Op-Ed: Why the ‘Neighborhood Integrity Initiative’ would worsen L.A.'s affordability crisis
Most Angelenos abhor the “I’ve got mine” strain of exclusionary politics represented by Donald Trump, a presidential candidate who stokes fear by claiming that outsiders threaten the integrity of American communities. Yet they’re being asked to support a variation on that kind of conservatism here in Los Angeles.
The Neighborhood Integrity Initiative would severely limit new residential developments.
In advertising the initiative last week, its well-financed backers, who intend to qualify it for the March 2017 ballot, appropriated the language of social justice. But its provisions leave little doubt that their effect would be to thwart urban growth, not to help the poor. Given their druthers, Trump supporters would wall off America to immigrants who could take “their” jobs. This initiative would in effect wall off this city from newcomers on behalf of homeowners who don’t want more traffic on “their” streets.
The worst of the proposal: It “would place a two-year moratorium on any big development project that requires an exemption from the area’s height requirement –– i.e. most tall buildings,” LA Weekly reports, “making an exception only for buildings that offer 100% affordable housing.”
Don’t be fooled by that exception. An architect could design a gorgeous tower for the Hollywood area with desperately needed affordable units for working-class families, young couples and single people just starting out.
If a developer found a loan to finance that project, but only by including several market-rate units on the side with a view of the hills, or putting a couple of penthouses for rich people on the top floor to make the financials work, that would run afoul of the 100% affordable provision. The net result would be zero new units of affordable housing.
And the rich people who no longer have those new penthouses to move into? They may well end up displacing existing tenants elsewhere.
The initiative’s main backer, the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, is run by Michael Weinstein. “Our international headquarters are located in Hollywood and have been since 1989,” he told the Advocate while trying to explain why a nonprofit ostensibly dedicated to healthcare would spend money on this fight. “A large number of us live in the area, own homes in the area.”
In Weinstein’s telling, if big new apartment buildings invade Hollywood and surrounding areas, the integrity of Los Angeles will suffer as aesthetics change and traffic increases. “If I wanted to live in Manhattan,” Weinstein told LA Weekly, “I would live there.”
Aesthetic preferences are far less important than creating viable homes for working people. Disagree? I’ll bet you’re already a homeowner.
Setting aside the elitism of that comment — not everyone can move to Manhattan just because they feel like it — Weinstein’s comment is misleading: No one is talking about modeling this 503-square-mile city on a 22.8-square-mile island.
Advocates of some big, new apartment buildings, like the ones going up downtown and that exist in major cities around the world, simply want to make room for all comers.
The “large number” of AIDS Healthcare Foundation workers who “live in the area” obviously added to their neighborhood’s traffic when they moved in, and they won’t suffer if new developments are limited. On the contrary, growth restrictions are likely to increase the value of the real estate that they own.
But a moratorium on development would hurt anyone who hasn’t yet put down roots, including those struggling to pay rent in this increasingly pricey city. This should be obvious, but apparently it’s not: Without new development the price of housing skyrockets. Restrictive zoning keeps rents high or, in a city experiencing significant population growth, raises them. That’s supply and demand.
And density doesn’t only improve affordability, it’s also good for the environment: Tightly packed cities generate far lower emissions per person than sprawl.
None of this is to suggest there are no down sides to development. Spending on roads and mass transit has to keep up with population growth. Sometimes luxury condos replace older buildings — and push out their existing residents. But there are a dozen ways to help those people that wouldn’t exacerbate a housing crisis and harm most everyone else in their economic class. And yes, sometimes boxy towers rise where there were once quaint bungalows.
I love quaint bungalows as much as the next guy. But aesthetic preferences are less important than creating viable homes for working people. Disagree? I’ll bet you’re already a homeowner.
Conor Friedersdorf is a contributing writer to Opinion, a staff writer at the Atlantic and founding editor of the Best of Journalism, a newsletter that curates exceptional nonfiction.
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