Tue, Dec

Los Angeles: Home of a Well-Oiled Homelessness Machine

PLATKIN ON PLANNING-Even though LA City officials were taken aback by the city’s recent 16 percent increase in homelessness, they shouldn’t be.

If they candidly looked at the many planning ordinances they adopted, they would realize they are largely responsible for the very homelessness they are trying to stop. True, they are spending money for LAPD and Bureau of Sanitation homeless sweeps to push homeless people from one neighborhood to another, as well as for emergency housing programs, such as Measures H and HHH. But, according to a new report from the Housing is a Human Right non-profit, there is just not enough emergency housing in Los Angeles to match the well-oiled homeless machine elected officials fine-tuned through their many real estate ordinances.  These ordinances green-light new, expensive, infill apartments that supplant existing affordable housing.  When this happens, low-income tenants are displaced through evictions and rent gouging.   Some then end up living on the streets. 

Part of the story, which local officials gloss over, is that the housing crisis is nationwide. It is hardly confined to California and Los Angeles. These are the long-term consequences of Executive and Congressional actions to eliminate Federal housing programs, many dating back to the 1930s. They have either been slashed (e.g., Section 8) or totally eliminated (public housing) during the Nixon, Ford, Carter, Bush 1, Clinton, Bush 2, Obama, and Trump administrations. In addition, Governor Jerry Brown and the California State legislature dissolved the state’s redevelopment agencies in 2011, the last source of public funding for low-income housing projects. 

To compound this, the United States government has pursued macro economic policies that have increased economic inequality and poverty for over four decades. This, too, is another factor responsible for pricing out tenants from local housing markets and forcing them into homelessness.  Their incomes have been either stagnant or declining, unable to keep pace with the increasing cost of housing, often propelled by corporate home buyers and institutional investment pouring into the real estate sector. 

While City officials only play a minor role in fashioning nationwide housing policies, such as lobbying for the restoration of HUD public housing programs, they have full control over the policies and programs they pursue at LA’s City Hall. In recent years they have rolled out a series of ordinances that immediately benefit real estate investors, while also triggering residential dislocation, gentrification, and ultimately homelessness. 

  1. LA’s Rent Stabilization Ordinance (RSO), first adopted in 1979, applies to apartments, but not houses, built before 1978. Through vacancy decontrol, the RSO allows landlords to raise apartment rents to market levels or even higher when tenants move out.  Proposition 10, defeated in 2018, could have made the Los Angeles RSO easier to update by repealing the 1995 Costa-Hawkins Act.  Despite this electoral defeat, though, nothing stops City Hall from lobbying to strengthen State rent control laws, amending the City’s RSO, and devising bureaucratic “work-arounds.” 
  1. Ellis Act (1985). According to the Coalition for Economic Survival (CES), since 2001 Los Angeles has experienced 25,000 Ellis Act evictions of low-income tenants living in RSO apartments. These legal evictions were augmented by underhanded cash-and-key buyouts. In these cases landlords privately pay uninformed tenants to move out so they can bypass the Ellis Act’s costly relocation provisions.  Finally, there are illegal evictions induced by deliberate negligence. In these cases, building owners ensure that their apartments become unlivable. Faced with mold, rats, cockroaches, sewage backups, gas leaks, and broken toilets and furnaces, many tenants “voluntarily” leave. The number of cash-and-key and deliberate negligence evictions is difficult to calculate but it could be larger than fully documented Ellis Act evictions. 
  1. Density Bonus Ordinances, whether SB 1818 or TOC Guidelines, allow real estate investors to easily change the zoning rules when they build apartment buildings. They no longer need to approach the Office of Zoning Administration for a Zone Variance or to the City Council for a Zone Change. By pledging to include a small number off low income units in their apartment buildings, investors can easily exceed zoning regulations for height, density, building size (Floor Area Ratio), open space, yards, and required parking. To obtain these bonuses, the applicants do not need to present any financial justifications or indicate what their future low-income rents will be.  

Later, when their apartment buildings are occupied, the City of Los Angeles never inspects the pledged affordable units to verify that their rents are low-income, or the tenants meet qualification criteria. Furthermore, density bonuses are rarely appealable since most are ministerial approvals issued by the Department of Building and Safety. As for the few cases that require a City Planning approval, neighbors never receive notices, and the grounds for appeals are so unwinnable that they are strictly pro forma

  1. Community Plans are City Council adopted policy documents implemented through land use maps, as well as appended land use ordinances.  These complex ordinances increase permitted uses, density, height, and mass. They become an extraordinary gift to property owners because the land use amendments increase the market value of their parcels.  In addition, some recent Community Plan updates, such as South and Southeast Los Angeles, contain Community Plan Implementation Ordinances (CPIO’s).  They include up-zoning provisions similar to the City’s two density bonus laws. The CPIO’s also waive zoning requirements in projects within a half-mile from transit corridors by granting bonuses that exceed existing zoning requirements.  In these cases, like other density bonus programs, no financials, monitoring, or verifications are required.  They also do not contain any administrative paths for local residents to effectively appeal these quasi-zone variances and zone changes. 
  1. Re:code LA is a stalled $5,000,000 plus program to comprehensively amend the case processing procedures and zoning laws in the Los Angeles Municipal Code. Re:code LA’s extensive zoning code amendments are based on form-based zoning. This approach expands the list of uses allowed in each zone and reduces requirements, such as parking, while barely modifying the external building envelope. If and when the City Council adopts re:code LA, it, too, will increase property values and accelerate real estate speculation and gentrification when new Community Plans and Transit Neighborhood “Plans” fold the re:code LA zones into their implementing land use ordinances. 
  1. Transit Neighborhood Plans (TNPs) are city-initiated up-zoning schemes that deceptively present themselves as integral parts of new METRO rail lines. In fact, these nearby METRO projects, such as the Purple Line Extension, are only a pretext for these city-initiated up-zoning scams. The Transit Neighborhood Plans do not show up on METRO’s websites. These TNPs do, however, eviscerate LA zoning laws in neighborhoods that are within a half mile of new transit lines. Furthermore, the TNPs do not include any administrative mechanisms to confirm the City’s justifications for up-zoning: that it leads to increased transit use and lower housing costs. As I have often written in CityWatch, this is because TNP-type up-zoning is nothing more than a real estate scheme that inevitably leads to decreased transit ridership and more expensive housing. 
  1. Manzionization is galloping across Los Angeles, fanning out from core areas, such as Beverly Grove, to the entire city. Unless protected by a Historical Preservation Overlay Zone (HPOZs), the different City Council-adopted ordinances to slow the demolition of existing homes and their replacement by boxy, poorly constructed, oversized McMansions, are toothless. These ordinances still permit the construction of houses too large for their lots, which wipe out older, lower priced homes by the thousands. Furthermore, many of the new McMansions openly violate the City’s anti-mansionization ordinances; yet Council offices and the Department of Building and Safety reflexively claim they are legal. 

When mansionization alters a neighborhood, it leads to the incremental destruction of affordable housing. Poorer owner-occupants accept a mansionizer’s buyout offer and quietly leave for parts unknown. Contractors then ignore laws banning lead paint and asbestos pollution during demolitions because the Department of Building and Safety does not enforce them. Wealthier owners or Airbnb renters then move into the new McMansions, accelerating each neighborhood’s architectural and economic transformation. 

There is nothing inevitable about the mansionization process. Other cities have eliminated or carefully regulated demolitions and new McMansion construction. In the process, they have also preserved their supply of affordable homes. 

Through these bureaucratic shortcuts listed above, and others, such as RAS (Residential Accessory Service) Zones and the Adaptive Reuse Ordinance, LA’s City Hall has created a complex web of work-arounds for scheming developers to evade planning and zoning laws. In most of these cases, developers can also by-pass environmental reviews mandated by the California Environmental Quality Act. Furthermore, when a particular project does not qualify for one of these many loopholes, developers can apply for a Zone Variance or Zone Change. While these take longer and cost more, in LA their approval rate is 90 percent. 

The end-product is a well-oiled administrative machine that smoothly produces luxury apartment projects, but with the hidden cost of evictions, gentrification, and homelessness. Connecting these dots would go a long way in combatting homelessness caused by the gaps between soaring rents and stagnant and declining incomes.


(Dick Platkin is a former Los Angeles city planner who reports on planning controversies in Los Angeles for CityWatchLA.  He serves on the board of United Neighborhoods for Los Angeles (UN4LA) and welcomes comments and corrections at [email protected].) Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.