Suburban Ideals vs. New Realities: Informal Housing in South Gate

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“[T]he idea that movies and stars inspire people from the world’s pockets of desperate poverty to undertake treacherous journeys across oceans and borders to this city of immigrants is fatuous,” writes UCLA’s Eric Avila. “Immigrant understandings of the city rely upon the concrete aspects of urban growth: labor markets, employment opportunities, housing availability, and preexisting networks of family and community.”(1) Indeed, the hard economic realities of life drive immigration – and internal migration for that matter — and it is the intersection of these realities and the culture of immigrants themselves.

This is particularly true in regard to family structure and informal economies both of which help to define places like South Gate, and the larger Southeast Los Angeles County region, today. However, though it has undergone great change, the practice of informal economies, particularly in regard to housing, in the suburb has a long history and the response by its newer residents reveals both change and continuity.

Southeastern L.A. County serves as a symbol of the metropolitan area’s modern reality: a region defined by its Latino American demographics, that is still tied to a tradition of informal economies and property-oriented suburban ethos. The rise of informal housing, often described as “illegal garage conversions” or “bootleg apartments” but includes a greater diversity of housing forms ranging from backyard sheds to RV’s, provides a window into the complexities of metropolitan L.A. Though it exists across Los Angeles and especially throughout the largely working class “Gateway Cities”, informal housing in South Gate offers insight into the persistence of suburban ideals in the face of altered demographics and economies.

A Blue Collar History 

“In the early twenty first century South Gate is once again a suburb of the working class,” concluded historian Becky Nicolaides in what’s become the gold standard for Los Angeles metropolitan history, My Blue Heaven (2002). In her 2002 work, Nicolaides documented how South Gate grew from a blue-collar suburb based on thrift, hard work, and a suburban ideal that promoted low taxes, property rights, and regrettably segregation, into a middle class enclave by mid-century.(2)

White families bought land, built their own simple bungalows, and harnessed their homes as sites of production, yesteryear informal economies ranging from backyard gardens that supplemented groceries or could be traded for other goods or sold to small businesses to augment the earnings of factory workers. “South Gate’s residents tried all strategies, some that insulated them from the wage driven market, others that sought to profit within that marketplace. With one foot in and the other out, the overriding goal remained family security,” writes Nicolaides.(3)

Ariel view of South Gate circa 1956

Ariel view of South Gate circa 1956

As the region’s manufacturing developed, companies like General Motors and Firestone brought jobs and union negotiated wages and benefits to the surrounding Southeast Los Angeles municipalities. Opening in 1927, the Firestone Tire factory delivered employment and revenue to South Gate while also functioning as a symbol for the region’s industrial development.

If the self construction of housing and informal economies of backyard food production or home businesses found praise from some quarters in the 1920s, later the growing middle class nature of the suburb frowned upon such endeavors establishing regulations that limited home construction to professionals and discouraged self provisioning. University of Texas’s, Jake Wegmann added to points raised by Nicolaides noting that what had been a “rough hewn working class suburb” in the 1920s, by the 1950s had been transformed into a more modern middle class environment. Zoning laws deployed by South Gate proved decisive in this regard. Passed in the 1950s and 60s, such regulations locked cities like South Gate into a “nuclear family mid 20th century suburbia” which fails to “reflect how people are living any more.”(4)

The New Blue
Today, the arc of the South Gate narrative, though demographically distinct from its mid century predecessor, appears remarkably consistent as its predominantly Latino population engages in similar but distinct informal economies that speak to not only economic restructuring of the past fifty years but also the rapid ethnic and racial change that has reshaped Southeastern Los Angeles. Open air mercados or yard sales occur on every second Saturday of the month, noted Claremont Graduate University doctoral candidate (CGU) and former South Gate resident, Mercedes Gonzalez-Ontanon at this year’s Society for American City and Regional Planners Conference (SACRPH) held in downtown L.A.’s Biltmore Hotel.

Roughly nine years ago, South Gate leaders sought to regulate the ever proliferating number of yard sales by issuing permits to homeowners hoping to conduct their own mercado. On the the second Saturday of every month, cash registers, rolling racks and the occasional homeowner working security give the sense of true business. These “open air mercados … create a sense of camaraderie among Latinos accustomed to open air markets,” Gonzalez-Ontanon pointed out. Officially, residents are only to sell used items and not new merchandise, but as Gonzalez-Ontanon pointed out recently the city only has one inspector so plenty of new products get sold.5 Such endeavors parallel the efforts of South Gate’s original residents who themselves were migrants from the South and Midwest and engaged in their versions of informal economies.

Informal housing too has become a staple in the suburb and across the metropolitan area. Though the 2008 housing crash might have accelerated its prevalence, writers like Wegmann and CGU doctoral candidate Graham McNeill note informal housing has been with L.A. for decades; its proliferation spurred by economic, and to some extent cultural change.

Originally a working class neighborhood, South Gate eventually became and adopted middle class values that suited Southern California's suburban ideal.

Originally a working class neighborhood, South Gate eventually became and adopted middle class values that suited Southern California’s suburban ideal.

New Economic Realities
During the 1970s and 80s, industry decamped from the region, taking with it the wages and unions that had developed as a result of the area’s manufacturing base. For example, the aformentioned Firestone factory shuttered its doors in 1980 thereby jettisoning thousands of jobs. Industry did return but in the form of smaller scale, sweatshop oriented, non-unionized textile production and other forms of manufacturing. “Today, manufacturing remains the leading industry employing residents (22%), but many are employed in low-paying production, transportation and material moving occupations,” write Genevieve Carpio, Clara Irazabal, and Laura Pulido in a 2011 article.(5)

Suburbs like South Gate and Maywood epitomized this larger process in Southeastern L.A. The Watts Riots and integration ratcheted up fears about decline and encouraged some whites to abandon South Gate and the broader Southeastern L.A. area. The perceived instability of Watts and gradual closing of local industry caused property values to drop while the city bled tax revenue. White residents scrambled to sell their homes at rapidly increasing rates, which in turn further undermined home values. Yet amidst these developments, some groups would find opportunity and community. “Throughout the Gateway Cities … white people left, black people tip-toed in, and Latinos, including immigrants, moved en masse,” notes USC professor, Manuel Pastor.(6)

South Gate’s new Latino residents brought the same suburban hopes as their predecessors but in a much different economy. Today’s residents operate “in a completely different sort of context,” a post-industrial economy that lacks the healthy wages and labor protections of earlier eras, Becky Nicolaides asserted.(7)

Though clearly not as lucrative for workers as in the past, new manufacturing employment drew immigrant and migrant labor while dropping property values enabled Latino families, whether as owners or renters, to find a foothold in suburban L.A. From 1960 to 1970, the number of families with Spanish surnames increased by over three fold from 5% to 17%, notes McNeill. Today, neighboring Huntington Park, Bell, Bell Gardens, Cudahy, and Maywood all report populations in which Latinos make up over 90% of residents. In general, many Gateway Cities transformed from Anglo blue-collar towns dependent on industrial economies to blue collar Latino suburbs connected to post-industrial labor.(8)

Lack of Housing
Changes in housing coincided with Southeastern Los Angeles’ new demographics. Overall, within the larger 14 municipality region, between 1960 and 2010, population boomed by over 40% though as Wegmann argued at SACRPH, the percentage of homeowners dropped by 10%, from 51% to 41%. Still, this population explosion means that Southeastern L.A. County now features population densities on par with places like Queens, a sharp difference from the single home family, privatized suburban ideal promoted by mid century residents. “Lakewood doesn’t look like Lakewood or Levittown,” anymore USC’s Philip Ethington told the audience in November; Pastor acknowledged the same in a 2013 article entitled simply, “Maywood, not Mayberry.”

Shrinking levels of housing production left residents of cities like South Gate in dire housing straights. A dearth of affordable housing meant many residents turned to informal housing. By the late 1990s, estimates suggested that anywhere from 50,000 to 100,000 residents across the Los Angeles region lived in informal housing units. By 2001, the Los Angeles Times argued some 200,000 residents lived in approximately 42,000 units of formal housing with rents ranging from $200 to $600 per month.(9)

With increasing population densities, Southeastern L.A.’s Gateway Cities experienced a marked increase in informal units. For example, in 1999, census officials recorded a population of 30,100 in nearby Maywood, but city officials estimated the number to be closer to 40,000 when counting overcrowded homes and those living in informal housing; South Gate officials believed their township alone included roughly 4,000 such units by 2001.(10)

South Gate's population growth combined with significant demographic and economic change has created a lack of housing and a density comparable to that of Queens in New York.

South Gate’s population growth combined with significant demographic and economic change has created a lack of housing and a density comparable to that of Queens in New York.

Though working class Latino American communities in South Gate and Maywood have exhibited a vibrant political activism around labor rights, environmentalism, and immigration, none of this has translated into more nuanced policies regarding informal housing.(11) Though to be fair, “it may also be the case that housing rights are not given much weight in American political discourse,” added McNeill over email.(12) While numerous informal housing units exist as an attempt to create multigenerational families, others exist as property owners look to augment their income. In both cases, it represents a marked difference from the 1950s nuclear family ideal.

However, some South Gate residents have not adjusted their own homeowner expectations. “By the late 1970s,” McNeill pointed out, “an alliance of white and Latino homeowners in South Gate … averse to higher taxes and local government expenditures” aligned themselves with Prop 13 proponents and served as a foundation for future crackdown policies.(13) In the 1980s and 1990s, South Gate leaders imposed fines on homeowners and encouraged residents to report informal housing. In 1996, the city issued 900 citations.(14) Residents, Latino and white alike, largely agreed with these measures demonstrating the persistence of the mid-century homeowner ideal. However, the fact that many local homeowners rent out informal units also complicates the debate, pointed out several historians in interviews.(15)

Strain and Cost
The nearly invisible nature of informal housing has costs. In 1984, though a city of 74,800, South Gate officials reported the town’s water costs equaled those of 95,000 people raising costs by $143,000. Schools already struggling with overcrowding needed to account for bulging uncounted populations. In 1996, South Gate had to bus 400 students to schools in San Fernando Valley and Watts.(16)

As unaccounted for residents stress municipal infrastructures, cities like Maywood and South Gate struggle to keep “sewage and water systems in tact,” notes Wegmann.(17) “With so many low-income immigrants crowded into small jurisdictions of the Gateway Cities, fiscal needs are high, while fiscal revenues are low,” writes Pastor.(18) The fact that informal housing remains unregulated means property taxes cannot be recouped and developers don’t pay up front costs that would offset new construction and help infrastructure cope. This only furthers the economic distress visiting South Gate and other Gateway Cities.

Finally, and most importantly, there is the issue of safety. Every so often a tragedy unfolds and lives are lost. In 1996, five children died in Watts, when a fire broke out in a garage conversion. In March 2014, another fire in South Los Angeles killed a mother and her son. Similar stories unfolded in Riverside and Orange County the same year.(19) “There is nothing noble in creating and perpetuating unsafe housing,” noted former Zoning Enforcement planner Bell in 2014. “To suggest so is absurd. It is unethical to ignore those property owners who rent out unsafe housing units and risk everyone’s safety.”(20)

The answer however does not involve Trumpian deportation or the elimination of such housing but rather a more nuanced approach that might deliver better housing and increased municipal revenues. “Step number one,” argues Wegmann “let’s start calling this thing what it is, informal housing,” acknowledge it as a reality, study it, and develop real policies, besides unilateral crackdowns. Second, look to other nations in Europe, Latin America, South Asia, and North America who have treated it as legitimate housing and developed programs and policies to deal with it. Fourth, put to rest the all or nothing approaches of crackdowns and embrace new policies like graduated permitting systems (GPS).

GPS programs look to bring informal housing up to code over a certain number of years, rather than simply shutting it down. Owners would fix the most immediate issues first; then make distinctions between the most critical aspects of housing such as health and safety and secondary ones focusing on quality of life. At the moment, “officials know enforcing laws means casting people on streets,” a policy that offers little solution for municipalities or residents, after all burgeoning homeless populations are not good for anyone. Moreover, GPS programs would enable municipalities to better account for local populations and perhaps recoup lost revenue to better serve them all while still providing housing in an increasingly tight real estate and rental market

Admittedly, GPS is not a perfect fix. In all likelihood, it would raise rents for those living in informal housing. Quality versus cost remains the eternal trade off in housing, notes Wegmann. Without building codes, cities end up with tenements like those on New York’s Lower East side in the 1880s. On the flipside, modern building codes make new housing construction prohibitive for working class and poorer folks.

“Unpermitted dwelling units exist in every community regardless of demographics, economics, or geography,” writes Bell.(21) “The reasons are the same: people need housing; owners need income.” Indeed, this past June the Los Angeles City Council asked the City Attorney to draft an ordinance that might give “amnesty” to landlords operating informal housing. “We’ve got people living in deplorable conditions, illegally, in converted units . . . This will provide that safety mechanism, legalize them, provide the opportunity for them to live safely,” Councilman Mitch Englander told the L.A. Times.(22)

South Gate’s history demonstrates the complexities of the issue especially for working class regions like Southeastern Los Angeles County, but it also illustrates how informal housing and self provisioning date back decades; clearly, old suburban ideals no longer suffice. New economies and populations require new discussions and informal housing in South Gate might be one of the best places to start.

_____

1Eric Avila, “Essaying Los Angeles,” in The Cambridge Companion to the Literature of Los Angeles, Ed. Kevin R. McNamara, (Cambridge, MA: Cambridge Press, 2010) 177.
2Nicolaides, My Blue Heaven, 26.
3Becky Nicolaides, My Blue Heaven: Life and Politics in the Working Class Suburbs of Los Angeles, 1920 – 1965, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002), 29.
4Jake Wegmann, interview with author, November 24, 2015.
5Mercedes-Gonzalez-Ontanon, interview with author, December 3, 2015.
6Genevieve Carpio, Clara Irazabal, Laura Pulido, “Right to the Suburb? Rethinking Lefebvre and Immigrant Activism,” Journal of Urban Affairs, 33.2: 196.
7Manuel Pastor, “Maywood, Not Mayberry: Latinos and Suburbia in Los Angeles County,” in Social Justice in Diverse Suburbs: History, Politics, and Prospects, Ed. Christopher Niedt, (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2013), 142.
8Becky Nicolaides, interview with author, November 23, 2015.
9Pastor, “Maywood, Not Mayberry,” 141.
10Frank Trippett, “Down and Out in L.A.,” Time, June 24, 2001, http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,146968,00.html
11Hugo Martin, “Housing Strained at Seams in Parts of L.A. County,” Los Angeles Times, December 19, 1999, http://articles.latimes.com/1999/dec/19/news/mn-45452; Frank Trippett, “Down and Out in L.A.,” Time, June 24, 2001, http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,146968,00.html
12Carpio, Irazabal, and Pulido, “Right to the Suburb?, 158 208; Pastor, “Maywood, Not Mayberry, 129-154.
13Graham McNeill, email correspondence with author, December 4, 2015.
14Graham McNeill, email correspondence with author, December 4, 2015.
15Jeff Leeds, “Tough Stance on Garage Conversions,” Los Angeles Times, December 21, 1996, http://articles.latimes.com/1996-12-21/local/me-11259_1_garage-door.
16Jake Wegmann, interview with author, November 24, 2015; Graham McNeill, email correspondence with author, December 4, 2015; Mercedes-Gonzalez-Ontanon, interview with author, December 3, 2015.
17Jeff Leeds, “Tough Stance on Garage Conversions,” Los Angeles Times, December 21, 1996, http://articles.latimes.com/1996-12-21/local/me-11259_1_garage-door
18Wegmann, interview with author, November 24, 2015.
19Manuel Pastor, “Maywood, Not Mayberry,” 150.
20Jeff Leeds, “Tough Stance on Garage Conversions,” Los Angeles Times, December 21, 1996, http://articles.latimes.com/1996-12-21/local/me-11259_1_garage-door.; Ruben Vivies, Adolfo Flores, and Kate Mather, “Fire in Converted South L.A. Garage Kills Mother, Son,” Los Angeles Times, March 5, 2014, http://www.latimes.com/local/la-me-fire-deaths-20140306-story.html; Adolfo Flores, “Santa Ana Garage Fire Displaces Twelve,” Los Angeles Times, February 24, 2014, http://articles.latimes.com/2014/feb/24/local/la-me-ln-santa-ana-garage-fire-displaces-12-20140224;
“1 Dead When Fire Rips Through Riverside Home Housing 17 people,” CBS Los Angeles, March 1, 2014, http://losangeles.cbslocal.com/2014/03/01/1-dead-when-fire-rips-through-riverside-home-housing-17-people/
21Jonathan P. Bell, “Response to Comments: The Informal Housing Debate Remains Open,” UrbDeZine Los Angeles, November 12, 2014, http://losangeles.urbdezine.com/2014/11/12/response-to-comments-the-informal-housing-debate-remains-open/
22Jonathan P. Bell, “Response to Comments: The Informal Housing Debate Remains Open,” UrbDeZine Los Angeles, November 12, 2014, http://losangeles.urbdezine.com/2014/11/12/response-to-comments-the-informal-housing-debate-remains-open/.
23Emily Albert Reyes, “Plan to legalize ‘bootlegged’ L.A. apartments advances in city council,” Los Angeles Times, June 24, 2015, http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-ln-illegal-bootlegged-apartments-20150624-story.html.

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