With well-kept plants and an improvised fence to keep in the dogs, the house of 19-year-old Kimberly Paz and her family has a sense of permanence missing from most of the other housing options near the USC campus. Having lived here her whole life, she has grown along with the surrounding community, watching it evolve from a low-income, predominantly Hispanic neighborhood to one overrun by students.
“Oh, the area has changed quite a bit,” Paz said. “It’s different from living in some house, since you’re always with USC students and other activities. You’re kind of involved with them, so I personally like it.”
As the University has expanded, so has its place in the lives of locals. According to the USC State of the Neighborhood Report, the University spends $35 million annually to serve more than 40,000 community members through a variety of outreach programs and opportunities. Despite these initiatives, however, the community has changed drastically as students take the places of local families.
Swapping neighbors for students
Displacement is not the only problem that locals face; research conducted by the University indicates that as the local population not affiliated with USC decreases, the number of families facing economic and health issues increases. According to the State of the Neighborhood Report, 47.3 percent of families with children below the age of 18 in the University Park Campus study area were found to be living in poverty between 2008 and 2012. At nearly double the rate overall for Los Angeles — 25.2 percent — this is already an alarming statistic. But even more shocking is that the rate of families in poverty in the UPC study area has increased 11.5 percent since 2000. Though the University attempts to alleviate these issues, there is a foreboding negative trend accompanying student integration into the community.
David Tool, a former lecturer at USC who has lived in the area for 46 years, sits on the porch of the house that he and his wife bought when students were less of a defining characteristic in the area. Though he is a member of the Trojan Family, he remembers fondly a time when he was surrounded by something more than expensive temporary student housing.
“I have no neighbors left — I’m the only private house on this street,” Tool said. “The neighborhood is pretty much destroyed. It’s not something that the University has consciously done, it’s just that we’ve got students here and they rent these places for $1,000 a bed [per month].”
Tool, who is involved in several community initiatives such as the Student, Staff & Neighborhood Outreach Committee and the USC Neighborhood Network for Emergency Preparedness, emphasized that though the University actively supports the community, independent developers are incentivized by student demand to create short-term apartments and houses. “When somebody turns a place into student dorms, many people don’t realize this is not the university that bought this, it’s the developers,” Tool said.
This creates a unique problem for the sustainable growth of the area. While the University is accountable to the community and to L.A. as a whole, private developers have every reason to maximize their profits. The demand for student housing is so overwhelming that developers are willing to pay astronomical prices for relatively small or older properties, incentivizing long-term families to cash out and move on. Every time one of them does so, however, it is an essentially permanent change — families move out and students move in, not the other way around.
Adapting to a student status quo
As more and more students move in to fill this student-oriented housing, the flavor of the neighborhood shifts and new issues for locals arise. Though Tool describes most students as very respectful, the dichotomy between college and family lifestyles inevitably leads to conflict, further detracting from the vibe of a friendly neighborhood.
Gerald Busch, a local who has lived in the area for more than 50 years and owns North University Park Property Management, has noticed the shift in demographics as well.
“Twenty years ago there were more black people, now there are none, pretty much. Ten years ago there were a lot of Hispanics, now there are none,” he said. “Those are local people.”
The gentrification and demand for the area around USC is not necessarily opposed by locals, however. Though the rate has dropped significantly since 2000, as of 2010, the UPC study area still has nearly double the rate of violent crimes than the city of Los Angeles as a whole — for longtime community members, the added security the University offers is a welcome change.
“I feel safer since there are always security guards around,” Paz said. “It’s more protected around this area.”
This spillover effect makes USC’s contribution to the community difficult to quantify. Busch has noticed how the University’s expansion and growth, meant for the benefit of students, inevitably has a positive impact on locals.
“[USC] provides a fantastic role in the community for lifestyle protection for the students and, by virtue of their density moving out past Vermont, protection of the whole neighborhood,” Busch said. “Then they’re offering the massive infrastructure of USC, a great learning institution and great cultural institution, and now it’s going to be a big commercial institution, and that’s open to not only the students but it’s open to a certain degree to the neighborhood.”
New surroundings, new environment
The construction of the USC Village, a core element of the University’s expansion into the surrounding area, will have complex and varied ramifications that remain to be seen. While the development will likely contribute to the gentrification that has come to define student influence, it could create a shift in student housing preferences that could benefit locals by reducing the immense demand for housing.
“When [USC] comes on with their new project, they’ll add over 5,000 beds, and they’ll be developing in the second phase a tremendous amount more,” Busch said. “ There are going to be much fewer students living off campus, it’s going to create a change in business.”
The Village, however, will impact far more than housing prices. For some locals, it has already caused issues by eliminating local businesses that used to be relied upon, such as affordable options for food that cater to families in the area. According to Paz, as the area has developed, there has been a decrease in stores that cater toward the Hispanic population, as well as an increase in food prices in general.
“The Village changed things a lot,” Paz said. “I was upset [about the Village] because that was our go-to place for markets and groceries and stuff, and now we have to go to other places like Ralphs, which is a bit more pricey. But we’re trying to cope with it.”
The proliferation of students into the area surrounding USC will come with positive externalities that could address many of the problems regarding safety, access to nutritious food and education that the area has formerly been criticized for. The sense of neighborhood and community that once existed, however, will surely be missed.
“My wife is a very good cook, so we used to have these dinner parties twice a month, and the neighbors would come over and eat and we’d make reservations for a play, or a concert, or some lectures and we’d all walk over together,” Tool said. “It was a wonderful way to get together, to share life with neighbors. But we can’t do that anymore … the neighborhood is pretty much gone.”
Art by Maggie Lee