Will Santa Ana streetcar fast track gentrification?

Behind Yohana Rojas’ apartment near downtown Santa Ana, workers are hammering on a new streetcar line.

Nearby, a 218-unit complex is emerging on 4th Street that promises a “new reef on downtown living” for rents likely to exceed $3,000 a month.

Rojas’ family lives on what her husband earns as a painter. With two kids to support, the couple can’t afford more than the $1,800 they pay for the two-bedroom unit.

Even before the tram was approved, many longtime neighbors had already moved away, Rojas said, because they couldn’t keep up with rising rents. She fears prices will continue to rise and more people will be displaced.

“The streetcar will bring improvements,” said Rojas, 40, who has lived in the neighborhood since arriving from Mexico in 2007. “But what will happen when she drives in 2024? The first thing that will go up is our rents and we have to go. What use are these improvements to us then?”

The electric-powered streetcar, which will run about four miles from Santa Ana to Garden Grove, could be a boon for some businesses in a 4th Street strip that’s starting to cater to hip, high-end customers.

A pedestrian near the OC Streetcar construction site in Santa Ana

A pedestrian near the OC Streetcar construction site in Santa Ana.

(Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times)

Downtown homeowners, with their tightly packed bungalows and historic charm, also benefit as property values ​​soar.

However, some Santa Ana residents fear the streetcar will accelerate the changes already underway and sideline long-time Latino-owned businesses as trendy restaurants and bars spring up around quinceañera shops.

In the Lacy neighborhood where Rojas lives, many suffer from overcrowded conditions and pool their paychecks to make ends meet.

Any rate hike is an existential threat to tenants — and potentially a threat to Santa Ana’s identity as long-time residents of the working-class, mostly Latino, town leave and are replaced by a wealthier, whiter populace.

“Santa Ana is just a hot city now,” said Maria Ceja, a former resident who works as a city planner. “People are leaving the suburbs and wanting to go back to the cities, but people say there is not enough housing for everyone who wants to live in the city. People are priced to attract newer demographics who are assumed to have more money.”

In auto-dominated Orange County, many city planners see the streetcar as a milestone, despite its relatively short length — a first step toward a future that includes public transit and density.

Orange County Transportation Authority took over the $509 million project in 2014 after a more ambitious light rail line connecting Fullerton to Irvine was defeated by local residents.

Business will remain open during construction on the OC Streetcar in downtown Santa Ana

Business will remain open during construction on the OC Streetcar in downtown Santa Ana.

(Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times)

In Santa Ana earlier this year, more than 100 downtown business owners signed a letter opposing the proposed streetcar. Some residents expressed fear of displacement.

Michele Martinez, then a city council member, was initially skeptical about the streetcar, but in 2014 cast the switch vote, endorsing its route through Santa Ana.

Martinez felt that in a city where 55% of residents don’t have access to a car, more public transportation was needed. She hopes that the council majority can combine the project with affordable housing.

“Because we controlled land use and zoning, this would have given Santa Ana a true legacy by connecting its civic center to downtown while ensuring that our local residents who live next door to them can stay,” said Martinez, who now on which sits the California Transportation Commission and is an advisor on a proposal for affordable housing on the streetcar line.

Martinez was fired from the city council in 2018. A new pro-development majority of the council, led by then-Mayor Miguel Pulido, approved the 218-unit luxury condominium on 4th Street called Rafferty. They also approved a boutique hotel and apartment complex in what is now a public car park.

Shortly after Pulido left office in 2020, the council approved a plan to replace a 4th Street grocery store with luxury apartments.

Pulido, who has been mayor for more than 25 years, sees the streetcar as the first segment of a light rail system that will one day connect Santa Ana to John Wayne Airport, Disneyland and Los Angeles.

“People of all income brackets will benefit from this,” said Pulido. “We’re quite separate in a lot of ways. I hope that the tram will become a great melting pot, bringing people together and bringing prosperity and a stronger economy to all.”

Council members did not respond to requests for comment.

Late last year, they passed a rent control measure — the first of its kind in Orange County — that capped annual increases to 3% for homes built before 1995 or owned by a company.

Erualdo González spent much of his youth on La Cuatro, as 4th Street is known in the Latino community, in his mother’s shoe store.

He remembers a celebratory corridor filled with loudspeakers in front of record shops playing Ranchera music by legends like Vicente Fernández and paleteros sold popsicles from wheelbarrows.

As a professor of Chicano Studies at Cal State Fullerton, González explores the changes he’s seen downtown since its heyday in the 1980s.

Public transit-bound development often follows other signs of gentrification, like artist communities and work-live lofts, which sprung up in Santa Ana long before the streetcar, he said.

Some Santa Ana residents are welcoming the changes that will come with the OC Streetcar

Some Santa Ana residents are welcoming the changes that a new streetcar line will bring. Others fear that transit-oriented development will accelerate gentrification.

(Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times)

Sometimes, he said, city officials try to attract more affluent residents and reshape an area’s image.

“The trolley is just one aspect of realizing this larger vision of a more civic community,” González said. “It’s city officials who want to be on the front lines and say, ‘I made a change. I brought more people with deeper pockets into the area. It’s not full of poverty or immigrants.’”

For Rafferty’s developers, the tram is an important asset for marketing to tenants.

The completed rail line will connect to Metrolink and Amtrak and will liven up downtown Santa Ana with visitors, said Charles Elliott, president of Toll Brothers Apartment Living, the company behind the project.

A 2019 survey of Santa Ana residents by UC Irvine researchers found that less than half believed the streetcar would have a positive impact on their neighborhood. The closer they lived to the route, the more likely they believed this would make matters worse.

However, some homeowners expect the streetcar to liven up downtown Santa Ana, relieving traffic and parking problems and increasing property values.

Duane Rohrbacher, wife Shannon Quihuiz and their dog Max are homeowners in French Park

Duane Rohrbacher, wife Shannon Quihuiz and their dog Max are homeowners in French Park. Rohrbacher, who is president of the neighborhood association, believes the streetcar will benefit his community while improving downtown.

(Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times)

Duane Rohrbacher recently moved into an 1887 two-story Craftsman home in French Park, one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods, where lush trees provide shade for Victorian, English Tudor, Colonial Revival, and Craftsman style homes.

Rohrbacher, 35, is Acting President of the Neighborhood Association and Executive Director of Development at UC Irvine’s School of Education.

“The presence of more moderate and higher income housing will bring a different dynamic in terms of restaurants, shops and retail that Santa Ana historically has not had,” said Rohrbacher, who lives with his wife Shannon Quihuiz and dog Max. “Just because downtown is nicer means the neighborhood closest to it is nicer by default.”

French Park has some protection from redevelopment as it is listed on the Federal Register of Historic Places.

According to Zillow, the median home price is $677,000, up nearly 30% from a year ago. An 1890 Craftsman duplex is listed for $850,000.

Idalia Rios, a Santa Ana Lacy resident and volunteer, near the site.

Idalia Rios, a resident of Santa Ana’s Lacy neighborhood and volunteer at Vecindario Lacy en Acción, near the OC Streetcar construction. Rios fears the neighborhood will become unaffordable for working-class residents.

(Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times)

Across the future streetcar tracks, Idalia Rios pays $1,750 a month for the two-bedroom apartment she’s called home for eleven years. Rent controls kept the increase at 3% this year — much lower than previous $200 increases.

Rios, 43, is a consultant for the nonprofit Santa Ana Building Healthy Communities. She is also a volunteer with Vecindario Lacy en Acción, a grassroots group focused on housing issues.

Eleven apartments, or 5% of Rafferty’s total units, will be reserved for ‘very low’ income tenants. Legacy Square, another new development along the streetcar line, will bring 93 affordable units to the Lacy neighborhood next year.

Rios encourages residents to attend application workshops when the time comes.

But the supply of affordable housing is far from enough to accommodate Lacy’s mostly working-class Hispanic residents in a changing downtown area, Rios said.

Market prices for the new homes will be a pipe dream for most and rent increases for existing homes could price them out from the neighborhood.

“When we’re talking luxury housing and rents over $3,000,” she said, “that’s beyond our reach.”

https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2022-10-05/streetcar-downtown-santa-ana-gentrification Will Santa Ana streetcar fast track gentrification?

Alley Einstein

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