March of the Phony Progressives

Who's on first, when the right pretends to be left?

Among the smarter reactions in the comments section of my cover story, “Bitter Homes and Gardens” (February 29-March 7) was the complaint that I dismantled the unintended consequences in the city's plans for a more densely populated “transit-oriented” future without providing some alternative options. It's a good point, though thorny because the problems confronting the city are so beyond the purview of just the Planning Department, the Housing Department, the Community Redevelopment Agency or the Metropolitan Transit Authority. The knee-jerk reaction of City Hall's density wolf pack is to ridicule anybody remotely critical of their plans as ostriches who, when not playing golf with George W. and Dick Cheney, are sticking their heads in the sand. Double-speak doubles back on itself when the “progressive” friends of City Hall, who sound like lobbyists for the construction industry, label residents out to protect the last vestiges of the city's green space, or their own neighborhoods, as neo-cons.

All of these city departments are, in their varied ways, working to stem the challenges of a demographic reality that's overwhelming them: some two million infants to be born in the County within the next 20 years, mostly to poor families, and subject to the whims of global economics that are crashing Los Angeles straight into the Third World.

In order to confront the prospect of all these new, home-grown residents, the MTA struggles in a budget crisis, with too little help from the State or the Feds, to provide a viable alternative to our car culture that the Planning Department is strategically constraining through parking reduction ordinances. These are laws aimed to get more people onto the mass transit that the MTA can't properly afford to expand, and into the shops and homes that are being built so feverishly near train stations and bus stops. (These laws are not original ideas, by the way. They've been tried out, with mixed results depending on the quality of the public transit that already exists, in Europe and Latin America.)

For its part, the Community Redevelopment Agency has been trying to rescue some money-losing skid-row hotels as potential housing for the destitute, before these buildings, like almost everything else downtown, are converted into luxury lofts.

And the Planning Department offers “density bonus incentives” across the city, allowing developers to blow past existing zoning restrictions in order to build larger buildings, on the condition that these developers provide a small percentage of below-market-rate housing. The ironic result: the net removal of “affordable” housing; the net gain of more luxury apartments – the only kind, it seems, that most developers say they can afford to speculate on. After six years of “density bonus incentives” in Mexico City, the primary beneficiaries have been developers and real estate speculators, while affordable housing remains a mirage in the downtown areas where the incentives were in force.

This crisis of L.A.'s growing housing density cannot be separated from the global crisis of gentrification.

The first fallacy of the phony progressives who link more crowded living conditions to all things bright and beautiful is that with some benevolent guidance, the market will close the gaping chasm between the 16,000 new luxury apartments the city is trying to accommodate each year and the two million children who will be born into the county by 2025 to families earning a meager $25,000 per year, most of whom will be in no position to afford the housing ostensibly being built just for them. And who's got their heads in the sand?

Deputy Mayor Helmi Hisserich snaps that the housing crisis and the 50,000-70,000

people currently living in converted garages and substandard lodgings are the direct results of antiquated slow growth policies.

“Anti-Growth policies in the 1980s have resulted in a severe housing crisis,” Hisserich told the Weekly. But there is no housing crisis. There's an affordable housing crisis, which is a different matter entirely.

Hisserich's philosophy is in line with the arguments of senior city planner Jane Blumenfeld and her followers: If you build enough housing, prices will drop — problem solved.

Yet the nationwide housing construction boom of 2002 to 2006 did nothing to bring down mortgages or rentals in any American city, because real estate prices were kept artificially high by banking manipulations such as predatory mortgage schemes. Even in the mortgage meltdown, though L.A. home prices have slipped incrementally, rentals continue to rise. The so called free market has never been free of outside interference, from regulation to price fixing, at least not since about 1781 – and probably not even then.

Hisserich and Blumenfeld's belief in the ebbs and floes of supply and demand are as naïve as the faith of the neo-cons in the deregulated market to create a stronger economy and therefore a stronger society. The deregulated market has done crap for affordable housing, with or without incentives or mandates for it, just as the deregulated market has done crap for public health, for public education, for public anything that ultimately feeds back into the economic engine. With the constant drone of deregulation starting in 1980, we've become the world's largest debtor nation with a currency slipping into the sunset against other world currencies, and with a divide between the rich and the poor not seen since the Great Depression.

University of California economist Emmanuel Saez says that every year, the top 1 percent of American families have gained 10 percent of wealth, while the remaining 99 percent have seen a jump of only 1.2 percent per year. Even more telling, 91 percent of that huge lower strata saw no income gains at all in an era of soaring energy and home costs.

Yet our city's Planning Department believes that the best way to address the lack of affordable housing – the greatest single threat to the quality of life in our city — is to provide incentives that further deregulate the same construction industry that created such havoc in so many L.A. neighborhoods 20 years ago, and contributed to their gentrification. This isn't progressive, it's Reaganomics. or voodoo economics, as one former Republican President once called it.

True, the mayor is working on city-sponsored mortgage financing schemes for the poor, as well as some set-aside below market-rate units in at least some of these luxury towers, but his policies, and those of the CRA, are overwhelmed by the scale of the problem. The house is on fire and they're trying to fix a leak under the sink.

Any solutions must first get around City Hall's lie that not many neighborhoods are subject to greater density, when more than 75 per cent of the city could face being “upzoned” for more density. Growth in targeted areas, and around train stations in particular, is actually a pretty good idea, providing that the real life impact doesn't aggravate gentrification and gridlock, and that the city really has the infrastructure and services to handle it. If the city is going to encourage reduced parking, where are the funds for improving mass transit coming from?

Such questions need to be posed by neighborhood councils and homeowners' associations (as they've finally started to be) in expressions of what they want for the areas they live in, rather than accepting on face value the “eat your spinach, it'll help you grow” mandates of the Planning Department.

The larger problem isn't going to be solved until somebody addresses today the needs of the hundreds of thousands of children who haven't yet been born. That's why, at this point, the city desperately needs a more holistic vision than the mayor's idea of building edifices on the faith that retailers and apartment renters will somehow magically occupy them in some imagined future. That's not planning, that's real estate speculation. The only way out of this is huge improvements in public education.

We could be doomed to a Blade Runner future if we can't produce a literate, technically proficient and educated new generation of Angelenos who can someday draw salaries from inside those buildings. Despite over-reach and hubris, Mayor Villaraigosa's now failed, early obsession with improving the L.A. Unified School District followed the right instinct.

A vision larger than the one coming out of City Hall and Sacramento would mandate funds be set aside not just for mortgage subsidies and affordable housing – a theme and variation on welfare – but on an investment plan, a New Deal for the 21st century to grow a technically proficient generation that companies from around the world would be eager to employ, and would therefore be motivated to occupy the buildings being erected across Los Angeles. Then, our children yet to be born might be able to afford some of the 16,000 units per year we've been building, rather than depend on handouts from the city and the county.

It's rotten business policy to cut funding for schools and universities in an economic downturn, as our governor is now doing. A crappy economy is the best reason to invest in public education, and it's hard to believe that the wealthiest 1 per cent of our population can't afford to help with such an investment. In the early '60s, when money was tight, Governor Edmund Brown invested millions of dollars in California's new state university system, so that anybody could afford a higher education. It's no coincidence that California's golden age followed 10 years later, when that university system was fueling the state's economic engine. Since 1980, deregulation has broken that engine, and it's time for a repair.

It's up to us to determine whether we want Los Angeles to remain part of the New World, or to keep slipping into the Third one.

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