LA’s Politicians and Academics: Shills for Real Estate Speculators

PLATKIN ON PLANNING-The urban growth machine, including its enablers in public office and academia, dish out endless cover stories to camouflage their hidden agenda of priming the pumps of real estate speculation. When one of their self-serving theories bites the dust, they quickly advance another one, knowing they can depend on the corporate media and “business-friendly” policy experts to quickly pickup the beat. 

Greenwashing: The best know version of this ploy is greenwashing, such as Exxon’s and Chevron’s public service announcements trumpeting their restoration of ponds, shorelines, and meadows.Meanwhile,these and similar energycompanies continue to extract fossil fuels, often with immediate pollution, followed by the huge generation of the Green House Gasesresponsible for climate change. 

Now, the density hawks, whether hob-knobbing with San Francisco’s Scott Wiener in Sacramento, or hunkering down at LA’s City Hall, maintain that increased residential density achieved through the accelerated construction of new, market rate apartment buildings reduces the generation of these same Green Houses Gases.  

While their claim that higher densities can reduce individual and cumulative carbon footprints is true for highly selective urban environments, especially New York City, their real estate proposals are the antithesis of the New York City model. They simply want to layer dense, energy-intensive apartment buildings on top of a generally low-density city, Los Angeles, whose infrastructure and public services are already severely taxed and predicted to fail. When, not if, the next big earthquake comes, Los Angeles will be without basic services for an extended period of time according to earthquake expert Lucy Jones.  

Every major piece of infrastructure in the Los Angeles area needed to sustain life — electrical lines, telecommunication networks and water aqueducts — crosses over the San Andreas fault line and would likely be severed in the event of a major earthquake. It could be days or weeks before power and water delivery are restored.” 

Nevertheless, the density hawks are so committed totheir greenwashing claims that their proposals, such as Senate Bill 827, nevertheless exclude the California Environment Quality Act (CEQA) from local land use decisions. Likewise, they ignore calls for the preparation and adoption of a new, mandatory Climate Change Element in California. Likewise, they never call for an optional Climate Change Element in cities, like Los Angeles. For that matter, they are equally tongue-tied regarding annual monitoring of basic climate change indicators, such as CO2 levels. 

While they continueto champion the business model of major real estate investors, their aversion to these obvious environmental measures is hardly an accident. If they supportedenvironmental monitoring, it would reveal thatbuildingour way out of the climate crisis actually makes things worse.  For example, theHollywood Community Plan Update,voided by Los Angeles County Superior Court Alan Goodman, included extensive increases in commercial and residential density. The plan’s Environmental Impact Report (DEIR) determined, however, that the additional buildings and traffic generated bythis plan would generate so much more Green House Gas emissions, that they could not be mitigated.  

In the face of such overwhelming evidence that their “build more market housing” (in Hollywood and elsewhere) version of densification would worsen climate change, the density hawks nimbly turned to other ruses.  But, as you will see, their back-up claims are equally specious.  Like greenwashing, they, too, are just frailstalking horses for their real objective: supporting this year’s most profitable type of real estate investment: apartment houses. 

Population boom-washing:  Since their greenwashing claimsfailed to gain serious traction, the density hawks turned to population-washing, repeatedly claiming that Los Angeles was on the verge of an imminent population boom. To, therefore, plan for the future, the city needed to build new, high density apartment buildingsso these new Angelenos would have a decent place to live. More specifically, the density hawks called for a deregulated housing market based on weak zoning laws, with a wink and a nod to weak code enforcement,to greet the population boom with move-in specials.Well, poor code enforcement and zoning deregulationwere right on cue, but the much-ballyhooed population boom failed to materialize. 

As previously reported, the 1996 General Plan Framework’s population forecast for 2010 was 4,300,000 people.  This figure,though, turned out to be 500,000 people higher than the actual 2010 US Census.  Since then, according to demographer Wendel Cox, the boosters have four times claimed that Los Angeles finally exceeded the 4,000,000 mark. But, each time they had to walked back these claims because Los Angeles still has not broken surpassed the 4 million barrier. Furthermore, according to seismologist Lucy Jones, quoted earlier, the long-term damage from a certain major earthquake will lead to population decline – not gain -- in Los Angeles. 

In San Francisco, like LA, amajor center of gentrification in an expensive housing market, the same forecasts of an impending population boom were cited to justify rampant land use deregulation and up-zoning.  But, in SF more people are leaving thanmoving in.  In fact, the Wall Street Journal reports that despite the riches of the high tech boom, San Francisco declined by 24,000 people last year, mostly because too many residents were priced out of its expensive housing market. 

Transit-washing:Since more people are leaving than coming to LA and SF, the real estate industry and their lieutenants have already contrived another whopper to justify zoning deregulation: it will increase the number of people living near mass transit stations ridership, and therefore reverse a long-term trend of declining transit ridership. This is because they believe – despite contradictory evidence -- that anyone who lives near transit will use it. 

The fallacy of this “build more market housing near transit” argument was revealed by recent research from UCLA.  In the Los Angeles metropolitan an increasing number of low income tenants own and drive cars, and no longer use transit.This is why the gentrification of neighborhoods close to transit services would not increase transit ridership. It replaces existing low income transit users, whose numbers are already declining, with affluent newcomers who drive cars and seldom or never use transit, even when they live close to it. 

According to this report on declining transit ridership, 

The growth in vehicle access has been especially dramatic among subsets of the population that are among the heaviest users of transit… Living in a household without a vehicle is perhaps the strongest single predictor of transit use; the decline of these households has powerful implications for transit in Southern California.” 

At no point does this important transit study ever mention increasing the residential density of market rate apartments near subway and bus stops as a strategy to reverse declining transit ridership. The reason is obvious. The construction of new market apartments will evict far more existing transit users than it will draw into the same neighborhood. 

Voila! Transit-washing bites the dust, even though the revived Hollywood Community Plan is still based on the discredited claim that Hollywood must be up-zonedto increase the number of people living in transit-adjacent neighborhoods. Once they move in, they will quickly embrace transit andsoon fill up busses and subway cars with their warm bodies. 

Housing-washing: The final justification for the build-more-market-housing business model is that it will increase the supply of desperately needed affordable housing. How so? The claim is thatthe more market housing constructed in Los Angeles, the more affordable housing will eventually appear through filtering, also known as long-term trickle down. Since there is zero evidence of expensive housing trickling down to become affordable housing in Los Angeles, the density hawks then invoke another out-of-context economic theory: supply-and-demand. 

They imagine that a glut of expensive housing forces the price of housing down to the point that it becomes affordable and apartments that rent for $2000-3,000 per month will be discounted to $600 a month because of high vacancy rates. Again, there is zero evidence of this happening in Los Angeles for two very good reasons. First, investors don’t like to go bankrupt, which happens when they charge affordable rents. Second, landlords can easily fill empty houses and apartments throughhighly lucrative Airbnbshort-term rentals when they are faced with money-losing high vacancy rates.  

If the filtering and the supply-and-demand arguments do not pass the smell test, you are right.And, in the Los Angeles Times, Tracy Jeanne Rosenthal explained why. Gentrification reduces transit ridership. In order to assemble building sites for new, market-oriented apartments; builders must evict current residents, most of whom are low income and the most likely demographic category to use transit.  In contrast, the new residents of new market housing are much better off. Almost all of them own cars, which they use for most trips. According to Rosenthal, the more LA gentrifies, which is the program of the density hawks, the more transit ridership will decline, a finding confirmed by the previously mentioned UCLA transit ridership study. 

How do we know that these four types of “washing” are really bogus? 

Why are these four claims about the allegedbenefits of unregulated real estate investmentreally a subterfuge for a speculative business model? Two reasons make it obvious that they are really hog-washing. 

First, the density hawks never mention non-real estate programs to help resolve the crises they invoke, such as fare reductions to increase transit ridership, restoration of HUD and CRA programs to build affordable housing, and massive tree planting to ameliorate climate change. 

Second, the density hawks are so committed to their one-size-fits-all market housing solution, that they see no need to monitor or inspect any new residential projects to validate their claims. Is permanent affordable housing actually appearing through filtering and supply-and-demand?Are new up-scale tenants giving up their cars to take busses and subways for most trips? Are existing infrastructure and services strained because of new real estate projects? 

The answers could only complicate the build-more-market-housing business model, so the questions are never asked. 

That is our job!


(Dick Platkin is a former Los Angeles city planner who reports on local planning controversies for CityWatchLA. Please send comments and corrections to [email protected]. Previous columns are available at the CityWatchLA archives.) Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.