Editorial

Housing for the homeless is a crisis. The anti-density movement could create one for the rest of us

Never mind the homeless crisis, the shockingly high cost of rent in Los Angeles or the recent survey showing that one-third of county residents worry about losing their home. The slow-growth, anti-development movement is only gaining momentum in the region.

Activists in the city of Los Angeles have already planned a Neighborhood Integrity Initiative for the March ballot that would impose a harmful two-year moratorium on major developments. Now residents in Santa Monica have upped the ante with a proposed initiative that would require voter approval for most development projects over 32 feet tall. That means almost anything over two stories would require an election and approval by the voters.

Activists recently submitted 10,000 signatures to the city of Santa Monica – more than the 6,500 needed to qualify – with the goal of getting the measure onto the ballot in November. If the so-called Land Use and Voter Empowerment (LUVE) initiative is ultimately approved, the construction of apartments and condos in Santa Monica would pretty much stop, or be subjected to expensive, highly politicized elections on a project-by-project basis.

Either way, the result would be significantly fewer new market-rate and affordable homes than Santa Monica needs, and that would only worsen the housing shortage. A flurry of reports over the last year have documented how California cities – particularly in urban coastal areas – have failed to build enough homes to keep up with the population growth. Between 2005 and 2015, there were only 21.5 housing permits filed for every 100 new residents in the state, compared to a national average of 33.4.

Over a longer period – 1980 to 2010 – Los Angeles County built about one-third of the housing units needed to meet population demand. Lack of supply increases prices, meaning residents either spend an ever-larger portion of their often-stagnant income on housing (that’s why metropolitan Los Angeles is ranked the least affordable region in the nation), or they live farther inland and make the long commute to work (that’s why the 10 Freeway heading west in the morning is a parking lot).

Underlying both the Neighborhood Integrity and the LUVE initiatives is the fear that more development brings more traffic, gentrification and a loss of community character. LUVE supporters want to keep Santa Monica a low-rise beach town, while Neighborhood Integrity backers rail against the Manhattanization of Hollywood. Their concern is fair – cities, in general, have often done a poor job managing development. But the answer is not to halt construction and freeze California in time. That’s a recipe for higher housing costs, more homelessness and greater inequality. Nor is the solution to let developers build wherever and whatever they want without regard for what communities need or want.

Rather, local leaders need to do real planning. That means working with residents and businesses to identify where new, denser housing can be built without diminishing a community’s charm and amenities. It means adopting and adhering to zoning and development rules hashed out with the community. This is where the Neighborhood Integrity advocates have made their strongest case – the city of Los Angeles’ out-of-date, broken planning system has failed to foster development that protects and enhances the city. Their initiative would compel city leaders to reform the land-use system, in addition to imposing the moratorium.

Santa Monica, however, has up-to-date and fairly restrictive land-use plans that were drafted with community input. Most of the city is zoned for structures two to four stories tall, with some areas that allow up to seven stories. Opponents point to several proposed projects that are larger than the city’s height limits, but those same groups have successfully used their political influence to block such projects in the past. Putting virtually all developments before the voters would turn land-use decisions into political campaigns, where the question isn’t, “What’s best for the long-term good of Santa Monica?” but rather, “What will pass muster with the few people who bother to vote?” That is the opposite of real planning.

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