2016: The Year of High Rents and Increasing Homelessness

Living in the city ain't easy.
Living in the city ain't easy.

This year it became harder than ever to afford a place to live in L.A. More than half of L.A.'s dwellers rent, and more than half of those renters are "cost-burdened," meaning they pay 30 percent or more of their income to keep a roof over their heads. At the same time, the county saw a 20 percent increase in the "visible homeless," including those living in the encampments that have mushroomed all over town.

Back in 2014, when a UCLA report declared that Los Angeles had the least affordable rents in the nation, political leaders were mostly quiet on the topic. But now the homeless crisis is a top issue at City Hall and beyond. And in November local voters approved three measures that relate to our need to build more housing.

Measure M will raise the county sales tax by half a cent in order to continue the expansion of light rail and make other public transit improvements throughout the region. The measure will support the city's vision for dense, vertical development focused on transit stops. Measure HHH will raise city property taxes by .01 percent to pay for housing and shelters for the homeless. And Measure JJJ forces city developers seeking special zoning exceptions for their projects to build affordable housing.

This month the county Board of Supervisors declared a state of emergency concerning local homelessness. In the same breath the powerful body voted to place yet another tax increase before voters — a proposed quarter-cent increase — to raise $355 million a year in the name of stopping or slowing homelessness.

That measure will be joined on the March ballot by the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative, aka Measure S, which would temporarily snuff out most development by placing a two-year moratorium on case-by-case zoning. Measure S's backers spin it as a weapon against the housing crisis because it could prevent the destruction of older, more affordable apartment complexes while stopping the construction of high-end projects, which they claim drive up rents across the market.

Academic housing experts dispute this, however, saying that adding new units to a market will ultimately relieve rents by freeing up more affordable units as wealthier residents seek the latest, greatest housing.

Perhaps to emphasize that point, 2016's State of the Nation’s Housing report from Harvard's Joint Center for Housing Studies concluded that Los Angeles needs 382,000 units to keep up with demand from extremely low-income renters. The county has continued to grow, but despite some success at increasing the housing supply, the units just aren't there.

"Adding supply has to be a critical, central part of any solution," Jonathan Spader, a senior researcher at Harvard's Joint Center for Housing Studies, said in a phone interview early this year.


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