Thu, Jun

Is LA Trying to Make the Middle Class Obsolete?


iAUDIT - From the day in 1913 when William Mullholland flipped a switch that started a cascade of water he stole from the Owens Valley, exclaiming “There it is, take it,” Los Angeles gave birth to a multitude of dreams, from stardom in the movies to sinking an oil well in the middle of Wilshire Bl. and striking it rich. One of the more mundane dreams was that a middle class family could own a house with a yard.  If that oil well made you rich, you could build one in Bel Air or Beverly Hills.  If stardom eluded you and you wound up working as an extra at Paramount, you could buy a bungalow in the flatlands.  L.A. grew on the dream that anyone with a decent job could own a home, and the belief open space wasn’t the exclusive right of the wealthy.  The reason Los Angeles is geographically one of the largest cities in the U.S. is that it grew out instead of up. Besides water purloined from the Eastern Sierras, cars made L.A. possible.  It’s no coincidence that L.A. hit a million people in 1924, just 16 years after the first Model T rolled off Henry Ford’s assembly lines.  Although the fabled Pacific Electric Red Cars ran from the Valley to central Orange County and beyond, the system was never as extensive or convenient as 80 years of romanticized history has made it seem.

Los Angeles is a diverse city with multiple downtowns.  DTLA is a traditional central core, but other smaller downtowns can be found from San Pedro to Van Nuys. Some of the city’s “towns” are more populous than many cities: K-Town, Westwood, Boyle Heights, and the Crenshaw District are as unique from each other as Boise is from Boston. What drove this sprawl and diversity is a huge middle class population that wanted what L.A. offered—a single family home and a patch of open space to call one’s own.  Government policies—for better or worse—supported those dreams by making home ownership easier, and providing an extensive system of freeways that often divided neighborhoods for the sake of commuters and commerce. There was never anything perfect about L.A.’s sprawl and car culture, but that is the reality of the city we’ve created.

Owning a single family home used to be aspirational, something to work for and be proud of, and something supported by our government.  My parents were able to buy their house in the backwater town of Anaheim in the early 1950’s because my father served in World War II and earned a GI loan.  Now, leaders from Sacramento to City Hall are telling us owning a single family home is selfish and classist, something to be condemned instead of supported.

This condemnation is coming from a group of policy makers, social theorists, and economic warriors (supported by hefty donations from developers) who use a mix of social engineering, arrogance, presumption, and legislative shenanigans to achieve their goals.  And what are their goals?  To build massive amounts of new, “affordable” housing shoehorned in every possible space throughout the city, regardless of each community’s unique character, what the real need is and who needs it.

State Senator Scott Weiner has called single family housing “immoral” while sponsoring bills like SB-9, giving developers free reign to build multi-family homes on SFR lots. It’s little wonder these bills, and the politicians who vote for them, are backed by developer money.  In reality, SB-9 has no affordability requirements, but assumes housing will be cheaper when hundreds of thousands of new units are built. It’s pure theory with no real-world experience to support it. Many studies prove just the opposite, that property costs increase when density increases, for the simple reason a builder is willing to pay top dollar to build six units where there was one. It also drives up the cost of single family homes by reducing their availability.

The City of Los Angeles, not one to be outdone by the State Legislature, is proposing vast upzoning all over the city as part of its new General Plan.  Part of the mania to build thousands of new units is based on the myth that homelessness is driven by the high costs of housing. Advocates explain away the prevalence of substance abuse and untreated mental illness among the unhoused and ignore the fact that other cities with high housing costs, like New York, have a fraction of the unsheltered homeless population L.A. has.  The other driver is a twisted sense of economic justice that subverts traditional—and apolitical—values like hard work, investment, and prudent spending to feed a sense of grievance and entitlement, that if one works hard, saves, and sacrifices to buy a home, one has somehow gained an unfair advantage over others, who deserve the same regardless of their personal choices.

Ironically, the same governments that condemn private property owners simultaneously recognize the value of owning property. The landmark restoration of Black’s Beach in Manhattan Beach was rightly hailed as a step toward restoring the benefits of property ownership to descendants of African American landowners whose beachfront property was stolen from them in the 1920’s by eminent domain.  L.A.’s City Council, always eager to seem progressive, recently approved a resolution to restore city-owned land to native peoples where possible.  While a laudable effort, the resolution instructs departments to identify “unused and underutilized” city property for that purpose—the same property the Council wants to use for affordable housing projects.

Let’s take a closer look at L.A.’s upzoning plan. It offers developers bonuses and waivers aplenty to build affordable housing.  Parking requirements are waived under the assumption new tenants will take public transportation. The City (aka taxpayers) will underwrite utility costs in some projects.  If a builder can figure out a way to jam extra units on a lot, he gets a “bonus” allowing him to add units in excess of allowable limits.  In my sleepy corner of Westchester, and throughout the Westside, tens of thousands of units are proposed near what are euphemistically called “transit opportunity” zones, meaning they are the close to transportation hubs, real or imagined, since a single bus stop where two or more routes cross qualifies as a transportation hub. But the stop doesn’t have to exist; per the City’s plan, “The stations or bus routes may be existing, under construction or included in the most recent Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG) Regional Transportation Plan (RTP).”

In what should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the City’s fractured and opaque approach to anything related to homelessness and housing, a community advocacy group called Concerned for Westchester/Osage has discovered an area comprising 25 percent of CD-11’s population will potentially be inundated with 20,000 to 60,000 new housing units, from not just one, but four potential overlapping City plans that  reward developers for jamming buildings of up to 15 stories onto slivers of land that were never meant to accommodate them. The plan would create five contiguous “density districts” out of 2,200 residential lots with up to 14 units per lot. No onsite parking will be required because it is presumed residents will use transit or walk. City planners have been exceptionally closed mouthed about what the actual plans are.  They claim they’ve done plenty of community outreach and point to a  hand-picked “Advisory Group” that supports the plans--a committee of 52 city-appointed members with only one or two representatives from the most impacted neighborhoods and no representatives from Westchester. Apparently, planners are using the “throw everything at the wall and see what sticks” method of community planning, forcing residents to accept the “least worst” option instead of rethinking their strategy.

The City’s policies are aimed squarely at members of the middle class who dare think they deserve a share of the dreams their parents attained. They’re told they can’t own a  home and must live in Lego-style apartments thrown up all over the city.  Because developments near the fabled “transportation hubs” are exempt from parking requirements, they’re told they will take public transportation, on a system infamous for being inconvenient and unsafe. Of course, there is no way the City can stop someone from buying a car, so when people in 15-story buildings start looking for parking spaces, parking on residential streets already choked with cars will reach absurd levels.   While demonizing middle class homeowners as NIMBY’s, the City’s policies would make heroes of people like Akhilesh Jha, a developer who seems to take particular glee in building large multifamily developments in single-family residential areas, regardless of community characteristics, traffic, or infrastructure.

The policy also affects young families who dug deep and bought homes despite astronomical costs. Whether they bought a house to be closer to work or because they simply want a home of their own, they are now being told the house they worked so hard to own may be surrounded by monstrous apartment complexes. And unlike older homeowners, the mortgages they carry and roots they have created with jobs and children in school don’t give them the luxury of selling and moving to another city with sane housing policies.

The sad part of this impending disaster is that it is completely unnecessary. As other contributors on City Watch, as well as housing professionals have said, the basis of the state’s housing requirements is deeply flawed, based on overestimations of population growth, even as the State Finance Department has recently projected continued population loss for the next few decades. If the self-proclaimed “experts” think that building thousands of shoebox apartments will keep people here, they are deluding themselves.  People are moving out of state because they want what L.A. once offered the middle class—a home of their own.  They’re not moving to Texas to rent apartments.

The demand for rampant building depends on another fable, that homelessness is a housing problem.  The UCSF/Benioff study that advocates insist “proves” homelessness is about housing costs actually refutes that claim.  66 percent of the unhoused people in the survey said they suffered from mental health issues; 65 percent said they had a history of regular use of illicit drugs. And for advocates who insist these problems are the result of, rather than the cause of homelessness, the report stated, “For many, these problems predated their first episode of homelessness.” Given the County’s obscene lack of services, the idea of wraparound services for people in housing is a cruel joke.  No amount of cheap housing will help someone who needs constant care and isn’t receiving it and the City’s “housing first” policy wouldn’t require that people who need constant care receive it once placed in housing.

Intelligent community-sensitive expansion of the housing stock people actually want—homes—will help keep L.A.’s shrinking middle class in the City. Instead, leaders are doing all they can to make that middle class dream unattainable. So why, if we are losing population and many of the chronically homeless cannot benefit from an unsupervised living environment, are we being told we need tens of thousands of high-density apartments?  One clue may be who’s telling us we do—elected leaders who lecture us about economic justice while taking money from developer-backed PAC’s.  If you think the wealthy will suffer along with the rest of us when high-rise apartment blocks start sprouting up all over the city, consider this: there is a bill before the Legislature, SB 423, sponsored by Scott “single family homes are immoral” Weiner. Council Member Traci Park has filed a resolution with City Council that asks Sen. Weiner to amend his bill to      exempt homes in the Coastal Zone  and high fire risk areas from      requirements of taking on any multi-family housing–even small, five-unit affordable housing projects. On the Westside, that would happen to exempt a good swath of Venice, Brentwood, and Playa Del Rey and nearly all of the Pacific Palisades, home to many of the developers and economic justice crusaders who want to foist large development on everyone—except themselves. Large mansions and housing packed close together (a known fire hazard) are okay, but five units of affordable housing on a lot are not.      This defeats the purpose of state and city law of providing low and moderate income housing near jobs and in “higher opportunity” areas.

Like almost every other policy related to housing and homelessness in California, the demand for thousands of new housing units is based on flawed data, untested theories, arrogance and ideology combined with highly paid lobbyists and attorneys to protect the rich, many of whom employ low income workers in their homes.  Leaders, special interests and zealous advocates are willing to marginalize the group that made LA possible—the middle class—just to prove they’re right.  If we allow these policies, we will virtually guarantee the continued disappearance of LA’s middle class.


(Tim Campbell is a resident of Westchester who spent a career in the public service and managed a municipal performance audit program.  He focuses on outcomes instead of process.)

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