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LA's housing crisis raises concerns that the Fashion District will get squeezed

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

If you buy clothing made in the USA, there's a good chance it comes from downtown Los Angeles. But LA is in the middle of a severe housing crisis, and elected leaders want to put thousands of new homes in LA's fashion district, the very place those clothes are made. David Wagner of LAist News reports on concerns that the fashion district and its factories will not survive the city's downtown housing boom.

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINERY WHIRRING)

DAVID WAGNER, BYLINE: A few floors above the streets of downtown LA, sewing machines are humming as workers stitched together dresses for a small LA brand called Ocean + Main. Founder Mary Price points out the carefully sewn French seams on a silk caftan.

MARY PRICE: You don't see any raw edge. It's really clean. It's a highly skilled move, especially on a fabric that's as delicate and expensive as silk.

WAGNER: It may come as a surprise, but a recent industry analysis found that LA factories like this are responsible for more than 80% of all sales of clothing cut and sewn in America. It's a world many LA visitors never get to see, but Price can look out the window and spot garment factories in all directions.

PRICE: That's an apparel building. If you looked out the studio on the other side, there's three more apparel buildings. So it's floor to ceiling of people doing exactly what we're doing.

WAGNER: LA City Council recently passed a new 20 year development plan for downtown LA. It aims to create 100,000 new homes, in part by allowing housing and manufacturing hubs like the fashion district.

PRICE: People look at them and go, oh, that'd be a cool loft space. Well, you're displacing a whole industry by looking at it as an expensive high-end loft.

WAGNER: Decades ago, downtown LA was plagued with abandoned storefronts and empty apartments. But in the last 20 years, its residential population doubled as renters poured into converted office buildings and new high-rises. Roberto Vazquez wants this transformation to continue in the fashion district.

ROBERTO VAZQUEZ: We just haven't created enough housing. The city of Los Angeles is in a housing crisis.

WAGNER: Vazquez is an architect with Omgivning, a firm that specializes in turning underused buildings into housing. He envisions a fashion district where people live in top floors while ground floor factories continue to churn out clothing.

VAZQUEZ: There's plenty of opportunity to satisfy everyone's needs, as far as let's not displace the garment workers. Let's build new housing.

WAGNER: But some property owners say it's not that simple.

MARK CHATOFF: We want housing. Everybody wants housing. Everybody wants to build. But it's got to make sense.

WAGNER: Mark Chatoff owns the California Flower Mall, a fashion district property his family ran as a textile factory for decades.

CHATOFF: I had to switch from textile to floral because there was no textile business. That business has been dying, unfortunately, for a long time.

WAGNER: Now Chatoff wants to build hundreds of apartments above the flower market. But garment workers successfully pushed the city to require manufacturing space in future fashion district housing developments. Chatoff says those rules could scuttle plans for new housing.

CHATOFF: I've watched the plan evolve and then completely be decimated.

WAGNER: From his apartment overlooking downtown, Francisco Mancilla says he's glad he and his fellow workers won those concessions.

FRANCISCO MANCILLA: (Through interpreter) Not just for me, but for a new generation of garment workers.

WAGNER: For 20 years, Mancilla has outfitted garments with buttons and buttonholes, but lately he's been losing hours. LA's apparel industry faces stiff competition from cheap fast fashion made overseas.

MANCILLA: (Through interpreter) Fashion has been at the heart of this district for many years, and it's sad to look at something that once flowered disappearing.

WAGNER: But garment workers are not always treated well in LA. A recent U.S. Labor department investigation found that some have been paid as little as $1.58 per hour. Mancilla knows LA needs more housing, but he doubts his family will be able to afford any of the new housing coming to the fashion district. For NPR News, I'm David Wagner in Los Angeles. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Wagner