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Patt Morrison asks: Abundant Housing L.A.'s Mark Vallianatos on the dangers of Measure S

Patt Morrison asks: Abundant Housing L.A.'s Mark Vallianatos on the dangers of Measure S
Los Angeles City Controller Ron Galperin criticizes the AIDS Healthcare Foundation over its financial support for Measure S during a news conference in Hollywood on Feb. 24. (Los Angeles Times)

The idea of Los Angeles that sold the middle-class and the Midwesterner on this place well over a century ago is still deep in our brains: the R-1 home with its lawn, its 3 bedroom-2 bath and garage. But the city's changed, and Angelenos' needs have too. Measure S, on the March 7 ballot, gets boiled down to embracing those changes with development and with the city's housing and zoning regulations, or putting development on hold for two years — from projects that increase building heights and density, to the City Hall haggling that gets politically astute developers the "spot zoning" changes they want, with patchwork results. Mark Vallianatos is co-founder of Abundant Housing L.A., and he's opposing Measure S, not to enrich developers, he says, nor to punish current homeowners, but to make the housing pie bigger, so everyone who wants it can get a slice of the good life, L.A.-style.

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Measure S is sometimes cast as homeowners versus developers. Where are you in this?

I have two main reasons why I oppose Measure S, and one is related to housing. I actually consider myself to be a YIMBY. I'm a homeowner in L.A., but I want there to be more housing.

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Wait, you have to tell me what a YIMBY is.

A YIMBY stands for "yes in my back yard."   Having enough housing here in L.A. is a physical precondition for having a prosperous city, a welcoming city and a diverse city. After a few decades of significantly underbuilding new housing, with people still coming here and wanting to live here, we have a housing crisis which, at its most serious, has meant that 28,000 of our fellow Angelenos are homeless on any given night.

But that shortage also cascades out and causes 60% of the population of L.A. to pay more than is recommended and sustainable on their rents and their mortgages. We have hundreds of thousands of households living in overcrowded conditions. We have millennials either being forced to live at home or having to leave the region because housing costs are so high.

So a lot of suffering is being inflicted on the residents just because we don't have enough places to live. And I fear that Measure S would make this much worse. Part of the reason this is happening is because we have outdated plans, as you know. If you're a developer trying to do a generic urban mixed-use project with some retail and some residences in it, you really have to go to changing the zoning, changing the general plan — things to make projects work. We're getting a lot of new housing that way, and if we were to stop that for two years or block some permanently, it would be a disaster. It would drive rents up even further, harming particularly low-income people who can't afford to pay more.

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Los Angeles has been many things — it had great streetcars at one time; it's had a significant amount of apartment buildings for many decades, since the 1920s and '30s. But the last time we did our zoning codes, and the model we used when we did many of our community plans, was the idea that most people would live in single-family homes, and they would drive. And that is no longer the only way that people want to live today. So our plans have to adapt to catch up with reality.

It's very difficult to make a new kind of city without getting rid of or substantially altering the old.  And that's where a lot of the friction comes in.

L.A.'s a big place, almost 500 square miles, so I feel like there's room for different conceptions of the good life to coexist here. But to let that balanced future L.A. evolve, we do need to allow changes to happen in the right places: near transit, along commercial corridors, in areas where we want things to be different because we've invested in transit or are revitalizing the river. So a measure like S, which is trying to freeze things, doesn't help us in getting this better-balanced future for the city.

The main reason why L.A'.s housing costs so much is that there's not enough of it. I agree that we don't want to harm existing residents through high housing costs and freeze the potential evolution of the city in pursuit of a mirage of 1950s or '60s Southern California. I think it's great that the postwar generations were able to shape the city in a certain way and pursue a certain way of life. And I wish they would now, as voters, respect that their kids and grandkids are going to be doing things a little bit differently, but that there'll still be space for everyone in different ways of living in the city, of working and getting around in Los Angeles.

Since Measure S was put on the ballot, the city council has said, OK, OK! We're going to be rewriting the plans and the zoning, and we're going to pay attention now —  in a way it has not done for a long time.  Has Measure S not already accomplished what it hopes to do?

I would agree that any good that will come out of Measure S has already been done in causing that very reaction, in getting the city council to finally step up and say, Let's do all the community plans within six years, and make some changes on the process of environmental review and other things.

But there's a lot of harm that could come of it if it's passed, because that's when the moratorium and ban on a lot of new housing would come into effect. So voters should be aware that the planning politics has changed, and now vote no on S to make sure we don't make a housing crisis worse.

Councilman Mike Bonin addressed the friction between, as he said, homeowners who put their life savings into their property, and the people who have dreams of their own about living in Los Angeles. He said this is a battle "for the souls of our neighborhoods." Is he right?

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I would agree it is definitely a battle, and there's benefits both to long-term residents and newcomers, and to wealthy people and to those who are struggling, to having a city that's allowed to change and grow in the right places. I live in a single-family home in northeast L.A., and if there's more apartment buildings being built on the boulevards here, then there's more people living here, walking about, attracting new customers to the businesses there — a more walkable neighborhood awaiting me if that happens.

And then those people living in these new units also have a place to live now, and people like me who are middle class don't have to just go out and compete with existing working class residents for spaces, which is creating pressures for gentrification. So if we add housing, we can benefit many long-term residents, and let L.A. continue to grow.

Some are concerned about the changes they see. Some people concerned about what's going on now might have some reason to think positively about S. Some of them might be generically against developers; they feel like they're making a lot of money, or they're making special deals with council members or whatever.

But we explain the fact that Measure S would have this really major negative impact on housing and therefore hurt a lot of our neighbors. We say there may be some issues with how we do planning now, but blocking new housing isn't going to make things better; it's going to make things worse, and we hope the people are listening to that.

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An analogy I like to use is if we had a famine in this area of the state, we wouldn't ban farmers from adding new crops to their fields for the next two years while we figure it out. We'd be, like, No, we need more food now. We need more housing now.

We can also at the same time try to update our plans, and have a better process that benefits everyone.

Do you think that Measure S would undercut the efforts to house the homeless that have already been approved by voters recently, some of the same voters who may be supporting Measure S?

Yes, 100%. It would be a terrible irony for the voters, who are finally stepping up and putting forward $1 billion and more to meet the needs of the most vulnerable people in our society. It'd be a tragedy if those efforts were blocked by Measure S.

Who's to blame for this state of affairs?

There's plenty to go around. I would actually start with the residents and the organizations who have fought change and fought new housing for decades, and they've done a pretty good job at it, and they've led us into this housing crisis. I would agree that the city leaders have fallen down too, that they should have put more staff and resources in updating the plan. They should have been more active in encouraging residents to take a view of the city's future that we are one city, and we need to make space for everyone, that we need to grow more sustainable and prosperous together.

Luckily I think now the pressure's on and we'll get better plans coming forward. We have a big coalition coming together against Measure S, and that shows there can be a political pushback against those who want to stop growth.

What if  Measure S succeeds? What do you think L.A. will look like?

If Measure S passes, the housing crisis will intensify, so we could expect to see rents rising, people putting off saving for college, saving for retirement because they're spending so much on housing, homelessness increasing, more and more people and families with children having to leave the city and the region, economic decline as we lose a lot of constructions jobs, and investment, as again more money goes toward housing costs rather than to buying goods and services and keeping the economy going.

It's just like a strangulation, a sense that the energy and vitality that we hope that we see in Los Angeles, and openness toward the future, becomes shuttered down for a couple of years while nothing can be built.

Some of some of the mailers that the Yes on S campaign have sent suggest that right now developers are destroying housing and displacing residents and evicting people. But I've done research on these projects on zone changes and they actually displace very few people, because they're taking things like parking lots and abandoned factories and turning them into large buildings.

The way that we're losing homes and that people are being evicted under the Ellis Act [a state law allowing eviction of rent-controlled tenants if owners plan to get out of the rental business or tear down the buildings] is very different. You'll have some investor buy a small building, use the Ellis Act to get residents out, and they just rehab the building at about the same size. We're forcing people out of their homes and not getting new units in exchange.

So according to my research, if Measure S passes, we'll see an increase in evictions and demolitions, because the housing demand that's now being met in these large projects on parking lots or wherever will be forced into our residential neighborhoods and actually destroy more homes and kick out more people.

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