In its recent series on Orion Avenue, The Times opened a window to a bleak future for cities throughout California. Block by block, crime, violence, fear and chaos intrude into once viable communities. California cities are beginning to experience the decay that struck many East Coast cities 20 and 30 years ago. Throughout most of the nation, lost neighborhoods have become wounds that bleed scarce resources and sap the vitality of entire cities.
California’s urban leaders stand at the same crossroads as did their counterparts in places like Newark, Philadelphia and Hartford who lost the battle against neighborhood decline--or didn’t fight it. But as depressing as Orion Avenue may be, it is neither the inevitable end state for low-income neighborhoods, nor is it irreversible. Cities can stop decline before it gets out of control and they can cure neighborhoods as sick as Orion Street. Neighborhood recovery is not only possible, it is critical to the future of the region.
While there exists no pat formula for stabilizing neighborhoods, from my experience on the battle lines with the Los Angeles Housing Department, I have found the following to be key components:
* Break the fever. Crime and violence must first be reduced to allow other measures to take hold. This may necessitate extraordinary measures such as extended police task force actions and anti-gang court injunctions. The key is to create a period of safety during which the seeds of stability can be planted. You need to push the bad guys out long enough to change the physical environment and to build a social infrastructure among residents and property owners that can resist gangs and crime in the future.
* Early detection. Formally identify, classify and assess the condition of potentially distressed neighborhoods. Cities can’t put their heads in sand. We have the computer and database technology to identify problem areas through key indicators; we should use it. This means linking data from public and private entities, including the police, assessor, census, health agencies, water departments and others. Such database capacity exists in early development through a UCLA project called Neighborhood Knowledge Los Angeles. Once a pattern of decline is discerned, immediate action should be taken.
* Code enforcement. Lax code enforcement and associated decay of housing stock can start the spiral of neighborhood decline. Physical decline sends a message that no one is watching here, no one cares; this is a safe place to commit crimes. Physical decline creates a comfort zone for gangs. Every multifamily building should be inspected at least every three years, and no property transfer should be allowed until the property meets or has an enforceable plan to meet building and health codes. Once identified, noncomplying owners must face relentless and escalating pressure from enforcement agencies.
* Neighborhood improvements. Target infrastructure investment to neighborhoods in crisis. Relatively low-cost improvements can have a major impact on community safety and neighborhood quality. Examples include street lights, alley paving or closure and recreation improvements. Tenacious graffiti paint-out and removal of trash from alleys and lots are essential to stabilizing distressed neighborhoods.
* Professional property management. Apartments in most distressed neighborhoods are poorly managed. Bad tenant selection, failure to promptly evict nuisance tenants (including parents harboring gang members) and deferred maintenance accelerate property decline and deprive good tenants of a decent place to live and to raise their children.
In addition to code enforcement, solutions include property management training, removal of regulatory constraint to evicting nuisance tenants and a narcotics eviction program. The latter is a new effort in Los Angeles whereby the city attorney can step in to evict tenants when there is an established pattern of narcotics use or sale.
* Organize. After serious crime and violence are subdued, community organizing is key to change. Organizing should focus on the good people in the neighborhood who simply want to live and work in a safe, healthy environment. As the Orion series makes clear, little effort should be made to involve the gangs. Think instead about organizing for conditions that will diminish gang influence on the next generation of children and break the cycle of recruitment. Tough neighborhoods require at least a half-time organizer to build relationships between owners, tenants, schools, city agencies and community institutions such as churches and service organizations. Organizing should include community cleanups, meetings with community police officers, targeting problems such as abandoned buildings or alley closures. Every effort builds social networks that strengthen community. Organizing should continue at least three years, with “booster shots” as needed thereafter.
Distressed neighborhoods can be turned around. I’ve seen it happen in Los Angeles, where many Orions have been averted through intense collaborations among city agencies, police, tenants and property owners. I believe we can fight the battle and win.