PLANNING WATCH - Karen Bass has many things going for her at the six month mark in her four year term as Mayor of Los Angeles.
She handily defeated shopping center developer Rick Caruso.
She has a charismatic personality, and it radiates through favorable media coverage.
She has strong support from the Los Angeles City Council and the civil service.
She is supported by such local political luminaries as Zev Yaroslavsky.
She has the public on her side because she declared a homelessness emergency based her Inside Safe program of placing the unhoused in temporary shelters.
There is no doubt that Mayor Bass is a wise and successful politician. But I doubt she understands why the housing crisis, her foremost issue, is getting worse. The reasons are the multiple factors at the heart of the crisis that her declaration ignores.
- What about the end of HUD public housing, beginning in 1974? Nevertheless, 1.1 million units of legacy public housing remain. If these cancelled programs had continued, there would now be more than enough public housing to shelter this country’s 600,000 unhoused people.
- What about the dissolution of LA’s Community Redevelopment Agency in 2012? Like California’s other 400 local redevelopment agencies, it had to spend 20 percent of its budget on public housing.
- What about the unregulated purchase of apartments and houses by large real estate companies, like Blackstone? They pay cash, often above asking prices, which pulls up the price of housing.
- What about the zoning waivers liberally dished out to proposed, expensive, high rise apartments?
- What about the skimpy monitoring of housing conditions, particularly density bonuses and vacancy rates?
- What about rising poverty and economic inequality? They have priced so many people out of housing, including in Los Angeles, that homelessness has steadily increased since 2017.
- What about mansionization, which is rampant in Los Angeles neighborhoods unprotected by Historical Preservation Overlay Ordinances? Expensive McMansions, already numbering in the tens of thousands, then lift up the cost of housing.
- What about LA’s rundown infrastructure and public services? The General Plan elements for them date back to the 1960s.
- What about restoring cutbacks to public mental health programs? They were defunded when Ronald Reagan was California’s governor and have since contributed to the homeless crisis?
- What about LA’s new Housing Element? It is based on the debunked supply-side/trickle down economic theory that homelessness results from a housing shortage created by zoning laws. As for the many factors listed above, the “experts” ignore them since they can’t be used to justify zoning deregulation.
Emergency Declaration: Why has Mayor Bass’s Emergency Declaration overlooked these well documented causes for LA’s worsening housing crisis?
My answer hopefully explains her dilemma. Mayor Bass might be smart and have broad political support, but she remains a party loyalist. According to urban scholar Harvey Molotch, urban Democrats not only control most cities, but they are part of a bi-partisan urban growth machine. For them, the role of public policy is the promotion of “growth,” by which they mean private sector real estate speculation. In the post-WWII war era, they relied on urban renewal, but in 2012 Governor Brown and the state legislature abolished the California’s 400 redevelopment agencies. Neighborhood scall urban renewal projects were replaced with parcel level spot-zoning and density bonuses. This delighted real estate investors. Combined with lax enforcement, the result has been rampant flipping and a building boom that made the affordable housing crisis worse.
In LA 16,000 people live in their cars.
As a party loyalist, Karen Bass needs to reconcile her party’s commitment to Reaganesque neo-liberal, trickle-down real estate economics, with programs to quell its outcome, more homelessness. Mayor Bass’s and the City Council’s “square-the circle” solution has been Inside Safe. It moves some unhoused Angelenos into hotels and motels, while leaving the urban growth machine in place.
Will Karen Bass’s compromise work? As long as City Hall’s planning policies are based on deregulation, missing monitoring, and lax enforcement, the housing crisis will get steadily worse. Community residents will continue to complain about homeless encampments, and City Hall will respond with LAPD sweeps that push the homeless to other sidewalks and alleys.
Karen Bass’s approach combines Inside Safe the with further deregulation of LA’s zoning laws and the LAPD hassling the homeless. This is not a pretty picture, but it explains why Inside Safe has so far failed, and why local residents still clamor for more anti-camping laws and chain link fences.
In the long-term, the Mayor’s charm offensive will wear out. We don’t know when this reckoning will come, but her fate can’t be that different from previous Mayors. They had similar policies, albeit with different names, and they made the housing crisis worse, not better.
As for Angelenos, gird yourself for a further decline in the quality of life.
(Dick Platkin is a retired Los Angeles city planner who writes about local planning issues for CityWatchLA. He is a board member of United Neighborhoods for Los Angeles (UN4LA). Previous Planning Watch columns are available at the CityWatchLA archives. Please send any questions to [email protected]).