Labor leaders and housing advocates cheered in November as Los Angeles voters approved a ballot measure that imposes new affordable housing requirements on many big developments.
If real estate developers wanted to get city permission to erect taller or denser buildings than city rules allowed, they would have to help provide affordable housing, backers of the measure said. Builders would also have to meet hiring and wage requirements favored by unions. Housing and labor activists argued that Measure JJJ would bring good jobs and affordable homes.
Now they fear that Angelenos could torpedo their plans. Just months after the November election, voters are headed back to the ballot box to decide the fate of another controversial initiative — Measure S — that would restrict real estate development. Labor leaders and other critics say it could effectively roll back much of the earlier measure.
If it passes, "Measure S will block much of the affordable housing that voters just voted for when they approved Proposition JJJ," Rusty Hicks, executive secretary-treasurer of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, said in a statement.
Backers of the new measure reject those concerns, arguing that JJJ was riddled with loopholes that would allow real estate developers to ultimately avoid building the affordable housing and providing the local jobs that were promised. For instance, they pointed out that the city can adjust the housing requirements to ensure "a reasonable return on investment" for a developer.
"We don't think JJJ is going to create affordable housing," said Jill Stewart, campaign director for Yes on S. "Ultimately there's a way out, every single time, for developers."
Meanwhile, attorneys who represent real estate developers say the two measures could clash in an even more fundamental way: Both measures include "poison pill" language meant to block competing initiatives.
Such wording is commonly included when two measures are on the same ballot — as JJJ and S were originally expected to be — and leaders in both campaigns say they do not believe that JJJ could preclude S if voters approve the new measure in March. Attorneys nonetheless say those "poison pills" could trigger a legal battle.
"This will get litigated," said Paul Rohrer, a land-use attorney who represents developers. "There's a lot of money at stake."
Both measures are focused on real estate developments that are taller or denser than city rules would ordinarily allow, which have become the focus of a seething debate over the future of Los Angeles. The city has established rules that govern what kind of development is permitted — such as shops, factories or apartments — how tall buildings can be, and how many housing units can be constructed on each site.
But city leaders regularly agree to alter those rules to allow bigger or denser projects to be built, a practice that has angered activists who say it degrades neighborhoods. Developers and growth advocates argue such changes have been needed because Los Angeles is saddled with outdated zoning that doesn't meet its needs.
Under Measure JJJ, voters agreed to allow real estate developers to continue getting such changes, but only if they offered up something else in return. The measure requires developers to meet affordable housing and labor requirements if they want certain zoning changes or alterations in the general plan, a document that guides development across the city.
This time around, voters are deciding whether to crack down on allowing such changes at all. Measure S would impose a moratorium on building projects that require changes in city rules to allow more height or density. The new measure also aims to stop "spot zoning" by barring the city from altering the general plan to facilitate individual projects.
Backers of Measure S argue that city leaders have been too quick to allow such changes, resulting in out-of-scale development that increases traffic and displaces longtime residents. Opponents counter that the proposed restrictions would eliminate jobs and prevent Los Angeles from building badly needed housing, leading to increased rents.
Labor and housing activists say Measure S would also obstruct the kind of building projects that were specifically promised under the earlier measure, which passed with nearly 65% of the vote in November.
A coalition of housing and community groups issued a January statement arguing that voters had paved the way for more affordable housing, but "Measure S rolls back this progress before it can get started."
Attorney Gideon Kracov, who analyzed the two measures for the L.A. County Federation of Labor, concluded that the new measure would probably prevent the city from being able "to offer incentives to encourage more affordable housing units, transit-oriented development and more equitable hiring practices" under JJJ.
Last year, JJJ pitted labor leaders, housing advocates and their allies against business groups, which argued the new requirements would end up crimping construction because of added costs. It was also opposed by the Coalition to Preserve L.A., which is behind Measure S, and the Tenants Union, which contended that JJJ would fuel luxury housing.
So far, its effect remains unclear: Since JJJ passed, no projects that are subject to its requirements have been approved. The Los Angeles City Council is awaiting a report from staffers about how it will be implemented.
"The problem with JJJ is, no one really knows how it will work," said Dick Platkin, a former city planner who supports Measure S. He pointed out that under JJJ, developers can pay fees instead of building affordable housing, but "no one knows what that fee is. All those issues need to be resolved."
Several attorneys said the bigger question is whether the "poison pill" language in both measures will clash.
Measure S, for instance, states that anything in city codes that is inconsistent with the new rules shall be repealed. But JJJ asserts that future restrictions on general plan amendments, zoning changes and other adjustments in city rules "shall not preclude" approving projects that meet the JJJ requirements.
It also states that by passing the measure, the people "intend that no other changes to existing laws concerning development" will be made by ballot initiative.
"It's an attempt to block future legislation that conflicts with JJJ," said David Waite, a land use attorney who represents developers and construction companies.
However, both JJJ and S supporters are skeptical that would actually happen. Hicks, the labor federation leader, said the JJJ wording was meant to address competing measures on the same ballot, not bar voters from changing the law in the future. JJJ, he said, remains vulnerable if the new measure passes.