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Report: As USC student housing increases, affordable housing harder to find for residents

A banner hangs on an apartment complex near the University of Southern California.
Jennifer Velez/KPCC
A banner hangs on an apartment complex near the University of Southern California.

Residents living around the University of Southern California's University Park Campus have been affected by the amount of students in need of housing around the area, according to a report by the university.

The USC State of the Neighborhood Report addresses the status of the neighborhoods and communities surrounding both the University Park Campus in South L.A. and the Health Sciences Campus in East L.A. Residents who participated in a focus group conducted by the university expressed that rent was increasingly becoming unaffordable for families around the University Park Campus.

Joe Donlin, Director of Equitable Development at Strategic Actions for a Just Economy (SAJE), said the limited amount of housing on university grounds and the desire of university students, staff and faculty to live closer to the school, have forced students to find accommodations outside of the school, thereby creating competition between them and local families, many who have lived in the area for decades.

The trend has been going on for several years, Donlin said. "[It]really started to increase when USC's focus was kind of turned from being a commuter campus to a more residential campus."

SAJE has been working with the local community for almost 20 years. The nonprofit works around issues of housing and economic justice, primarily working in low-income communities.

The University Park Campus includes the neighborhoods of Pico-Union, Harvard Heights, Historic South Central, Adams-Normandie and Vermont Square.  (Photo: USC State of the Neighborhood Report)

Goals of the USC report, initiated in 2013, were to identify strategic areas for USC civic engagement efforts and research, and scholarship opportunities that could inform community needs.

Increasing rents

The report showed that, while the median monthly rent in South L.A. between 2008 and 2012 ($895) was lower than in the city overall ($1,156), it was higher than the rent around University Park. The focus group mentioned that a high poverty rate, unemployment and underemployment in the community made it a challenge for some members to afford housing.

"It's really critical to recognize that the community members who have been longstanding members in the surrounding areas, most of the them are low-income people of color," said Donlin.  

"For a very long time they have been critical to the survival of the community and the local economy. Now, with this trend of gentrification that is happening in the neighborhood, very easily they are being displaced."

Downtown development

The community has been experiencing changes, not only because of university expansion, but also due to increased economic development happening in downtown L.A.

"Downtown is growing down and USC is growing north," said USC Professor of Music and Journalism Tim Page, who moved into the University Park area in 2011. 

The development of the Figueroa corridor, which bridges downtown Los Angeles to Exposition Park, has also brought with it increased economic activity.

"Increased economic development activities coming from downtown and ... through many sources — that area is becoming a priority area for development," said Dr. Hortensia Amaro, associate vice provost for community research initiatives. "People are very concerned about what that is going to mean for them because rent usually under those conditions tends to go up."

One of the report's leading researchers, Amaro took on the assessment after joining USC around two years ago. She said an assessment of this kind had not been done since 1992.

Disinvestment and preference for students

Donlin said many of the low-income, primarily Latino and African-American residents living in the area have experienced decades of of underinvestment and disinvestment. Many of these are community members who have really kept the community alive and going, he said. 

"That includes maintaining their apartment, their homes when many landlords have not been doing their proper repairs ... that are required under habitability laws." 

Amaro noted that community members expressed that some focus group members mentioned mistreatment by landlords and property owners. 

Landlords learn very quickly that they could cater and give preference to students who are willing to pay more for a smaller space over local community members, "a clear violation of federal housing law," Donlin said.

"You can see banners or signage in the neighborhoods around the University that either suggest or directly say that housing is only for USC students."

Some neighborhoods surrounding the University Campus Area are protected by rent control laws, but some community members say rent has still being going up each year. 

Addressing lack of affordable housing

The report stated that there has been a slight decrease in the percentage of units protected under L.A.'s rent stabilization ordinance. 

Valentina Jimenez has rented around the campus for 15 years and currently lives in a rent controlled apartment complex. She says she has experienced a $40 increase each year.  "It's a student zone and reality is ... expensive," she said. Vasquez said she has wanted to move, but other places are too expensive for her.  

The USC Village, currently under construction, was is seen by some as a possible solution to the University Park Campus's housing tensions. The project will house about 2,700 USC students and has sparked a mix of opinions and concerns among community groups. 

Craig Keys, associate senior vice president of civic engagement and economic development, oversaw negotiations with the city and community for the project.

"We will construct 2,700 beds in the first phase, but we ultimately may build significantly more than that, upwards of 4,ooo units, potentially," he said. He said the new project also incorporates 110,000 sq. feet for retail use. 

Keys said SAJE was there as the city and community negotiated with the school over some aspects of the USC Village Project. Through the United Neighbors in Defense Against Displacement campaign, SAJE and other organizations are working with the university to see that economic development happening in the area includes affordable housing and access to jobs, and preserves businesses serving local residents.  

"People are very concerned about displacement and gentrification," Amaro said. "I think the important question for us is 'Is there way to do development that takes into account the needs of local residents and makes affordable housing more available through that process of development?"

Full report