CITYWATCH—Let’s be clear at the outset: I want our mayor to succeed. It is not my goal or my nature to push for a great LA by wishing that LA’s leadership fails. But, let’s also be clear about this: Our mayor has himself in a political pickle.
ECONOMIC JUSTICE-Coalition for Economic Survival tenants at Pico Plaza Apartments, a 43-unit rent controlled property in Pico Union, successfully challenged their landlord's attempt to illegally make them pay rent only via electronic or online payment.
EDITOR’S PICK--California’s housing crisis is a complex one, as befits a state with a population of close to 40 million people, spread out over 163,696 square miles, and with some of the country’s largest cities and fastest growing population hubs, as well as some of its most rugged rural areas.
Los Angeles’ Skid Row sprawls just a few blocks from the skyscrapers of downtown and showcases one of the developed world’s largest concentrations of long-term homeless people. They live in tents and jerry-rigged shanties along the sidewalks and in vacant lots, surround social service agency buildings and provide a vista of misery stunning in its intensity. Only a few miles away, middle- and working-class tenants are being driven from their rent-controlled homes into the exurbs or onto friends’ and relatives’ couches. The causes of this diaspora are developers seeking to capitalize on Hollywood’s soaring real estate values and the city’s “densification” development strategy that prioritizes large-scale, high-end housing developments over new affordable housing for middle-income families and the working poor.
The extremes of poverty and affluence do a strange dance in L.A.’s housing story, as they do in San Francisco to the north.
Says tenants’ organizer Dont Rhine, a Hollywood-based artist who cut his teeth in the world of activism working for ACT UP in the 1990s, “There are a lot of renters who are frickin’ pissed off. I’ve not seen anything like this since the AIDS crisis. It’s affecting mental health and physical health.”
By contrast, in the Central Valley deep pools of poverty in cities such as Fresno — the core of which has the third highest poverty rate of any large metro area in the country — perpetuate the existence of slum housing. Twenty years ago, in a deal that then-President Bill Clinton carved out with a conservative Congress, the country’s political leadership eliminated 100,000 units of public housing. Years later, in 2011, the California legislature, at the urging of Governor Jerry Brown, scrapped a program that had funneled billions of dollars from the state into local redevelopment agency grants. Today, while Fresno’s Housing Authority and nonprofit homebuilders such as Self Help Enterprises try to provide decent, affordable housing for the lucky few, the need massively outstrips the supply. Tens of thousands of families are poor enough to qualify for housing vouchers, affordable housing in mixed-income units or public housing, yet most will never be provided an apartment or house.
Roughly 67,000 families in the Fresno area are on waiting lists for these programs. With each year, as federal investments in housing lag, the problem gets worse. Making the matter ever more urgent is the fact that it is in Central Valley towns that much of California’s population growth in coming years is predicted to occur. Absent huge investments in affordable housing, a growing number of Californians in the valley a generation from now will be living in slums, at the mercy of a private rental market utterly indifferent to their basic needs and dignity.
In Orange County, widespread affluence has pushed up real estate values beyond anything affordable to the low-wage, service-sector workers, many of them undocumented, who cater to affluent residents’ consumption needs. As a result, with years-long waiting lists for Section 8 vouchers (for qualified recipients who pay up to 30 percent of their income on rent, with the difference, up to a certain rent threshold, paid for by the government); with a paucity of affordable housing units being built; and with vast shortages in public housing, many residents double, triple or quadruple up, creating some of the most overcrowded and unhealthy living conditions in America.
“Where should I go with no job?” asks Santa Ana resident Concepcion, an undocumented immigrant who has run through her legal options and is at risk of imminent deportation. She lives with her husband and three children inside a tiny room within a small house, in a poor part of town. Recently, a teenager living near the house drew a gun on a police officer and, to Concepcion’s horror, she saw heavily armed SWAT teams swarm past her window. “Low-income housing?” she asks. “I’m ineligible. It’s either here or under a bridge or the public library, where the homeless are.”
It’s a choice many Santa Anans have had to make. When the city surveyed the transient population recently, it found more than 400 people living on the streets surrounding Civic Center Plaza – and another 400-plus living along the Santa Ana riverbed. There are, according to Judson Brown, the housing division manager for the city’s Community Development Agency, only 185 shelter beds for the homeless in Santa Ana and, of these, nearly three quarters are only available during the cold winter months.
In the Bay Area one town after another has witnessed spiraling real estate dislocations as San Francisco’s soaring property market continues to create spillover effects in neighboring counties. In the city itself, family apartments in traditionally immigrant and working-class neighborhoods such as the Mission District have been converted into million-dollar pads for young techies, an ongoing problem driven by the presence of many of the world’s top tech companies in Silicon Valley just a few miles to the south.
Across the bay in Oakland, gritty neighborhoods in that city’s west and north are rapidly being gentrified; there’s some good to this – in lower crime rates and more vibrant economic activity – but also a lot of bad. Historically African American and Latino areas are bought into by a wave of disproportionately white and Asian-American gentrifiers, as they and investors snap up any and all properties that come onto the market. Existing residents find that they can no longer afford exploding rents and are pushed ever further from their places of work and the schools that their children are enrolled in. People with precious few resources to begin with are uprooted and, in essence, told to start afresh.
As a domino line of towns is hit by the Bay Area real estate boom’s shockwaves, so the dislocation spreads further afield. In the last few months, long-time working-class residents in Redwood City and other cities in the vicinity have almost overnight been swept aside by a tsunami of real estate investors taking advantage of their proximity both to Silicon Valley and to San Francisco. Absent a coherent affordable housing development strategy in these towns, local housing activists fear that low- and moderate-income families will no longer be able to stay in the city.
This series is the story of California’s housing crisis, a crisis that shows no sign of abating. We have decided not to focus on long-term homelessness here, because it is a complex saga involving a discussion of mental health services, addiction treatment and the ways in which foster care kids, veterans and ex-prisoners are too often cast aside by the broader society, that merits a later series unto itself.
Instead, in this series we will mostly look at those who have roofs over their heads, but whose situations are increasingly precarious.
The affordable housing crisis did not occur in a vacuum, but has its roots in both the last recession and in laws written years before that tilted California’s housing relationships in favor of landlords and developers. When the housing market collapsed eight years ago, it was homeowners who bore the brunt of the calamity, with entire neighborhoods destroyed by foreclosures. Today, with California’s real estate market rebounding, owners are again accumulating paper wealth. Increasingly, as property values soar, especially in thriving coastal cities, it is renters who now bear the greatest pain.
As mentioned, Governor Brown’s scrapping of California’s redevelopment agency program — a response taken against the state’s post-2008 financial crisis — deprived local housing budgets of hundreds of millions of dollars overnight. Not surprisingly, as more people find themselves priced out of quality housing, they are bumping up against the realities of catastrophic under-investment in decent affordable housing — a situation in which slum landlords are filling the void.
Renters are also confronting California’s Ellis Act, which provides a mechanism whereby property owners can evict rent-controlled tenants, demolish homes and rebuild the properties as upmarket homes. And they are grappling with the state’s Costa-Hawkins Act, pushed in the 1990s by many of the same conservative political lobbies that propelled Proposition 13 to victory in 1978, and which forbids cities to rent-stabilize properties built after 1995. How bad is the housing crisis in California?
Last year the chair of the state agency responsible for programs that create affordable housing stepped down under pressure when activists revealed he was evicting tenants from property he owned in order to replace its rent-controlled units with luxury ones.
In the coming days we will tell the tale of the struggling middle class and working poor in an era in which public investments in affordable housing have shamefully lagged, and in which politicians have too often catered to the needs of developers rather than to those of renters and lower income homeowners.
We will also explore the economic and health implications of substandard slum housing; the policy implications of growing wage inequalities in a high-cost real estate environment; and the dangers to the social fabric posed by the recreation of housing conditions that would have been all too familiar to Jacob Riis, the social reformer who photographed New York’s slums more than a century ago.
(Sasha Abramsky is a freelance journalist. His work has appeared in The Nation, The Atlantic, New York magazine, the American Prospect, Salon, Slate, the New Yorker online, the Los Angeles Weekly, The Village Voice, the Daily Beast, and Rolling Stone. This important series originated at Capital and Main … where it continues throughout the week.) Photo credit: Ted Soqui
ALPERN AT LARGE--After I got home last night, after a busy day in clinic and suffering through a miserable rain-soaked and traffic-plagued commute en route to an excellent meeting with CD11 planners for a proposed large development near the future Bundy/Olympic Expo Line station, it dawned on me how the changes resulting from the election of Bill Rosendahl to the City Council in 2005 are alive and well.
MY TURN-It seems that my last article about "NIMBYISM vs Progress" really hit a nerve – garnering the most negative comments of any piece I’ve done over almost three years! This proves my theory that "we the people" don't act, we react. Perhaps this is because, like the rest of the country, we are so divided that's almost impossible to move ahead.
PLATKIN ON PLANNING-A brief note: Opponents of the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative have repeatedly claimed that it would block the construction of new affordable housing. In CityWatch I have twice asked readers to send me any addresses where that has been the case. I have also reached out to experts at USC and UCLA with the same question. So far, I have only heard a second hand anecdote, but no specifics yet. I’m still waiting. If readers can send me any details…a location and any zone changes and General Plan Amendments that were required to proceed with an affordable housing project, I would appreciate it. Until then I will assume that this is a baseless claim concocted by supporters of luxury high rise projects intent on preserving the business model of their patrons.
CityWatch readers probably know that the City Planning Department is trying one more time to prepare and adopt an ordinance to finally stop the mansionization of LA’s single family neighborhoods.
Part of their motivation is that there are few cases of land use that arouse as much as wrath as McMansions -- those big, boxy, pricey, and cheaply constructed houses that are often mistaken for apartment buildings.
Consider the following:
Some people hate them because they conflict with the City Planning Commission’s anti-mansionization policies contained in their Do Real Planning manifesto.
Some people hate them because they conflict with the policies of the Framework Element, a key part of LA’s General Plan. The Framework is clear that new residential developments must respect the character and scale of existing residences. But, as anyone can see when driving through neighborhoods blighted by mansionization, the scale and character of McMansions intensely clash with existing homes, whether they are Spanish Revival, Tudor, mid-century, or even ranch-style.
Some people hate them because they displace existing affordable housing. Nearly all of the 2000 homes that the mansionizers bulldoze each year in Los Angeles are small starter homes. Most of them are less than 2000 square feet, and they cost about 1/3 of the Big Macs that replace them. LA’s housing crisis did not just happen. It has multiple causes, one of which is mansionization, whether it involves losing single family homes and duplexes or the creation of Single Lot Subdivisions.
Last, but hardly least, some people hate them because of their energy-intensive, environmentally unfriendly character. To say the least, McMansions are the least sustainable housing option out there, short of a castle, or to be generous, a real mansion.
And also consider this:
- Their giant footprints cover much of their lots, so there is little open space for rain to percolate into the ground or for plants to sequester carbon and produce oxygen.
- Their boxiness makes them very hot in LA’s sunny climate, so the owners have no choice but to run their air conditioning around the clock. And, as LA heats up through climate change, those air conditioning units will try to keep up, spewing out even more heat and air pollution in a downward spiral.
- To sell McMansions to their status-conscious buyers, the contractors install outsized appliances, such as enormous restaurant stoves. Sometimes they throw in energy-hungry extras, like whole house vacuum systems with every room featuring a vacuum outlet. The result is enormous electric bills.
- To further appeal to these “discriminating” buyers, the contractors install pools and spas, forcing up water bills to keep them filled with fresh water, generating large electric or gas bills to heat them.
- LA’s new building codes require sprinklers in each room for potential fires and as a result, the DWP must install new two inch pipes for each McMansion to assure sufficient water pressure. The old standard one inch pipes are either left in the ground or hauled off as scrap.
- McMansions routinely include two or even three car attached garages. This feature not only incentivizes automobile driving, but the new double driveways also wipe out green space and trees in front yards and parkways. But since the attached garages are routinely used for recreation, storage, and other habitable uses, the owners park their luxury cars on their front yard driveways, next to sidewalks.
- McMansions create enormous amounts of rubble because they require the demolition of existing houses, most of which contains dangerous asbestos and lead paint that the contractors – with a wink and a nod from Building and Safety -- fail to remediate.
- Because McMansions are huge, they devour enormous amounts of construction materials, such as cement, metals, plastics, and wood. Furthermore, because they are shoddily constructed, they will have a short life-span. Future buyers will quickly tear them down to avoid the extensive repairs necessary to keep McMansions habitable. This short life span, then, also adds to the rubble created by the mansionization process.
- McMansions are higher and larger than adjacent houses, and this means they create much more shadowing than the smaller houses they replace. Neighbors are impacted by loss of sunlight in their yards and gardens, as well as by reduced opportunities to efficiently run roof top solar panels.
When these many unsustainable features are considered, it is clear that any serious effort to create a sustainable Los Angeles, such as the Climate Action Plans prepared by Mayors Villaraigosa and Garcetti, should have the mansionization process in its cross-hairs. Claims of mitigating the causes of climate change, or adapting to climate change as it worsens, will ring hollow if yet another mansionization ordinance is riddled with more loopholes that allow the continued construction of McMansions.
(Dick Platkin is a former Los Angeles city planner who reports on planning issues in Los Angeles for CityWatch. He welcomes comments, questions, and corrections at [email protected].) Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.
EASTSIDER-I don’t mean to keep harping on Airbnb, but this company’s sophistication in maximizing profits to pay off its owners and venture capital partners (as opposed to LA City’s pathetic attempts to regulate almost anything) makes it imperative that we get the new short-term rental ordinance right.
TRANSIT NUMBERS … INTERPRETER PLEASE--Los Angeles transit ridership has fallen even more than a recent Los Angeles Times front page story indicated, according to Thomas A. Rubin, who served as Chief Financial Officer (auditor/controller) of the Southern California Rapid Transit District (SCRTD) from 1989 until 1993. SCRTD merged with the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission (LACTC) after the first new rail line was opened in the early 1990s. (I served as a city of Los Angeles appointee to the board of LACTC.)