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Doug Smith (’13) Helps Low-Income Residents and Entrepreneurs Access Opportunities in a Changing Urban Landscape

Doug Smith is a 2013 Equal Justice Works Fellow sponsored by The Ottinger Family Foundation.  Equal Justice Works recently caught up with Doug to learn more about his accomplishments at Public Counsel in Los Angeles, California.

With congested freeways and never-ending sprawl, Los Angeles was once described as “72 suburbs in search of a city.” Today, all of that is changing.  The region has largely embraced a new paradigm of urban growth driven by catalytic investments in public transportation and “smart growth” initiatives encouraging density and vibrant pedestrian-oriented streetscapes.  But much of this transformation is occurring squarely within the city’s low-income neighborhoods – often the very same communities that were marginalized and segregated by previous urban renewal initiatives.

Can it be different this time?  Instead of displacement and community destabilization, can infrastructure investment and new development in low-income communities actually deliver benefits and opportunities to existing residents and small businesses?

This is the question that inspired my fellowship project at Public Counsel.  Since last September, with the generous support of the Ottinger Family Foundation, I have been collaborating with community groups to develop tools and strategies for equitable and inclusive community growth.

Removing barriers to economic opportunity is a big part of ensuring benefits for residents.  For example, although transit-oriented development and vibrant urban streetscapes can spark new commercial activity, right now thousands of low-income entrepreneurs are unfairly prohibited from sharing in these benefits because vending on city sidewalks is considered a crime.

I was shocked to learn this. Los Angeles is a city of immigrant entrepreneurs and mobile food vending is woven into the cultural fabric of our neighborhoods.  Yet we are the only major city that does not allow vendors to enter the formal economy.  Rather than supporting what is a crucial economic lifeline for thousands of low-income families, the city’s municipal code is discouraging entrepreneurship.

I am proud to be part of a broad coalition - the LA Street Vendor Campaign– calling for a change to this system.  Backed by extensive community outreach, we are developing and proposing a legal framework for vending that would create jobs in the formal economy, establish a pathway for small business ownership, and increase access to healthy food in underserved communities.

We’re making exciting progress.  In May, we mobilized a large group of vendors and community stakeholders to testify before a City Council committee. With incredible passion and pride for their craft, over 100 low-income entrepreneurs used the opportunity for public comment to educate city leaders about the cultural significance of vending and the challenges they face in providing for their families while being excluded from the formal economy.  Building on this momentum, I’m continuing to provide public education and legal support, while helping to cultivate a community-driven policy platform.

I have also been working on neighborhood stabilization issues.  In parts of the city, transit expansion has been followed by skyrocketing housing costs, conversion of rent stabilized units, and waves of evictions, forcing low-income residents from their homes and neighborhoods.  Now, as the city embraces a $1 billion plan to revitalize the LA River, these same vulnerabilities are appearing in low-income river adjacent communities.

In response, I have partnered with community groups to advocate for the inclusion of anti-displacement measures in local zoning provisions and a new public health initiative.  I’m working closely with the UNIDAD Coalition to develop land use legal tools to prevent a net-loss of affordable housing in South LA.  With the Alliance for Community Transit – LA (ACT-LA), I’m part of a coalition that is calling for citywide transit equity protections.  In addition, I have helped draft and promote state legislation that, if enacted, will ensure that land use density incentives are limited to projects that result in more affordable housing.

As the Los Angeles urban landscape is transformed by large-scale development, low-income communities must have a meaningful role in the process.  The work may seem daunting at times, but I am constantly inspired by the dedication and commitment of the residents and community groups that I work with. I am proud to be an Equal Justice Works Fellow and immensely grateful for the opportunity to work towards equitable community development.

This blog was prepared by 2014 Equal Justice Works Intern, Kristen Hallowell.

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