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Rebel With a Plan 

Ed Reyes is angry. He wants the "zombies" in L.A.’s Planning Department out. He wants affordable-housing supporters in. And he wants his more polite colleagues on the City Council to help him pull it off.

Thursday, Nov 18 2004
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"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.

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Gnaizda and other housing advocates support modifying Proposition 13, and he criticizes business groups that rally to block such a move.

But, in an example of the political realignment taking place over affordable housing, the Greenlining Institute is staunchly pro-business when it comes to development. The group — which includes representatives of big banks and builders — says there is too much red tape. It’s time to return to the free market.

"California is legendary for government regulations," Gnaizda complains. "It costs $100,000 more to build a home here than in Arizona."

Then there are the environmentalists.

"I’m in favor of environmental protections," Gnaizda insists. "But not for the salamander or the fairy shrimp. Not at the expense of people."

Reyes, joined by Councilman Eric Garcetti, is trying to support a new environmental paradigm to appeal to the Latinos who live by the river or in areas in which the urban forestry group Northeast Trees is active. It’s a hard sell, though. "Latinos aren’t tree huggers," one frustrated activist confides.

As for the free market, Reyes and his supporters don’t believe it alone can solve the L.A. housing crisis.

On the council floor, Reyes has wavered between impatience and outrage at his colleagues as they express reservations over mandatory inclusionary zoning. At one point a year ago, he appeared to have brokered a deal to bring hearings on "IZ" and other affordable-housing strategies to every council district, and Tom LaBonge’s mostly wealthy 4th District was to be first. But LaBonge later demurred, and the agreement collapsed. So did activists’ hopes to bring IZ to an early vote.

"Guys like Tom LaBonge, if they could, they would be riding around here on their horses with their cowboy hats on," Reyes mused later. "You know, old school, ‘White is right and we’ll take care of our little brothers.’"

That comment aside, Reyes insists he no longer is motivated by anger, but by his vision of a city serving all its people.

"My anger days, my chip-on-my-shoulder days, faded away a long time ago," he says. "I don’t walk around contemplating the injustices to people in our community. Because I just wouldn’t be able to get up in the morning."

In 1988, Reyes was a fledgling assistant planner who had just returned home from Northern California to sign on with the department. For a young Latino urbanist from Cypress Park with a UCLA master’s degree, it was an era of excitement and possibility, brought on in part by the remade 1st District and his new City Council representative, Gloria Molina.

Reyes was Cypress Park all the way. Even today, he lets drop, as he passes by a particular street corner, "We used to hang out here." Or, in fact, "I was hit by a car in this intersection," and "My brother was shot here."

Cypress Park was high-crime and high-neglect, but Reyes believed he was coming home to make a difference through urban planning.

Then there came one particular staff meeting at which the manager started mimicking Molina. "He imitated her, how she would posture herself and walk back and forth," Reyes recalls. "I think there was a level of ridiculing her, that was for sure. It was just a mockery of her directives."

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