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Mayor to Seek Housing Bond

Times Staff Writers

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said Wednesday that he would work to put a $1-billion bond measure before voters to pay for more affordable housing.

The measure, if it comes to fruition, has the potential to profoundly reshape housing policy in Los Angeles, where soaring prices have left more than 80% of families unable to buy a median-priced home.

It would provide a substantial increase in the amount of money the city uses to build apartments for the poor and subsidize loans to first-time home buyers. It could also give city planners a firmer hand in shaping the city according to Villaraigosa’s vision, making it denser and more vertical, with new housing concentrated along public transit lines.

Villaraigosa said he was not sure when he would put the measure on the ballot. But he described the concept as “an unprecedented investment in housing.”

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“If we don’t, who will?” Villaraigosa said at a housing meeting at UCLA sponsored by the Los Angeles Business Council. “If we don’t, the future of our children will not be as bright.”

The announcement came a day after the mayor said he had identified $50 million in city budgets that allowed him to double the city’s affordable-housing trust fund, which has funded 3,522 homes for the poor since its inception in 2002.

If approved by voters, some of the money from the bond measure would be added to the fund, which can be used for shelters for the homeless, subsidized home loans for the middle class and other programs.

The idea was cheered by the Business Council, which had been urging the mayor to get behind a housing bond issue. President Mary Leslie said the local economy could thrive only when good, cheap housing is available near work sites.

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“Employees are quitting because they won’t drive two hours round trip anymore to be a receptionist,” she said.

But winning over voters could be a challenge, especially if the timing is not right, said Raphael Sonenshein, a political scientist at Cal State Fullerton. Villaraigosa has said he might also ask voters to support a half-cent countywide sales tax increase to help fund the 1,000 additional police officers he promised. The mayor, then a City Council member, opposed a citywide tax increase this year.

“It’s hard to do them all at once, to suddenly ask the voters to do all kinds of stuff,” Sonenshein said. “So it depends on when you roll them out.”

The bond measure would require approval by two-thirds of the voters. However, Sonenshein said, it is generally easier to sell voters on a bond measure than a tax increase, because in the latter case, voters “feel like they are paying cash on hand.”

Political consultant Larry Levine, a friend of Villaraigosa’s, said that despite the mayor’s star power, he will have to sell the bond to voters on its merits. And he said affordable-housing initiatives come with their own challenging stigmas.

“If you mention the subject, you’ll run into [voters who ask], ‘Well, where are we going to build them?’ Because there’s kind of a negative imagery about affordable housing. People don’t necessarily want it in their neighborhood.”

Villaraigosa’s announcement came as a surprise to a number of housing advocates, including Beth Steckler, the policy director of Livable Places, a nonprofit developer of affordable housing.

“A bond sounds like a good idea,” she said. “None of us have seen any details.”

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The mayor announced the idea in a speech spiked with worry over the plight of the dream of home ownership -- an “essential strand” in Los Angeles’ social fabric, he said, that was becoming unreachable for all but the richest residents.

At a news conference afterward, he said he needed time to take polls on the issue and work out a strategy.

He also said he would rely on the lessons he had learned while leading previous bond campaigns, including a $9-billion statewide school bond measure and a $2.1-billion parks and open space initiative.

“I’ve done this before,” he said. “I’m going to use my political capital to convince this city that we have got to invest in housing and our children.... This city is the poverty capital of America, and I refuse to sit by and watch idly and hopelessly and not do something about that.”

The housing bond idea has been gathering steam for a year -- in part to counter another idea to increase the affordable housing stock. Known as “inclusionary zoning,” it would force developers to commit to making a percentage of their projects affordable to low-wage earners.

Last year, two councilmen -- Ed Reyes and Eric Garcetti -- began pushing inclusionary zoning legislation. But some parts of Los Angeles’ business community said it would drive away developers.

They were worried that developers would be forced to build housing units they couldn’t make much money on and would move to surrounding cities.


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