A 35-year-old voter-approved ban on low-income housing taller than two stories will be repealed if Proposition B is approved next week. While city officials insist the proposed changes will not increase density in any way, intense last-minute scrutiny of the ballot measure, which also ends a citywide limit of 52,500 low-rent units, has critics warning of unintended consequences.
“I fear that passage of Prop. B will move low-income housing from the smaller units we have now to these big boxes, where they just shove people in and it’s out of character with the surrounding neighborhood,” says James O’Sullivan, president of the Miracle Mile Residential Association. “Once you open the door like this, the developers are going to walk through with these big-box projects. Then what will the city do?”
O’Sullivan wonders why such a significant policy change has been given below-the-radar treatment by the City Council. In fact, nowhere in the ballot language does the council admit it is repealing limits that have been in place for a generation.
“I pay pretty close attention to what’s going on in the city, and I only heard about these changes within the last month or so,” O’Sullivan says. “It seemed clear to me that people had voted in the past for a specific type of housing, smaller housing fitting into a one- or two-story type of model. Why should we change that now?”
But City Council President Eric Garcetti insists that fears of Prop. B leading to low-income, high-density five-story or even 10-story towers are wildly exaggerated.
“That’s not going to happen,” Garcetti tells L.A. Weekly. “This doesn’t change the land-use laws or local zoning that prevents those types of projects.”
But L.A. is famed for ignoring local zoning by continually granting variances and exceptions to developers. Height limits for low-income housing were approved by voters to ensure that no city council, mayor or zoning official could allow high-rise housing for the poor, a widely decried approach that became a social disaster in the 1960s.
Now, critics say, developers are being given a new weapon, Prop. B, to argue for much larger projects than local zoning allows. In fact, city officials quietly concede that the density hawks at City Hall have already allowed millions of dollars to be illegally funneled into oversized projects — and got caught by state officials last year.
Nowhere does the ballot language mention that Prop. B , also called Measure B, wipes out these long-standing height and size restrictions. Its passage November 4 appears likely, since it does not ask taxpayers for money and claims to be a required step in order to secure state housing funds.
Garcetti concedes that Prop. B would remove limits approved by voters in 1980 but insists it will not be used to increase city density.
“This is simply an administrative correction to bring us into line with state mandates,” Garcetti says. “If local zoning and height restrictions allowed a multistory building to be built in a particular area before, that does not change. And if it was not allowed before this, that doesn’t change either.”
Similarly, City Council members and their legislative support staff frame Prop. B as a simple “administrative” housekeeping move designed to bring the city in line with state mandates for funding low-income housing. In fact, last fall, after the state Housing and Community Development Department caught the Villaraigosa administration ignoring the Los Angeles voter-approved law by providing state money to developers of oversized low-income housing, city officials chose to comply with the law — by quietly maneuvering voters on November 4 to wipe out the size and height limits.
First District Councilman Ed Reyes says, “We need to access that state money. We can’t fix this without state money, and this will help us get that money.”
Garcetti echoes Reyes, saying, “Our city charter specifically says we have to be in compliance with state rules on this.”
But state officials tell the Weekly they did not ask L.A. officials to wipe out height or size limits in order to qualify for the funds from the Housing and Emergency Shelter Trust Fund Act of 2006. “The wording” of the city’s low-income-housing size limits, according to Jennifer Sweeney, spokeswoman for the state Department of Housing and Community Development, “is up to each city.”
In fact, the ballot language omitting all the housing size caps was dreamed up entirely inside City Hall, where developers’ lobbyists roam the halls, and construction unions give major contributions to City Council races.
And that has some critics seeing Proposition B in a darker light.
They say it is a seemingly benign, no-cost change that ends 35 years of rules against concentrating the poor, does not encourage senior housing and was designed as a tool to help “smart growth” advocates increase density in areas near bus and transit lines, like Silver Lake, Encino and Mar Vista.
The City Council approved the measure’s wording early last July, but it’s been so far below the radar that it only recently came to public attention as watchdogs began to assess the consequences of ending 35 years of city policy with a single vote.
“I don’t understand why this wasn’t called back for a public hearing after the council approved it for a ballot measure,” O’Sullivan says. “It just seems like there was no public debate at all on this until about a month ago.”
Garcetti denies he took a low-profile approach in order to minimize public discussion.
“There were five opportunities for public discussion of Prop. B,” he says. “Three in [City Council] committee and two in front of the [full] City Council. The public had several bites at that apple. There’s no conspiracy of silence here.” He insists that it is rare to hold a public hearing on a single ballot issue, regardless of its gravity.
Garcetti passes the buck to some degree, telling the Weekly that the ballot language — silent on the fact that voters would be repealing height and size limits — was recommended by unnamed city staffers. “It came from the city’s administrative staff,” he says. “Every single time we asked about it, this was their recommendation.”
Because this major wording change went unnoticed by the media and the public, O’Sullivan said, he and other critics had no warning that such significant changes were coming.
The July media coverage of the seemingly dull issue by the Daily News (most media missed it, including the Weekly) was ambiguous, with a headline suggesting that the city was pursuing new “limits,” when, in fact, Prop. B asks for a repeal of limits, yet doesn’t say so.
In early July, the day after the council approved Prop. B as a routine agenda item, the Daily News headline read simply: “Housing Limits Go on Los Angeles Ballot.” The Daily News got it wrong again on October 29, accepting the false spin that state housing officials ordered the end to Los Angeles' low-income housing size and height limits.
Jose Aguilar, a community advocate from Boyle Heights, thinks the money will be diverted to other projects. “It’s another bait and switch from the City Council,” he said. “The money could go to things like the Grand Avenue project.”
And 80-year-old Juanita Dellomes, speaking for Chapter 3686 of the AARP, says her group opposes Prop B. “They’re going to use it to displace seniors,” she says. “And a lot of those seniors are going to be women.”
Garcetti says they have it wrong. He guaranteed that all state money coming from passage of Prop. B would go to low-income and senior housing.
He insists that Prop. B’s passage would not be used to divert 2006 Affordable Housing Trust Fund money to enhance the Grand Avenue luxury-hotel project, Figueroa Corridor street-scaping upgrade or other controversial nonhousing projects.
Garcetti insists that, “By law, every dollar we get has to go to affordable housing.” And he adds, repeatedly, “No increase in density, no cost to the taxpayers.”
Sin of Omission
2008: Proposition B quietly removes citywide height and size limits on low-income housing. But in the ballot language, the L.A. City Council omits all indications that a yes vote wipes out existing limits on poverty housing.
1980: Voters approve a new low-income housing height limit of two stories, and a new limit of 30 low-income units per project, to avoid clustering the poor, passing Proposition J and Proposition K.
1977: Voters approve a citywide limit of 5 units of low-inc ome housing per project to avoid clustering the poor, passing Proposition A and Proposition B.
Source: L.A. City Council, File 08-1503