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Black-trimmed homes, tiny libraries and other signs your neighborhood is about to be gentrified

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Black-trimmed homes, tiny libraries and other signs your neighborhood is about to be gentrified

A shift in demographics. Affordable apartments transformed into luxury condos. A coffee shop called something like “Brew Slut.”

The signs of gentrification take many forms. A newly opened art gallery can serve both as a communal space and a harbinger of the displacement to come. Remodeled homes might boost a street’s curb appeal but then drive up rents in the ensuing months and years.

There are plenty of ways to tell when gentrification is coming to a community; rising home prices and an influx of trendy shops are classic omens. But in the modern market, developers are flipping houses at the highest rate since 2000, and the houses they churn out are often homogeneous: boxy, black and white, minimalist. They’re adorned with trendy house number fonts and chic drought-tolerant gardens, and they can be an obvious sign of gentrification on the way.

Take a stroll through your neighborhood and keep an eye out for these trends. If you spot a few, gentrification may be on the way. If you spot a bunch, it might be well underway.

The gentrification font

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If Neutraface starts speckling the homes and fences around your neighborhood, your rent might soar soon.

The sleek typeface and its many knock-offs have become so commonplace that they’ve become a meme, and the Guardian even declared it “the gentrification font.” It crowns countless brand-new builds across L.A., and like certain wines and cheeses, it pairs well with cheaply done fixer-uppers or the aforementioned box houses.

House numbers are presented in a chic font.

(Jack Flemming / Los Angeles Times)

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“The Shake Shack font has invaded,” said Steven Sanders, a Highland Park resident who has lived in the rapidly changing neighborhood since 2015. When Sanders moved there, the median single-family home value was around $463,000, according to Zillow. Today, it’s $1.002 million.

There’s nothing specifically wrong with the font; it’s clean, modern and easy to read. Ironically, it’s named after Richard Neutra, an iconic architect who often stressed affordability in his work.

If a for-sale house has a Neutraface house number, the listing price will probably be anything but affordable.

Gentrification bonus point: if the font is also brass or gold.

Black-and-white paint jobs

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This two-story home features a black-and-white exterior.

This two-story home features a black-and-white exterior.

(Jack Flemming / Los Angeles Times)

Gentrification, in terms of housing, has become a monochromatic movement. Gone are the green-colored Craftsmans or the pink-hued bungalows of old; today, newly built homes are overwhelmingly white, black or a brutal combination of the two.

“Taste aside, a black house in an era of climate change is ridiculous,” said Adam Greenfield, a transportation and land-use advocate.

Gentrification bonus point: if a black-and-white exterior comes with an accent door — a splash of bright blue, yellow or turquoise to showcase that the property isn’t completely devoid of character. Just mostly devoid of character.

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Excess security cameras

Multiple cameras are posted outside an Eagle Rock home.

Multiple cameras are posted outside an Eagle Rock home.

(Jack Flemming / Los Angeles Times)

If you’re taking a stroll down your street and feel watched — not by anyone specific, but by a small army of Ring doorbells, Nest cameras and other electronic eyes making sure you don’t pick a Meyer lemon or that your dog doesn’t defecate on the decomposed granite — brace for a new brand of neighbor.

Surveillance systems and the context behind them, in which owners view their neighbors and passersby as potential package-stealers, are all too common in gentrifying communities. For if it were truly a high-crime place, there would still be chain link and barred windows.

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There’s plenty of evidence that smart doorbells lead to racial profiling, and while there’s nothing inherently wrong with security systems, they generally detract from the community feel instead of adding to it.

“It’s the degradation of the social fabric that for so long we all took for granted,” Greenfield said. “It’s legitimate to walk up to a neighbor’s door to ask for or offer something, and security cameras and warning systems discourage that. We can’t let fear win in our society.”

Gentrification bonus point: if they come with a speaker with a disembodied voice that barks at passersby in a condescending tone: “Hi! You are currently being recorded.”

Privacy fences

Sometimes, surveillance systems aren’t enough. Many modern homeowners moving into new neighborhoods don’t even want to be seen by neighbors, so they install privacy fences or towering hedges to shield themselves from anyone walking by.

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Greenfield calls them “f— you fences.”

“Many people were raised in the suburban sprawl, where they don’t have as much access to other people. Then they move to denser areas and import those suburban norms of separation and privacy,” Greenfield said.

Lola Rodriguez, a Lincoln Heights resident who grew up in the area, said if a home in the neighborhood is ever hidden from view, it’s usually someone who just moved in.

Gentrification bonus point: if the privacy fence is chic and stylish, like the horizontal trend that has taken over in some areas.

Box houses

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A boxy modern home

This modern five-bedroom home listed by Avo Atnalian in the hills of Highland Park is on the market for $2.498 million.

(Avo Atnalian)

One of the more uninspired architectural trends of the last century, modern box houses forgo attempts at character or ornamentation, instead serving as shrines to simplicity. They worship at the altar of minimalism, squeezing out as much square footage as zoning laws will allow.

They’re clean, they’re simple, and they’re a likely sign that a new demographic is moving into a neighborhood.

“It’s jarring seeing a bright white box house jammed between older houses with more character,” Rodriguez said. She prefers the neighborhood’s stock of century-old bungalows over the new homes being built.

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The polarizing style isn’t for everyone, but it’s a hit for deep-pocketed buyers eyeing extra space. And box houses are quicker and cheaper to build for profit-minded developers, who will keep cranking out supply as long as there’s demand.

Gentrification bonus point: if the box house includes a glass garage door.

A modern home with a glass garage door.

This modern home features a glass garage door.

(Jack Flemming / Los Angeles Times)

Drought-tolerant gardens

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To be clear, the ecological benefits of drought-tolerant landscaping make it a net positive for Southern California. Limited water usage is absolutely a good thing.

But such gardens aren’t always cheap, and if they start popping up in neighborhoods where most residents can’t afford to spend thousands of dollars, sometimes tens of thousands, on their yard, it could be a sign of gentrification.

Most carry the same look: a handful of shrubs, succulents and cacti surrounded by gravel or decomposed granite, giving it a sandy, desert-like quality.

Drought-tolerant plants outside an Eagle Rock home.

Drought-tolerant plants outside an Eagle Rock home.

(Jack Flemming / Los Angeles Times)

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Kerry Kimble and Steven Galido, two real estate agents with the Agency, said they’ve noticed an increase in drought-tolerant gardens in neighborhoods such as Echo Park, Highland Park and Silver Lake, where displacement has already been happening for years.

The majority of Kimble’s listings are in northeast L.A., and she said she’s noticed a surplus of succulents.

Galido said some developers add drought-tolerant gardens to attract potential buyers.

“Developers remodel homes for the taste of the gentrifier,” he said.

The pair are currently listing a 106-year-old duplex in Angelino Heights, a neighborhood protected by a Historic Preservation Overlay Zone, which preserves a community’s architectural feel by limiting new building designs and renovations. But not every neighborhood enjoys such protection.

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Firestick plants

Firestick plants fill the gardens of many homes in gentrified neighborhoods.

(Jack Flemming / Los Angeles Times)

Gentrification bonus point: if the garden is riddled with Firestick plants — the trendy, orange-tipped succulents that seem to anchor every lawn in those “up-and-coming” neighborhoods.

Little Free Libraries

Listen, these are lovely. Unlike surveillance systems and privacy fences, little libraries actually evoke a sense of community, bringing neighbors together over a shared love of literature (even though most generally seem to be stocked exclusively with James Patterson novels and unreadable how-to books).

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A Little Free Library is posted outside a home.

A Little Free Library is posted outside a home.

(Jack Flemming / Los Angeles Times)

The charming, birdhouse-like structures certainly don’t cause gentrification, despite what a handful of critics have claimed over the years. But they definitely seem to be a product of gentrification, usually popping up in areas where home prices are rising and well-to-do residents are moving in.

Gentrification bonus point: if a smart doorbell camera watches over the library, making sure nobody takes more than their fair share of books.

Pointed listing language

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Sometimes, the clearest sign of gentrification is hearing how people are talking about a neighborhood and the homes within it. There’s a wealth of such examples posted daily on Zillow, Redfin and other listing sites as real estate agents take on certain tones to market properties to potential buyers.

For example, if a listing brags about the home being some kind of port in a storm, a refuge from the area around it, a ship of gentrifiers might be sailing in. One listing in Boyle Heights is touted as an “urban oasis.” Another in South L.A. promises to add “a touch of serenity to urban living.”

Also pay attention to whether a listing is marketed as an actual place to live or simply an investment opportunity. This listing near Leimert Park asks potential buyers to “come see your future investment today.” An Elysian Heights listing touts its use as an Airbnb.

Gentrification bonus point: if the language sounds like an extra flowery wellness ad, such as this listing in East L.A.: “Imagine stepping into a world where every corner whispers tales of renewal.”

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New IRS Direct File program now available in California

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New IRS Direct File program now available in California

If you’re a California resident and haven’t done your federal tax return for 2023, you now have another, more user-friendly option online: the free Direct File service from the IRS.

It’s not for everyone, however. Instead, it’s aimed mainly at people with very simple annual tax returns, which the Treasury Department said amounts to about 1 of every 3 taxpayers.

The tax agency launched the Direct File service in January on an extremely limited basis to make sure its online systems were up to the task. That changed Monday, when the IRS announced that Direct File was available to all taxpayers in California, Arizona, Nevada and nine other states.

Think of Direct File as the IRS’ alternative to the free online tax-filing programs from TurboTax and H&R Block. It provides step-by-step guidance for filling out your tax forms, filing them and either paying any amount you might owe or collecting your refund.

The program’s question-and-answer approach means you won’t have to know which forms to fill out or where on the forms to enter your information. Instead, the program will handle those details for you.

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The IRS already works with several tax-prep companies to offer lower-income taxpayers a free online tax return service called Free File. What makes Direct File different is that there’s no middleman and no income limit for participants — anyone can use it, provided that their tax returns use only the most basic forms.

Specifically, the program will work only for taxpayers whose income is limited to wages reported on a W-2, retirement benefits from Social Security or the Railroad Retirement Board, unemployment benefits or interest income of $1,500 or less. That means if you’re a self-employed person, a business owner, a contractor or a gig worker, or if you have income from a partnership or trust, Direct File isn’t for you.

The Treasury Department estimates that 19 million people in the 12 participating states are eligible to use Direct File this year and that several hundred thousand people will do so.

Direct File also allows you to claim only a truncated list of credits and deductions: the Earned Income Tax Credit for low-income workers, the credits for children and other dependents, the standard deduction and deductions for student loan interest payments and educators’ classroom and professional development expenses. If you’re able to claim other credits and deductions, such as those for foreign taxes paid, child care or retirement savings, or if you cut your tax bill by itemizing deductions (for example, if you have sizable medical expenses), Direct File would not be a good choice for you.

One other caution: The IRS says Direct File will be available only until April 15, when most Californians’ 2023 returns are due. The agency pushed the deadline for taxpayers in San Diego County back to June 17 in response to the federal disaster declaration in that county.

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Direct File runs online only; you’ll need a smartphone, tablet or computer to access it. And to get started, you’ll need to prove to the IRS that you are who you say you are.

The only way to do that this year will be to use the identity verification service ID.me, which takes a scan of your government-issued picture ID, such as your driver’s license or passport, then uses facial-recognition software to match your image from a live chat session or a new selfie against the stored photo. ID.me has raised concerns among some critics, who say it poses too great a threat to privacy and security.

Once you’ve established your identity, the program will check your eligibility, then guide you as you enter information about your income, credits and deductions. You don’t need to download any software, the IRS said; instead, your entries will be saved online, and you’ll be able to pause and resume later without having to start over.

Direct File has a live chat feature to help taxpayers with questions, but it’s not a source of free tax advice.

“IRS customer service representatives can provide technical support and provide basic clarification of tax law related to the tax scope of Direct File,” the agency said in a release. “Questions related to issues other than Direct File will be routed to other IRS customer support, as appropriate.”

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The Direct File service hasn’t been integrated into California’s tax filing system yet, so you won’t be able to transfer your federal information seamlessly to your state return. The state Franchise Tax Board offers a free online return filing system called CalFile whose restrictions are similar to those in Direct File, so if you’re eligible for the latter, you’re probably able to use the former.

If you’re entitled to a refund, tax experts say, you should file your return as soon as possible. Otherwise, you’re just making an interest-free loan to the federal government.

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JetBlue and Spirit end their $3.8-billion merger plan after a federal judge blocked the deal

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JetBlue and Spirit end their $3.8-billion merger plan after a federal judge blocked the deal

JetBlue Airways and Spirit Airlines are ending their proposed $3.8-billion merger weeks after a federal judge blocked the the deal, saying it would hurt consumers who depend on Spirit’s lower fares.

JetBlue said Monday that even though both companies still believe in the deal, they were unlikely to meet the closing conditions required in the agreement before a July 24 deadline.

JetBlue’s new chief executive, Joanna Geraghty, called the merger “a bold and courageous plan intended to shake up the industry status quo” and speed JetBlue’s growth.

“However, with the ruling from the federal court and the Department of Justice’s continued opposition, the probability of getting the green light to move forward with the merger anytime soon is extremely low,” Geraghty said in a memo to employees of New York airline. She said uncertainty over the merger’s fate was distracting the airline from its effort to return to profitability.

Spirit Chief Executive Ted Christie said he was disappointed that the airlines could not combine and create a new challenger to the nation’s four biggest airlines but said he was confident that Spirit — which has been losing money since the pandemic started — can succeed on its own.

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JetBlue will pay Spirit a $69-million termination fee.

The Justice Department sued to block the merger last year, saying it would reduce competition and drive up fares, especially for travelers who depend on low-fare Spirit.

In January, a federal district judge in Boston sided with the government and blocked the deal, saying it violated antitrust law.

The airlines appealed the ruling, and a hearing had been set for June.

Spirit and Frontier Airlines announced a $2.2-billion merger in early 2022 — a deal that would have combined two similar carriers that charge lower fares than the big airlines but add on fees that generate a large chunk of their revenue.

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JetBlue jumped into the fray against the wishes of Spirit’s management, which warned that it would be difficult to win regulatory approval for a Spirit-JetBlue combination. JetBlue went over the heads of Spirit’s board, directly to Spirit’s shareholders, and won a bidding war against rival Frontier a few month later.

While the deal was taking shape and wound up in court, there were continuing losses and other problems at Spirit, which is based in Miramar, Fla. In late January, JetBlue warned that it might terminate the agreement.

JetBlue has also been losing money and faces its own uncertain future. Activist investor Carl Icahn bought nearly 10% of JetBlue stock last month and won two seats on JetBlue’s board.

The end of the JetBlue-Spirit deal raises questions about whether Alaska Airlines can pull off its proposed purchase of Hawaiian Airlines for $1 billion plus the assumption of about $900 million in debt. The Justice Department has not indicated whether it will sue to block that agreement.

Shares of JetBlue Airways Corp. rose 2% in morning trading, while Spirit sank 12%.

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Koenig and Chapman write for the Associated Press.

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Two men charged in dozens of massage parlor robberies in Southern California

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Two men charged in dozens of massage parlor robberies in Southern California

Two men who are believed to have targeted employees and customers in dozens of massage parlor robberies have been charged in federal court.

One of the men admitted to carrying out 50 to 60 robberies of massage parlors in Southern California, according to federal prosecutors.

The suspects, 28-year-old Andy Cuellar of Hawthorne and 27-year-old Arturo Morales of Downey, were arrested Friday after they held up several employees at a Torrance massage parlor, according to a 15-page indictment filed Tuesday in the Central District of California.

Cuellar and Morales were unaware at the time that a law enforcement task force was tailing them as they drove from Compton and then got off the 110 Freeway in Torrance. Cuellar was driving a black 2015 Jeep Grand Cherokee allegedly linked to at least 12 other massage parlor robberies committed over the last month, prosecutors said. The Jeep was registered in Cuellar’s mother’s name.

On Friday, Cuellar and Morales stopped in front of various massage parlors, but Cuellar spent only a few seconds inside the businesses before he walked back out to the Jeep, according to the indictment. Around 8:30 p.m., Cuellar walked into Lucky Health Therapy in Torrance and acted like a customer, according to surveillance footage reviewed by investigators. He was led to a back room by an employee, and Morales soon followed through the door that Cuellar held open in the back of the business.

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Cuellar was armed with a knife and Morales was armed with a .38-caliber pistol, according to investigators.

An employee tried to run out of the business, but Cuellar caught her in the parking lot and pulled her by the hair back into the business, the indictment said.

A few minutes later, both suspects allegedly left the business carrying multiple bags. Employees told investigators who approached the business that they were robbed but couldn’t call 911 because two men stole their belongings, including their phones.

Police found Cuellar and Morales at a nearby gas station, where they were allegedly sorting through the items stolen from the employees, according to prosecutors. The suspects ran when police approached the Jeep with their lights and sirens on. Morales was caught in a nearby intersection with roughly $4,000 in cash in his possession, and Cuellar had about $400.

Cuellar was wearing a Dodgers baseball hat, eyeglasses and distinct white boots, according to investigators. A suspect in two separate massage parlor robberies was wearing the same outfit, court records show.

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Investigators found the handgun that they believe was used during the robbery; it was loaded with a chambered round and was reported stolen in 2018.

One of the employees at Lucky Health Therapy identified Morales as the person who used a gun during the robbery. Another victim said Morales waved the gun around to get more from the employees and Cuellar told him that they had enough, according to investigators.

Later that night, only one victim was able to identify Cuellar as one of the alleged robbers, while another victim couldn’t identify either of them.

Cuellar told investigators he borrowed his gun from a friend, because “when you have a gun nobody fights with you,” according to court records. He also admitted that he and Morales robbed several massage parlors in November and December with another accomplice whom he did not identify, but he said he has personally been involved in 50 to 60 massage parlor robberies. He was out on federal probation for a narcotics conviction when he robbed the Torrance massage parlor, investigators said.

Prosecutors charged the two men with interference with commerce and use of a firearm during a crime of violence. The men were arrested as part of a sting operation that involved the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives’ Orange County Violent Crime Task Force.

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It’s unclear whether the men have any legal representation. They are expected to be arraigned in the coming weeks.

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