Community groups demand affordable housing at the Bethune Library site

The vacant lot on Vermont Avenue is slated to become a Marriott hotel.

A chorus of car horns blared at the gates of USC as a caravan of vehicles displayed signs reading “Divest the Rich, Invest in our Communities,” and “We need housing that’s affordable, NOT Courtyard Marriott.” Students, Exposition Park residents and activists from over 25 community groups gathered on Aug. 27 for a rally along Jefferson Boulevard to demand that the former site of the Mary McLeod Bethune Branch of the Los Angeles Public Library, currently slated to become a hotel, be devoted instead to affordable housing.

The decade-long debate over what to do with this vacant lot on Vermont Avenue, occupied only by grass and pine trees, was coming to a head.

The lot at 3685 S. Vermont Avenue, which has sat empty for more than 10 years, had been home to the Bethune Library since 1974. Community organizers long argued for affordable housing at the site, and at one point the Los Angeles Times reported that the city planned to construct an affordable housing complex with a grocery store there.

But in April 2019, the City Council approved a plan by the firm Orion Capital to build a 167-room Courtyard by Marriott hotel on the lot. Orion has an exclusive negotiating agreement with the city, but does not yet own the property. Community organizations, led by the groups USC Forward, UNIDAD and Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE), are demanding that the city uphold its promise of affordable housing.

Maria Patiño Gutierrez, assistant director of policy and research at Strategic Actions for a Just Economy — part of the UNIDAD coalition — said she was surprised to learn that the city planned to go ahead with the hotel, even during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“If we’ve learned anything in the last six months,” Gutierrez said, “it’s that housing is so needed.”

This is not the first controversial hotel development in the USC area in recent years. In 2018, the Daily Trojan reported that the Fig Project, a planned mixed-use development which necessitated the demolition of historic apartment buildings on the 3900 block of Flower Drive, faced fierce opposition from community members, some of whom feared they would be evicted. The project’s developers, Ventus Group, got approval for the development, which included a hotel, provided they preserve some of the buildings as a historic district.

In a neighborhood that draws scores of visitors to the university and football games at the Coliseum, developers know hotels have the potential to be extremely lucrative.

The UNIDAD coalition is also concerned about development for the 2028 Summer Olympics edging out affordable housing. “Anything that’s happening right now is being geared towards the Olympics,” Gutierrez said.

Though city leaders have said that an Olympic Village could be converted into affordable homes to ameliorate the housing crisis, many activists are skeptical, leading a wave of opposition to the games.

An online petition created by UNIDAD and titled “LA City Leaders: Build Affordable Homes, Not a Hotel At The Former Bethune Library Site” has reached about 380 signatures. Many of the petition’s signers posted their reasons for signing on the page.

“South LA needs homes, not a hotel,” wrote one user named Faizah Malik.

“Housing is a mental health issue,” Adriana L. Medrano posted. “Housing insecurity in South LA causes mental health concerns & it is completely preventable.”

Michael Martinez left this message: “Affordable housing has been an issue for decades! Lawmakers get their palms greased and forget who they work for!!!!”

The Bethune Library site is in LA’s 8th District, represented by councilmember Marqueece Harris-Dawson. In June of this year, Harris-Dawson, along with council members Herb Wesson and Gil Cedillo, presented a motion for the city to begin a policy of donating surplus public land to meet the needs of predominantly Black and Latinx neighborhoods in their districts, as a way to “correct our past wrongs.” The motion cited the need for these resources to combat a long history of institutional racism. Last December, Harris-Dawson won approval for a motion that requires all new housing developments on city-owned land to be made 100% affordable for residents. This restriction, however, did not retroactively apply to the Bethune Library site, which had already been promised to Orion Capital.

Gutierrez said SAJE supports the motion, but was disappointed that it didn’t apply to sites like the Bethune Library.

“We were like ‘That’s amazing!’” Gutierrez said. “'Why didn’t you author this last year, or five, six, seven years ago?'”

Harris-Dawson has expressed support for the hotel project, but his office told Annenberg Media he was not immediately available to comment.

Although USC isn’t directly involved in the development of the Bethune site, Gutierrez said, “anything that happens near USC, USC knows about.”

Affordable housing is an issue that concerns the South LA community and USC students alike, and some students have been involved in the demands for affordable housing at the Bethune Library site.

The USC Student Coalition Against Labor Exploitation was one of the student groups that took part in the car caravan rally in August.

“For a lot of students, we are visitors in this community and are only here temporarily,” said graduate student Miranda Leibig, a SCALE member. “We’re privileged to be attending USC and should use our position as students to support the local community.”

St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, directly next door to the Bethune site on Vermont, is a member of the UNIDAD coalition. In the early 1970s, council members at the church helped name the library after Mary McLeod Bethune, a Black educator, stateswoman and civil rights activist.

Denise Jackson-Serrette, one of the St. Mark’s council members, has been working with the city on plans for the Bethune site since 2008.

“We feel connected to whatever the developers, or the project that comes there, that it serves the highest and best use for the community at large,” Jackson-Serrette said.

The church’s pastor, Rev. Matt Keadle, says the neighborhood has seen a “massive change” over the years, with a lot of affordable housing lost.

“Our reaction to a hotel coming in instead of affordable housing is in the form of a question,” Keadle said. “What is going to be the benefit for this community? And I don’t think that has been fully answered yet.”