NEWS ANALYSIS : Death of Housing Law Points Up Planning Policy Conflict : Housing: Long Beach intends to repeal its year-old ordinance making builders responsible for providing low-cost dwellings.
Low-cost housing advocates may be on the verge of losing one of their few gains in recent years as the City Council moves this week to jettison its major affordable housing law.
Backpedaling in the face of blistering attacks by the development community, the council last week signaled its intent to kill a year-old ordinance that requires developers who knock down low-income apartments to either replace them with the same number of affordable units or pay a housing fund fee.
Although council members have promised to continue talks with developers and housing activists to devise another scheme to preserve the city’s stock of low-income housing, negotiations already have dragged on for months without yielding a compromise, and the various sides are supporting dramatically different proposals.
The council’s embrace and subsequent disavowal of the one-for-one ordinance underscores not only the city’s contradictory planning policies, but also its reluctance to follow the lead of other California cities in requiring developers to shoulder some responsibility for providing affordable housing for the city’s sizable population of poor.
“Traditionally Long Beach has had a terrible statewide reputation,” charged Dennis Rockway, a Legal Aid attorney. He and other housing activists have badgered and sued the city to stir it to action. “The one-for-one is the first ordinance the city has had to protect low-income renters. All other major cities have had a number of programs to protect affordable housing for many years.”
Even traditional forms of renter protection--such as requiring landlords to pay interest on rental security deposits--have remained anathema to the City Council, despite the fact that renters make up the majority of households in Long Beach.
Indeed, the unanimous passage of the one-for-one requirement more than a year ago was a startling move for a city that has often been condemned by activists for being a weakling in protecting the interests of the poor and the homeless.
“That was a remarkably aggressive approach to replacing housing,” observed Paul Schmidt, a Cal State Long Beach political science professor and council watcher. “I was surprised when they enacted that ordinance to begin with. So it’s not so surprising that in the face of opposition they’re retreating.”
City officials defend their record, saying they have a number of affordable housing programs in place.
“I can point to more cities in the state that don’t have the kinds of housing programs we have in Long Beach than you can point to that have bigger and better,” remarked Robert Paternoster, the city’s planning and building director. “Overall, I think the city’s been doing a pretty good job.”
Still, with the exception of a nonprofit corporation recently formed by the city to provide low-cost housing, those programs are to a great extent federal and state initiatives administered by City Hall.
The challenge of providing affordable housing is no small one in Long Beach, where 47% of the city’s households are considered low-income by government standards--meaning they earn no more than $31,000 a year, which is 80% of the Los Angeles area’s median income.
It is estimated that nearly half of those low-income families are paying more than they can afford for rent. And regional planners say Long Beach will need almost 5,000 more low-cost housing units to accommodate population increases during the next five years.
There has been no shortage of apartment construction in recent years, but it was primarily for the mid-level market. In fact, Paternoster said, the city is now oversupplied with moderate income apartments and there are abundant vacancies.
Ironically, in some parts of the city, planning and zoning policies are actively encouraging the demolition of low-cost apartments and their replacement with more expensive units. On the ragtag western edge of downtown, for instance, the city offers density incentives to developers who tear down old houses and smaller apartment buildings and replace with them larger apartment or condominium buildings.
“It’s absolutely true that the city has various policies that are sometimes in competition,” Paternoster conceded. “We do have conflicting goals there and we have to work out which we’re going to achieve or how we’re going to achieve both of them.”
The one-for-one replacement law discouraged demolition of low-income units, on the theory that it costs a lot less to maintain the ones the city has than to build new ones. It also played a significant role in the city’s efforts to defend its housing policies from a 1987 lawsuit filed by housing activists--who charged that Long Beach was not taking sufficient measures to provide affordable housing. The case was decided in the city’s favor and the matter is now awaiting appeal.
“We consider the city legally bound . . . to have either a one-for-one replacement or a viable alternative,” Legal Aid attorney Rockway said.
Just what that alternative might be is a mystery. After months of wrangling, housing advocates and business interests are talking about very different game plans.
“Housing activists and (city) staff have conceded nothing,” growled Steve Sanders at last week’s council meeting. “They have no solutions to provide the financial assistance necessary to create and rehabilitate affordable housing. Their solution is the stick.” Sanders represents a coalition of business and real estate interests who have reviled the one-for-one ordinance as illegal and unfair.
They would replace the one-for-one law with a voluntary program under which developers would make 20% of the units in new projects affordable--if the city did a number of things in return: increase the permissible density of the projects by 30%, reduce development standards and allow developers to postpone the payment of certain city fees for five years.
For its part, the city staff has proposed that residential developers be required to make 10% of the units in a new project affordable, or provide an equivalent number of units at another site either through new construction, rehabilitation or payment of in-lieu fees.
Under the housing advocates’ proposal, developers would have to make 20% of a new project’s units affordable if the development was built on a plot previously occupied by low-income housing. Builders could also choose to pay a fee or provide the units at another location.
Similar mandatory programs are in effect in other major cities, such as Santa Monica and Palo Alto. Several cities also require commercial developers to make payments, called linkage fees, into housing funds, based on the square footage of their projects.
While that program is considered successful in San Francisco, city officials here insist the office market is too soft in Long Beach to tolerate it and the business community adamantly opposes any new development fees.
“We believe the business community has reached its limit in terms of total fees,” said Randal Hernandez of the Chamber of Commerce.
Last week the Long Beach City Council voted to draft an ordinance repealing a controversial year-old law requiring developers to either replace any low-cost housing they demolish or pay an in-lieu fee to a housing fund. The council is expected to vote on the repeal proposal at its Tuesday meeting. In the meantime, the council has extended until early April a moratorium on tearing down low-cost housing units in the city.