Community Development For and By the Community
Many families face rising rents they can’t afford. One local developer revamped an aging historic hotel into affordable housing to transform: "community development being done TO us.. to development done BY us."
Ten years ago, Los Angeles’ Boyle Hotel was more than down on its luck. The grand old Victorian dame, built in 1889 by an Austrian immigrant and his Mexican wife, was uninhabitable. Over the years neglect had turned the stunning building with intricate period details into a ramshackle apartment house with shared bathrooms and communal kitchens. The wiring was faulty and the pipes leaked. Mold bloomed up walls. Rats scurried along the hallways. Absentee landlords racked up housing code violations, ignoring the residents’ repeated requests for basic protections of their safety and health.
Most of the tenants were older, single men: many of them mariachi musicians scraping by from gig to gig. They’d spend their weekends across the street in the plaza, as generations had going back to the 1930s, exchanging news and waiting for word of a quinceñeara or wedding where they might play. The musicians were a cultural anchor for the neighborhood, so much so that the residence was nicknamed the Mariachi Hotel.
The hotel sits at the peak of a steep hill, and if you look just beyond it you can see the full glory of downtown LA glinting in the sun. Maria Cabildo, Co-Founder and President Emeritus of the East LA Community Corporation (ELACC) and current Chief of Staff to the LA County Supervisor, saw the writing on the wall: The Boyle Hotel was bound to be snapped up by developers, and replaced by luxury rooms with a view if nobody attempted to save it. With plans for the LA Metro to extend its new light rail into the heart of the plaza, she knew that new development wouldn’t be far behind. What would the influx of business mean for the resident—mariachi musicians and families alike—who’d long called the neighborhood home?
With the cost of living in the city skyrocketing, many area families already faced rising rents they couldn’t afford, or they were on lengthy wait lists for subsidized housing. Cabildo grew up in the community and did not want it to face the same fate as so many other LA neighborhoods that lost long-standing residents due to high-end development.
ELACC works in the Eastside communities of Los Angeles, connecting families—especially those struggling to make ends meet—with opportunity. Opportunity for safe, healthy housing they can afford, opportunities to build equity, and to own their own homes.
When the chance came to buy the Boyle back in 2006, they jumped.
As ELACC President Isela Gracian looks back on it, “The place was a disaster. The tenants were suspicious—all they knew were the slumlords who’d ignored them for years.”
Gracian’s group knew they had to start by listening to members of the community. They needed to bring the community together to talk about what they hoped for the property, themselves, and their entire East LA neighborhood.
The night of the first community meeting, ELACC staff talked with nervous tenants about their immediate concerns: how they would get financial and logistical help for their move and housing during the renovation. They talked with neighbors about the phases of the new development, slated to bring 51 new apartments to the neighborhood, all priced for people making between 30 to 50 percent of the area’s median income. They talked about bringing the Boyle back to its former glory, restoring a point of pride and helping to preserve the community for the community.
“We went from community development being done to us, to development done with us and now to development done by us,” said Cabildo.
ELACC kept the conversations going, through a process they call community-driven development. They hired an organizer to engage residents in decision-making and to get community feedback throughout the renovation. They wove together funding to make sure they could keep rents low. They made arrangements for a mariachi cultural center to take up residence in the building's community space downstairs, so that the community's music and history would always have a home at the Boyle Hotel.
In 2012, the Boyle Hotel-Cummings Block Apartments opened its doors to people from all walks of life, including some of the musicians who’d lived in it years before. I had the chance to visit this project last year as part of the PLACES Fellowship with the Funders’ Network for Smart Growth and Livable Communities. Throughout our visit we heard the message loud and clear that equitable development has to have community members taking hold of the process. And this is an example where this approach came to life. It was really empowering to hear.
The new building sits across the street from Mariachi Plaza, where residents enjoy a family-run ice cream store and a bookstore and lending library that mostly features books in Spanish. The apartments are part of a neighborhood that feels like home. And now that building is not only livable but also desirable—it’s become a place where parents want to raise their children.
One of those families is Estrella Palomera* and her four kids. Not long ago, they settled into a new, three-bedroom apartment. Up until then, the family had been constantly moving—sleeping in garages, counting on neighbors turning a blind eye. At night, Ms. Palomera would assemble makeshift beds for the kids out of blankets on the floor. The kids woke up smelling faintly of oil and fumes.
Today, the Palomeras live across from the Plaza, with its murals of guitar-playing angels and red-cheeked dancers. Most weekends, the old men are out singing their sweet, sad songs. Some days, the kids will catch sight of them dressed in their mariachi best—boots shined, pants creased, guitars gleaming—on their way to a gig. At bedtime, Ms. Palomera tucks the kids in, the youngest of whom had never slept in a real bed before moving into their new place.
Money is still tight, and life isn’t easy. But inside the apartment they’ve found respite. They’re safe and sound, which means tomorrow she can go off to work and they can go to school and not be so worried all the time. For the five members of the Palomera family, there are suddenly a thousand new meanings for this single word: home.
* By request, names have been changed to protect privacy.
About the Author
Jasmine Hall Ratliff, former program officer for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, managed projects that created access to healthier foods in underserved communities and connecting community development and health.