One of the first things visitors notice about the University of Southern California is the massive steel gates enclosing the main campus. The stunning architecture, dozens of fountains and the immense McCarthy Quad is virtually concealed to passing residents. Located right in the middle of numerous working-class neighborhoods, USC’s campus feels like a fortress, completely fragmented from the adjacent communities. This, however, does not mean that the university’s influence stops at its gates — over the span of several decades the elite institution has become a gentrifying force in the South Los Angeles community. 

Any current student or alumnus will tell you that there are many perks of being a “Fighting Trojan,” both at the graduate and undergraduate level. I’ve been fortunate enough to pursue my Masters in Studies of Law at USC Gould where I continue to utilize the plethora of resources and facilities the university has to offer. It is apparent, however, that students have difficulty integrating themselves within the surrounding community. This is in part fueled by the fact that USC frequently bombards students and faculty with “crime alerts,” which are meant to serve as a precaution, but instead exacerbate the narrative of heightened danger outside the gates of the elite academic institution. Although the residing neighborhoods have dealt with their fair share of public safety issues, the university has played no small role in inflaming resentment from locals. 

Many of my USC peers (aside from native Angelenos)  have admittedly never ventured far outside of the main campus. A few have expressed fear of crimes in presiding neighborhoods, such as Exposition Park, Historic South Central, and Vermont Square—all of which have a majority Black and non-Black Latine/x populations. According to the LA Times neigh­bor­hood map index of Los Angeles County, Vermont Square is 56% Latine/x and 39% Black residents, with a median income of $29,904. The Historic South Central neighborhood has an 87% Latine/x and 10% Black population with a median income of $30,882. Exposition Park (sometimes referred to as “Expo Park”) is 56% Latine/x, and 38% Black with the median income of approximately $33,999. This statistic is especially abysmal when taking into consideration that the current average monthly rent for an apartment in Exposition Park is $4,101—almost twice that of the average rent across L.A. county. 

Despite rising housing costs, neighborhoods within walking distance to USC’s main campus remain coveted, especially for undergrads. In recent years the university has heavily invested in the continued expansion of student housing. USC Village—the largest development in the school’s history— was a $700 million endeavor completed in 2017, despite outcry from local South Central residents who feared it would only further exacerbate gentrification. USC Village included new dorms and living facilities for incoming freshmen as well as a plethora of retail stores, restaurant chains, a Target, and a Trader Joes. In an effort to quell community concerns the university made a $20 million contribution to the city’s affordable housing trust, and pledged to hire local workers through a partnership with the city and area unions.

It can be argued, however, that the construction of USC Village set the tone; allowing outside realty companies an opportunity to exploit predatory renting practices. The increasingly accelerated gentrification of South L.A. was an issue long before the completion of USC Village, but the precedent it set thereafter made way for unchecked rapid expansion. In the years after, housing development companies engaged in marketing practices meant to entice international students into renting short-term sublets at over-charged monthly rates, driving the average rent in the area up. As a result, undergraduates desperate to live within proximity to the campus, and able to take out ‘cost-of-living’ loans, conceded to the unrealistically high rent costs at the expense of convenience. 

The university has made some attempts to address community apprehensions. In 2015 USC Gould Law professor Deepika Sharma launched the Housing Law and Policy Clinic. The clinic is part of USC Civic Engagement, and provides free professional legal services to community residents in the areas of housing discrimination, local affordable housing issues, and landlord/tenant dispute resolution. Although the housing clinic is a great option for those in need, it serves as a reactive measure rather than a preventative approach to combating a large-scale systemic issue.

So the question remains: how do institutions of higher education remedy the impacts of gentrification? It is clear that a strategic and intentional effort by the administration is required to engage the community, which starts with acknowledging the role that the university has played in the direct displacement of poor and working-class residing neighborhoods. USC should halt any further expansion plans until they are able to come up with a proposal for a community benefits agreement. The proposal should include the voices of community-based organizations, local residents, small business owners, and other stakeholders. Throwing money at the problem is simply not enough, USC needs to commit to the development of long-term equitable solutions. Prior recommendations made by community advocates have suggested diversifying the campus population by accepting more students from residing neighborhoods and placing a cap on the number of accepted incoming students so as not to exceed the housing demand in the area. In the same vein, university administrators can advocate for a limitation on large-scale luxury development in surrounding working-class neighborhoods.

USC also would benefit from working alongside anti-gentrification coalitions to create guidelines and procedures for community input around affordable housing policies. The development of affordable housing must center the voice of  community members and foster inclusive conversations about the needs of Black and non-Black Latinx residents. Displacement prevention requires tackling the issue from all ends. It is the responsibility of USC’s administration to leverage their political power in order to create better relationships with locals and properly integrate itself into the South L.A. community. 

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Michelle Zacarias

Michelle Zacarias is an award-winning journalist and adjunct instructor at USC's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, where she teaches Engaging Diverse Communities. Originally from Chicago...