L.A.'s affordable housing boondoggle

JOSEPH MAILANDER is a writer and editor for MartiniRepublic.com.

IT'S HARD TO choose the single most annoying talking point from the smug campaign behind Measure H, the city's "affordable housing" boondoggle, which would raise every Angeleno homeowner's property tax by an average of about $60 annually so that politically connected developers and contractors could line their pockets by building maybe 1,000 low-cost housing units a year.

Early on, we skeptics of the bond were told that the tax would cost only "the price of dinner for four at Denny's" each year. (An actual quote to me from a yes-on-H official.) Later, class-conscious City Council President Eric Garcetti changed that to "the price of a Frappuccino a month." The condescending inference was: "What? Are you too cheap to support this?"

Or maybe the most annoying argument in favor is that the two-thirds majority required for passage means we must not look too closely under the measure's hood. "It's really hard; everything has to go right," Henry Cisneros, the former Department of Housing and Urban Development chief, told the crowd at Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's housing summit in September.

There's a good reason for the high bar on fiscal-impact city measures: Namely, it should be difficult for local government to bilk even more money out of us than the feds and state and city already do. As much as it pains me as a liberal to pinch pennies on taxes, the $1 billion that Measure H hands over to city officials would not create nearly as much affordable housing as would more efficient planning and zoning.

For 1% of what this bond would cost, the city could seed 100 homeless experiments like Dome Village, the transitional housing space near Staples Center that, until being shut down last week, successfully tended to dozens of dispossessed tenants each year on a $100,000 budget, most of it ponied up by its own residents.

The forced consensus-building by Measure H supporters has made a mockery of actual debate. The mayor's housing summit, for example, was not a summit at all, but a five-hour commercial for the affordable housing bond, where attendees were subjected to carefully scripted panels touting benefit after benefit, with not one opposing voice among the 29 panelists. Participants were even treated to "Yes on Measure H" gift bags, including T-shirts and a brochure titled, "This is not your father's affordable housing."

The sheer immensity of effort and cash behind the campaign, even in the face of almost no organized opposition, should be enough to make voters suspicious. Affordable housing — which proponents hope has the same goodwill cachet as "school" or "library" — in truth is a hard-to-define, highly complex and highly speculative realm of urban planning, with a spotty track record and dozens of inherent paradoxes.

For instance, one of the many talking points bond proponents tout is that the resulting housing developments would raise the property values in the communities into which they're inserted. Thus, if an affordable housing project comes to your neighborhood, property values would rise — making housing less affordable!

The backers' scattershot and sometimes conflicting promises include loan programs for first-time homeowners, construction of workforce housing and getting the homeless off the streets and into homes. Administration of the funds would be overseen by a seven-person panel appointed by Villaraigosa and Garcetti, the bond's two leading proponents. The biggest dollar beneficiaries would be developers and contractors, who are, not coincidentally, among the bond's biggest cash supporters.

What these affordable housing arguments lack are any kind of comparative statistics or basic economic analysis. The city's Housing Department, for instance, can't seem to find better stats on the number of rental units in L.A. than the ones estimated by the 2000 census, clouding the ability to measure either existing needs or future results.

Building 1,000 units a year, as bond proponents promise, means 67 units for each council district, or about one new unit a year for every 1,000 existing households. For the price of one Frappuccino a month, you could provide for less fortunate people much more efficiently.

In fact, for the price of one Frappuccino a month over the next decade, your chances of hitting at least one trifecta at Santa Anita — and giving the winnings to a prospective young homeowner — are a lot better than the prospective homeowner's chances of getting anything from this bond. There are better ways to increase the supply of affordable housing than by making everyone's housing less affordable.


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