Editor’s note: This article originally appeared on kcet.org.
By Doug Smith
A growing body of research is reinforcing what public health and housing advocates in Los Angeles have long known: losing your home can be hazardous to your health.
We shouldn’t be surprised. In neighborhoods across Los Angeles, involuntary displacement is generating significant health consequences for individuals, families and entire communities. When forced out of their homes, residents may relocate to areas with fewer health resources. Displaced families often end up in overcrowded and unhealthy housing conditions, or worse, on the street. And when pushed out of their neighborhoods, residents lose connections to doctors, friends, family and cultural networks that help them stay healthy and safe. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), the poor, women, children, the elderly, and members of racial and ethnic minority groups are most at risk of suffering the health impacts of displacement.
Public Counsel represents low-income residents who have seen their homes literally bulldozed to make way for new structures. We work with tenants who face significant rent increases and the prospect of homelessness because the affordability restrictions on their homes will expire in the very near future. We also work directly with residents and organizers in rapidly gentrifying communities, including transit-oriented neighborhoods along the Metro Expo and Gold lines, where real estate speculation is intensifying displacement risks. Skyrocketing housing costs,conversion of rent stabilized units, and waves of evictions are forcing long-time residents from their homes and uprooting families from their neighborhoods. Emerging plans to revitalize the L.A. River arouse these same concerns in low-income river-adjacent communities.
From where we stand, the connection between displacement and negative health outcomes is clear. We have seen elderly residents struggle to access adequate medical care after being separated by hundreds of miles from their long-time primary care physician. We have worked with a displaced tenant whose only option was to live in a garage without running water. We have seen landlords take drastic measures and make baseless claims in order to expel residents from their homes, like forcing families to live in uninhabitable conditions without basic health necessities like heat and working plumbing. In many of the communities we work in, displaced families turn to friends and family for shelter, but the resulting overcrowded housing conditions significantly compromise health and well-being.
A growing body of literature from the public health field reinforces what we are seeing and points to long-term negative health impacts. A recent report, informed by the Alameda County Public Health Department, identifies multiple negative health impacts of displacement, including reduced access to health-promoting resources, increased exposure to violence, and heightened chronic stress. Other research indicates that “social loss” — the disruption of social ties and cultural support networks — can cause psychological effects and increased susceptibility to disease and chronic conditions.
Increasing access to green space, healthy food, medical clinics, and employment opportunities in underserved communities is an important step in the quest to tackle our glaring geographic health disparities. But without a corresponding effort to protect long-term residents from being pushed out, many won’t be there to enjoy the benefits.
Fortunately, the Plan for a Healthy L.A. creates an opportunity to collectively explore the links between displacement and health. Through this process, we can elevate neighborhood stabilization efforts as part of a comprehensive strategy to stem the tide of health inequities.
Community based organizations are doing their part by organizing local residents and engaging in the planning process. In my practice, I work with coalitions like the United Neighbors in Defense Against Displacement (UNIDAD) and the Alliance for Community Transit(ACT-LA) that are advancing a framework for healthy, sustainable, and inclusive neighborhood growth that protects and benefits existing residents. Achieving this equitable growth model is a challenge that we must meet.
Here are some of the tools that we can use:
- Doubling down on enforcement of the Rent Stabilization Ordinance and stepping up efforts to educate tenants about their rights will improve tenant stability and preserve our rental housing stock.
- A citywide commitment to creating and protecting affordable housing near transit will ensure that low-income residents can continue to access transit and remain in their neighborhoods.
- Community Plans can help prevent a net loss of housing in our neighborhoods by implementing and coordinating land use tools that both produce new affordable housing and preserve existing affordable housing.
- Regulating condo conversions will allow us to proactively protect and maintain a neighborhood’s supply of housing opportunities.
- Enhancing quality employment opportunities and supporting community-serving small businesses can improve the economic health of a neighborhood, not only allowing local residents to remain but to thrive.
- Limiting incentives and public subsidies to projects that do not displace residents will promote sustainable community growth.
- Community Land Trusts can expand local control over neighborhood assets.
- Promoting a model of planning done with people instead of planning done to people will allow local residents to play a meaningful role in authoring the future of their neighborhood.
The Plan for a Healthy L.A. calls for more than hospitals and affordable health care. It is a call to prioritize positive health outcomes in the growth of our city. This commitment to comprehensively analyze future plans and programs through a health lens is a groundbreaking step. But to make our vision for a healthier L.A. a reality, both the Plan and the City’s actions must work to prevent displacement.
Doug Smith is an attorney and Equal Justice Works Fellow (sponsored by the Ottinger Family Foundation) at Public Counsel, the nation’s largest pro bono law firm. As part of Public Counsel’s Community Development Project, Doug works with nonprofit organizations and low-income entrepreneurs to advance economic mobility and improve affordable housing opportunities in Los Angeles.