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The fight for affordable housing in Boyle Heights

Can real estate development benefit low and moderate income residents?

"From the Ground Up" is a Chase original series highlighting the stories of revitalization in our local communities – stories of change, growth, hope, and inspiration. We feature people that are working every day to make a community strong. And these are communities where we are proud to do business.

The East Los Angeles Community Corporation headquarters (ELACC) sits in a mixed residential-commercial area of Boyle Heights. From the outside, it appears to be a comfortable residential home. But inside, it's clearly an efficient community development organization serving thousands of Boyle Heights residents.

With a staff of 36 employees, assistance from the JP Morgan Chase Foundation and other sponsors, ELACC mobilizes 1,300 volunteers annually and has helped over 3,000 families to purchase their first homes, avoid foreclosure, establish savings, and sustain wealth. In addition, their affordable housing initiative has completed over 550 units with 450 more in development. ELACC President, Isela Gracian, views their efforts as a crucial steps toward a broader goal of economic stability and prosperity for the Boyle Heights community.

"The people of Boyle Heights feel joy and pride with the neighborhood even though they face so many challenges," Gracian says from her desk while staring out her office window.

In the past, the community which neighbors downtown Los Angeles, California, may have brought to mind poverty or violence. However, Gracian, whom began her career at ELACC 12 years ago as a job coordinator and served as vice president of operations for five years prior to becoming President, is very optimistic about its future. ELACC is a prominent voice in the area and has been working diligently to support its residents through a transformative time.

In addition to these economic efforts, ELACC fights for social justice in Boyle Heights and East LA through grassroots leadership, affordable housing development and neighborhood assets for low income families.

Maintaining affordable housing when the real estate heats up

When freeways were built throughout Boyle Heights in the 1950s, and perhaps due to a lack of access to mortgage capital, the formerly racially diverse area began to change. Many Jewish and European immigrant families moved to the west side of Los Angeles. By 2011, the community had become nearly entirely Latino. Latino culture can be found in everything from the local cuisine to places like Mariachi Plaza where mariachi musicians have gathered for decades.

As Boyle Heights has received government funds toward infrastructure such as light rail transportation, it has become a more attractive real estate investment opportunity for speculators due to its close proximity to downtown. Los Angeles is already one of America's most expensive real estate markets, and much of the city is experiencing the same resurgence that's happening in other major cities like Boston, Washington and Baltimore. In these areas, rent and purchase prices have risen quickly, essentially pricing out longtime community residents. "People have invested their lives here, now they are unable to reap the benefits of an improved neighborhood" Gracian says.

The fight for affordable housing is a daily effort by ELACC—to include options for low income families in new developments and to avoid demolition of existing public housing when possible.

Educational opportunity

Gracian personally understands how critical access to education can be for ones development. She was born in the United States to Mexican parents and went on to attend the University of California, Davis. Initially, she thought she would become an immigration lawyer or a teacher, but found her calling at ELACC where she was supposed to volunteer for two years. Twelve years later, as president of the center, her main responsibilities include growing the organization's financial health and cultivating internal leaders.

Without educational investment in the community, new leadership for future generations will become more difficult to develop. Currently, just 5 percent of Boyle Heights residents aged 25 and older have earned a four-year degree. And although college is not necessarily the right path for everyone, access to quality public schools and education can provide the resources for next generation leaders, home buyers, skilled workers and entrepreneurs that build and sustain a community.

The future of Boyle Heights

When people need housing and their needs can't be met for educational purposes, rising rents for local retail businesses, or lack of general investment needed to maintain and serve the existing community, "ELACC is the glue for residents," Gracian says.

So she continues to work for those that have no voice currently. "To ensure that a community of color has opportunities to succeed and to transform the system and playing field so people can thrive regardless of race, religion, or gender," she says.

Gracian and ELACC remain focused on efforts to generate powerful results within their 4 core areas: affordable housing, wealth building, tenant services, and community organizing. Or as Gracian describers her work, "The world as it is, uplifting the world as it should be."

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