L.A. Renters Desperately Need New Digs. The Mayor Says He's on It

Mayor Eric Garcetti with future heads of household
Mayor Eric Garcetti with future heads of household

L.A.'s housing crisis is epic. A UCLA report a few years back said we had the least affordable rents in the nation when adjusting for our sad median income of about $28,000 a year. Meanwhile, our apartment vacancy rate is a low 3 percent. And some reports have the city's median one-bedroom rent at an impossible $2,000.

For a while, City Hall seemed to be broadcasting the sound of crickets. But now, Mayor Eric Garcetti says he's not only on the case, he's winning the battle.

This week the mayor's office declared that "Los Angeles is well on track toward meeting Mayor Eric Garcetti’s goal of building 100,000 new units of housing by 2021." A new progress report says that since Garcetti took office on July 1, 2013, the city has permitted 40,805 new housing units, which comes out to about 13,601 each year.

"Angelenos everywhere are feeling the pinch of a tight housing market — that’s why I committed to getting more housing built across our city as quickly as possible," Garcetti said. "We are making strong progress, but the job is far from finished. We have to continue to think creatively, and use every available tool to ease the pressure on our housing market. We cannot rest until all Angelenos have access to homes they can afford to rent or own."

UCLA professor of urban planning Paul Ong said he worried that, while the numbers might look impressive, the details are important to a city where a majority of apartment dwellers are "rent-burdened" — a term that describes people who pay way too much to keep roofs over their heads.

"What kinds of units are being developed?" he asked.

Given that the city is prohibited by court precedent from imposing a blanket requirement that developers include low-income units in projects (officials can make case-by-case deals when builders ask for special loopholes), the supply and demand of construction heavily favors luxury housing. But experts say the greatest need is on the lower end of the rent spectrum.

Ong subscribes to the theory that adding housing units — any housing units — to such a thirsty market can slow rent increases and homelessness. The idea is that higher-end renters and buyers can fill in new homes, and they won't compete with lower-income folks for existing housing.

"Anytime you push up the supply it makes it easier and relieves some of the pressure on the low end," Ong said. "But it's good to also have a strategy to make sure the new supply targets low-income households, too. I'm glad there's progress being made. We're going in the right direction."

USC demographer and urban planning professor Dowell Myers said he agrees that Garcetti has advanced the ball, but he also warned that the city is barely keeping up with housing demand at this rate. Building 13,601 units per year in the city "represents only a minimum target, not the maximum," he said.

Myers added that while Los Angeles City Hall is doing its part, the housing issue is a regional one. Los Angeles County has 88 cities, and they need to pitch in, too.

"L.A. County as a whole has a deficit of 353,000 units," Myers said, citing his own calculations as of 2014, the last year for which he has complete data. "Other locales have to match the mayor's plan at least 2-to-1. L.A. city cannot solve the housing crisis by itself, but Mayor Garcetti is to be commended for his efforts."

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