Should We Build More Housing in L.A.?

Does L.A. need more housing? That's essentially the question you'll be answering if you weigh in at the polls in Los Angeles on Nov. 8. It sounds like a pretty simple proposition. With arguably the worst housing crisis in America, fueled in part by a shortage of units, why wouldn't we approve a ballot measure that opens the door to more units?

Two years ago Mayor Eric Garcetti said Los Angeles needs to add 100,000 units to our housing stock just to keep up with demand. USC demographer Dowell Myers told us recently that while the city grew by about 50,000 people last year, it added only about 12,000 new housing units. And, according to one analysis, the median monthly rent on a one-bedroom apartment in the market is $2,000, well north of what a median-income individual ($28,555) here can afford.

You get the picture.

With that in mind, the Build Better L.A. initiative is headed for your ballot. The L.A. City Council yesterday voted 13-1 to put it there. Councilman David Ryu, who represents parts of Hollywood, the Hollywood Hills, Koreatown, Los Feliz and Sherman Oaks, registered the sole no vote. His rep said the councilman was concerned with "voter fatigue" because so many choices, including president, would face folks at the polls.

Ryu believes Build Better L.A. would be better suited to the March 2017 ballot, which, interestingly, will likely feature its nemesis, the anti-development Neighborhood Integrity Initiative.

Build Better L.A., officially known as Affordable Housing and Labor Standards for General Plan Amendments and Zoning Changes, would create loopholes for developers who want to build taller, more dense projects than would normally be allowed under zoning rules and the General Plan.

In exchange for getting the green light, developers would have to set aside a portion of their projects for lower-income tenants. The initiative also would require that contractors and construction workers be licensed and that a portion of them be local residents.

"What Build Better L.A. does is it lets Angelenos build homes that Angelenos can actually afford," says measure organizer Rusty Hicks, executive secretary-treasurer of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor. "It addresses a housing crisis in this city by ensuring that affordable homes are part of future projects. It ensures that jobs are given to local residents who are trained and equipped to construct those projects."

Opponents argue that Build Better L.A. is a ruse to create jobs for union workers while allowing developers to have the run of City Hall.

It will "encourage several hundred new skyscrapers and luxury towers in Los Angeles under the guise of adding affordable housing," the Coalition to Preserve L.A., the group behind the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative, said in a statement.

"They are paving over L.A., and this is a blank check to ramp up that process," says Jill Stewart, Coalition to Preserve L.A. campaign director (full disclosure: Stewart was the managing editor at L.A. Weekly before taking on her role at the coalition). "It will enrich developers by letting them build much bigger luxury buildings and drive up rental prices and displace thousands of people. It will never resolve the city’s affordable housing crisis."

In a profile of the driving force behind the measure, Michael Weinstein of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, L.A. Weekly staffer Hillel Aron described the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative this way:

The initiative would place a two-year moratorium on any big development project that requires an exemption from the area's height requirements — i.e., most tall buildings — making an exception only for buildings that offer 100 percent affordable housing. It also would force the city to update its General Plan and all 35 community plans, and then update them every five years. Going forward, it would force the city to take its General Plan literally — no amendments for individual projects.

Joel Kotkin, author of The New Geography and a widely recognized expert on urban development, says the battle between Neighborhood Integrity and Build Better L.A. is like a choice between "Mayberry and Manhattan."

He thinks people generally prefer a Los Angeles composed of single-family homes. However, he acknowledged the city might be past the point of no return when it comes to vertical density.

"The question is whether you can preserve single-family neighborhoods," Kotkin says. "It's going to become harder and harder."

So what happens if both measures pass?

Both sides seem to agree that the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative would undo the heart of Build Better L.A.

"If BBLA passes in November, and then voters approve the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative in March, our measure would negate the plan for a new bureaucracy of spot-zoning wheeling and dealing by the City Council," Stewart says.


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