By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
A 35-year-old voter-approved ban on low-income housing taller than two stories will be repealed if Proposition B is approved next week. While city officials insist the proposed changes will not increase density in any way, intense last-minute scrutiny of the ballot measure, which also ends a citywide limit of 52,500 low-rent units, has critics warning of unintended consequences.
“I fear that passage of Prop. B will move low-income housing from the smaller units we have now to these big boxes, where they just shove people in and it’s out of character with the surrounding neighborhood,” says James O’Sullivan, president of the Miracle Mile Residential Association. “Once you open the door like this, the developers are going to walk through with these big-box projects. Then what will the city do?”
O’Sullivan wonders why such a significant policy change has been given below-the-radar treatment by the City Council. In fact, nowhere in the ballot language does the council admit it is repealing limits that have been in place for a generation.
“I pay pretty close attention to what’s going on in the city, and I only heard about these changes within the last month or so,” O’Sullivan says. “It seemed clear to me that people had voted in the past for a specific type of housing, smaller housing fitting into a one- or two-story type of model. Why should we change that now?”
But City Council President Eric Garcetti insists that fears of Prop. B leading to low-income, high-density five-story or even 10-story towers are wildly exaggerated.
“That’s not going to happen,” Garcetti tells L.A. Weekly. “This doesn’t change the land-use laws or local zoning that prevents those types of projects.”
But L.A. is famed for ignoring local zoning by continually granting variances and exceptions to developers. Height limits for low-income housing were approved by voters to ensure that no city council, mayor or zoning official could allow high-rise housing for the poor, a widely decried approach that became a social disaster in the 1960s.
Now, critics say, developers are being given a new weapon, Prop. B, to argue for much larger projects than local zoning allows. In fact, city officials quietly concede that the density hawks at City Hall have already allowed millions of dollars to be illegally funneled into oversized projects — and got caught by state officials last year.
Nowhere does the ballot language mention that Prop. B , also called Measure B, wipes out these long-standing height and size restrictions. Its passage November 4 appears likely, since it does not ask taxpayers for money and claims to be a required step in order to secure state housing funds.
Garcetti concedes that Prop. B would remove limits approved by voters in 1980 but insists it will not be used to increase city density.
“This is simply an administrative correction to bring us into line with state mandates,” Garcetti says. “If local zoning and height restrictions allowed a multistory building to be built in a particular area before, that does not change. And if it was not allowed before this, that doesn’t change either.”
Similarly, City Council members and their legislative support staff frame Prop. B as a simple "administrative" housekeeping move designed to bring the city in line with state mandates for funding low-income housing. In fact, last fall, after the state Housing and Community Development Department caught the Villaraigosa administration ignoring the Los Angeles voter-approved law by providing state money to developers of oversized low-income housing, city officials chose to comply with the law — by quietly maneuvering voters on November 4 to wipe out the size and height limits.
First District Councilman Ed Reyes says, “We need to access that state money. We can’t fix this without state money, and this will help us get that money.”
Garcetti echoes Reyes, saying, “Our city charter specifically says we have to be in compliance with state rules on this.”
But state officials tell the Weekly they did not ask L.A. officials to wipe out height or size limits in order to qualify for the funds from the Housing and Emergency Shelter Trust Fund Act of 2006. “The wording” of the city’s low-income-housing size limits, according to Jennifer Sweeney, spokeswoman for the state Department of Housing and Community Development, “is up to each city.”
In fact, the ballot language omitting all the housing size caps was dreamed up entirely inside City Hall, where developers’ lobbyists roam the halls, and construction unions give major contributions to City Council races.
And that has some critics seeing Proposition B in a darker light.
They say it is a seemingly benign, no-cost change that ends 35 years of rules against concentrating the poor, does not encourage senior housing and was designed as a tool to help “smart growth” advocates increase density in areas near bus and transit lines, like Silver Lake, Encino and Mar Vista.
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