20 Ways to Fix Los Angeles
Illustration by Peter Ryan
To look at the municipal election results earlier this year, you would think that things in Los Angeles were going just swimmingly. Not a single incumbent city councilmember was rejected by voters, and Mayor Eric Garcetti was re-elected with an unheard-of 81 percent of the plebiscite. It's hard to recall a time when our city leaders were this popular.
Yet no one would deny that L.A. faces crises on multiple fronts. Foremost is the cost of housing, which has trudged upward all decade and has roiled the city. People are being evicted and are living in their cars and on the streets. Others are getting priced out of their apartments and moving to cheaper neighborhoods, setting off waves of gentrification. A new kind of neighborhood-based xenophobia has taken hold, fed by housing anxiety. People are forced to live farther and farther from where they work, exacerbating a traffic problem that already is the worst in the nation.
Housing is not the city's only problem. Los Angeles has had more fatal police shootings than any other city in the country for two years running — just one example of the growing divide between law enforcement and residents, particularly those in low-income areas. Many neighborhoods are desperately short on both park space and healthy food. Pension costs continue to hog the budget. Public schools are losing students, revenue and the faith of parents.
There are, of course, no easy solutions to these problems. Every new idea creates winners and losers, and brings more change to which certain factions will be ever more resistant.
But there are ideas that can make a sizable dent in these problems, and we'd like to take the opportunity to surface some of them. Some are expensive. Some are free. Many already have been proposed, in policy-wonk circles or in opinion pieces. We've restricted ourselves to ideas that have not been adopted by any legislative body or by the voters yet, and we've tried to offer a range of ideas tackling issues that matter to a broad swath of Angelenos, from housing to education to the environment to police reform.
Here are 20 ideas that could fix L.A.
1 & 2. Make it cheaper and easier to build housing.
During the first half of this decade, Los Angeles added more than 230,000 residents and 150,000 jobs. During that same time, it added just 40,000 housing units. What happened as a result is a simple matter of supply and demand: The average rent for an L.A. apartment has gone up $1,000 a month in the last six years, while the median home price has increased by nearly $200,000 since 2010.
Reforming two laws would go a long way toward increasing the housing supply in Los Angeles, which experts say could drive down housing costs — or at least halt their precipitous rise.
1. The first law in need of reform requires that every new building provide a minimum number of parking spaces, which, according to developer Mott Smith, can be prohibitively expensive. "Parking spots can cost $30,000 or $40,000 apiece," he says.
Only about a third of households in Los Angeles have more than one car, yet apartment developers usually must secure 2.5 parking spaces for every housing unit they construct.
Doing away with or at least easing the parking requirement would lead to more housing units being built, Smith and others says. As for people living in a building without parking, they could be forced to pay for it — or they could decide to go carless. Smith goes so far as to say that getting rid of parking minimums "is the No. 1 thing we could do to reduce greenhouse gas emissions."
2. The second law is the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA, which perhaps unwittingly opened the door to a parade of lawsuits challenging any large construction project, though of late it has mostly targeted new apartment buildings. Between 2012 and 2015, 14,000 housing units were challenged under CEQA. Many of them were never built; others were delayed for years.
Some projects were halted or pared down before any suit was filed. Just the ever-present threat of a CEQA lawsuit raises the cost of apartment construction, since developers are forced to hire high-priced attorneys and consultants to CEQA-proof their projects.
Jennifer Hernandez, a San Francisco–based land-use attorney and CEQA expert, suggests several ways to change the law: Eliminate the ability for plaintiffs to remain anonymous when suing under CEQA; force plaintiffs to show that they're trying to protect the environment (and not just protect their own economic interests or preserve the "character of a community"); and limit a judge to halting only projects that are actually harming the environment.
CEQA reform wouldn't just make housing cheaper to build, it also would make other big infrastructure projects cheaper — and faster — to build, including parks and light rail. Hernandez says that thanks to CEQA, "It literally takes 20 years to build a rail line, which is crazy!"
Tenants-rights activists from East L.A. and the Eastside marched to the County Board of Supervisors in May.
Photo by Jason McGahan
3 & 4. Reform rent-control laws
The housing crisis isn't just a supply problem — an accelerated construction blitz would do nothing to help people being displaced from their homes today. That's why housing advocates are calling on lawmakers to repeal and replace two state laws that limit local rent-control ordinances.
3. The Costa-Hawkins Act limits local rent-control ordinances to housing units built before 1995. More important, it bans any law that would limit a landlord's ability to raise the rent of a vacated apartment. Because L.A.'s rent-control law limits the amount a landlord can raise the rent for an existing tenant (in units built before October 1978, anyway), Costa-Hawkins gives landlords a huge incentive to get rid of old tenants.
"It essentially puts a bull's-eye target on every rent-control tenant in the city," says Larry Gross, who helped write L.A.'s rent-control law and who heads the Coalition for Economic Survival.
State Assemblyman Richard Bloom, who represents West Los Angeles, co-authored a bill to repeal Costa-Hawkins. But the proposal was delayed until next year.
4. Another bill Assemblyman Bloom is looking to change is the Ellis Act, which allows landlords to evict tenants under certain conditions. Since 2001, more than 22,000 rent-controlled units have been taken off the market by landlords using the Ellis Act. Every month, the city loses another 100 rent-controlled units.
"We're not going to address our affordable-housing crisis unless we preserve our existing affordable housing," Gross says. One change, he says, would be to limit landlords to one Ellis Act usage a year. Another would be to limit Ellis Act evictions to properties where the owner has owned the building for more than five years. "But really," he says, "the solution is to just get rid of the law."
Urban planners say the Wilshire Corridor is perfect for radical densification.
Courtesy The Now Institute
5. Build a million homes in the Wilshire Corridor.
The majority of environmentalists say the only way to make L.A. environmentally sustainable is to make it denser. That would reduce automobile trips, which are by far the single greatest source of greenhouse gas emissions. And the increase in supply would make housing across the city cheaper, some say.
To that end, renowned architect Thom Mayne has a bold idea. Instead of building taller buildings willy-nilly in different parts of the city, why not leave 99 percent of Los Angeles alone and focus densification efforts along one single stretch of roadway: the Wilshire Corridor.
Mayne and other urban planners say Wilshire is perfect for such radical densification. It runs from downtown to the beach, passes LACMA and UCLA, and is served by the Purple Line subway, which will run from downtown to Westwood by the middle of the next decade. Mayne's plan extends the Purple Line to the beach and allows for the construction of very tall apartment buildings along the corridor. It also would add a ton of parks. Think of it as a long, slender stretch of Manhattan, embedded within the L.A. sprawl.
"Wilshire can already be seen as a city within a city," Mayne says. "We're only intensifying that condition."
A Homes for Hope homeless pod can be easily assembled and transported by flatbed truck.
6. Build pods for the homeless.
Los Angeles has more people experiencing chronic homelessness than any other city in America. The city has taken some notable steps in the last year, such as passing a tax hike to pay for the construction of permanent supportive housing for the homeless. But those buildings will take several years to be constructed. There's much that could be done to improve the lives of people living on the streets right now.
One idea comes from a grant-funded USC architecture class tasked with designing emergency housing for people living on the streets: 92-square-foot prefabricated pods that can be easily assembled, customized, stacked and transported by a flatbed truck or forklift. The units, dubbed Homes for Hope, would cost no more than $25,000 apiece, including construction.
The class worked with city officials to pre-certify the pods, which should expedite the approval process.
"The goal isn't for this to be a forever home," says one of the class's teachers, Sofia Borges, a designer and director of Madworkshop. "The goal is for this to be a place for people to stabilize, catch their breath and move on."
7. For a homelessness plan, look to Long Beach.
The number of people experiencing homelessness in the city of Los Angeles surged 20 percent last year, to more than 34,000. The homeless population in Long Beach, meanwhile, has dropped 21 percent over the last two years. In the two years before that, it fell 18 percent.
Yes, Long Beach is a much smaller city. But its demographics aren't all that different from L.A.'s, and Long Beach officials say there's no reason their own solutions couldn't be scaled up. All it takes is money — and since L.A. County voters recently approved a tax hike to pay for homeless services, that shouldn't be too much of an impediment.
Like Los Angeles, Long Beach builds supportive housing for people without homes and offers rental subsidies to people living at the margins of homelessness. But it does some other things from which L.A. could learn a thing or two.
"Our outreach team can honestly say they know everyone out there," says Teresa Chandler, Long Beach's Human Services Bureau manager. "They know them by name. Because of the constant contacts they make, when people are finally ready to come in, they let them know they're ready. It's all about relationship building, and that's what our team does well."
The bureau has a database that lists every person living on the street, every time they've been contacted, every service they've been provided. Also, it has one building that houses 11 agencies and functions as a one-stop shop for all homeless services. A person can walk in and immediately speak with a case manager. There is a single phone line to call for anyone requesting help, and calls are returned within 24 hours.
8. Put a toll lane on every freeway.
The county of Los Angeles is midway through an ambitious plan to build a light-rail system. It's been slow going, but you can finally take the train from downtown to Santa Monica. Bus ridership, meanwhile, is shrinking at a faster rate than train ridership is growing. And traffic is worse than ever.
"I think the main goal should be to try to provide viable alternatives," says Ethan Elkind, the director of the Climate Change and Business Research Initiative at both UC Berkeley and UCLA law schools, as well as the author of Railtown: The Fight for the Los Angeles Metro Rail and the Future of the City.
Elkind says one idea is to expand the county's FasTrak program — paid toll lanes — to every freeway in the city (the lanes currently exist on the 110 south of downtown and the 10 east of downtown). This idea offers a number of positives: It gives paying customers an alternative to sitting in traffic, it gives people an incentive to carpool (since the price of riding in FasTrak lanes is cheaper with a passenger), and it provides a revenue stream to pay for better transit services. You could even let buses use the lanes. Imagine an express bus line going up and down the 405 freeway.
9. Make bike lanes safer (and therefore more popular).
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Los Angeles is in the process of building more bike lanes. But most of these lanes are little more than stripes of paint on the pavement. Surveys show that many would-be cyclists don't feel safe biking in these lanes in Los Angeles, between the cars whizzing by on the left and parked cars opening their doors on the right.
Joe Linton, a bicycle activist and editor of StreetsblogLA, says one cheap and easy thing that could increase bicycle ridership would be to protect bike lanes with cones embedded in the street. Los Angeles already has a few such lanes; one example can be seen on Van Nuys Boulevard in Pacoima.
Not every bike lane could be protected without reconfiguring the street in some way. But several streets do have the space.
"The city should be able to squeeze this in in at least a dozen places without removing car lanes," Linton says. "In theory, that can be done dirt-cheap without the city having to apply for grants. The city can just do it."
10. Ban truck deliveries during peak hours.
In the months leading up to the 1984 Summer Olympics, Angelenos were in a state of near panic. Would the influx of tourists clog the streets, bringing traffic to a standstill?
The traffic apocalypse never happened. That's because lawmakers passed a number of temporary measures in anticipation of it. Some streets were made one-way. People were urged to work from home. Perhaps most important, delivery trucks were encouraged to make their drop-offs at night. As a result, traffic fell rather dramatically in the summer of 1984.
In the wake of that apparent miracle, a number of politicians including then–Mayor Tom Bradley tried to make the nighttime delivery rules permanent. But the idea failed to gain traction and was largely forgotten — though not by former Riverside City Councilman Steve Adams, who flogs the proposal every chance he gets.
Forcing trucks to make their deliveries between 9 p.m. and 5 a.m. "would immediately eliminate 45 percent of prime drive-time traffic," Adams says. "It doubles our freeway capacity and does not cost a penny. It also cleans our air up." (Less congestion means fewer vehicles idling, which means lower emissions.)
Adams says truckers are fine with the proposal, since it would allow them to make more deliveries per shift. Store owners and employees, who'd have to add night shifts, are the biggest opponents to the idea. Says Adams: "It's a small price to pay for the quality of air, the quality of life that would be restored."
The proposed $850 million Hollywood Central Park
Courtesy Friends of Hollywood Central Park
11. Cap our freeways with parks.
Ever since they were first erected, freeways have acted as unnatural boundaries, dividing neighborhoods and filling the air with noise and noxious gas.
Also: Los Angeles is notoriously park-poor. The Trust for Public Land ranks L.A.'s park score at 74th out of 100 cities, outpaced by such derided locales as Reno, Bakersfield and Buffalo, New York.
Those two seemingly unrelated problems could be solved by one ingenious, expensive idea: the cap park.
Cap parks can be placed atop any freeway built inside a trench, which includes much of the 101 and 10 freeways and parts of the 110 in South L.A. Cap parks turn freeways into long tunnels with giant air filters that look like turbines, topped with a long park bisected by various streets. That makes cap parks triply environmentally friendly: They filter air pollution, they cool the atmosphere with trees, and they make neighborhoods more walkable.
A number of U.S. cities already have cap parks (including Seattle, Boston, Dallas, Phoenix and Sacramento), and there are a few existing proposals for building them here: Park 101 in downtown L.A. and Hollywood Central Park, a mile-long, 38-acre park with sports fields, an amphitheater, a community center and tons of open space.
Estimated cost of Hollywood Central Park: $850 million. Spare some change, Mr. Trump?
12. Exhume our creeks.
Little-known fact: Los Angeles has dozens of creeks. Many are buried underground, often encased inside pipes that carry stormwater out to the ocean, where it's lost forever. If you were looking to add a bit of nature to L.A. but didn't have $850 million lying around, you could do a lot worse than to start "daylighting" these creeks — getting them back above ground, where they belong, where they create habitat and cool the atmosphere.
Best of all, creeks replenish our aquifers, helping to make L.A. less dependent on outside sources of water.
"You would be bringing back habitat, you'd see an increase in birds and frogs," says Jessica Hall, a landscape architect. The unearthed creeks "would become a place for people to find peace of mind and recreation. And they would provide some cooling to the environment."
This is what a swimmable Silver Lake Reservoir might look like.
Courtesy Swim Silver Lake
13. Make Silver Lake Reservoir a park with a swimmable lake.
This idea first surfaced in 2014, as the city prepared to empty the 776 million–gallon Silver Lake Reservoir. Since it was decommissioned in 2008, the reservoir has been a useless if somewhat scenic body of water trapped behind a chain-link fence (in essence, a prison for water no one is using). Instead of merely refilling it, why not turn it into something better, something everyone could use: a park, perhaps, or a swimmable lake?
Some nearby residents went ballistic at the prospect of a lake attracting tourists, traffic, noise and disturbances. And they got their way. The reservoir has been refilled but is still off-limits, and the activists who first proposed the idea of a swimmable lake have scaled back their proposal, at least publicly. But others still like the idea of beach access for people who can't always get to the beach. More important, they say the body of water shouldn't exist simply as eye candy for well-to-do homeowners. It's public land and should be treated like public space.
The city should incentivize street carts that sell fruits and vegetables.
14. Legalize street vending.
Earlier this year, the L.A. City Council voted to decriminalize street vending. It was a good first step, but street vendors can still be fined and even have their food carts confiscated. Clare Fox, executive director of Los Angeles Food Policy Council, says the city should go further and legalize selling food on sidewalks.
"L.A. is the only large city that doesn't have a sidewalk food-vending program," Fox says. "It's a part of our urban life. But it's completely in the shadows."
She says the city should set up a permitting process for street vendors, as well as a healthy-food cart program to incentivize selling fresh produce in areas where residents don't have easy access to fruits and vegetables.
"That's a very simple thing the city can do to address the issue of food deserts," Fox says.
JOB CREATION AND PROTECTION
Illustration by Tim Gabor
15. Peg Hollywood tax credits to diversity.
Los Angeles is about 70 percent nonwhite. But the vast majority of "below-the-line" employees (the non-famous people) in Hollywood is white. While much attention has been given to the lack of onscreen diversity, and the lack of women and people of color directing major feature films, the lack of diversity among the Hollywood proletariat is a bigger problem that affects a greater number of people.
The state of California doles out hundreds of millions of dollars in tax credits to film and television productions in order to keep entertainment jobs from leaving the state.
As long as we're doing that, shouldn't we make sure they're hiring a diverse set of employees?
"Underrepresentation of women and people of color persists at all levels in the film and television industry," State Assemblyman Sebastian Ridley-Thomas says. "Tax credits must promote equality, not heighten inequity."
Tax credits are handed out based on a complex formula that ranks productions according to how many jobs they create, plus special "bonus points" for certain types of jobs. It would be relatively easy to add into this equation another set of bonus points for women and people of color employed by the production.
16. Give independent contractors more protections.
A recent study by the UC Berkeley Labor Center estimated that as many as 8.5 percent of workers in California rely on independent contracting gigs as their primary source of income. This type of employment is especially common among janitors, construction workers and truckers. The latter were recently highlighted in a USA Today exposé that described Port of Los Angeles truckers as "modern-day indentured servants."
"Many employers will convert full-time employees to contract employees as a way of not having benefits and not having to provide stable employment," says Kent Wong, director of UCLA's Labor Center. "Truckers are doing the same work truckers have always done. They're working for the same companies but at drastically reduced pay."
Wong adds: "Attaching a formal employer-employee relationship would help stabilize and enhance the chances of these workers to upgrade those wages and benefits."
There are, of course, workers in the so-called gig economy — Uber and Lyft drivers, for example — for whom such employee designations may not work. For those workers, California could adopt a third class of employee. Canada and Sweden have a class of worker called "dependent contractors." That designation would qualify gig workers for some protections (such as minimum wage) and would likely be welcomed by the tech industry, which is currently faced with myriad lawsuits questioning how to classify independent contractors.
GOVERNMENT AND POLICE REFORM
17. To reform pensions, ax the California Rule.
The city's ability to fund any new idea is severely hampered by its obligation to retired employees, whose pensions eat up more than 20 percent of operating revenue every year — a percentage that's expected to grow.
"Los Angeles is in danger of becoming a zombie city," says former San Jose mayor Chuck Reed, who has been leading an effort to reform the state's pension laws. "You just keep putting more and more resources into retirement benefits, and less money into serving its residents."
The city has signed contracts to address the pensions of newly hired workers but can't do anything about current employees' pensions (if it even wanted to, which is far from certain) because of the "California Rule," which limits local governments' ability to adjust the way their employees' retirement benefits and pensions increase over time. A number of recent court cases have challenged that interpretation of the rule, and the state Supreme Court is expected to make a decision this year that may clarify or even strike down the California Rule.
"If it is struck down, then you can go to the bargaining table with public employee unions and say, 'We have a problem, and everything is on the table,'?" Reed says. If not, then the state could pass a constitutional amendment allowing cities to change the way worker benefits get ratcheted up. This would by no means solve L.A.'s pension woes, but it would be a start.
18. Decentralize LAUSD.
Lots of parents go to great lengths to avoid schooling their children in Los Angeles Unified, the nation's second largest district. Opinions about what should be done to fix LAUSD are deeply polarized. School reformers argue for more charter schools and for making it easier to fire bad teachers. The teachers union argues for fewer charter schools and more money for the district.
But one thing that everyone agrees on, more or less, is the need to decentralize LAUSD — that is, to give schools more freedom to make their own decisions on whom to hire, how big their classes should be, how many administrators they need, and so on.
Decentralization has long been the goal of many superintendents and school board members. But whereas charter schools have spawned at an astonishing rate, the process of giving district-run schools the same autonomy has proceeded at a crawl.
At a certain point, however, this plan will get resistance from teachers, who currently enjoy job protections that would be in jeopardy if every school in the district were allowed to control whom it hires.
Illustration by Matthew Griffin
19. Make police officer discipline more transparent.
In the last two years, Los Angeles Police Department officers killed more people than any other police force in the country.
Under current state law, records of police discipline are confidential — which means that in most cases it's nearly impossible to find out whether an officer has been disciplined. That's true even if you're the alleged victim. Changing the law would give some much-needed transparency to the discipline process and would be the first step to reforming the system, according to ACLU attorney Melanie Ochoa.
Ochoa says the discipline process also lacks consistency. It's up to the chief of police to recommend what punishment, if any, an officer is given. Then it's up to the Board of Rights to accept that recommendation or make the punishment more lenient (the board doesn't have the power to make it more severe). Ochoa says one solution would be to limit the chief's discretion and create a "discipline matrix," a sort of formula that takes into account a number of circumstances and then determines a range of punishments.
"The public sees little discipline being levied, and from the officers' perspective, there's so much inconsistency," Ochoa says. "A disciplinary matrix would address both concerns."
20. Create a team of mental health first responders.
According to an LAPD report published last year, more than a third of people shot by police in 2015 had documented signs of mental illness. Some advocates say police officers aren't the best people to be dealing with the mentally ill — that when someone calls 911 to report a person clearly suffering from mental illness, dispatch shouldn't send someone carrying a gun, at least in instances where no violence is being reported.
"LAPD shouldn't be responding to a mental health crisis," says Melina Abdullah, a Cal State L.A. professor and Black Lives Matter organizer. "Mental health interventionists should be."
These same mental health interventionists also could being doing outreach work for the homeless, trying to get them off the streets and into supportive services.
It's an example of how many of these problems are connected — policing affects mental health, mental health affects homelessness, homelessness affects housing, housing affects transportation, transportation affects public space, and public space affects mental health. It's enough to make you think the solutions to the city's problems are trapped in a morass of fatigue and red tape.
But problems do get solved. Los Angeles was once shrouded by a thick cloud of smog 200 days of the year. The 1970 Clean Air Act began to change that. In 1993, there were more than 1,000 murders in the city of L.A. In 2016, there were fewer than 300. In the 1980s, the only way to get around the city was by car or bus. Now you can ride the Expo Line from downtown to the sandy beaches of Santa Monica.
Problems can be solved. But only when we tackle them.
Correction: A previous version of this article stated the idea of a swimmable Silver Lake was first proposed by the group Silver Lake Forward. In fact, it was proposed by Swim Silver Lake, some members of which went on to form Silver Lake Forward.
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