The undeveloper

Marc B. Haefele is a commentator for KPCC-FM (89.3) and writes for Citybeat, Citywatch and Nomada magazine of Buenos Aires.

The density wars in Los Angeles are heating up.

On one side are homeowner associations, neighborhood councils and a smattering of politicians. They are becoming increasingly outspoken in their opposition to what they believe is City Hall’s insatiable desire to build taller in order to create more housing for a growing city population, now more than 4 million. Such development, they say, is ruining the character of the city’s neighborhoods as cars clog streets and big residential buildings wipe out views. They believe a city government that allows this to happen must be in the big developers’ pockets.

On the other side are the mayor, most members of the City Council and planning officials. They face an affordable-housing deficit that is exiling big chunks of the city’s workforce to the Antelope Valley and San Bernardino County and turning older neighborhoods, such as Pico-Alvarado and parts of East L.A., into slums. About 62% of the city’s inhabitants rent, and the monthly payment for a typical one-bedroom unit is more than $1,400, according to city housing statistics. That’s unaffordable to anyone making under $50,000 a year, given the rule of thumb that a tenant should spend no more than 30% of his or her income on rent. The housing meltdown has made matters worse, as foreclosures push former homeowners into a rental market with a 2.5% vacancy rate.

Into this fray has jumped none other than Zev Yaroslavsky, the L.A. County supervisor who, in 1986, as the youthful hotspur of the City Council, got a citywide initiative, Proposition U, passed that cut in half the size of most new commercial and industrial buildings. Twelve years later, he was responsible for a measure that effectively ended L.A.’s westbound subway line at Western Avenue. Now he’s grabbed the reins of the anti-density stagecoach and is stampeding the horses. Critics wonder why he’s putting time and effort into an issue beyond his elected purview -- this while the county’s health department, probation department and jails face major problems.


What’s going on?

Yaroslavsky insists that politics -- that is, running for mayor in 2009 -- has nothing to do with his born-again anti-development fervor. “My interest,” he told me last week, “is simply due to my being a resident of Los Angeles.”

Whatever his true motives, some city officials consider Yaroslavsky little more than a meddler because he has had no legal say in how the city grows since 1994, when he was elected to the Board of Supervisors. But the city’s anti-development forces have embraced Yaroslavsky, viewing him as an eloquent and effective paladin in their fight to stop the pro-density politicians and planners downtown from transforming Los Angeles into a Manhattan.

Yaroslavsky flatly denies that there’s any good in the city’s turn to greater density to create more affordable housing. Before cheering neighborhood councils and homeowner associations, he argues that greater density will destroy the ambience of neighborhoods and fill the pockets of developers but will do nothing to add to the city’s housing stock. Recently, he took Times columnist Steve Lopez on a city tour to point out what Yaroslavsky considers overdevelopment eyesores.

The supervisor has two primary targets. One is a 3-year-old state statute, known as SB 1818, that allows denser development to create housing. The other is how the city has implemented the measure.

The 2005 law enjoyed rare bipartisan support and overwhelmingly passed both houses of the Legislature. The measure makes it easier to build subsidized housing because cities can roll back zoning requirements to create it, even if constituents object. Developers can build beyond zoned height and area densities if they fold a fixed amount of affordable or moderately priced units into their projects.

The thinking in Sacramento was that a project built under the new law might displace more affordable units than it created, but in the long run it would encourage a new supply of low-end housing, along with more high-end and commercial units.


Under L.A.’s version of the law, which goes into effect this year, a residential developer can build a project 35% bigger if 11% of its units are for low-income residents or 30% of them are moderately priced. That means a new building that would have had 37 units before SB 1818 can now grow to 50 units if six of them are low-income or 15 are moderately priced. The city also encourages mixed-use multistory development along certain boulevard corridors that are now dominated by single-story commercial buildings. And, of course, the bigger the development, the more money there is to be made.

These are the changes that has Yaroslavsky fuming, because he believes that they circumvent his 1986 initiative. “Prop. U is still the law of the city,” he insisted to me. “[City Hall is] trying to sneak around it.”

But it is SB 1818 that really gets him mad because it is the legal basis for the city’s drive to build up and densify. “It’s a one-size-fits-all approach,” he told me, meaning that it doesn’t take into account the individuality of neighborhoods.

Before the City Council passed its version of the Sacramento law in February, Yaroslavsky sent council members a list of 10 changes he wanted in the proposed ordinance. The council “met him more than halfway,” a Yaroslavsky spokesman told me, but the supervisor wasn’t satisfied because “he’s still against the original state law.”

Yaroslavsky’s anti-development charge has ticked off some council members. “He’s balkanizing the city,” said Councilman Ed Reyes, who represents the 1st Council District, which includes some of the city’s densest neighborhoods.

He says Yaroslavsky has made a career out of slowing development in L.A. and is now “using half-truths to hurt our communities. We [city elected officials] can find the answers by working with our communities to improve them -- minus all this noise [from Yaroslavsky].”

City Council President Eric Garcetti is more discreet: Yaroslavsky “has given us some good input. [But] two decades of past city planning neglect got us into this [housing crunch], and very little affordable housing or good planning has resulted. We want well-designed and affordable housing. In a way, SB 1818 is a sideshow next to this [goal].”

According to Reyes, only about 2% of the pending development in the city would be affected by the density-bonus law. Up to “300,000 new units of housing” could be built, he said. Reyes and Garcetti concede this surge in housing could create some neighborhood discord, but both councilmen believe that it can be resolved with some delicate give-and-take.

There’s another kind of density not included on Yaroslavsky’s guided tours of the city. It highlights the need for SB 1818 and the new housing it can create. This density can be found on the 500 block of South Berendo Street in Pico-Union, in Reyes’ district. One of the buildings on the block contains 40 units and is 80 years old. Its pale blue exterior paint only partly hides rotting woodwork underneath. A 400-square-foot unit in this building can cost $900 a month. The apartment I recently visited had three double beds; the sink and refrigerator were in the living room. Considering the apartment offered 50 or 60 square feet a person at full occupancy, it was neat and clean, but irremediably run down.

“This is what we call invisible density,” Jaime Rojas of the Latino Urban Forum said. “To say that it doesn’t exist is wrong.” Hundreds of thousands of people live in such apartments in L.A.

These are precisely the kinds of buildings that will be replaced under SB 1818 to create more affordable housing. Minus that law, the owner could demolish the building and replace it with one whose units would go at market rates. Currently, the city loses about 12,000 affordable apartment units a year to demolition, according to the Coalition for Survival, a renters’ advocacy group. And there is no city requirement that a single affordable unit be replaced.

Reyes sees the rising anti-density fervor in the city as veiled opposition to finding suitable affordable-housing sites outside low-income ghettos. Two years ago, he said, affordable housing was a central theme at City Hall. L.A. voters nearly passed Proposition H, a billion-dollar housing bond that could have built 10,000 apartment units a year. Officials in the mayor’s office promised to put it back on the ballot as soon as this year, but it seems to have died.

Yes, neighborhood voices, including Yaroslavsky’s, should not be ignored as L.A. struggles to build more affordable housing. But the city has added more than a million people, many of them immigrant poor, since Yaroslavsky was first elected to the City Council in 1975, and that has spawned the kind of density found on South Berendo -- and no downtown developer created that.

I asked Yaroslavsky how he would remedy the city’s affordable-housing crisis without SB 1818. He suggested low-income housing be built at locations that would not mar the ambience of neighborhoods, though he didn’t specify any. I asked him how he would pay for it. “There are funds available,” he replied, citing federal block grant money and county money that originates from such federal agencies as the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Such funding, however, has been scarce since the dawn of the Bush administration. Nonprofit housing groups say it started disappearing in the Reagan years.

Yaroslavsky didn’t seem to know this.