Tue, May

Real Estate Scams Purporting to Fix Homelessness


PLANNING WATCH - New real estate scams that claim they cure homelessness pop up like mushrooms after a rain.   Here are several new ones, with undoubtedly more on the way. 

They all need to be debunked, as I try to do below. 

Statewide:  San Francisco State Senator Scott Wiener has submitted – for the third time – Senate Bill 4, a proposed state law that would allow religious institutions to automatically use their grounds for low-income housing projects.  What Senator Wiener’s proposal does not do is allocate funding for this quasi-public housing.  From the 1930s to the early 1970s, low-income housing was funded by the Federal government and operated by 3,000 local public housing authorities.  In California, local Redevelopment Agencies also allocated 20 percent of their budgets to low-income housing, until the State Legislature dissolved them in 2011.   

Once public housing programs were eliminated, the unfunded responsibility for building and operating low-priced housing was dumped on local government (i.e. devolution).  States, counties, and cities were on their own, one reason they turned to trickle-down programs, like density bonuses, to replace public housing. 

But this devolution of Federal and CRA public housing to local government did not work.  They hardly built any low-priced housing, a major reason why homelessness continues to increase.  This failure to successfully devolve low-priced public housing has not resulted in the restoration of annulled public housing programs.  Instead Senator Wiener intends to further devolve low-income housing, this time from cities to religious institutions.  Churches could fund, build, and operate quasi-public housing on their grounds, but without public subsidies.  If the State Legislature adopts Senate Bill 4, it, too, will fail.  The next step is easy to foresee: more police sweeps of homeless encampments. 

Los Angeles: The latest real estate scheme is Livable Communities.  Its origin is the Livable Communities Initiative (LCI), a non-profit organization with a mirky history and funding that calls for greater urban density.  A look at the LCI Advisory Committee reveals the group’s real agenda.  Its advisors are local WIMBYS (Wall Street in my Back Yard), and their housing program is the deregulation of adopted zoning laws to benefit real estate speculators.  This is revealed by a City Council Motion adopted on December 7 that implements the Livable Communities Initiative through Program 131 of  LA’s new Housing Element.  It calls for: 

  • Building mixed-use, mixed income housing at yet-to-be-determined Livable Community locations on transit corridors.
  • Using Community Plan Updates to increase zoning capacity at these Livable Community sites.
  • Reducing setbacks, minimum density requirements, and parking requirements for Livable Community real estate projects. 

If this sounds familiar, it should.  In 1989 Mayor Tom Bradley called for nearly the same thing.  Thirty-four years later, has anything changed?  Casey Maddren, chair of United Neighborhoods for Los Angeles (UN4LA), answered this question as follows:

They’ve (City Hall) been using these same strategies for years with zero results.  City Planning tells us they’re prioritizing mixed-use projects, parking reductions, and jobs/housing connections to solve LA’s traffic problems. Traffic is as bad as ever, we’ve got tons of vacant commercial space in mixed-use projects, and transit ridership is far lower than in 1989, when Bradley made these proposals.  Because the City doesn’t monitor the results of its planning efforts, our leaders don’t realize that these strategies have been losers for years.”

Let’s dig deeper to understand why these policies will continue to fail, even when rebranded as Livable Communities.  

First, transit corridors already have commercial zoning that allows by-right apartment houses and mixed-use projects.  Furthermore, because these corridors qualify for Transit Oriented Communities (TOC) density bonuses, developers can already build large, tall, mixed-use commercial-residential projects at Livable Community sites that violate LA’s zoning laws.

TOC density bonus map of Los Angeles

Second, the City of Los Angeles and METRO had and still have multiple opportunities to, “invest in right-of-way amenities and infrastructure improvements to encourage transit ridership, pedestrian and cyclist safety, and placemaking.”  These are the bus, light rail, and subway lines crisscrossing the city.  This is where City Hall could build right-of-way amenities and infrastructure improvements, yet they have not. These transit-related upgrades are called First-Last Mile improvements, and they are missing from nearly all transit projects.  For example, METRO, in cooperation with local cities, prepared First-Last Mile plans for the Purple Line Extension, the Wilshire Boulevard subway now under construction.  But, neither METRO or the City of Los Angeles are funding and implementing these First-Last Mile plans.  While enormously expensive subway construction is underway and fostering new mixed-use luxury apartments, the parallel infrastructure upgrades are missing. 

This is the real content of Livable Communities: new expensive car-oriented apartments and stores, but without upgraded infrastructure to support them and encourage tenants, employees, and shoppers to use mass transit.  Furthermore, the recent Council motion is a green light for new buildings that exceed zoning requirements but will be approved through Executive orders, without public notifications, hearings, written determinations, and appeals.  It will become a real estate developers bacchanal, with windfall profits generated by up-zoning sold to an unsuspecting public as a remedy for homelessness.

Mayor Karen Bass?  How much of a difference will Mayor Bass’s Emergency Homeless Declaration make?  Then jury is still out, and the press release for her Emergency Order contained an ominous sentence calling for the deregulation of adopted zoning ordinances by Mayoral fiat:

“The order immediately gives Mayor Bass the power to lift rules and regulations that slow or prevent the building of permanent and temporary housing for the unhoused.  . . . Moving forward, Mayor Bass will issue executive directives to advance these critical reforms.” 

While the City Council must ratify the new Mayor’s Executive Order every month, critical questions about funding and implementation await answers.  Furthermore, other causes of homelessness, including gentrification and the end of eviction bans, have not been raised by the Mayor or City Council.  This portends City Hall disagreements about the housing crisis, and it will put the two new DSA-endorsed Councilmembers on the spot.  Will they go with the City Hall flow and support developer-initiated deregulation of land use, like Livable Communities, or will they focus on stopping gentrification and evictions caused by deregulation?  


(Dick Platkin ([email protected]) 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).  Previous columns are available at https://www.citywatchla.com/index.php/cw/planning-watch-la and the CityWatchLA archives.)