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Silent Zone 

Will L.A. break the spell on affordable housing?

Thursday, Jun 2 2005
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The Los Angeles City Council is about to consider an affordable-housing law requiring developers to reserve a portion of their new units for below-market-rate housing. An inclusionary zoning proposal is coming soon. Any day now, in fact. No, really. Honest.

Of course, that’s what affordable-housing advocates have been saying for a couple years now. Two council committees have held monumental hearings on IZ, and activists have marched on City Hall to demonstrate their support in order to sway fence-sitting council members.

But the measure, always just a day or a week or a month away, has never quite made it to the floor. On several near-misses, IZ has been caught up in troublesome details and the differing goals of developers, neighborhood leaders, and affordable-housing activists.

The last time it almost came forward was more than a year ago, but IZ’s chief City Council proponents — Ed Reyes and Eric Garcetti — tabled it “for 90 days” to give neighborhood councils a crack at it.

Of course, “90 days” was special City Hall code for “after the election” more than a year away, so council members could be safely re-elected and the occupant of the mayor’s office would be known.

So the election came and here we are. On Wednesday, ACORN marched on City Hall to remind the council that IZ is not forgotten. Reyes said it was time to put his colleagues to the test. “I think we’re willing to find out who’s going to say ‘no,’ ” he said.

Reyes’ people had the motion in hand on Wednesday and were ready to go, but somehow , it just didn’t seem to get introduced. The next target date is Friday. Or maybe next week. Really.

Mayor-elect Antonio Villaraigosa supports IZ in theory and has said he would sign an ordinance if he likes the details. But he has worked hard to reassure developers and the business community that any measure he signs must have a negligible effect on their bottom line. In fact, as a councilman, Villaraigosa proved disappointing to many housing activists when he declined to throw his support behind a far-reaching mandate.

It may have reflected the councilman’s orientation toward consensus-building, or it may have been a tactic to garner support for his mayoral challenge. Either way, Villaraigosa’s position was not weakened any by the strong financial support he won from business and real estate interests in the final weeks of the election.

But it is simply not possible to mandate that builders foot the bill for affordable housing without any effect on their bottom line. Developers could be forced into choosing to pay the new costs or taking their marbles elsewhere and giving up in the new-housing market here, as they have done before.

Villaraigosa is looking for a way to get developers to cheerfully back IZ and stay in town. To do that, they must get something in return, such as further relief from city mandates that they include at least one space of covered parking for every unit they build, or promises that their projects will get to cut in line — the very long line — in the City Hall approval process.

To advocates and builders alike, an IZ law doesn’t do much by itself to make affordable housing available in the city. Hahn’s administration, in fact, has pointed out that more affordable housing has been built in the last four years without any IZ law.

But getting the law on the books would be a signal that the city is finally making affordable housing an integral part of its policy. For Villaraigosa, it will be a test of how well he can balance the demands of his progressive base with the realities of his business backers.

If, that is, the City Council ever actually takes up a proposal and sends it to him for his signature.

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