Can pro-development and anti-demolition factions find common ground on affordable housing?
In Los Angeles’ battle for affordable housing, two philosophies are facing off. On one side are those pushing to build more units, who argue that a growing population and a static housing supply are a sure-fire recipe for rising rents. On the other side are those trying to save affordable units, especially rent-stabilized apartments. Progress on L.A.’s affordability crisis depends on turning these warring factions into allies — and you can see why at the intersection of Yucca Street and Argyle Avenue in Hollywood.
There, next to the Hollywood Freeway, developer Champion Real Estate wants to build 200 new apartments, including 39 that will be reserved for low-income households. The rub? It means tearing down an older apartment complex with 40 rent-stabilized units first.
But for the tenants of the Yucca-Argyle apartments, that’s cold comfort. When their building is torn down, they’ll get a relocation payment, yes — but also be pushed out into a cutthroat rental market where vacancies are at a historic low of 2.7% and rents are spiraling out of control. Some will have to pay considerably more for a similar apartment, or find a less desirable one that fits their budget—assuming any still exist. If that doesn’t work, they can leave the city or live on the street. These grim alternatives are the explicit consequences of our affordability crisis.
In response, the Yucca-Argyle renters have joined with the L.A. Tenants Union — a year-old organization fighting against the loss of rent-stabilized housing — to oppose the development and demand better. Can anyone blame them?
Pro-growth, yes-in-my-backyard housing advocates like me usually respond to these stories by emphasizing the greater good, and the regional benefits of density and development. We’re “big picture.” Sure, some rent-stabilized housing will be lost, but the net impact is positive. Los Angeles can’t preserve its way out of a housing shortage, and we know from the experiences of other cities (San Francisco, Santa Monica) that stopping development only exacerbates an affordability crisis.
The two sides on this debate share a common objective, though we rarely acknowledge it.
Anti-displacement advocates, the “other side,” also worry about affordability — but in the here and now. They’re concerned about the disabled veteran being displaced and at risk of homelessness. Or the fixed-income retirees who will never find an affordable replacement if their rent-stabilized home is demolished. Those people can’t wait for Mayor Garcetti’s promised 100,000 new units, or count on winning a lottery to occupy one of the Yucca-Argyle’s 39 affordable replacement homes. They need help today.
Right now these two camps — one focused on long-term regional need for development, the other on short-term individual harms — rarely see eye to eye. But if we’re committed to affordability for the long haul, for everyone, those divisions won’t do. We need to protect existing residents without downsizing or stopping new development. Both goals are too important to compromise on, so it behooves us to work together and find win-win solutions.
Here’s one idea: a nonprofit that acquires older apartment buildings across the city. The buildings would generally charge market-rate rents, but profits would be used to subsidize rents for people displaced by new development. The tenant gets to stay in or near their neighborhood, keep their low, stable rent, and enjoy the new amenities that arrive with mixed-use redevelopment. Tenants who moved into nonprofit housing would turn over most of their relocation payment to the organization, helping to fund its mission.
While we work toward that, here’s another, shorter-term way to protect existing residents: Give them a choice between their relocation payment and a rent-voucher program that would work like the federal Housing Choice voucher. Under Housing Choice, tenants pay 30% of their income toward rent and have a voucher that covers any difference. Someone earning $2,000 a month would pay just $600 for their unit, with the government covering the rest. More than 60% of L.A.-area residents already spend more than 30% of their income on rent each month, so a voucher would actually improve the lives of many rent-stabilized tenants. As with the nonprofit housing idea, if renters opted for a voucher, any relocation payment would be redirected to fund the voucher program.
Allowing redevelopment to run roughshod over current renters isn’t acceptable. At the same time, stopping the construction of new housing will just lead to greater displacement pressures in the future. For most of us, neither of these are controversial statements. The two sides on this debate share a common objective, though we rarely acknowledge it. By identifying our shared goals and unifying behind a pro-housing, pro-tenant platform, we can develop solutions that we can all get behind, and — perhaps most importantly — assemble the political power needed to turn them into reality.
Shane Phillips is an urban planner in Los Angeles. He writes about housing and transportation policy at Better Institutions.
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