Los Angeles, USA

by Neal Richman and Bill Pitkin


Los Angeles’s history is one of both ethnic diversity and segregation. Founded as an outpost of New Spain in 1781 and incorporated as a city in 1850 after the annexation of California to the US, it did not attract many residents until the railroad reached it in 1876. Ethnic minorities who worked as railroad labourers were part of an imported underclass who lived in segregated residential areas. From around 1900, the Los Angeles port at San Pedro began to gain in significance, setting the stage for poor port workers settling in the harbour area. By 1945, Los Angeles (LA) had assumed great economic prominence and witnessed commensurate demographic growth. Much of the housing stock was, however, recorded with restrictive ethnic covenants, providing a framework for enduring ethnic segregation. This was compounded by:

discriminatory lending and federal subsidy practices that increased the racial segregation in the metropolis, at large, and in the inner-city areas, in particular;

reductions in public transport that virtually isolated the poor; and

industrial plant closings that diminished economic opportunities for residents of low-income areas of the city.

Ultimately, this history of segregation contributed to the conditions that led to the 1992 Los Angeles civil unrest – the largest urban uprising ever in the US. The city does not officially use the word ‘slum’. However, Los Angeles slums exist both as individual buildings and as disinvested neighbourhoods, encompassing 20 per cent of the LA area and some 43 per cent of the population. These slums share the following general characteristics:

Deteriorated physical housing conditions.

Low levels of resident income.

Low levels of private investment and property maintenance.

High-density disinvested areas: this generally consists of pre-1930s, brick construction tenement-style housing stock with poor light and air circulation and located near the inner city.

Mid-density disinvested areas: this mostly consists of post-World War II, poorly constructed and/or maintained multifamily dwellings, scattered over each section of the city.

Low-density disinvested areas: these are mostly single family housing units and low-cost expansions of liveable space, often garage dwellings. Nearly half of the residents of slum neighbourhoods live in low-density areas, reflecting the high proportion of single-family dwellings in the city.

Mixed-density disinvested areas: these areas comprise a mix of the above densities within the same neighbourhood.

Los Angeles is distinctive from most US cities in housing tenure as the majority of its residents are tenants, with less than 40 per cent of households owning their homes. In all disinvested areas, the vast majority of slum dwellers are renters: high density comprise 92.8 per cent; mid density comprise 85.5 per cent; low density comprise 62.2 per cent; and mixed density comprise 83.8 per cent.

In the wake of the urban unrest of the 1990s, the migration of wealthy and white residents from Los Angeles intensified, even though the urban economy rebounded during the late 1990s. Poverty, however, did not decline, as employment was largely low-wage employment and a steady stream of immigrants occupies these low-paying jobs. With rents rising sharply and low-income residents choosing overcrowding rather than homelessness, residential structures are increasingly deteriorating and decaying. The growth in poverty during the coming decades is, therefore, as likely to continue as the growth of disinvested urban areas in Los Angeles.The residents of LA’s disinvested areas are overwhelmingly (two-thirds) Latino, with African Americans the second largest group (one fifth), followed by Asian/Pacific Islanders (one tenth) and a small Caucasian population group. A long history of civil unrest and violent urban riots is an expression of frustration with the slow improvement of race relations and lack of equal access to economic opportunities. The largest urban uprising in the US took place in Los Angeles and was centred in the disinvested communities; it was very noticeable in areas of the city that lack employment opportunities, adequate retail services and adequate and affordable housing.

There are three categories of policy intervention and action to improve slums and alleviate poverty:

1 Locational targeting, made up of national, regional and city policies and programmes to eradicate or upgrade slums.

2 Socio-economic targeting, consisting of national, regional and city policies and programmes to eradicate and alleviate poverty.

3 Nongovernmental interventions, consisting of community- and NGO-based programmes to improve slums and eradicate/alleviate poverty.

Due to the economic segregation within Los Angeles, locational targeting of housing and community development programmes that focus on low-income areas and low-income households typically reach the same groups. Socio-economic targeting provides combinations of targeted tax benefits,low-interest loans and some grants to support neighbourhood revitalization efforts. Non-governmental and community-based interventions roughly come in two groups: the consumer side (tenants organizations, advocacy groups) and housing producers (non-profit developers, community development organizations).

Considerable impacts have been made during the past half decade, resulting from partnerships in the development and implementation stages of new slum housing policies. Largely as the result of pressure from community leaders and political activists, the LA local authorities revamped their building code enforcement in the city through better inspection, collection and data management of the city’s rental housing stock. As a result of these new tools and increased transparency of information, approximately 90 per cent of landlords are now complying with repair requirements, and an estimated US$450 million of private funding has been invested in housing in the disinvested areas of the city over the past four years.

This summary has been extracted from:

UN-Habitat (2003) Global Report on Human Settlements 2003, The Challenge of Slums, Earthscan, London; Part IV: 'Summary of City Case Studies', pp195-228.
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2003 Development Planning Unit | Anna Soave | Khanh Tran-Thanh