Op-Ed: A ballot measure that could make it easier to rent in Los Angeles

Build Better L.A. rally
Demonstrators with the Build Better L.A. group hold a rally in front of the Medici Apartment complex, a large deluxe development owned by Geoff Palmer, near downtown Los Angeles on Sept. 13.
(Los Angeles Times)

Los Angeles is in the grip of a widely acknowledged housing crisis. Two years ago, scholars at UCLA and Harvard proclaimed L.A. the most unaffordable rental market in the United States. This required some explaining: Other cities clearly have higher housing costs; Los Angeles won its dubious honor because so many of its residents make so little money.

Los Angeles is also home to the most overcrowded neighborhoods in the country, as shown by a statistical analysis by The Times. Again, this seems counterintuitive, given the city’s famous sprawl, but it is exactly the lack of density that makes housing here scarce, unaffordable and packed to the rafters.

You might think we were on our way to solving the crisis if you’ve been anywhere close to downtown in the last few months. The historic core and nearby neighborhoods are dotted with massive cranes that signal new apartments and condominiums going up. In addition, L.A. County’s increasing minimum wage has already started boosting the incomes of many poor people. Unfortunately, as consequential as both these trends are, they aren’t solving the housing crisis.

On average, the rent for a new one-bedroom unit is a jaw-dropping $2,000 a month.

In just four years from now, wages in L.A. will be at least $15 an hour, and yet households with two minimum-wage earners will still not be able to afford what’s being built: On average, the rent for a new one-bedroom unit is a jaw-dropping $2,000 a month. Worse, as all this pricey housing goes in, nearby rents increase too, creating a gentrification double whammy: Longtime residents can’t afford the new units, and they can’t afford to stay put either.

The city has no policy requiring developers to include affordable housing in new buildings or to replace any such units destroyed by new construction. Now there are signs that too much luxury housing is being built. Vacancy rates across the city are frighteningly low, just under 3%, but downtown the rate is climbing. To lure prospective tenants, landlords are offering incentives, but they are not lowering rents.

Housing rights groups and labor unions developed Measure JJJ, on the Nov. 8 ballot, to combat the inequities renters face in Los Angeles. It represents the priorities of low-income Los Angeles residents in the most rapidly gentrifying areas of the city — Boyle Heights, Koreatown, the South Figueroa corridor, and along the Los Angeles River. JJJ provides the city with a number of ways to increase housing for middle-class and low-income Angelenos, and at the same time creates jobs that can sustain working families.

The measure doesn’t apply to all residential projects, just to those bigger than 10 units for which the developers obtain special permission to build in places, or at densities, other than what city land-use rules would allow. Such waivers, which can dramatically increase the value of residential projects, are commonly granted — and yet L.A. asks for nothing in return.


If JJJ passes, apartment builders that meet the criteria would have to include up to 25% affordable housing. Some of those units must be priced within reach of households making less than 30% of the area’s median income, and if there were affordable or rent-controlled units previously on the site, they would have to be replaced. In general, the lower the price per unit, the fewer such units must be included in a project. In all cases, developers could choose instead to pay into the city’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund or to supply affordable housing elsewhere.

For the jobs component of the measure, the criteria are these: Workers on JJJ projects must have graduated from a construction-trades apprenticeship program; 30% have to be permanent city residents; and 10% have to represent groups that experience barriers to employment — including those with criminal backgrounds, the homeless, veterans, single parents and former foster youth. These labor rules are important. It doesn’t make sense to build more affordable housing if people still can’t find the work or wages that would allow them to sign a lease.

Measure JJJ won’t halt new housing developments, as some charge, or speed them up, as others claim. It merely makes sure that what gets built meets the needs not just of well-to-do newcomers in gentrifying neighborhoods, but also of the everyday working people who live there now. These folks need better jobs and places to live.

Measure JJJ won’t solve all of L.A.’s housing problems, but it can help stop the city’s evolution into a shiny preserve for the wealthy, devoid of diversity, rife with luxury properties, punctuated with enclaves for the poor and homeless. Measure JJJ can put more affordable housing into the Los Angeles market and create more jobs as well. It can ensure that newcomers will continue to be welcome here and that natives can stay where generations of their families have worked and lived.

Cynthia Strathmann is executive director of Saje, a Los Angeles organization that advocates for tenant rights and equitable development.

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