More bad news. There were early reports that members of the media were held by the LAPD during the protests over the removal of the Echo Park Lake homeless encampment. It’s now clear that at least four reporters and an unknown number of legal observers were detained by the LAPD. Two reporters were actually taken to jail before being released. The journalists who were detained identified themselves as members of the press when they were taken into custody. Actually, it seems like that’s the reason they were taken into custody. The LA Times offered this account by reporter James Queally….
Eventually the two officers detaining him called over a sergeant, and Queally again said that he was a working reporter. The sergeant told him that it didn’t matter, Queally said.
“He was less than interested with the fact that I was press,” Queally said. “I said, ‘Are you sure you want to do this? We really doing this?’ And he said, ‘Yes, this is the policy tonight.’”
So the sergeant knew that Queally was a reporter, and stated that his detention was in line with the “policy” the LAPD was following that night. It would be really interesting to know who established this “policy”. Was it LAPD Chief Michel Moore? Was it Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell, in whose district the police were operating? Was it Mayor Eric Garcetti? The LAPD’s actions were clearly restricting free speech, preventing the press from doing their job. We need to know who formulated this policy, which is clearly an effort to suppress the media.
It is interesting that two Councilmembers, Kevin De Leon and Mike Bonin, both criticized the LAPD’s detention of journalists. Nithya Raman posted a statement on Twitter decrying the use of force in ejecting the Echo Park homeless community, but didn’t mention the treatment of the press. I couldn’t find any other comments by Councilmembers on this issue.
A link to Saturday’s LA Times’ story is below. Apparently the National Lawyers Guild and the ACLU have both come out with strong statements.
We shouldn’t let this slide. This week’s meeting of the LA Police Commission has been cancelled, but this needs to come up at the next meeting. When journalists who are clearly identified as journalists are detained by law enforcement without having committed a crime, it means the government is trying to shut the media down.
The conflict over the homeless encampment at Echo Park Lake seems to be over. For now. After months of growing tension, things came to a head this week when the City of LA announced that it planned to close the park and that all persons living on the premises had to leave. Protests began on Wednesday morning. Later that day city workers showed up and began erecting a fence, while the LAPD announced that those remaining inside the park would be cited. Representatives of the LA Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) offered temporary housing for those who wanted it, and while there were many takers, some declined.
After a couple of chaotic days, the LAPD announced on Thursday night that anyone remaining in the park would be subject to arrest. Apparently by Friday the park was closed and all those who had been living there were gone.
Of course, this is just the latest episode in the ongoing story of housing and homelessness in LA. Nothing has been resolved, and really there’s no reason to think anything will be resolved any time in the near future. The forces that are driving LA’s homeless epidemic are still at work, and the LA City Council is doing nothing meaningful to change the situation. A renter relief program and a temporary eviction moratorium are just band aids on a gaping wound. As long as the City Council continues to prioritize the wishes of real estate investors over the needs of LA’s renters, things will just keep getting worse.
As an LA Times editorial pointed out earlier this week, while LAHSA’s stats show that in 2019 an average of 207 homeless people were housed each day, the daily average of people who become newly homeless was 227. There are a lot of different factors that lead to people living on the street, but the biggest factor is that they can’t afford housing.
While Mayor Eric Garcetti and the City Council constantly tell us that their number one priority is providing housing for the people of LA, the facts tell us something completely different. According to the LA Department of City Planning’s Housing Dashboard, from July 2013 through December 2020 the City approved 162,706 new units. Of those units, 87% were for Above Moderate Income households. The remaining 13% is the total for Moderate Income, Low Income and Very Low Income households COMBINED. During this period, the City of LA has produced more than double the number of Above Moderate Income units required by the State’s Regional Housing Needs Assessment (RHNA). It has not come anywhere near meeting the goals for the other three RHNA categories.
And let’s take this further. The Housing Dashboard says that the total number of affordable units approved during this period was 20,591. But according to the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project (which gets its data from the City of LA), during roughly this same period, January 2014 through December 2020, 9,444 rent-stabilized (RSO) units were removed from the market under the Ellis Act. This leaves us with a net gain of 11,147 units accessible to Moderate and Low Income households.
Right about now some of you may be saying, “Well, if we just ramp up allowable density the free market will solve our housing problem for us. We need to upzone LA.” My response is, take a look at New York City. New York City has been on an upzoning binge for the past decade. What have they got to show for it? A bunch of super-tall skyscrapers that have created a massive glut on the luxury housing market, while the Coalition for the Homeless reports that in 2020 there were 122,926 different homeless men, women, and children who slept in New York City’s shelters.
Getting back to Echo Park Lake, about the only positive thing I can say is that there was some really good reporting by the local press. I was impressed by Elizabeth Chou’s work for the Daily News, and I’d like to link to the story, but it’s restricted by a paywall. LAist also did a solid job. Actually, one of the best commentaries on this mess was in an e-mail I got from LAist, their Morning Brief written by Jessica P. Ogilvie. I couldn’t find it on their web site, so I’ll quote an excerpt….
The Echo Park tent community has found itself at the center of several heated debates over how to handle the city’s dire housing crisis. In January of 2020, a planned sweep of the encampment, which can lead to residents losing their belongings and being left with no place to go, was met by protesters who blocked city vehicles and stood near tents.
The following month, protesters once again joined residents to defend their right to be there.
Many who oppose officials’ plan to clear the area say that it’s a public relations maneuver, and blame the area’s city council representative, Mitch O’Farrell, for not doing more to ensure the safety of those living in the encampment.
Recently, officials and advocates have announced plans to ease the plight of L.A.’s unhoused residents by building community land trusts, making it easier to construct granny flats, and establishing communities of tiny homes.
But these efforts, while no doubt well-intentioned, are only the latest in an exhausting series of projects to get the problem under control. Some ideas have also included government-funded campsites, vacant hotel rooms, empty parking lots, neighborhood shelters, new legislation, emergency shelters, RV parks, prevention efforts, and more.
Mitch O’Farrell claims he cares about the homeless and wants everybody to have secure housing. But this is the same man who recently voted to approve the hotel project at 1719 Whitley which involves the demolition of 40 rent-stabilized units. And all the rest of his fellow Councilmembers, with the exception of David Ryu, joined him in voting to greenlight the project.
That should give you an idea of how much the LA City Council really cares about solving our housing problems.
Anybody who pays attention to the news knows that there’s a heated, ongoing debate in LA, and across California, about how to solve our housing problems. There are lots of different proposals floating around, but the message we hear most often from elected officials and the development community is that we have to upzone to allow a whole lot more density. The argument goes that it’s just a matter of supply and demand. If we upzone our cities and upzone our suburbs, that will unleash the power of the free market and we’ll have plenty of cheap housing for everybody
One idea that’s especially hot right now is the proposal to upzone areas dominated by single-family homes (SFH). Some State legislators have embraced this approach, resulting in bills like SB 1120. The City of LA hasn’t yet made a move to upzone SFH areas, but the concept is popular among local progressives who believe we just need to build more housing. Heated debates have erupted over the topic on social media. At a recent hearing on the Hollywood Community Plan Update (HCPU) some members of the public expressed enthusiastic support for ending SFH zoning.
It’s easy to see why the idea is popular. Young people, especially young people of color, are finding it difficult or impossible to afford housing these days. Whether you’re renting or buying, prices are sky-high. If you accept the argument that just creating more supply will drive prices down, it must seem insane to maintain zoning that only allows single-family homes. The argument is that older, affluent homeowners are selfishly defending their own turf, shutting out young people who struggle to make ends meet. Proponents of upzoning SFH areas also point to the history of racism that used tools like zoning to promote segregation.
Taking the last point first, there’s no question that racism has been a huge factor in housing policy in LA (and across the nation). There’s a well-documented history of real estate interests working with city officials to favor whites over people of color. It’s naive to think that racism doesn’t still play a part in the housing market today. Beyond that, it’s completely understandable that young people who can barely afford to pay the rent would look at the suburbs and ask why some people own single-family homes when they’re just a step or two away from homelessness. And there’s another reason the idea of upzoning SFH areas is attractive: It’s simple. If just building more homes will allow everyone to have housing, how could anyone argue against it?
And that’s the problem. The way case is being stated is too simplistic. It assumes that all we have is a problem of supply and demand. But the 21st century housing market is far from simple. There are many reasons why housing is so inaccessible for so many people. Zoning is a factor, but it’s just one aspect of the problem. The biggest factor, one that’s often ignored in heated housing debates, is that real estate has become a global industry powered by trillions of dollars in investor cash. In The Vacancy Report (SAJE/ACCE/UCLA Law, 2020) researchers point out that in recent decades housing has rapidly become financialized. Private equity and corporate entities have come to dominate the housing market, and they’re only interested in getting the highest rate of return as quickly as possible.
So if we’re talking about upzoning, it’s important to say up front that the value of urban and suburban land is determined by how much you can build on it. As soon as you upzone a parcel, its value increases. The more you can build, the more it’s worth. If you take a parcel that’s zoned for one single-family home and upzone it to allow four, eight or more units, you’re actually making the land much more valuable and therefore much more costly. The cost of land in LA is already extremely high, and increasing allowed density will drive the cost even higher.
If the key issue is the lack of affordable housing, upzoning by itself does nothing to solve the problem. As Patrick Condon points out in his book Sick City, when a city just increases allowable density, it’s really increasing the cost of the land, and that additional cost is ultimately paid by the household that’s renting or buying. The benefit goes to the landowner, not the renter or buyer. For a solution, Condon holds up Cambridge, Massachusetts, where city officials adopted an ordinance that allows increased density but only for the construction of permanently affordable units.
This is a radical solution, and one that probably has no chance of being adopted in a city like LA. The first people to object would be real estate investors, who would argue that they can’t possibly make a profit by building affordable units. Exactly. Because the Cambridge ordinance includes strict affordability requirements, it increases allowable density without jacking up the value of the land. This opens the door to not-for-profit affordable housing developers who can build what we most need: housing accessible to middle-income and low-income people. California legislators claim that bills like SB 1120 will help solve our housing problem just because they increase density, but without an affordability requirement, we might as well just be stuffing cash in the pockets of real estate investors.
And now back to the Hollywood Community Plan Update. The HCPU Community Plan Implementation Overlay (CPIO) is also based on the idea that increasing density will solve all our housing problems. It offers generous incentives for residential projects in Central Hollywood that include some affordable housing. Projects that offer between 10% and 23% affordable can receive a 100% density bonus, along with other incentives like increased floor area ratio (FAR) and reduced setbacks.
This is actually a rehash of the Transit Oriented Community (TOC) Incentives, a program that’s already in place. The City boasts about the affordable housing created by the TOC program, but what they don’t mention is that many TOC projects involve the demolition of existing rent-stabilized (RSO) units. The City does require replacement units to be built, but it allows the developer to count replacement units toward the affordable total. So a project recently approved at 4629 W. Maubert includes 17 new affordable units, but it also involves the demolition of 14 RSO units, meaning we have a net gain of 3 units accessible to low-income households. The TOC approved for 1920 N. Whitley includes 3 affordable units, but replaces 3 RSO units. No gain there. At 1341 N. Hobart the approved project offers 7 affordable units, but will erase 9 RSO units, meaning a net loss of 2. These projects will produce dozens of new high-end units, but there’s no shortage of those. What we really need is housing accessible to low-income tenants.
Since the vast majority of housing in Central Hollywood consists of RSO apartments, the hefty incentives offered by the HCPU are basically putting a target on the backs of renters who live in the area. For instance, a developer buys a property containing a rent-stabilized four-plex where existing zoning would allow 20 units. Taking advantage of the HCPU density bonus, they propose a new building with 40 units, including four extremely low income units to satisfy the affordable requirement. The developer gets a huge profit as a result of doubling the allowed density. The RSO tenants get an eviction notice. And there’s no net gain in low-cost housing. In other words, by jacking up density in Central Hollywood the HCPU incentivizes displacement. And it gets even better for developers. Under the Plan’s CPIO, City Planning can approve the project without holding a single hearing. There’s no requirement for community engagement, and no possibility of appeal. If the project meets the CPIO’s requirements, it’s a done deal.
If just increasing density made housing more affordable, Manhattan would be one of the cheapest places on earth to live. It’s not. It’s one of the most expensive. New York City has been on a building binge over the past decade, with massive upzoning leading to a swarm of super-tall skyscrapers. What’s the result? A glut of units at the high-end of the market, while middle-income and low-income households are still struggling to keep a roof over their heads, in spite of inclusionary zoning requirements that were supposed to deliver affordable housing.
Increasing density can bring benefits, but only when coupled with careful planning. Sweeping proposals to upzone large swaths of urban or suburban land will do nothing to increase affordability. They’ll just funnel more money into the bank accounts of real estate investors. And upzoning urban land can be especially dangerous. Without strong protections for tenants (which the HCPU does not have) density bonus measures will likely lead to even more displacement.
There are no simple answers. Upzoning by itself will not solve anything.