Ballot measure could upset L.A.'s plan for housing the homeless

A ballot measure billed as a way of cracking down on out-of-scale luxury developments could also derail the city of Los Angeles’ budding plan to help house the homeless, critics said Monday.

L.A. voters will be asked in March to approve the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative, a measure that would temporarily block real estate projects that require changes in key city development rules.

Supporters say such restrictions would halt the approval of “mega-developments” that don’t fit their surroundings, forcing city leaders to adhere to existing regulations limiting a building’s height, density and overall size. But foes say the measure would limit a much wider array of construction projects – exacerbating an already profound homelessness crisis.

Mayor Eric Garcetti and the City Council have spent months developing plans for converting as many as 12 city-owned sites into housing for the city’s homeless residents. Opponents of the neighborhood initiative warn that work on 11 of those 12 sites would be halted for two years if the measure passes.

“This is the kind of site that the city has identified we could build housing on — affordable housing, housing for the homeless,” Gary Toebben, president and chief executive of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce, said at news conference at a city-owned parking lot in Lincoln Heights. “We have 28,000 people who sleep on our streets every night homeless. This [measure] would make that problem worse.”

Toebben spoke at an event organized by the Coalition to Protect L.A. Neighborhoods and Jobs, the campaign committee fighting the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative. The group, comprised of business leaders, homeless advocates and others, has been warning the measure would also drive up rents and eliminate construction jobs.

For months, supporters of the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative have argued that their plan would provide much needed relief to tenants, by limiting the types of high-end residential projects that they say create “instant gentrification.” They also say the measure includes an exemption for projects that are considered “100% affordable housing” — the kind in which every residential unit is below market rate.

But at Monday’s news conference, opponents warned that exemption does not apply to real estate projects that need amendments to the General Plan, the city document that oversees development decisions.

City Administrative Officer Miguel Santana, who is overseeing the homeless housing initiative, said as many as 11 of the 12 sites could require a change to the General Plan. Still, Santana said the city attorney and the Department of City Planning will need to provide a more formal analysis in the coming months.

“Ultimately each one of these individual projects will have to be evaluated,” he said.

The sites for proposed housing include city parking lots in Lincoln Heights, a former animal shelter on the Westside and unused fire stations in Westchester and San Pedro. The initiative is aimed at building permanent supportive housing — the kind that includes substance abuse counseling or other services.

Officials have received 73 proposals for redeveloping the city-owned properties and are hoping for a City Council vote by the end of the year, Santana said. The developers who are selected must then refine their proposals and work with local communities to make sure their projects fit their respective neighborhoods, he added.

It’s also possible, Santana said, that the city could sell or lease one or more sites and use the proceeds to help pay for homeless housing in another part of the city.

Jill Stewart, campaign director for the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative, said the proposed moratorium would help tenants by preserving apartments covered by the city’s rent control law. She also argued that the measure would continue to permit housing for homeless Angelenos in residential and commercial zones.

“It’s a good idea to look at city land, but they need to look at city land where they’re not going to face public battles,” she said. “We have laid out a road map for the city that is a smart one for them to follow.”

The fight over the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative and what it means for all kinds of developments in the city may force voters to learn more than they ever wanted about the planning process, said Con Howe, who served as general manager of the Planning Department from 1992 to 2005 and who opposes the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative. 

“No one ever pretended zoning was simple, and that's because people want land use to be carefully controlled in an urban environment,” Howe said.

alice.walton@latimes.com

Twitter: @TheCityMaven

david.zahniser@latimes.com

Twitter: @DavidZahniser

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