Los Angeles has a shortage of housing, yet the city has done little over the years to add more low-rent or market-rate units. This is not for a lack of ideas on how to proceed. Rather, it results from a lack of focus and political will. Few elected leaders have been willing to invest the time or risk the political backlash of confronting such a challenging, costly and controversial problem. But failing to address the city’s housing shortage only creates more problems, such as overcrowding in existing units, traffic and air pollution from commuters who must drive in from out of town, homelessness, and the loss of talent and business to more affordable cities.
In an earlier editorial, The Times urged Mayor Eric Garcetti and the City Council to make housing affordability a priority in 2015 in tandem with a proposal to raise the city’s minimum wage. Here are three of the many ideas on how to address the problem.
Update community plans and overhaul L.A.'s antiquated zoning to make it faster, cheaper and, ideally, less political and contentious to build housing.
The zoning code spells out what can be built on a parcel of land. But the code is 70 years old, more than 800 pages long and full of complicated rules that often don’t meet developers’ needs or communities’ desires. Likewise, many of the city’s 35 community plans — which set goals and rules for development in a neighborhood — are too old to reflect what their neighborhoods want and need, or what the real estate market demands. So a system has emerged in which builders ask City Council members for exceptions to the plans, making every project a new political negotiation and a new fight over height, density and mitigations. All of which adds time and expense for developers and causes distrust and an automatic NIMBY reaction from neighbors, resulting in less housing being built.
The Planning Department is in the middle of a complete rewrite of the zoning code. But other attempts to bring clarity to planning have foundered without political support. A decade ago, Los Angeles set an ambitious goal of rewriting all 35 community plans with an eye toward adding density where appropriate, better design standards to govern aesthetics and more efficient approvals. That effort fizzled during the recession, when funding was cut, and the Planning Department has made progress on only a handful of plans. Of course, community plans alone won’t solve the housing affordability problem, but they can certainly help. Plans can pinpoint which streets and neighborhoods can accommodate more housing and which should not. They can identify infrastructure needed to support new housing.
New plans can respond to community desires and concerns. For example, residents in Lincoln Heights and Chinatown were worried that luxury development near Gold Line stations would lead to evictions and gentrification and displace longtime residents and businesses. Working with stakeholders, the city adopted the Cornfield Arroyo Seco Specific Plan in 2013, encouraging developers to include affordable housing in exchange for the height and density needed for profitable residential projects. That plan is now a model for how L.A. can spur more affordable housing.
Encourage developers to include affordable units in exchange for permission to build bigger, taller projects.
Los Angeles can’t require developers to build low-income housing. California courts ruled in 2009 that a blanket affordable housing mandate, known as inclusionary zoning, was illegal. Instead, the city has developed other methods. In some cases, it offers tax dollars to help fund the construction of low-income housing projects, but that’s become harder to do as local and federal housing funds have dwindled. The other approach is to bargain: If a developer agrees to set aside a certain number of below-market rental units, for example, the city will allow the project to be taller or denser, or offer some other exception from current land-use law.
The Cornfield Arroyo Seco Specific Plan was one of the first efforts to codify these incentives in a community’s land-use policy, and some council members have negotiated agreements on a case-by-case basis. But the city needs to have a comprehensive approach to affordable housing incentives. Last year, Councilman Mitch O’Farrell proposed a citywide “value capture policy” that would require developers to build low-income units or pay into the city’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund in exchange for zoning changes, variances or other exceptions that increase the value of the project. His motion hasn’t moved forward.
It’s especially important that L.A. adopt some kind of value-capture policy for communities along transit lines. Angelenos are paying a higher sales tax to raise billions of dollars to build new rail lines, which are expected to significantly increase the value of private property in the surrounding areas. The city should get public benefits in return.
Preserve affordable housing.
Los Angeles currently oversees contracts with hundreds of property owners who have committed to providing low-income housing for 20 to 50 years in exchange for subsidies. Residents have to show proof of income when applying to rent these apartments. As the city expands the use of incentives to build affordable housing, it needs strong oversight to ensure that property owners are living up to their commitments and actually renting to low-income tenants.
The city also has rent-stabilized units, which are initially priced at market rate and are available to anyone, but for which annual rent increases are capped by the city. These are generally apartments built before 1978, and longtime residents can end up paying significantly less than market rate rent. These older, sometimes small buildings are often eyed as tear-downs to make way for new housing projects. That makes sense in many cases — the city should encourage higher density in appropriate areas. But city officials should consider a no-net-loss policy to make sure landlords create new affordable housing units when buildings that have them are demolished and replaced.
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