PLANNING WATCH - Fortune tellers have modest success at predicting the future, not much different than city planners and social scientists. Even though my doomsday scenario may prove wrong, this is my best guess at what lies ahead for Los Angeles.
Let’s begin with long-term trends that are likely to continue.
Long-term trends: LA’s population is declining for several reasons, primarily the high cost of housing. LA County had 9,750,000 people in 2022, and the State Department of Finance predicts that by 2060 it will have 1.7 million people less.
In 2024 nearly all new houses and apartments were financed by banks and private investors. These investments, therefore, need to generate a high rate of profit so the contractors and speculators who plunked down their money get a generous return, between 15-20 percent per year.
While a small minority of Angelenos can afford the new, expensive housing they build, most cannot. Their wages have been stagnant for the past half-century. At the same time, the cost of housing has steadily risen, especially in Los Angeles. Both homeowners and renters are being squeezed out of the housing market. Some couch surf with friends and relatives. Those with deeper pockets relocate to cheaper housing markets. The rest become homeless.
The combination of these two trends—rising housing prices and flat incomes-- means that Los Angeles is becoming a bifurcated city. On one side are the well-off, whose wealth results in a wide range of housing alternatives. But the well-off are a small minority, at most 15 percent of the population. They can afford the luxury apartments and condos springing up across Los Angeles. Or they can buy one of the 40,000 McMansions replacing demolished single-family homes and duplexes in Los Angeles since the year 2000.
On the other side are the remaining 85 percent. They cannot afford a house, and they can barely afford to rent an apartment.
Whether you are in the 15 percent or 85 percent group, it is hard to avoid LA’s down-and-out. Homelessness is steadily increasing despite the best efforts by Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass. Her Project Homekey has not provided enough emergency shelters to meet the needs of the rising numbers of homeless people. This is why in Los Angeles homelessness rose by 10 percent from 2022 to 2023.
Her unsuccessful efforts to remove the unhoused from LA’s streets result from social and economic causes of homelessness that remain in place:
- End or HUD public housing programs, beginning in the 1970s.
- End of local CRA affordable housing subsidies, beginning in 2011.
- Rise is evictions as Pandemic protections are abandoned.
- Misuse of mandatory and optional General Plan elements to increase permitted densities.
- 90 percent approval of zoning waivers to build highly profitable, high-rise, high-rent apartments. These projects are based on elevated but acceptable -- vacancy rates, even though elected officials, their staff, and their boosters, repeat the baseless claim that homelessness is caused by a housing shortage. Their solution to a crisis-of-their-own-making is to jettison land use regulations that impede the construction of new, expensive apartments and McMansions in up-scale neighborhoods. This solution is ideal for investors, even though the deregulation of land use rules results in more, not less, homelessness.
This is why homelessness will increase for the foreseeable future.
Two other nationwide factors are also responsible for the deteriorating quality of life in Los Angeles and other large American cities.
First, climate change has arrived. It appears as heat waves, wildfires, floods, droughts, storms, and rising seas. All climate forecasts point to the continued growth of Greenhouse Gas levels identifying fossil fuel use as the primary cause.
Second, declining empires, like the United States, with its 800 foreign military bases and gargantuan military budgets, repeatedly engage in wars-of-choice they cannot win. This list includes Vietnam, Libya, Iraq, and Afghanistan, as well as the proxy wars in Ukraine, Gaza, and Yemen. These wars-of-choice drain resources which could be better used for public health, education, transportation, and the environment. As these wars proliferate, domestic public infrastructure and services are sacrificed, further undermining the quality of life in American cities like Los Angeles.
What lies ahead? My crystal ball indicates the worst is yet to come. The unpredictable factor is human agency. Sooner or later, people, like Gazans subjected to 16 years of siege, push back. When this happens, doomsday scenarios like mine should be taken with a grain of salt.
(Dick Platkin is a retired Los Angeles city planner who reports on local planning issues for CityWatchLA. He is a board member of United Neighborhoods for Los Angeles (UN4LA). Previous columns are available at the CityWatchLA archives. Please send questions to [email protected].)