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Foxes Guarding the Henhouse: Rancho San Pedro and Its Suitors

Thirty years of war have paid off for the eager boosters of San Pedro.

Illustration of three suited businessmen digging a grave
(Illustration: Kira Carlee | Knock LA)

“I feel like I’m a marketing agent,” Joe Buscaino told the Daily Breeze in 2015, referring to his efforts as city councilmember to revitalize San Pedro. “I’ve been meeting and driving around developers who have expressed an interest, [telling them], ‘This is the cheapest property you’re going to find in L.A. that’s next to a waterline.’” 

Tired of the neighborhood always being “up and coming,” for decades the city’s primary tool to sanitize San Pedro had been its aggressive war on gang activity. These efforts were centered on Rancho San Pedro (RSP), the 478-unit public housing complex located on prime land next to the waterfront. The decisive assault took place in 2011 in the form of an enormous multiagency police raid — “Operation Pirate Town” — followed immediately by a gang injunction blanketing the entire area. 

“The best part of the injunction is it covers damn near all of San Pedro,” City Attorney Carmen Trutanich said at the time. “If they come back, they are arrested.” Like the racial covenants of the first half of the 20th century, the gang injunction would keep the wrong people out. 

Yet Buscaino knew more was needed to take San Pedro to the next level, with downtown LA providing the model. His experience as a police officer taught him that only economic development could truly “remove the criminal element,” as he put it

There was just one major barrier to such a project. The “elephant in the room in discussions about waterfront development,” according to the Daily Breeze, was RSP and its 478 deeply poor families.

So Buscaino did what was required of him. Without consulting the residents, in 2015 he moved the city to fund a study on the “highest and best use” (read: most profitable use) for the complex, setting into motion the demolition and redevelopment process that is slowly moving forward today.

After 30 years of aggression, the local business and property owners were getting exactly what they wanted. The city’s troops were finally moving against their enemy No. 1. 

Former Councilmember Joe Buscaino sitting at a microphone at a table and speaking at an event
Former councilmember Joe Buscaino speaking at an event. (Source: Defense Visual Information Distribution Service)

Behold the Market Potential

Few figures better embody the total fusion and complementary nature of policing and real estate than Joe Buscaino, who left office at the end of 2022. While he briefly made a name for himself by running for mayor (before quickly dropping out) as the standard-bearer for the most reactionary, cruel, anti-poor elements in the city, we must understand this: His views fit squarely within the mainstream tradition of LA politics. 

Since at least the days of Tom Bradley and Daryl Gates, liberals and conservatives have made common cause by waging a war against the poor as part of their effort to transform LA into a “world-class city” for the rich. As part of that project, they have been united in ridding Los Angeles of its public housing.

Near the port, the local capitalist class has been leading the fight to erase RSP since at least the 1980s. In Joe Buscaino, they found an enthusiastic partner. 

Buscaino’s “highest and best use” study came to the predictable conclusion that privatizing and completely redeveloping RSP was an attractive option. Two years later, in 2017, the Housing Authority made its intentions to demolish and redevelop RSP official.  

“The market potential of [the neighborhood] has increased significantly as it will soon offer sophisticated urban amenities, like restaurants, bars, and boutiques,” wrote the Housing Authority in an application for federal funding. Despite RSP’s 478 units being 97% occupied, and despite the 2015 study confirming that the property was in “fair condition,” HACLA wrote that the complex was “physically and functionally obsolete.” 

The desire for its gentrification was summarized succinctly: “The perception of [the neighborhood] by non-residents is that it is dangerous and unsafe; but it is also close to the waterfront with great views of the water and the Port.”

Map of public housing developments in the Harbor Area.
Map of public housing developments in the Harbor Area. (Map: Camille Kaplan | Knock LA)

A Tale of Two Murders

“Let me apologize for not coming sooner,” Leron Gubler told the hostile crowd. “I should have come to you sooner, I see now.” It must have been an odd scene: a representative from the San Pedro Chamber of Commerce apologizing to a roomful of angry public housing tenants for proposing to demolish their homes. 

In March 1987, the chamber released its “San Pedro 2000” plan, which called for the complete removal of the community of RSP. Over the shouts of residents, Gubler condescendingly explained to the crowd that it was really more of a “working document” than a “plan.” 

The meeting “nearly broke into chaos.” 

“The San Pedro 2000 plan was made with no concern for our feelings,” Paulette Symonds, an RSP resident, stated several months later. Tenants spent the next year working on their own plan, and then another with UCLA graduate students, both of which called for renovating rather than demolishing their homes. Gubler, meanwhile, complained to the Los Angeles Times that residents could not see the situation “objectively.” 

With the Housing Authority unwilling to remove RSP residents in the 1990s and 2000s, the fledgling Chamber of Commerce would just have to wait.

This doesn’t mean the tenants had it easy during these decades, just that it was a different institution waging war against them: the LAPD. 

“A haven for criminals” was how the Daily Breeze branded RSP as early as 1986. By 1992, as the war on gangs intensified, concern mounted that “young seedling gang members” were spreading to wealthier areas, according to an LAPD detective. The official response was to harass, cage, and even murder the community’s poor residents. 

“To live in the Rancho San Pedro public housing project is to know police harassment,” a Los Angeles Times reporter summarized. “Anyone who is [B]lack or Latin[e], who looks poor or is just outside at the wrong time is likely to be harassed and humiliated by the police.” 

A little over a year after the 1992 uprising, the city’s paper of record had come down to its southern tip to report on the police murder of Sergio Garcia. A 27-year-old resident of RSP, Garcia was shot dead as he was running away from the cops after a traffic stop. Tenants at the complex exploded in outrage, with hundreds of them packing a community meeting and then marching to the local LAPD station. Garcia’s 22-year-old sister, Marisol, who had her own experience of being sexually harassed by law enforcement, organized the Committee Against Police Brutality and Harassment.

Yet nothing was done by public officials or local elites, despite a report by Chief Willie Williams finding the shooting to be out of policy. The Los Angeles Times even reported on LAPD’s continual harassment of Garcia’s family, documenting how officers threatened to kill his brother, arrest his mother and sister, and force the Housing Authority to evict them all. This, too, failed to spur any action. 

The Police Commission ruled the killing to be justified, the district attorney refused to bring charges, and there were no consequences for the officer. 

Compare that to the elite response to the tragic murder of two Japanese students, Takuma Ito and Go Matsuura, a year later in 1994.

Here, the two suspects — both young RSP residents — were immediately apprehended and taken to jail. One of them, Raymond Butler, was ultimately sentenced to be executed; he appears to still be on death row today. A “savage brute” was how the judge described Butler as he condemned him to death. 

A photograph of a green lawn surrounded by two white apartment buildings
A photo of Rancho San Pedro, 2023. (Photo: Jacob Woocher | Knock LA)

The Chamber of Commerce, nowhere to be found when Garcia was killed by the police, quickly organized an anti-crime rally just blocks away from RSP. Business representatives, police officers, and politicians made speeches, alternatively demanding a crackdown on gangs and reassuring the crowd that San Pedro was still one of the safest communities in the city.

Raymond Butler’s mother, in her statements to the media, wanted the world to understand that he was the product of a system that was failing its young people. She also contested the disproportionate attention paid to these murders in particular. “You don’t know how many times there are bullets flying here,” she said. “I raised my kids in it. Nobody is protecting us.”

To her and many others, the problem was not the residents of public housing, but the fact that their lives did not matter. 

‘Operation Pirate Town’

The crime emanating from RSP — or, more accurately, the perception of such crime — frustrated local elites for the next two decades. Their efforts at suppression climaxed dramatically in 2011. 

“Operation Pirate Town Targets Over 200 Violent Criminals Linked To Rancho San Pedro Gang,” read the headline of a press release issued by the federal Drug Enforcement Agency.

In April 2011, an army of over 1,300 officers from a variety of federal and local agencies stormed the RSP housing complex in a massive predawn raid, resulting in the arrest of 80 alleged gang members. Videos of the raid produced by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) show an extremely aggressive operation resembling a war zone. Scores of officers, armed to the teeth, swarmed the neighborhood as it was still dark out; military-looking vehicles roamed through residential streets; and heavy machinery sent sparks flying as they cut through front doors.

Video of Operation Pirate Town produced by ICE.

The raid coincided with the city attorney filing a gang injunction, which was quickly granted by a local judge. The gangs were “a cancer,” Trutanich declared. “They are done.” 

Janice Hahn, then in her last year as the area’s city councilmember, evoked a previous era of violent removal: “Today it feels like the cavalry has come in.” 

A New Day for San Pedro’s Scrappy Capitalists

A decade earlier, as the new millennium rolled around, San Pedro’s boosters remained frustrated in their schemes to revitalize the neighborhood. The area was “still talked about in terms of its ‘potential,’” and business representatives reeked of desperation as they attempted to brand their community as the “affordable Malibu.” 

The scene started to feel different after 2002 thanks to a “landmark report” by the highly respected Urban Land Institute, which served to unite the local capitalist class around a vision for the neighborhood with block-by-block precision. Without naming RSP specifically, the report noted that aggressive market-rate housing development would be needed to “counter the disproportionate share of low-income and special needs housing that has been allocated to San Pedro.”

By the mid-to-late 2000s, it was clear that things had started to change. A critical mass of artists had moved into San Pedro, providing the pioneers for the first wave of gentrification. Housing development had picked up, too, and with it efforts by the police to more militantly control these spaces. 

Around the same time, RSP tenants became deeply involved in the anti-privatization organizing with the LA Human Right to Housing Collective. RSP tenants were at the forefront of the battle in 2010, some of them even receiving eviction notices for protesting at the home of HACLA’s Rudy Montiel. In a sign of their strength, the Housing Authority felt compelled to send a high-level executive down to San Pedro toward the end of that year to inform the tenants that their development was no longer being considered for demolition or disposition. 

Then came the 2011 raid and gang injunction, which turned the tables back against the tenants and signaled to elites that it was time to go on the offensive.

The injunction proved “that the Rancho San Pedro housing project is home to some of the worst criminals in the area,” wrote Gary Larson in the pages of the Daily Breeze. Larson, a major commercial property owner, is a past president of the Chamber of Commerce and had also chaired the San Pedro Revitalization Corporation. “Rebuilding Rancho San Pedro has to be elevated to a top priority … for the sake of the law-abiding residents.”  

Larson’s calls were answered with two developments in 2012. In its Draft Community Plan, the Department of City Planning identified RSP as an “Opportunity Area,” and called for its privatization — speaking in terms of “when” rather than “if.” More significantly, Buscaino was elected to take Hahn’s seat after she left for the US Congress. 

By 2015, Buscaino had pushed the city and the Housing Authority to fund the study on the “highest and best use” of RSP, and by 2017, HACLA had applied for federal funding for redevelopment. By 2020, community groups were writing letters protesting that market-rate housing developments were causing gentrification; media outlets were noticing, too; and Buscaino was pushing for tax breaks for a hotel project three blocks from RSP — things were looking up for the local landowning class. 

Total War, Total Victory

“This is a unique opportunity to design a state-of-the-art 21-acre neighborhood surrounded by over $3 billion of investment.” This is how the Housing Authority was pitching potential RSP developers in 2017, boasting of the local artist community, craft breweries, and new housing developments nearby. 

There were some requirements imposed on interested parties — namely, HACLA would still own the land, and the private partner had to provide one-for-one replacement of low-income housing, although half of these units could be off-site. But the main thrust was to encourage a bonanza of profit-making and gentrification. Developers were instructed to “leverage [the] prime real estate value of the site” and capitalize on the “significant redevelopment potential” of the surrounding neighborhood. 

The development team was chosen the next summer, “yet another game changing moment for San Pedro,” according to Buscaino. “It’s no secret, too,” the Daily Breeze editorialized, “that the housing is considered to be in the way of redevelopment plans for the waterfront and nearby downtown.” Calling themselves the One San Pedro Collaborative, the consortium is made up of the nonprofits National Community Renaissance and Century Housing Corporation, in addition to the for-profit Richman Group, one of the largest landlords in the nation.

From this point onward — once the decision to demolish, privatize, and redevelop was already cemented — a number of community meetings were held. The Housing Authority also replicated its “community coaches” program it first used at Jordan Downs, whereby a team of residents are paid by the Housing Authority to build support for the project among their neighbors. These tactics appear to have paid off: RSP is the only development where HACLA’s own survey numbers show that more residents favor demolishing and rebuilding units over simply rehabilitating them.

Councilmember Tim McOsker, then with the chamber of commerce, uses a pair of novelty scissors to cut the ribbon for the opening of the One San Pedro offices.
Councilmember Tim McOsker, then with the Chamber of Commerce, uses a pair of novelty scissors to cut the ribbon for the opening of the One San Pedro offices. (Photo: One San Pedro)

In 2020, One San Pedro released its “Transformation Plan,” a 144-page document that proposes up to 1,390 mixed-income units for the site, with construction — which the developers admit will be “extremely disruptive” to current residents — taking up to 20 years, to proceed in phases. The Chamber of Commerce appears to have been intimately involved in the plan’s creation, mentioned 25 separate times in the report. 

In 2022, Tim McOsker was elected to replace Joe Buscaino on City Council. A former chair of the chamber’s board of directors, his election ensured there would be no slowing down the redevelopment on the city’s end. 

Thirty years of organizing had paid off for the chamber and its local allies. In 1987, its representative was verbally accosted by tenants for even suggesting the idea of redeveloping their homes. Now, its pair of giant novelty scissors took center stage at the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the office of the private development team, just down the street from the complex.  

It would be hard to imagine a scene depicting a more decisive victory.

Read more of this 10-part series, LA’s War on Public Housing: The Era of Demolition and Privatization, here.