Editor’s Note: This story is published in collaboration with Red Canary Magazine.
Carmen and Román Hernández met in 1972 when a friend of Carmen’s, who worked at a pen manufacturing company, invited her as a guest to the annual company Christmas party. The party was held at the Century Plaza Hotel, now the Fairmount Century Plaza. Attending as friends and without dates to accompany them, Carmen and María needed dance partners. Carmen spoke to one of the waiters hoping they could dance together. Afraid of being fired, the waiter called in his boss to dance with the ladies. His boss — Román, captain of the waiters at the time — appeared timid when told to take his pick among the ladies waiting to dance. Carmen took charge when she got up and chose him.
The Hernándezes had immigrated to Los Angeles from México separately, but each brought with them the same dream of having a family they could raise in their own home one day.
Román and Carmen’s life together started with that first dance, and soon enough they were married. They bought a home in Boyle Heights in December of 1987 for $105,000. Román was still working as captain of the waiters, and Carmen got a job as a seamstress at Z Cavaricci, working directly with the designers. The housing market then, as they describe it was, fácil, “easy.” Their mortgage was only $480 a month. According to the American Community Survey in 202, the median monthly home payment (including utilities, insurance, and HOA fees) was more than $2,700 per month in LA, allowing only 46.5% of LA County residents to own a home in 2023. The couple called today’s housing market pesado, “heavy.”
Carmen and Román were lucky when they were starting out in their late 20s, but young couples today looking to find a home to build their dreams around are not so lucky. The housing market is out of reach for most Millenials and Gen Zers. Formerly affordable LA neighborhoods such as Boyle Heights, where generations of Latinos and immigrant Jews before them claimed a piece of the American pie, are facing gentrification that is pushing housing costs beyond affordability and changing the neighborhood beyond recognition. While not new to the city, gentrification is now moving further East and North into working-class neighborhoods that were once affordable to aspiring Latino communities.
According to the Urban Displacement Project’s gentrification displacement typography map, areas of Boyle Height are now categorized as “at risk of becoming exclusive,” meaning that the area is experiencing a rapid increase of housing costs compared to 2000, losing its low-income housing as housing becomes affordable to moderate to high income households. Home ownership, even in “affordable” neighborhoods, is increasingly inaccessible even for established younger Angelenos, raising the question of how new generations of immigrants will find a toehold in the American dream the way Carmen and Román did.
The American Dream may not be dead, but it is becoming increasingly challenging. Earlier this year, Zillow, the real estate marketplace company, conducted a study that showed that more than half of Millennials and Gen Zers across the country believe they would need to win the lottery to afford buying a home, while over 90 percent of both generations say they would need to make significant lifestyle changes — such as taking on a second job or changing careers — to achieve home ownership.
While the rental market has cooled down a bit, home prices skyrocketed during the pandemic. The median rent for a two-bedroom apartment in LA is nearly $2,100, while Gen Z’s median monthly income for 20–24-year-olds in California is just over $3,330 (although, this number is lower in areas like Boyle Heights), prompting Gen Zers to seek cheaper rents in what have traditionally been working-class and immigrant strongholds. This generation is facing salaries that are not competitive nor rise as quickly as the costs of living.
Home values have also dropped marginally over the past year overall in Los Angeles, but 50 percent of homes are still valued between half a million to a million, and 20 percent are valued at $1 million or more — a high hurdle for a starter home. The steep prices of single-family homes in working-class neighborhoods have made those areas attractive for developers such as Newshire Investments Inc., which convert single-family residences into sleek, multifamily, multilevel rental properties.
Newshire Investments Inc., bought a multi-unit home within a two-minute walking distance from Carmen and Román’s house and began construction in December 2022. When the property was bought, two of the homes were vacant, and one family lived in the home. I asked one of the investors at Newshire Investments if there was any help made available to the earlier residents. “That might have been arranged, but I don’t have any specifics to it,” he said.
While developing more housing is an urgent, countywide priority, Eastside neighborhoods such as Boyle Heights are target rich for such development and have less power or restrictive zoning codes than areas such as Brentwood with which to push back, thereby putting social and economic pressure on a neighborhood that had long been a destination for immigrant and working-class aspirations. As a recent article in The Atlantic argues, it is another way that wealthy, supposedly progressive neighborhoods push social costs onto poorer areas.
The noticeable adverse impact on neighborhoods is increasing congestion and traffic while changing its character. Carmen and Román, for example, are opposed to high-density apartments in their neighborhood due to limited parking spaces and the change of environment. Though, the consequences of gentrification run even deeper, with studies pointing to impacts on mental and physical health, inhibitions to future economic mobility, and loss of community political power. Rapidly increasing housing stock in working-class neighborhoods changes the sense of place, culture and character is removed.
Boyle Heights, a predominantly Latino community, is transitioning into a hipster destination — much like Silver Lake, Echo Park, Highland Park and other formerly affordable neighborhoods before it. At risk, according to opponents of gentrification, is a so-called whitewashing of the neighborhood’s cultural roots, as well as its historic roots in supplying an entryway into homeownership and the middle class for immigrants. Millennials who do buy homes in this competitive market — Boyle Heights housing prices are up 7.5 percent over last year — might not know of the struggles and stories of their former and current working-class neighbors.
The home pictured above was built in 1910 and bought in 1980, at the start of an immigration wave of refugees fleeing wars in Central America, for $31,000. At the beginning of the millenia, the house’s assessed value for property taxes was under $90,000. Now, with the increasingly common practice to flip homes above the median rate, this the house on Gleason was remodeled in 2019 and then sold in March of this year for $820,000. The future of home ownership in Los Angeles looks foggy for Gen Z. Neighborhoods like Carmen’s and Román’s will continue to grow with townhouses dominating the housing market.
In 2017, 44-year-old Oscar Argüello wrote the play Sideways Fences, which explores issues around gentrification of Boyle Heights. “I feel like a lot of our stories are not being told,” says Argüello. The play focuses on a young unmarried couple, Sol and Esteban, who face eviction from their apartment and are soon to be parents.
It is partly Argüello’s own story: years ago, he got evicted from his apartment and a $2,000 fee was placed in an escrow account as soon as he moved out. When writing the play, Argüello wrote the scene about his eviction word for word, so the audience could understand the challenging economic pressures that currently exist for working-class residents of neighborhoods that are being gentrified.
In the play, Esteban makes it known that “People are leaving. No one can afford anything.” As newcomers and house flippers move to Boyle Heights, rent and mortgage rates increase. Boyle Heights’ affordable housing problem marks a historical time shift in the city’s identity. Affordability used to be LA’s super power — the thing that sets it apart from other cosmopolitan cities such as New York and San Francisco. Without relative affordability, we are losing our place as a destination for the re-energizing power that immigration has brought to the city for decades.
“It’s a symptomatic…capitalist system that is run on a speculative real estate market where values of property magically go up every year,” says Rudy Espinoza, executive director of the nonprofit organization Inclusive Action for the City (formerly known as Leadership for Urban Renewal Network). “It’s a system that helps people who already have money — and it’s leaving the majority of us behind.”
Many Latino families and individuals here in Boyle Heights are proud of their heritage and the attributes Latino culture brings to their community. Immersed community members like the Hernandezes and Argüello would have no reason to fear for the future of their neighborhood if the roots were not being ripped apart by the economics of housing. Although artists like Argüello, residents like Carmen and Román, murals that reclaim space, and street vendors continue to remind us of and defend the revolutionary history that Boyle Heights has, they are confronted with and challenged by rapid change.
For more than a decade, Carmen and Román’s routines have been etched into this neighborhood — their daily walk to McDonald’s for morning coffee, chats with other neighbors in their home, gardening and maintaining their lawn, raising their family. I asked Carmen and Román, “What makes Boyle Heights special?” Carmen, sitting up with a smile, says, “We Latinos continue pushing for our dreams and share our history in the United States with our children so that they don’t lose their roots, that is what we do.”