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But as developers see the affordable-housing crisis as a rare chance to advance against so-called NIMBY homeowners and L.A.’s fabled red tape, and as affordable-housing advocates try to squeeze concessions from developers, and as all parties try to extract assurances from City Hall, Reyes and his backers may not be enough to control the future.
Standing above the MacArthur ParkRed Line station, Ed Reyes points out spots where derelict structures have given way to new mixed-use projects under programs he started in his district that have now gone citywide: adaptive reuse, to turn old commercial buildings into housing; density bonuses, allowing increased floor-area ratio; and relief from mandatory parking requirements. With a sweep of his arm, Reyes shows where he wants to put flags of Central American nations and a market area for an Olvera Street–type experience. This is drug-dealer central, or at least it was. But with new attention from City Hall, it’s no longer inconceivable that MacArthur Park could be a family destination.
Critics call many of his proposals social engineering, because besides making affordable places for families to live, they expressly aim to put people of all economic classes in any given neighborhood.
Reyes turns around to point eastward toward the skyscrapers of Bunker Hill, and he lets loose.
"It wasn’t social engineering when we spent millions of tax dollars to build these towers," he snaps. "We did this because L.A. wanted a central city. We wanted a skyline. And look who works there. Who benefits from that expenditure of tax dollars?"
The answer, of course, is that wealthy lawyers, accountants, real estate brokers and business leaders work in those towers. So do secretaries, bookkeepers, custodians and security guards, but Reyes says most of them commute by car or bus from miles away and have to hit the road before sunup for the privilege.
Don’t the rich have long commutes downtown too? Ah, there’s the irony. More and more downtown young professionals who can afford the high mortgages and rents are abandoning their suburban condos and giving up on L.A. dreams of the ranch house, the pool and the barbecue for a new urban vision: downtown living. The Spring Street loft boom may have played out, but developers of new projects, like Geoff Palmer’s Medici, Orsini and the like, command top dollar. Most make no room for below-market units.
Many Latinos, meanwhile, move out of downtown and Northeast L.A. as soon as they can and make their way to the suburbs to claim the older L.A. dream of the ranch house or the bungalow. Just how strong this trend is, and what it means to Los Angeles, is yet to be seen.
As a young planning associate working in City Hall, Reyes began studying where in the city all the building permits were being pulled, and where all the specific plans — overlays that imposed special building restrictions — were granted. Time and again, his research showed, the city handed out permits like candy to anyone who wanted to build in Boyle Heights, Cypress Park, Pico-Union, South L.A. No specific plans there. The protections against overdevelopment went instead to the West Valley, West L.A., Hancock Park.
Affordable-housing advocates note a shocking symmetry between the maps Reyes created that mark the still-unprotected areas of the city and the older maps from the prewar era that show where black, Latino and Asian families could buy or rent without worrying about restrictive racial covenants.
The advocates’ message is clear: Housing discrimination is alive and well. Minority areas get saddled with the big ugly boxes while the white areas are sheltered. The approval process has institutionalized NIMBYism, giving wealthier homeowners the power, through their City Council representatives, to send undesirable development to the east or south ends of town.
If that was the case in the slow-growth era, it’s even truer now, because of economics.
"It is the return of de facto segregation," contends Robert Gnaizda.
As general counsel of the Greenlining Institute, a Berkeley-based study and advocacy organization that plots strategies for affordable housing, Gnaizda notes that the national homeownership rate is 69 percent, but only 58 percent for California, much lower for Los Angeles, even lower for blacks and Latinos. Fifty years ago, he asserts, most blacks could get a high-paying job in L.A. without a high school diploma and could afford a median-priced home. Today, though, the median price of a home in Los Angeles County is between $400,000 and a half-million dollars. By most accounts, it would take an annual salary of close to six figures for a buyer to be able to afford it.
Adding irony to injury, the property-tax system often compels first-time buyers of tiny condos or ramshackle houses with astonishing sales prices to subsidize some of the very same wealthy homeowners who organize against new development. The owner of a five-bedroom house south of Ventura Boulevard, for example, may have paid $300,000 in 1978 but today enjoys a value of $1.5 million, a five-fold increase. But the tax will be calculated on the 1978 value, plus another 1 percent per year — less than a one-third increase in property taxes paid for ever-more-costly city services like police and fire protection. The new buyer of a four-bedroom house in Silver Lake will pay $1.5 million this year and will pay property tax on the full market value.