For all the acrimonious debate over Measure S, the slow-growth ballot measure that suffered a decisive defeat this month, most factions could agree on one thing: The development process in Los Angeles is broken.
Although Measure S was not the answer, neither is returning to business as usual. With the vote behind us, it's time to take stock of the city's very real challenges and devise a more effective strategy for inclusive growth in L.A.
The city is experiencing a remarkable development boom in long-neglected areas: downtown, Hollywood, parts of South L.A., Boyle Heights and along the L.A. River. This is the result of market forces but also of policy initiatives designed to promote more "vertical" development around an expanding public transit system. All this growth presents an opportunity to plan a city that works for more people — namely, to build more housing in proximity to more jobs and to reduce our dependency on cars.
But increasingly, L.A. is becoming a city where only the wealthy can afford to live. If development continues in its current direction, the city will continue to lose affordable housing and the result will be more displacement of low-income residents. Low-income Angelenos will have to move farther away from good jobs and schools, creating more economic insecurity for everyone and depriving L.A. of the diverse skills, talent and energy that make it a dynamic and cosmopolitan city.
L.A.'s rejection of Measure S was not an endorsement of trickle-down housing policy. The city needs more housing, but market solutions have failed to meet the needs of many residents. In 2014, L.A. far exceeded its production goal for new housing for people with above-moderate incomes while meeting only one-third of its goal for very low-income housing. L.A. County now has a deficit of nearly half a million affordable units.
No other American city is permitting the wholesale destruction of its original housing stock at the rate that L.A. is. The city is losing both its architecturally significant homes and swaths of rent-controlled apartments. According to the Coalition for Economic Survival, 1,372 rent-controlled units were removed from the market in 2016, up nearly one-third from 2015. And this figure reflects only evictions that have been properly registered with the city; it does not account for cash-for-keys transactions and bad-faith evictions, which result in the loss of many more rent-controlled units.
L.A. doesn't just need more growth, we need better growth — development that prioritizes affordable housing, protects what is special about the city's existing housing infrastructure and plans more density near mass transit. Mayor Eric Garcetti and the City Council have committed to updating both the city's General Plan and its 35 community plans. These plans are an important place to start. Updates should be made with the following priorities.
*Any increases to housing density — any "upzoning" of neighborhoods — must mandate affordable housing.
*The city needs to create an inventory of affordable and rent-controlled housing units within each of the 35 community-plan areas and update these inventories annually. If an inventory ever shows a net reduction in affordable units, the loss should be recovered.
*In updating each plan, the city ought to engage with leadership from low-income communities and communities of color that have historically been excluded from the planning and development process. Previous attempts to address the needs of these communities have been undermined by developers with better access to City Hall.
Of course, the city and community plans cannot solve the problem alone. To be successful, updates to these plans must be paired with efforts to strengthen tenant protections and increase funding for developers of affordable housing.
*At the state level, the legislature should enact and the governor should sign a bill introduced this year, AB 1506, to repeal the Costa-Hawkins Rental Housing Act — a 1995 law that permits owners of rent-controlled units to raise rents when a tenant moves out. Costa-Hawkins has encouraged bad-faith evictions and contributed to spiking rent levels across the city. Repealing it would give cities the flexibility to enact or strengthen local rent-control laws.
*The city should generate new sources of funding for affordable housing. With the 2012 dissolution of redevelopment agencies, which were required to set aside 20% of their resources for low- and moderate-income housing, cities across California lost a critical source of such funding. This loss has been compounded by recent declines in support for federal housing. L.A. should adopt a strong Affordable Housing Linkage Fee ordinance, requiring developers of market-rate housing to contribute to a city fund for the creation of new affordable housing.
Planning for inclusive growth will require strong leadership from city government, held accountable by genuine participation from the bottom — that is, from all residents, not just those with the most resources and clout. If Angelenos allow the status quo to continue, we will build a city where low-income people have no place.
Scott Cummings is a professor of community development law and legal ethics at UCLA. Doug Smith is a staff attorney in the Community Development Project at Public Counsel.