Dispatches from the Other Side of Development


While the planning and processes of urban development are complex and provoke a range of responses, the goal of transforming a low-income neighborhood in a city into a more prosperous one, as it currently plays out, repeatedly produces at least two irreconcilable perspectives.  The pieces in this series illuminate this conflict.  First, there is the view that an influx of capital benefits a neighborhood and city, a view prevalent among developers and many public officials.  The authors in this series acknowledge this view, though they approach development from the other side: from a straightforward assessment of its impact on residents of a development site who face increasing challenges to remaining in their homes.  Here, I describe how, from this vantage point, these authors illuminate the question that lies at the heart of these diverging views: What is the public interest?  Is it wealth?  Or is it stability for communities, based on their ability to continue to live where they live, and within the communities to which they belong?  Why do these values so frequently oppose one another?  Collectively, as well as individually, these pieces make critical contributions to the necessary and urgent conversation about how to assess where we are and where to go from here.

I. What Public? What Interest?

What is the public interest?  Under what circumstances and definitions does urban development serve it?  Discourse about development, as Alex Scott points out in his piece on Airbnb, tends to herald the process as “revitalization” or criticize it as “gentrification,” indexing the difference between views of proponents—developers, and many courts and public officials—and opponents of development, who mostly constitute the people at risk of displacement and their advocates.1  As Scott explains, the idea that development will revitalize a neighborhood arises partly from the expectation that wealthier residents will raise property values, and higher property values will yield more tax revenue and a greater budget for local government.  This idea of the public interest—more money in the public fisc—explains why local government so often invites and facilitates urban development.  As Scott notes, the process that yields these gains encompasses the conversion of housing stock into more valuable properties, the replacement of poor or working-class tenants with middle- and upper-class residents, and an influx of amenities and consumption options that cater to these wealthier residents into the neighborhood.2  Revitalization therefore refers to investing in land, rather than people.  Indeed, development in what is deemed public interest, insofar as it entails capital investment in land, raises the value of land by devaluing the people who lived upon it, since it has the effect of replacing one “public” with another, more desirable one.  This cycle of effects helps to explain how it comes to pass: This displacement frequently ensures that the public officials who precipitate it face few political consequences for doing so.

These pieces create space for us to see an opposing conception of the public interest that prioritizes the people who comprise that public.  According to this view, the public interest prioritizes people’s ability to stay in the homes that they have built, sometimes over many generations.  It recognizes that displacement is disruptive, expensive, and frequently painful when it is not a choice, because it involves the destruction of people’s long-standing relationships to their neighbors, community businesses, and the land itself.  In short, it understands the non-fungible value of communal life that deepens through years passed and experiences shared by people in a given place.  Within this worldview, it is possible to imagine community development as the creation of infrastructure to foster individual and collective growth and well-being—by providing, for example, quality housing stock, schools, hospitals, transportation systems, employment opportunities, parks, and other recreational areas.

Under current circumstances, these kinds of amenities arrive most often as a resident community is forced to exit.  Because private as well as public profits flow from development projects, developers ally with local government officials, and vice versa, to ensure their success.  As Ysabel Jurado points out in her study of ongoing gentrification in Historic Filipinotown, this structure of incentives creates a situation in which even measures intended to preserve members of a community’s ability to stay at home and together, such as rent control, instead create hot-spots for development.3  The ease with which rent-controlled apartments can be converted into non-rent-controlled buildings leads to the framing of sites with rent control as below-market opportunities, whose potential to yield greater-than-average profit margins make them “ripe” for development.4

By describing various different aspects of urban development in one geographic locale, the pieces in this series illustrate that development operates through manifold simultaneous, interrelated projects.  The issues of Airbnb, a municipal proposal to create a Design District in Historic Filipino, and the plan to build a new stadium for the Rams might appear to be disparate topics.  Yet Scott, Jurado, and Laylaa Abdul-Khabir5 together open a window on development in Los Angeles that highlights the role of local government in encouraging it and help us understand how each project facilitates the others.  Jurado’s discussion of the North Westlake Design District Ordinance shows how municipal governments can respond to and help private developers ready to invest in a neighborhood.6  Developers’ ambition to turn Historic Filipinotown into an extension of Silver Lake forecasts a future setting for the problem Scott describes that is already rampant in the latter: namely, landlords’ replacement of housing stock with short-term rentals for tourists in areas already suffering from housing shortages.  Indeed, because the initial steps of gentrification make a neighborhood attractive to tourists in the first place, Jurado’s account is the prelude to landlords’ “taking needed housing units off the market”7 to convert them in Airbnb units, which Scott’s piece warns will make already heightened rents even higher.

II. Displacement as the Result of a Spectrum of Force

Scott also highlights an important distinction between direct and indirect displacement. Landlords do not just evict their tenants or sell their buildings to buyers who will do so.  The presence of people who pay higher rents and have more expensive tastes, together with an increasing number of “expensive venues and shops,” eventually forces poorer tenants and affordable local businesses to leave the neighborhood.8  As Abdul-Khabir describes in her discussion of the Rams stadium project, the indirect displacement the stadium will cause, in contrast to the direct displacement that was the prerequisite for Dodgers Stadium, will occur as a predictable, consistent effect of development.9  The city’s role in facilitating this stadium project further indexes a moment when plans for new sports arenas and stadiums have peaked as a neighborhood revitalization—or gentrification—technique.10  Such development ventures, in Los Angeles and elsewhere, are funded by public-private partnerships that, according to the New York Times, have altered “the financial formula for building stadiums and arenas”: The new “formula” brings them into neighborhoods, rather than placing them in the periphery of cities, and “surround[s] them with revenue-producing stores, offices and residences capable of servicing the public debt used to help build these venues.”11  More than a dozen cities are currently seeking to remake their downtowns in this way, with the intention of surrounding them with mixed-use residential, retail, and office space.  Cities or developers can purchase properties to acquire land for such projects, but as Abdul-Khabir points out, they have a potent tool if property owners resist their plans: Cities can and have frequently exercised eminent domain to build stadiums, on the theory that the goal of economic development serves a “public purpose.”12  Here, the city understands the public interest to be the process of gentrification that will infuse Inglewood with capital, even as it indirectly displaces its residents.

The historical profundity of the conflict over the meaning of the public interest confronts us clearly in Mia Lattanzi’s piece, which concerns the source of the water supply that enabled the City of Los Angeles to expand in the early twentieth century.13  We must grapple with the fact that without more water, the city could not have supported more life; there would be no city as we now know it.  However, Los Angeles had no water supply without taking it from another community, and thus, the privileging of one public over another.  In this case, too, the growth and enrichment of one community was predicated on the creation of hardship for another, though in this case, the populations did not temporally succeed one another in the same place.  Rather, because the residents of Los Angeles and Inyo counties are regional neighbors, the effects that this channeling of water from one to another—especially the way it unevenly distributed capital between them—are uniquely apparent now.

Thus, indirect displacement need not always involve the replacement of a population.  We see that the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, by making it harder for Inyo County residents to remain in their homes, also caused displacement from a distance.  Furthermore, by placing this phase of Los Angeles’ growth in the context of settlers’ mass migration and establishment on the lands, Lattanzi’s piece also reminds us that the very existence of this metropolitan area too depended on displacement, direct and indirect.  This settlement, which could not have grown without the diversion of crucial resources from its neighbors to itself, took hold in the first place by displacing the native inhabitants of the land.14

III. Solutions Within the System

This series highlights a systemic logic according to which growth arises from losses absorbed by communities.  They further suggest that this pattern has persisted for a long time, and permeates our lives by operating through amenities and features of our urban environment that most take for granted.  Yet the operation of the real estate system also bears marks of community efforts to preserve the values of collective life and stability.  Daniel Foster and Soham Desi’s pieces describe two different ways of attempting to provide relief to communities under threat of displacement—the increasing use of community land trusts (CLTs) and mobile homes as a new form of affordable housing, respectively.15  CLTs, as Foster explains, structure property rights in a way that separates ownership rights from rights of collective use, and thereby give occupants of the land decisionmaking power with respect to the use of the land and aim to provide security of affordable tenure.16  The mobile home production and financing industry seeks to increase the availability of an affordable housing option to individuals and families under circumstances in which they face increasingly acute challenges as they seek to procure and maintain shelter.17

However, even as they examine these attempts to create relief from the threat of displacement, Foster and Desi both soberly confront the limitations of these tools.  Foster shows that “affordability” is a relative term that will fail to meet the needs of all as median housing prices rise so rapidly that they produce unbridgeable gaps between the cost of maintaining a property and subsidizing it.18  Both describe how the pressures of the surrounding market, moreover, bear inward even on projects that aim to produce other options.  For mobile home owners in particular, the perils of financing agreements often combine with the precariousness of renting property with few rights vis-à-vis land owners while also being burdened with assets that, like vehicles, dramatically depreciate upon purchase and are difficult and expensive to move, despite their appellation.

IV. Of Loss and Collective Action

Together, these pieces confront us with a problem that is astonishingly wide and deep.  The wider processes of urban development that bundle these issues are not unique to Los Angeles, but define urban life across the country.  The growth of infrastructure, the development of a city—the capital production that makes a place more capital rich—occurs through processes in which the promise of profit makes parties, at best, indifferent to the value lost by parties in the transfer of resources necessary to initiate building projects, whether an apartment complex, a stadium, a new shopping district, or the city itself.  At worst, parties recognize that a greater loss will magnify their gain.  In simple terms, the cheaper the process of acquiring resources for the project is, the larger the projected profit margin will be.

This series suggests that this familiar formula tends to conceal other, qualitative indices of value.  The loss people experience that converts into others’ gain is not only monetary, but in many cases, an essential sense of home—of family, community, and belonging, both to others and to a place.  What results is the loss of the rich histories of collective experiences, relationships, and memories, in addition to the support networks that sustain people in the material aspects of their everyday lives.  Under the current system, the gains are inextricable from this kind of loss, which is moreover exacerbated through processes of extraction that make the loss the outcome of an exercise of force supported by an imbalance of power.

These authors collectively make an important contribution by illuminating the concrete actions that cumulatively produce the broad phenomenon of urban development.  While together they point to a vast systemic problem, they each avoid making generalizations about it or subsuming the problem in grand narratives about these processes.  Rather, they shed light on the granular legal processes through which urban development proceeds.  Development, they show us, is a multivarious and patient process—one which sometimes occurs through the remaking of a whole district, but also proceeds one apartment or one parking spot at a time, as Jurado points out.19

Indeed, the disaggregation of entitlements appears to constitute a method.  It may be easier to take away someone’s parking spot or view than her apartment, and it could be easier to convince someone’s neighbors to move than that person.  Yet the loss of one entitlement paves the way for another, and many losses facilitate a final displacement.  These losses furthermore occur in a variety of ways, and people often leave a neighborhood as the result of one accident or miscommunication or another.  Someone may not have known her rights when she chose to leave.  A family may never have received the notice required by law; they may not have known they had the right to contest this failure to receive it, may not have received the notice in translation, and may not have understood the translation anyway.  These failures of process and understanding, errors in the record, gaps in knowledge, and hearings that nevertheless proceed, frequently uncontested, are a reliable part of business as usual.  As such, they produce tendencies that the availability of some procedural rights can do little to counteract—with enormous consequences.  A tenant loses significant leverage once his neighbors have all left; tenants in a building lose leverage once their neighbors in all the other buildings on a block have left, and so on.  Their accumulation accelerates their occurrence to eventually affect whole neighborhoods and the character of a city.

The aggregated effect of these various actions gives the process of development the character of collective action.  All, though with different degrees of force, push toward the same general goal of raising the value of real estate.  To transform a city, many, many actors must work in concert, in the service of a common interest.

By anchoring us in the specific legal processes that are the terrain on which development proceeds and on which struggles against displacement are fought, these authors suggest that there is no silver bullet to this problem, because development does not proceed in one way.  Rather, their clear, grounded explanations of what is happening and how it is happening illuminate the limitations and possibilities of legal, non-legal, collective, and individual action.  Their analyses together suggest that any response must to some degree mirror this specific characteristic of development: the way it constitutes an array of tools and strategies, which contribute in myriad ways toward a singular goal.  That is, the movement to preserve homes and communities through the provision of stable housing must be as diverse as the forces pushing against people’s ability to stay at home, while also holding as singular a common purpose as the other side.


By carefully attending to material conditions on the ground, these authors provide the foundation for a structural analysis that is ever more salient as an increasing number of people from all ranks of life face more and more challenges to finding stable sources of housing.  They underscore the necessity of collective action that, in short, protects and promotes an alternative vision of the public interest—one that recognizes the fundamental importance of people’s ability to maintain their relations to one another and the places they call home.

[1] Alex Scott, Los Angeles, Displacement, and the Rise of Airbnb, UCLA L. Rev. Disc.: Law Meets World (2018).

[2] Id.

[3] Ysabel Jurado, Losing Historic Filipinotown, UCLA L. Rev. Disc.: Law Meets World (2018).

[4] Id.

[5] Laylaa Abdul-Khabir, From Chavez Ravine to Inglewood: How Stadiums Facilitate Displacement in in Los Angeles, UCLA L. Rev. Disc: Law Meets World (2018).

[6] Jurado, supra note 3.

[7] Scott, supra note 1.

[8] Id.

[9] Abdul-Khabir, supra note 5.

[10] Between 2000 and 2014, 45 major professional sports arenas or stadiums were constructed in the United States at a cost of $28 billion, $13 billion of which was publicly financed with tax-exempt bonds.  See Caroline Brooks, Sports Arenas Attract Fans—and Dollars—to Neighborhoods in Need, Jones Lang LaSalle (July 22, 2014), http://www.us.jll.com/united-states/en-us/news/news-specials/sports-arenas-impact-on-neighborhood-real-estate (indicating that fourteen of these were football stadiums); see also Keith Schneider, Welcome to the Neighborhood: America’s Sports Stadiums are Moving Downtown, N.Y. Times (Jan. 19, 2018), https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/19/business/sports-arena-development.html.

[11] Schneider, supra note 10.

[12] Abdul-Khabir, supra note 5.

[13] Mia Lattanzi, Local Control of Land and Water Resources: Rethinking California’s Eminent Domain Standard, UCLA L. Rev. Disc: Law Meets World (2018).

[14] Id.

[15] Daniel Foster, The Limits of Land Reform, UCLA L. Rev. Disc.: Law Meets World (2018); Soham Dhesi, Protecting Mobile Homes as Affordable Housing, UCLA L. Rev. Disc.: Law Meets World (2018).

[16] Foster, supra note 16.

[17] Soham, supra note 16.

[18] Foster, supra note 16.

[19] Jurado, supra note 3.

About the Author

K-Sue Park is the Critical Race Studies Fellow at UCLA School of Law for 2017-2019. She teaches the seminar "Land, Dispossession, and Displacement," from which the student pieces in this series originated.

By uclalaw