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Housing Crisis Burns While City Council Fiddles

PLANNING WATCH -  Public opinion polls consistently report that Angelinos consider the homeless crisis to be the city’s most pressing problem.

In fact, a 2019 Los Angeles Times/LA Business Council/Hart Research poll found that 95 percent of voters considered homelessness to be a serious or very serious problem.  Since then homelessness has gotten steadily worse, and elected officials have been forced to carefully thread the needle.  On one hand, they have played to the peanut gallery, reminding constituents that they are deeply concerned about the housing crisis and are taking resolute action.  On the other hand, the same officials need to stay on good terms with their major campaign benefactors, many of whom are drawn from the real estate sector and play an outsized role in local politics. 

To maintain this balancing act, the elected officials and their supporters have endlessly repeated a fact-free argument: Los Angeles can build its way out of its worsening housing crisis by deregulating laws and privatizing low-cost housing.  If this claim sounds familiar, it is because the California State Legislature recently adopted Senate Bills 9, which imposes zoning deregulation on California’s cities and counties.  It, too, was justified by the same ruse: the legislation is not a handout to real estate investors, but necessary to address the state’s worsening housing crisis. 

As reported in previous Planning Watch columns, the Los Angeles City Council is on the same page as the California legislature.  For example, in November 2021 the Council adopted LA’s 2021-2029 Housing Element.  Like new state laws, it is calibrated to please both real estate developers and the public.  In the long run, however, it is not likely to please either.  

The developers will be initially giddy because the Housing Element will be implemented through highly lucrative up-zoning ordinances and Community Plan updates.  But their joy will soon wear thin because of City Hall’s lackadaisical updating of LA’s 35 Community Plans.  They are at least a decade past due, with no completion date in sight, and there is even more bad news for the housing speculators.  Despite vast pools of investment capital available for high end Los Angeles real estate projects, the main source of real estate profits has become asset inflation, not those rare tenants willing to pay top dollar for luxury apartments in neighborhoods like Hollywood.   

As for the public, the open question is how long can elected officials shine them on with promises that LA can build its way out of its housing crisis through zoning deregulation and real estate density bonuses.  After all, the public has eyes.  They can see street after street where new luxury apartments and homeless encampments emerge in lock-step.  Not only do the expensive in-fill apartments replace older buildings and their low-income tenants, but the new apartments pull up rents in remaining buildings that managed to dodge the wrecking ball.  

Homeless encampments and nearby luxury apartments grow together in DTLA.

 

Hoping to bust through this log jam, City Council President Nury Martinez proposed three ballot measures to make sure the needle stays threaded.   Her City Council colleagues and the Department of City Planning responded by affirming her free market approach to the housing crisis, but left her proposed ballot measures in limbo. 

Why have Martinez’s Council colleagues distanced themselves from her proposed ballot initiative for the past 1 ½ years?

  • It is NOT because of the erroneous claims she scattered throughout her motions, especially that the main cause of the housing crisis is a housing shortage. A search of the City’s own website reveals that the number of vacant apartments in LA exceeds the number of homeless people by 2:1. 
  • Nor is it because of Martinez’s equally ridiculous claim that LA’s zoning blocks the construction of new housing. Another quick check reveals that LA’s hundreds of miles of commercial/transit corridors automatically permit by-right apartments and also qualify for by-right density bonuses.  As for single-family houses, they can all add three Accessory Dwelling Units (ADU’s), transforming them into multi-family dwellings. 

The most likely reason that her City Council colleagues, plus the Department of City Planning, do not support her proposed ballot measures is that they know they might hurt their real estate agenda more than they can help it.  A heated election campaign could reveal an ugly truth: City Hall’s handouts to real estate investors and developers compound the housing crisis.  The measures’ opponents could also remind the public that City Hall’s main approach to homelessness is LAPD enforcement of its new no-camping ordinances.  While the police are adept at pleasing the City Council and short-sighted voters by pushing homeless encampments to other bridges, sidewalks, and storefronts, this does not address the underlying causes of the housing crisis: a lack of low-priced housing and the growth of economic inequality.  Fueled by major companies buying up housing as an investment, these are the conditions that price many people out of the housing market

A second reason for City Council indifference to the Martinez ballot measures is that Council already directed the City Planning Department to update LA’s Community Plans every six years.  Nevertheless, City Planning is years behind in updating LA’s General Plan, including the 35 Community Plans, even though the Housing Element’s elaborate zoning deregulation programs rely on the updates for implementation. 

What next?  Until the entwined policies of deregulation, privatization, and police harassment of the homeless are scuttled, the current housing crisis will slog on.  As for the electorate’s hope that a new Mayor in sync with new City Councilmembers will change the city’s approach to the housing crisis, there is no guarantee that things must get worse before they get better.  Although there are prominent voices calling for the restoration of Federal public housing programs and the reduction of economic inequality, they may need to become a roar for things to fundamentally change.

 

 

(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 the Greater Fairfax Residents Association.  Previous Planning Watch columns are available at the CityWatchLA archives.  Please send questions and corrections to rhplatkin@gmail.com.).