An El Sereno Home Sold for Nearly $1 Million: What's in Store for This Eastside Neighborhood?

A year ago, real estate agent Tyler Harman made what he called an “outrageous prediction” about El Sereno. He announced on his blog that the working-class neighborhood in Northeast Los Angeles would see its first million dollar home listing in 2016. His forecast almost came true.

A newly built El Sereno home sold on Nov. 30 for $920,000. The sale was such an anomaly that the real estate professionals involved, Maribel Benitez and Kelly Tran of RE/MAX Elite Realty in Alhambra, sent out a notice about the feat to community members. “All cash and closed in 15 days!” the flier boasted.

With five bedrooms and seven bathrooms, the 3,500-square-feet house dwarfs the modest homes built in El Sereno after the neighborhood’s annexation into Los Angeles in 1915. While its size and newness contributed to the cost of the home, in the 4200 block of Barrett Road, the fact that the average house in El Sereno is well below the cost of properties in hipster hotspots like Highland Park makes the neighborhood a prime target for newcomers. But home values are already rising, spiking by 11.5 percent to an average of $461,100 last year. New housing developments are in the works, and art galleries, coffee shops and pizzerias have all opened in recent years.

The trend has alarmed Michelle García Gutiérrez, who cofounded El Sereno Against Gentrification two years ago. “It’s a lot like colonialism and the various forms of oppression that have led to the homeless crisis,” she said. “Homes are being sold for [well over] the asking price, and luxury housing is being created.”

While Gutiérrez doesn’t speak for all residents, El Sereno has a history of fighting development. Community members have driven out condominium builders and opposed projects that endanger hillsides or clash architecturally with existing homes.

But some residents welcome newcomers to the area. They say they’re more concerned that business owners there invest in the community. For realtors, however, El Sereno’s growing popularity means a bigger bottom line.

Why El Sereno?

Unlike Eagle Rock, El Sereno’s newest homebuyers aren’t moving there because they’re familiar with the neighborhood, realtors say. Although it’s one of the oldest sections of Los Angeles — once the Tongva Indian village of Otsungna, which the Spanish entered in 1769 — many Angelenos have never heard of El Sereno. In 2005, the Los Angeles Times described the area as “off the radar screen,” despite the fact that it is home to Cal State Los Angeles and became a magnet for immigrants after the Southern Pacific Railroad expanded there in 1876. So, what’s bringing newcomers today to an enclave realtors describe as “forgotten?”
It’s all about geography, according to real estate agent Benitez. The community of 4.17 square miles, which includes subsections University Hills and Hillside Village, is only minutes away from neighborhoods, such as Highland Park, that have already gentrified. And even people from neighborhoods a bit farther, like Echo Park, are moving to El Sereno.

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Map of El Sereno, as drawn by the Mapping L.A. project of the Los Angeles Times. (Wikimedia Commons)
“They’re coming for the hillsides, the views, the quiet, the parking,” Benitez said. “It’s the location. You can drive the streets to downtown Los Angeles.”

Tran said she and Benitez educate buyers about the benefits of living in the area, such as its green spaces. The 140-acre Ascot Hills Park sits on the fringes of El Sereno. And Elephant Hill, 110 acres of parkland that residents mobilized to protect from luxury condo developers, is on the north side.

According to Tran, the people who’ve bought homes in El Sereno don’t fit into a particular demographic. “We don’t just see hipsters,” she explained. “We also see families, young professionals and older couples who are downsizing.”

Harman speculates the community is attracting homebuyers who ordinarily would’ve purchased properties in Boyle Heights. There, activist groups such as Defend Boyle Heights have demonstrated against gentrification in the streets. Art galleries have been vandalized, and one gallery recently announced it was closing because of outcry from gentrification foes.

“A lot of the people thinking about moving there [Boyle Heights] backed off and said, ‘Let’s go back and check out El Sereno,’” Harman said.

Locals Only

Gutiérrez, 28, applauds the efforts of groups like Defend Boyle Heights. She grew up in El Sereno and is distressed by some of the changes to her neighborhood, including the launches of upscale businesses and the selling of flipped homes. She suspects that newcomers to the area care more about living close to downtown than they do about their neighbors.

“Who the fuck are these people who think they can come here and replace our grandmothers?” she asked.

She started El Sereno Against Gentrification with a friend, and the group now has roughly 10 members, she said. Since El Sereno is divided evenly between renters and homeowners, the group has focused on informing renters of their rights. Tenants have complained to Gutiérrez about rising rents and substandard living conditions, including mold and vermin. But as housing values rise in the neighborhood — they’re expected to increase by 4 percent this year — she plans to persuade longtime homeowners not to sell their residences. Gutiérrez said she’s learned from watching other neighborhoods gentrify.

“Don’t wait, don’t play nice,” she said. “We’re not asking anyone’s permission. We’re going to do what we have to do to defend ourselves.”

“Who the fuck are these people who think they can come here and replace our grandmothers?” she asked.

As Gutiérrez fears longtime El Sereno residents will be forced out of their community, one developer, Rosa de Castilla LP, seeks to build a 90-unit affordable housing project near Huntington Drive South and Soto Street. But that proposal doesn’t erase fears about rising home prices in the area generally. The Preserve El Sereno website urges residents to petition against development they view as “irresponsible,” with luxury developments surfacing as prime targets. The site currently links to a petition opposing plans to build 43 single-family homes across a hillside at Eastern Avenue and Lombardy Boulevard because it “would stand in stark contrast to the surrounding residential properties.”

Lifelong El Sereno resident Linda Frye, 76, lives near two empty lots in North El Sereno. She fears that when developers build on the sites, the new properties will clash with older residences. Historic bungalows, Spanish style and Craftsman homes fill El Sereno streets, but homes built in the 21st century are peppered among them.

“They put in these ugly stucco houses,” Frye said of the new homes. “There’s no charm to them whatsoever. They’re what I consider to be monstrosities.”

But Frye does not object to new residents moving to El Sereno. She remembers when its population primarily included Jews, Italians, WASPs, Mexican Americans and fractions of blacks and Asian Americans. Until 1948, restrictive covenants prevented Hispanics from buying homes in the community, but today El Sereno is more than 80 percent Latino. As property values rise, the neighborhood is attracting the diverse mix of Americans who once called it home, Frye said.

Urban Renewal in Fits and Starts

Lined with palm trees and grassy medians where the Pacific Electric rail line once ran, Huntington Drive is El Sereno’s main drag. The businesses along the thoroughfare show few signs of urban renewal. Fast food chains, laundromats and dollar stores stand along the street. But last summer, President Bill Clinton, Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar stopped by Hecho en Mexico, one of the few sit-down restaurants on Huntington, to stump for Hillary Clinton.

And just off Huntington, on the 3500 block of Monterey Road, is a pizzeria that wouldn’t be out of place in Highland Park. Blazing Stone Pizza serves homemade pesto, fresh meatballs and dough with no additives, said owner Hugo Izquierdo.

He opened the establishment with his son in 2015 after moving to the area from Echo Park for the same reason as many others: “The price of the homes — they were cheap compared to Glassell Park, Mount Washington, Echo Park and Atwater Village,” he said.

Izquierdo also works as a realtor in El Sereno and said he’s noticed an uptick in people looking to buy homes. These newcomers often end up at Holy Grounds Coffee and Tea on Alhambra Avenue, just south of Huntington.

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Holy Grounds Coffee and Tea. (Photo courtesy of Holy Grounds via Facebook)

The coffee shop fills a void in an area with few such establishments, according to barista Mark Alexzandr. The 24-year-old El Sereno native says patrons come to the shop, which opened in 2012, because of its Southwestern decor and menu featuring horchata lattes and artisan wraps.

“You can’t tell from the outside of the building that it’s a beautiful place,” Alexzandr said. That’s because Alhambra Avenue is an industrial zone with long stretches of ash-colored facilities and auto repair shops. Yet, this bleak roadway is fostering an urban renaissance of sorts. In 2015, roller derby league the L.A. Derby Dolls moved into a warehouse there, and the AWOL art gallery opened across the street. That year, owner Nicole Wang unwittingly sparked a gentrification debate after reportedly telling the Eastsider that El Sereno “is like the new Highland Park for artists.” In October, the Aerial House, which offers gymnastics and aerial arts classes, opened on Alhambra Avenue.

El Sereno’s new businesses don’t make Alexzandr feel territorial. He said the neighborhood stands out from others where gentrification has occurred because many entrepreneurs live in the community or are invested in it. After moving to El Sereno from Filipinotown, for example, the Derby Dolls have participated in several community events.

Currently the Dolls, run entirely by volunteers, are struggling to raise money to complete a $119,100 permitting process with the city. If they can’t come up with the funds, they may be forced out of their warehouse.

“Right now, we are remaining positive and working hard with a group of professionals to get our permanent permitting completed so we can have our events back,” said skater Edie “Vodka Toxic” Lundeen. “However if something were to happen, our biggest concern would be the loss for the community.”

Holy Grounds has suffered a setback as well. It is temporarily closed after a car crashed into the storefront last fall. Alexzandr expects it to reopen this spring.

While Huntington Drive hasn’t attracted the kinds of businesses that Alhambra Avenue has, at its northern end, where the street runs into South Pasadena and Alhambra, there is a cluster of shops. They include the clothing boutique Jackie’s Closet, which opened in 2014, and the cafe and bakery Antigua Bread, which opened in 2010 and attracts both brunch-loving hipsters and longtime residents.

Because multiple properties on Huntington Drive are vacant, Hugo Izquierdo expects more businesses to open there soon. He said El Sereno is ripe for revitalization.

“I’m 100 percent certain it will happen,” he predicted. “It’s just a matter of time. People fight it, but inevitably it’s coming.”

Related: Photos: The Eastside Fought For This Scenic Hilltop, But It's Turned Into A Dumping Ground

Nadra Nittle is a Los Angeles-based journalist who's written for a number of media outlets, including About.com, Vox Media, The Atlantic and the Los Angeles News Group. Follow her on Twitter @NadraKareem