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A Place for Us?

There’s room at the inn in L.A. these days, what with the near collapse of tourism, but that’s about the only place there is. Los Angeles is plainly the most overcrowded housing market in the land. In last year’s census, 19 of the 25 most residentially overcrowded American cities were in California; and the three most overcrowded were heavily Latino working-class inner-ring suburbs of L.A. In Santa Ana and El Monte — and in such L.A. city neighborhoods as Pacoima, Lincoln Heights and Pico-Union — two or three families (or 10 single men) crowd into apartment units built for one family, or a family takes up residence in a spare garage.

The housing crunch takes a toll within the middle class as well. Major local institutions, from UCLA to Kaiser-Permanente, have complained about the scarcity of affordable housing for academics and nurses, respectively. A bare 39 percent of local households are occupied by homeowners, compared with a national figure of 57 percent. And the gap between available units and people in need of same continues to grow: By the estimate of the Southern California Association of Governments, the L.A. metro area needs to add 60,000 new units per year just to keep pace with population growth. In fact, we add a scant 8,000 new units each year — a shortfall that keeps homeownership out of reach for L.A.’s vast working class. Indeed, it keeps even a decent apartment out of reach, since it takes an hourly income of nearly $20 to afford the typical L.A. apartment. That’s a daunting figure when you realize that in 1996, according to one state Assembly study, two-thirds of Angelenos lived in households with incomes beneath that level.

Capitalism may work manifold miracles, but they don’t include meeting essential social needs such as housing and health care. That’s why federal, state and local governments have had to pitch in — with most major U.S. cities establishing trust funds to provide money to non-profit developers to build more housing. New York sets aside $265 million each year to that end. Until two years ago, however, L.A. set aside precisely nothing. Mayor Riordan contended that this really wasn’t a problem (indeed, he told me that while we were standing in the back yard of his Brentwood palazzo, where all the views were pleasing). Two years ago, the City Council finally established such a fund, but to date, only $10 million has been put into it.

Next week, the council is set to take up the question of a serious housing program — specifically, whether the city should commit $100 million per year to this mega-need, and whence it should get the bucks. This is the most serious public-policy question the city has considered since it passed the living-wage ordinance back in 1997, and it is the first major test for the new mayor, the new council and the dynamic new movement that has placed housing at the forefront of L.A.’s progressive agenda.

The genesis of the city’s new housing movement came several years ago when a few leading housing activists approached the city’s new labor movement, suggesting it expand its advocacy for L.A. workers to the question of their housing. The building trades clambered on board, as did janitors, the supermarket workers, and the County Federation of Labor, whose leader, Miguel Contreras, agreed to co-chair a new coalition called Housing L.A. Some of the city’s leading community organizations, most notably ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now) and L.A. Metro Strategy (the local affiliate of the Industrial Areas Foundation), brought their organizing smarts and street heat to the campaign. And crucially, the Catholic Archdiocese joined up, too: Cardinal Mahony agreed to co-chair the coalition alongside Contreras, and brought business groups to the table, too.

During this year’s city elections, Housing L.A. took mayoral and council candidates on “slum-housing tours,” that not only looked at the city’s worst housing but also at some of its best — the new, small, attractive, affordable housing developments that developers are building around town, though in woefully insufficient numbers. The coalition asked candidates to commit to its demand for a $100 million annual affordable-housing appropriation, and most of them — including one James K. Hahn — did just that.

The proposal will come before the council next week. Some of it can be funded out of federal community-development block grants, but other sources must be specified if anywhere near $100 million is to be accrued. (That figure could build 4,000 new units per year.) One good solution would be an “inclusionary zoning” ordinance, which mandates that developers of market-rate housing either designate 15 percent of their units as affordable, or pay the city a sum equivalent to that subsidy for the development of affordable units elsewhere. Absent such zoning policies, it’s hard to envision a city housing program that’s anything more than symbolic.

The political skills, commitment and credibility of the new mayor and council are all on the line next week, when the council takes up the housing question. This is not a test the city can afford to have its elected officials flunk.

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