging the folks directly impacted, i.e. hurt by it,” said Mike Dennis, director of community organizing at the East L.A. Community Corporation (ELACC). “It’s not smart unless it’s talking about inclusion.”

Amanda Daflos, director of the Mayor’s Innovation Team (i-team), is conducting inclusive data collection that will be used for metric-oriented strategies that ensure existing residents and businesses are able to stay in their communities.

It’s having a conversation with city residents instead of “pushing policy blindly,” Daflos said.

Los Angeles was one of 14 cities to receive a Bloomberg Philanthropies grant in 2014. The grant funds the i-team for three years. The program “aims to improve the capacity of city halls to effectively design and implement new approaches that improve citizens’ lives – relying on data, open innovation, and strong project and performance management to help mayors address pressing urban challenges,” according to a press release from Bloomberg Philanthropies.

Getting input from those hard-to-reach residents isn’t easy.

The i-team partnered with IDEO to create a series of four hands-on workshops to generate, prototype and test ideas to advance the team’s work in inclusive neighborhood revitalization, Daflos explained. These workshops were held in conjunction with a community college job fair.

“Our thought was to go to them. A way to meet people where they are at,” Daflos said.

The interactive exhibits presented an inclusive perspective asking residents what matters to them. The idea workshops were run like focus groups.

“That’s not something that typically happens in the public sector,” Daflos said.

What was the outcome of these workshops? Besides the data collection that can be shared among different city departments and “infused into the work we do,” these workshops provided a positive experience between city employees and residents.

“In our experience, people are excited to be asked and included,” Daflos said.

Having those conversations are the first steps in meaningful community engagement, said Helen Leung, co-executive director of LA-Más.

Leung agreed that policymakers need to “reach out to people where they are at” and “come without their assumptions” when holding a public workshop.

Sometimes these community interest workshops are held to “check off the box” and to “reinforce the city’s plan” instead of listening to the ideas of the community members, Leung said.

In order to engage with residents impacted by revitalization, LA-Más facilitates bilingual meetings in the evenings that offer free child care and food. The meetings are held at community centers, like a taco shop, where residents already meet instead of a “dark city auditorium,” Leung said. Oh, one more thing – no PowerPoint.

Más is an “organization committed to offering architecture, landscape architecture, and urban design services to support and strengthen communities,” according to its website.

“Our mission is to look critically at systemic problems in the L.A. area and provide solutions based on research and community engagement. By using alternative models of social inclusion and collaboration, we hope to shape the future of equitable city growth,” the LA-Más mission statement says.

LA-Más facilitated and wrote the Futuro de Frogtown Report, a project aimed at bringing uncensored local perspectives on land use policy and providing a roadmap of actionable strategies to city planners, Leung said.

“Futuro de Frogtown was a community engagement process that asked the community what they wanted to see and what they didn’t want to see. It’s a vision plan that included people who are not normally part of the land-use policy discussions,” Leung said.

The insight gained from Futuro de Frogtown is useful for policymakers and developers.

“In Los Angeles gentrification is a complex and loaded word and as a result many people are anti-gentrification. But people want the positive impacts of gentrification, not displacement. We acknowledge those fears, anxiety and complexity,” Leung said.

Smart growth, that is inclusive and sustainable, offers the current residents the “opportunity to shape the neighborhood we have into the neighborhood we’ve always wanted,” she said.

These changes aren’t necessarily entirely negative.

“The wonderful part is investment in their community,” Leung said.

But in most cases, there is a fear of “not belonging” in the neighborhood due to gentrification. LA-Más aims to alleviate these concerns through proactive and inclusive approaches.

“We don’t want the Mom and Pop places to shut down. We don’t want the community members to be priced out,” Leung said.

Low-income residents being “priced out” of their neighborhoods is a constant concern. Rapid and intense gentrification threatens to displace low-income minorities living and working in Los Angeles, Dennis explained.

“And most L.A. neighborhoods are experiencing it,” he said.

ELACC was founded in 1995 after the Los Angeles riots by an urban planner, attorney, community organizer and real estate developer from Los Angeles' Eastside. The founders wanted to create a nonprofit organization “dedicated to serving their densely populated, low-income, urban neighborhood,” according to the ELACC website.

“The Mission of ELACC is to advocate for economic and social justice in Boyle Heights and East Los Angeles by building grassroots leadership, developing affordable housing and neighborhood assets, and providing access to economic development opportunities for low and moderate income families,” according to its mission statement.

Dennis explained that the ELACC owns and operates 600 housing units and has 3,500 members. There is between “200 and 300 units in the pipeline,” Dennis said.

Cities need to have a methodology of inclusion when making land-use decisions regarding private investment in urban neighborhoods, he said.

“We want more investment in these areas. But it needs to be the kind of investment that is beneficial to the folks that have not received that investment historically,” Dennis said. “We need to wait for the right kind of development.”

In the past, many city officials weren’t interested in community engagement.

“They already made the decision and would have a town hall to tell the people how it’s going to be,” Dennis said.

But in recent years, that has changed. ELACC facilitates public discussion spaces to allow for inclusive community engagement.

“We’re trying to change the narrative,” Dennis said.

Inclusion isn’t a Los Angeles issue. Los Angeles isn’t the only city trying to engage with low-income residents, nor is it the only city working through the growing pains of gentrification.

How can other cities gain community input on technical land-use policies that impact their residents?

Start with open interaction, even if it’s uncharted territory, Daflos recommended.

“Don’t be afraid. I can imagine it can feel scary to ask the questions in a new way,” she said.

And know that you’re not alone. More cities are looking for innovative ways to engage with all their community members.

“There is absolutely a movement in this direction,” Daflos said.

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