We need dense, affordable housing in the heart of the city

Downtown Los Angeles is the largest employment center in the Southern California region. It is where the largest transit and transit-related investment has been made and thus the location in which the highest density of housing should be encouraged. It is a dense urban center that is currently overlaid with building codes designed for low-density suburban development. A proposed downtown ordinance, which Douglas Ring and Sister Diane Donoghue attacked in their recent Op-Ed, “Down-to-earth housing,” would remove existing code impediments and allow for more housing production of all types.

Two years ago, I was approached by the Planning Department to support a set of ordinances that would update the zoning code to accommodate high-rise construction in downtown Los Angeles. Currently, developers building this type of mixed-use housing in downtown L.A. apply for variances to allow for zero setback, elimination of yard requirements, and open-space designs that are consistent with high-rise construction. The city has granted these variances in every case and will continue to do so.

I asked planning staff to reconsider the ordinance, adding an affordable housing component, expanding the boundary of downtown to Martin Luther King Boulevard and looking at the expansion area as an opportunity to increase the density along transit corridors without negatively impacting single-family neighborhoods. I did this with the understanding that it is important to create a jobs/housing balance. Downtown is creating the jobs and now the workforce needs the housing. They need family housing in the area of the city where we are pouring millions of dollars into park improvements and building new schools. And, we need to seek and find affordable housing development opportunities where the cost of land is affordable.

There is a desire to develop market-rate housing in downtown to meet the demand. There is also an extreme demand for affordable housing at the lowest end of the economic spectrum. This is housing that can only be built with significant government subsidy. It is housing for people with disabilities and supportive housing for the chronically homeless, veterans and the working poor. Downtown has responded to this need by building more than 5,000 units of this type of affordable housing with nearly 1,000 more units in the pipeline. We have an Interim Control Ordinance in place to prevent the loss of very low-income housing of what remains in the residential hotels in downtown and throughout the city of Los Angeles. Additionally, housing built in the downtown redevelopment project areas that use public subsidies are required to include a 20% affordable housing ratio. The new Grand Avenue Project is a good example.

Last year, an attempt was made to pass an Inclusionary Zoning Ordinance that would require 20% affordable housing in all developments citywide. The City Council was divided on the matter. I supported the ordinance with the provision that each council district develop its share without building the affordable housing outside of its council district. The initiative failed to pass.

The proposed Downtown Ordinance is one of many planning tools being used now to address high density and affordable housing development. The proposed Downtown Ordinance includes an affordable housing component that would apply when a developer uses the density bonus. Additionally, we are also updating Community Plans for areas like South Los Angeles. This process will include a great deal of community input and will ask the question about where affordable housing should be built. It is needed in all areas of the city.

We do need more affordable housing citywide. That is why it is so perplexing that the Times’ Op-Ed takes issue with the Greater Downtown Incentive Housing ordinance, which provides the city with a real, solid way of encouraging private developers to create not just affordable housing but workforce housing: housing for teachers, firefighters, administrative assistants — people who are often left behind.

Furthermore, current planning models for downtown development that is done without public subsidy require no affordable housing units to be built onsite. Other parts of the city that promote the development of high-rise buildings such as Century City are not providing any incentives to help create more affordable housing. I believe the most effective way to stimulate and build affordable housing is through these types of density incentives. Over the past six years, the city has produced more than 3,000 affordable units that are contained within market-rate projects by enacting a similar density bonus incentive system.

Housing advocates are right that the city of Los Angeles needs more affordable housing but are wrong to single out downtown Los Angeles as the only answer. The city needs more rental and for-sale housing at all income levels. The proposed downtown ordinance will do this by codifying the necessary planning tools to develop high-rise residential buildings in the Greater Downtown Incentive Housing area and provide an impetus to build mixed-income and affordable housing in our expanding downtown.

Councilwoman Jan Perry represents the L.A. City Council’s 9th District, which includes much of downtown Los Angeles.