In the late 1980s and early 1990s, when Helen Leung was growing up in Elysian Valley, a.k.a. Frogtown, her parents gave her free rein over the neighborhood, allowing her and her sister to explore the gritty, industrial streets to their hearts’ content.
“One of my most vivid memories is of the day we decided to build something out of scraps,” she said in a recent interview with the Boulevard Sentinel. “There was a company that had lots of cardboard boxes. We asked if we could have them and they told us to take whatever we want.”
They did — and built a giant cardboard house on their front lawn. Nearly 30 years later, Ms. Leung, 34, is still applying her creativity to housing and urban design. She is the Co-Executive Director of L.A. Más, a non-profit urban design firm in Frogtown that uses education, thoughtful design and shrewd policy navigation to help low-income Angelenos control the future of their communities.
That mission puts L.A. Más and Ms. Leung at the center of what is arguably the most difficult issue in Los Angeles today: gentrification and the resulting displacement of low-income residents and local businesses.
She is well-prepared to be part of the solution. It was in high school at John Marshall in Los Feliz that she first began to see her life and surroundings in a broader context. She was the president of the Key Club, a volunteer group, and she learned that one of the teachers, Steve Zimmer, was starting a community center in Frogtown. She got involved with the project and got to know Mr. Zimmer, who was elected to the L.A. Unified School Board in 2009 and was its president from 2015 to 2017. “He was the one who schooled me on social issues,” she said. “He was also the one who told me, ‘Helen, you should go to college.ʼ ˮ
Up to that point, she hadn’t thought about college. She had top grades, but she didn’t personally know anyone who had attended a university.
With Mr. Zimmer’s encouragement, she applied and was accepted to several universities. She chose the University of Pennsylvania, because she wanted to try a new city and because UPenn offered the best financial aid. In 2006, she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in political science and communications.
During summers in college, she would return to Frogtown and to an internship she had gotten, with the help of Mr. Zimmer, in the office of Eric Garcetti, then the City Councilmember for CD13. Mr. Garcetti was the chair of the committee on housing and economic development, so Ms. Leung was immersed in those topics. “My parents are working class immigrants who didn’t speak any English,” she said, “It was during my internship that I realized that public policy makes a difference and good government helps people like my parents.”
The realization led Ms. Leung to pursue fellowships and jobs after college that included work in the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Office of the Deputy Mayor of Washington, D.C. and the Obama administration Office of Political Affairs. She also worked for Living Cities, a foundation focused on housing and urban issues. Along the way, she enrolled at Harvard, completing a master’s degree in public policy in 2011.
She learned a lot, including what was most important to her. “After working at the national level, I knew I wanted to be grass-roots and create change at a local level,” she said.
She moved back to Frogtown in 2013, and shortly thereafter, met Elizabeth Timme, a founder of L.A. Más. That same year, she joined the firm and in 2015, became Ms. Timme’s co-executive director.
The L.A. Más portfolio is eclectic, including “Futoro de Frogtown,” a detailed plan to revitalize the Elysian Valley side of the L.A. River; “Go Ave. 26,” the wayfinding design elements and public-space improvements at the Lincoln/Cypress Station of the Metro Gold Line; and Welcome to Western, a project currently underway to make a commercial stretch of Western Ave. safer, livelier and more walkable.
But of all the ventures in the works at L.A Más, Ms. Leung is most excited about the Backyard Homes Project, which will begin recruiting participants this month. The project will help low-to-moderate homeowners finance, design and build Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) on their properties (often a converted garage). In exchange, the homeowners will agree to rent the ADU to a Section 8 voucher holder for at least five years. It’s a win-win proposition. The homeowners improve their properties and earn rental income. The renters are able to afford an apartment in what would otherwise be an unaffordable area. New housing is created from existing private property, thus avoiding large scale development, costs to taxpayers or long wait times.
The idea grew out of Ms. Leung’s family experience. Her parents bought their home in Frogtown 30 years ago, she said, adding that there are many house-rich, cash-constrained homeowners in L.A. like them. Backyard Home Project is an attempt to pair those lower income homeowners with lower income renters, improving and preserving neighborhoods in the process.
“We’re really trying to change the way the system for affordable housing works,” said Ms. Leung aptly summing up the bold and humbling mission that she and L.A. Más have taken on to make Los Angeles a better place.
Designing Space, Designing Solutions
On Wednesday, Oct. 17, Helen Leung will be a featured panelist at a public discussion on the Bowtie Parcel, a complex expanse of land overlooking a lush stretch of the L.A. River. The panel is part of South of Fletcher: Stories from the Bowtie, a project by Fonografia Collective, a creative group that uses multi-media to tell stories that might otherwise not be told. The panel will explore the urgent problems that converge at the Bowtie Parcel, including the housing crisis, climate change and lack of open space. Ms. Leung will be joined by Christopher Hawthorne, the chief design officer of Los Angeles and Kat Superfisky, an urban ecologist. / 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. / Doors and bar open at 6:30 p.m. / Clockshop / 2806 Clearwater St. / Frogtown / For more information: clockshop.org/event/designing-open-space/