Ethical Considerations of the USC Village and other Developments in Los Angeles: Economic Status as a Defining Factor
By Preethi Chaudhari
Large construction projects are touted for the benefits they will bring to the community. University of Southern California President C. L. Max Nikias has been promoting the USC Village since its conception as an engineering masterpiece: a place where living and learning combine in a sustainable way to create an atmosphere that will inspire USC Trojans for years to come. While the benefits of a new, refurbished area in south Los Angeles may be well apparent, less visible are the negative impacts that such a project has had and will leave on the community surrounding the university. When developing such projects, engineers should be cognizant of changes in combinations of issues like homelessness and costs of living throughout the region to ensure that their architectural endeavours do not disproportionately hinder community members’ standards of living.
Code of Ethics
The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) has adopted a code of ethics regarding the actions and projects that engineers execute, and how their execution should or should not impact the individual’s surrounding community. Canon 1, titled “hold safety paramount,” section c, states that “engineers whose professional judgment is overruled under circumstances where the safety, health and welfare of the public are endangered, or the principles of sustainable development ignored, shall inform their clients or employers of the possible consequences.” This means that engineers must always be aware of the direct impacts of their work on individuals included in the scope of the project. If individuals may be adversely impacted, the engineers have a responsibility to address potential issues and concerns with those individuals along with anyone else involved in the execution of the project. Canon 8, titled “treat all persons fairly,” is subtitled with a segment describing the protected classes and personal attributes that engineers must consider when performing “their professional services.” This is essentially a statement that engineers must not solve problems in a way that proves disadvantageous to a certain group of people, as defined by a variation of one of the categories listed in the code. The most notable factor in this list for engineers to consider when discussing building construction is economic status .
Characteristics of an Urban Populace
For many people in the Southern California region, which comprises seven areas including Los Angeles, Orange County, and San Diego, economic status is the limiting factor in their housing search. Housing costs in major urban areas like Southern California have only been increasing over the years. According to a report by the Center for Continuing Study of the California Economy, average household income rose 32.1 percent from 1990 to 1998, but the prices of homes only rose about 4.5 percent. However, housing affordability—a statistic based on homeowners’ ability to spend 30 percent or less of their income on housing expenses—was estimated at 40 percent [2, pp. 13-14]. This means 60% of California residents were considered cost-burdened by their housing bills.
While residents have continued to struggle to pay their bills, another issue has been propagating over time: increasing population. In 1960, Los Angeles County surpassed Cook County, IL, as the most populous county in the nation, and it has kept this title since then . According to the most recent census data, the population of LA County was about 9.5 million, with the City of Los Angeles clocking in at around 3.8 million people, or 38.6 percent of the county’s populace. The City of Los Angeles has experienced leaps in size ranging from 100,000-500,000 people each decade. Its population was about 2.95 million in 1980 but experienced one of its largest booms in history during that decade, gaining over 500,000 residents . Recent Census Bureau data estimated the population of the city in 2016 at over 3.9 million, just 23,000 short of an even 4 million people .
Almost 35,000 of the people in the City of Los Angeles are homeless, which spans a wide range of definitions. They could lack a stable housing situation, live in a location designed for temporary living, or primarily reside in a public or private space not meant for living . Whatever the case, members of this population are so cost-burdened that they cannot afford any kind of permanent housing in the city. While the homeless population across the United States decreased from 2015 to 2016 by about 14,000 people, it increased by about 2,500 in California alone during the same time span .
Economic Status as a Defining Characteristic
One of the contributing factors to this growing homeless population is the enormous price tag on housing that limits residents’ options and often forces them out. Rolland Curtis Gardens was once an affordable apartment complex near USC, but when its ownership changed hands, the new owners decided to renovate and reconstruct the area to modernize it and make it more appealing to the public eye. This project is expected to be completed in 2018, but longtime tenants were presented in the summer of 2016 with eviction notices. Previous landowners in the area have been known to attempt to evict tenants in order to attract and make space for new lessees, particularly people affiliated with the University of Southern California; this may have been the aim of the current ownership as well. While the relocation company that was hired by the owners was offering just over $8,000 to tenants to assist with moving costs, tenants were still not happy because they had limited other options. Some cited long waiting lists, safety concerns, and failure to accept Section 8 vouchers—federal subsidies for rental fees—as difficulties involved in locating suitable alternate accommodations . The failure of the owners and the engineers behind the reconstruction projects to anticipate and consider these plights faced by the tenants is a distinctly evident sign of disregard for the welfare of current residents, as well as mistreatment on the basis of economic status: two concepts touched upon in the ASCE code of ethics . Such complications, compounded by lack of funding and knowledge about financial matters, can leave people with no clear option other than to seek refuge in shelters or on the streets.
In addition to rebuilding old housing complexes like Rolland Curtis Gardens, there has recently been a drastic increase in refurbishment and construction projects throughout Los Angeles, with over 70 developments having been initiated in the past seven years alone . This is a result of the population increasing by one million individuals over the last 36 years as well as the city’s recovery after the recession of 2008. Herein lies another ethics issue: Los Angeles is a large city whose downtown district is a hub for tourist activity. In order to promote cash flow and revenue to the city, it must maintain its reputation as a must-see attraction. Thus, the construction projects that engineers are contracted to work on will undoubtedly primarily cater to people of higher economic status who can afford to shop and live in the newly built complexes. These projects do not take into consideration the thousands of Angelenos who call the city home because they have nowhere else to go and no means to travel elsewhere, even if they did. Some examples of the recent projects are upscale apartment complexes, condominiums, hotels, and offices. As engineers take on urban projects such as these, they should take into account the chance that they may be increasing current residents’ cost of living: as higher-priced housing options increase, new and trendy shopping areas will begin to emerge, as is the trend. Located across Figueroa Street from the Staples Center and LA Live are current retail projects including Circa and Oceanwide; these facilities may ultimately compete for residents and retailers once they are completed .
The USC Village
To address the higher-end properties in LA, the most expensive median property values in this area in 1980 were around $300,000, adjusted to inflation for 2008, but by 2009, they had increased in value to almost $6.5 million . Contributing to these costs are the enormous construction projects that have taken place at USC’s University Park Campus, including the new USC Village, where each new building has been made possible by generous donations on the order of tens of millions of dollars from wealthy alumni . President Nikias met many stances from community members, both positive and negative, on the concept of the Village when the $1.1 billion proposal was presented to the city back in 2012. Some community members were enthused at the notion of USC increasing its presence, because it would be developing cleaner, safer public areas for their children to spend time in and supposedly encouraging more students to come out and provide various volunteer services to the community. Others were against the expansion of USC, claiming that the increase in USC student residency in the area has led to the inflation of housing costs and the alienation of students in the community from lower-income backgrounds [12, pp. 63-70].
Spearheaded by Nikias, an engineer himself, the university conceded to compensating the community for the concerns raised above by pledging $27 million in benefits for South LA, including $20 million toward affordable housing . In this way, Nikias has been somewhat amenable to addressing the needs of the community and the pressing rhetoric surrounding homelessness in LA, which has been an issue of increasing contention and debate in recent years.
More commitment to bettering the community is needed than a simple monetary donation, though. While the money is helpful, it does not show that the USC administration had fully considered all of the implications of the plans to construct the Village prior to the submission of those plans to the city of Los Angeles. It took a hearing and a presentation of views and opinions from community members to cause administrators to realize and publicly acknowledge that they were seen in a negative light by many people in the area , including previous business owners at the University Village who were not offered a place at the new USC Village . These tenants received some compensation just as the residents of Rolland Curtis Gardens did, but their post-University Village careers will likely be difficult to start up again and match previous business: they will not have access to the same type of customer base, as they will no longer have such direct access to university students, employees, or their families.
USC Provost Michael Quick has been championing his new initiative for USC students to get more involved in the community by working with the city to tackle the issue of homelessness . These efforts by a major force like USC in a large city like Los Angeles are exceedingly important in realizing goals that many residents of the locale share, regardless of class or economic status. While this initiative is undoubtedly important to increasing partnership between the university and the city by addressing one of the largest societal issues Los Angeles faces today, it does not directly cater to the people who were impacted specifically by the USC Village, and therefore does not follow through with ethical considerations regarding commitments to maintaining or improving existing tenants’ quality of life.
Future Outlook and Conclusion
Legislators are working to come up with solutions that will benefit the homeless population in Los Angeles while limiting adverse effects on the rest of the populace. One means of alleviating the burden on the city that local officials have come up with under Mayor Eric Garcetti is a fee on the construction of various developments—excepting those in low-income areas that have been excused for a period of time due to financial hardship—ranging from $1 to $15 per square foot. This so-called “linkage fee” was passed in August of 2017 and will go into effect a year after its passing. The funds accrued from it will be used to pay for affordable housing for locals who are housing-insecure . Once there is a system in place to account for and provide housing to most or all housing-insecure folks, whether permanent or temporary, the tasks of rehabilitation and training for paying jobs can commence to allow residents the opportunity to earn a living and support themselves as best they can. The millions of dollars that USC had to pay toward affordable housing could be considered a linkage fee before its time. In this sense, by cooperating and agreeing to pay these fees, the university showed that it values being aligned with the city’s goals. Since it is a private research institution, though, it should be held to higher standards than the average business. It is expected that academics would be able to analyze and understand various populations, and what can be done to most appropriately address all of their concerns. USC should have more directly interacted with the University Village’s tenants to uphold the university’s values of diversity and compassion for others when designing new storefronts and hiring new tenants for the USC Village.
When architects and engineers design and construct new buildings, these are the changes in circumstance they must keep in mind: population trends, typical community income and economic status, and the ways in which community members of different backgrounds interact with each other and with external entities. If these factors are taken into consideration and approached from an ethical standpoint with respect to the overarching goals of a project, engineers will be better able to shape their work to the needs of the community and fulfill their duties in the most positively impactful way possible.
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Preethi Chaudhari is a junior at the University of Southern California majoring in Biomedical Engineering and double-minoring in Gender Studies and Computer and Digital Forensics. She is currently the president of the Running Team on campus and has run three marathons since she joined the team her freshman year. She also has a love of music and has been a member of USC Thornton Choirs for two years. Following her graduation in May 2019, she plans to pursue a master’s degree in Biomedical Engineering through the Progressive Degree Program.