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Litmus Tests to Smoke Out Sham City Hall Remedies to the Housing Crisis

PLANNING WATCH-My favorite punching bag, the Los Angeles Times (LAT) and its invariably inept stories about planning and zoning issues in Los Angeles, recently told its readers that LA’s City Hall has “A New approach to the homeless.”

  They reported, “The Council’s three new members rode a wave of discontent over the government’s failure to help the 40,000 Angelinos who have no home during the pandemic. . . They all agree that responding to homelessness is the council’s most important priority and may bring a fresh perspective to a body that contending with an ominous budget deficit and the incursion of federal judicial oversight.”  

Since I have previously written about these new councilmembers and unpacked their Reaganesque, supply-side up-zoning approaches to the housing crisis, we need some litmus tests to determine if they are phonies, naïfs, or sincerely committed to solving LA’s deep housing crisis.  These are the fundamental questions: 

  1. Do the new Councilmembers cynically spout clichés about homelessness to attract public support for up-zoning proposals, even though the benefits flow upward to real estate developers? 
  2. Or do the new Councilmembers sincerely believe that their neo-liberal zoning deregulation schemes will solve the housing crisis if City Hall gives even more financial incentives to real estate investors and contractors? 
  3. Or are the new Councilmembers sincerely interested in combatting homeless and, therefore, open to the other programs that have a much better chance of reducing rent gouging, overcrowding, and homelessness? 

To answer these revealing questions, with the help of urban scholar Samuel Stein, I assembled the following list of seven alternative housing programs that elected officials crisis ought to pursue in lieu of their counterproductive zoning giveaways to real estate investors. 

1) Preserve as much existing low-income housing stock as possible by: 

  • Inventorying all low-income housing in Los Angeles, whether built before 1978 and subject to LA’s Rent Stabilization Ordinance or built after 1978, but still affordable. 
  • Updating LA’s Rent Stabilization ordinance to conform to California laws by moving the threshold date from 1975 to 1995, and then to all buildings more than 15 years old. 
  • Eliminating vacancy decontrol from LA’s current Rent Stabilization Ordinance, forcing apartments to retain their stabilized rents when new tenants move in. 
  • Increasing LA’s low income, inclusionary housing requirement to 25 percent, similar to New York City’s. 
  • Plugging the loopholes, including lax LADBS enforcement, in LA’s anti-mansionization ordinances to prevent existing housing from being demolished and replaced by far more expensive in-fill McMansions. 
  • To prevent the demolition of LA’s existing housing stock, eliminate all barriers to the creation of new Historical Preservation Overlay Zones (HPOZ’s).

 

 

 

2)  Reject up-zoning amendments to the Los Angeles Municipal Code since they increase the cost of housing and exacerbate the housing crisis. 

  • Instead of using Community Plan Updates and Transit Neighborhood Plans as a ploy for upzoning commercial/residential properties, the City Council should down-zone these neighborhoods. These zone changes encourage real estate developers to apply for density bonuses and build more low-income units in buildings that exceed the zoning code’s densities, heights, and building Floor Area Ratio (sizes). 
  • The City Council should reject all proposed up-zoning ordinances, including the massive Community Plan Implementation Ordinances (CPIOs) in the Hollywood and Boyle Heights Community Plan Updates, as well as the Purple Line “Transit Neighborhood Plan.” These up-zoning proposals raise the cost of land and housing, ensuring that new market housing is not only expensive, but that it also pulls up the cost of nearby existing housing. 
  • Order the City’s Department of Housing and Community Investment (HCID) to physically inspect all new apartment buildings with pledged low-income density bonus units to ensure these units exist and their renters are certified low-income tenants. All violations should result in severe penalties. 
  • Direct LA’s Housing and Community Investment Department to create and maintain two publicly accessible databases: First, a current list of vetted low-income tenants that landlords and rental agents can use when renting out low income apartments in density bonus projects. Second, a full list of available density bonus apartments that vetted low income tenants can rent. 

3) Update LA’s aging General Plan elements according to State law and the City’s Charter, including the 35 local community plans. These new plans will contain the following critical but currently missing information on the housing crisis: 

  • Where do homeless people actually live, either alone or in encampments? 
  • Where is there sufficient available zoning for additional housing? LA’s available zoning is vast.  It utilized, it could double the city’s population, but would wallop the city’s poorly maintained infrastructure and public services. 
  • Where is there sufficient excess infrastructure and public services to accommodate additional residential buildings and people? 

4) Monitor the General Plan and its implementing ordinances

  • Most importantly, after 25 years, finally create a General Plan Monitoring Unit to determine which homeless policies and programs work and which do not. Without this information, elected officials, including the three new members of the City Council, will have no way to know if their proposals work or are duds. 
  • Prepare annual monitoring reports that fully assess all housing policies and programs that operate in Los Angeles, whether local, state, or Federal. 

5) Ensure that the City Council adheres to the spirit and letter of the California Environmental Quality Act

  • Stop the City Council’s reflexive adoption of Statements of Overriding Conditions to certify Environmental Impact Reports for major constructions projects. 
  • Insist that all developer claims that their projects will generate transit trips and job be supported by annual monitoring reports. If these claims turn out to be bogus, the City Council should revoke all related CEQA certifications. 

6) Reduce economic inequality and poverty, one of the primary causes of the housing crisis. 

  • At the local level, increase the minimum wage for all employees to at least $15/hour, excluding benefits. 
  • The City Council must also expand the social wage, basically public benefits, such as parks and libraries, so everyone can benefit from them, regardless of their income. 

7)Restore slashed HUD and CRA public housing and publicly subsidized housing programs. 

  • Historically, the funding for public housing funding has come from Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) programs. The details of these programs are still available, and with proper funding they could be quickly restored. 
  • At the local level, Community Redevelopment Agencies, dissolved in 2011, were a major source of public funding for publicly subsidized housing. 

The above list of actions that newly elected officials could take to push back against the housing crisis do not include the zoning proposals they support. But, if I am wrong, I invite their supporters to set the record straight. If the newcomers are willing to break with both major political parties and oppose local zoning deregulation/up-zoning, please post your corrections below or email them to me (rhplatkin@gmail.com) for reposting. If the new Councilmembers support the many alternative housing programs I described above, then please share your evidence with CityWatch’s readers.

 

(Dick Platkin is a former Los Angeles city planner who reports on local planning issues for CityWatchLA.  He serves on the board of United Neighborhoods for Los Angeles (UN4LA) and co-chairs of the new Greater Fairfax Residents Association. Previous Planning Watch columns available at the CityWatch archives and https://plan-itlosangeles.blogspot.com/ .) Please send corrections to rhplatkin@gmail.com.) Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.