Rollout of Service Changes Shows Why Metro Ridership Keeps Declining

On Sunday, June 27, LA Metro rolled out a sweeping program of changes to its bus system.  On Monday, June 28, I got off Line 94 at Tuxford and San Fernando to transfer to the 152.  There was a sign that said….

“We’re making changes to this bus line or stop.”

That was all.  No specific info.  I was a little worried at first, wondering if the stop might have been eliminated.  But I told myself that wouldn’t make sense.  If Metro had discontinued the stop, surely they would have removed the signage for the 152, or at least covered it with a notice saying the bus wouldn’t pick up passengers there any more.

I was so wrong.  The stop had been discontinued.  And this wasn’t the only instance where Metro had failed to update signage before implementing its service changes.  Apparently there were a lot of problems with the updates to the bus system, and riders have been expressing their frustration on social media.  Riders Kenny Uong and Keegan both tweeted about failures to update signage at stops.  And a number of riders vented their frustration over service changes and cancellations at Metro’s blog The Source.  Here’s a sample….

ladylee1969

As one who relies on public transportation everyday, I find the cancelation of route 236 upsetting and disconcerting by MTA. Many people uses the route pass foothill to get to work. I had sent an email to some of the board of supervisors and the Mayor’s office. NOT ONE ANSWERED!!!!

Marc

The rerouting of 236, cutting off people from their jobs is a terrible idea

Al

New route 237 fails to provide local service between NoHo station to Ventura via Vineland. By forcing people to walk or be forced to use the Subway and connect to other buses is time consuming. Having the New 237 end at Universal Station would have been a better and viable choice. The other route provides a haphazard service along vineland to burbank airport.

Wes

Thanks for cutting the 720 off from East LA, been riding that line since it started and I was in high school. Still depend on it to get to work on the west side so now your adding more time by making me and others take two buses. All these cuts you’re making are asinine, as always you prove to outdo your incompetency Metro.

Upset line 83 rider

Why discontinue line 83?? I travel everyday from downtown LA to York Blvd and now I will be forced get off the 81, which seems to be the only line going close and wait and transfer to another line, it takes time as it is and I don;t even think the new line 182 will run every 5-10 minutes, discontinuing line 83 will disrupt schedule for many riders, I’ve been talking to people in the bus and we’re not happy about it. This is crazy.

Jason

Metro really needs to have staff (supervisors, ambassadors, etc) drive around the canceled bus lines / stops / segments. The signs that are strapped to the pole are not enough. And no, not everyone has a smartphone. Even if they do, they may not be following Metro or aware of the shakeup. I saw people standing at some bus stops under extreme heat yesterday waiting for the bus lines that no longer exist.

Dan Wentzel

These service changes have unfortunately been poorly executed. I am hearing reports of stops throughout the system with old signage and the maps on Metro’s websites are from 2017-18.

This all should have been rolled out together in advance, especially if fares were to be reinstituted. The “Is My Bus Line Changing” webpage is clunky. New systemwide maps illustrating the new service reflecting the new schedules should have rolled out well in advance.

Streetsblog also weighed in, compiling an assortment of complaints, and lamenting the fact that Metro can’t even seem to issue a clear statement on what’s happening with fares.  During the pandemic, collection of fares had been suspended.  When the service changes were implemented, apparently bus drivers had different ideas about whether or not riders needed to pay.  As you can imagine, this resulted in a lot of confusion, and Metro’s communications on the matter did not make things any clearer.  Streetsblog ended by saying, “Sadly, this week’s failures are more signals that Metro continues to fail to prioritize its bus riders.”

I couldn’t agree more.  But actually, I’d go even further.  Honestly, Metro doesn’t seem to care about any of its riders, whether they’re using bus or rail.  If the botched rollout of these service changes was an isolated episode, that would be one thing.  But this is just the latest in a long line of failures. 

There was the disastrous reopening of the Blue Line in 2019.  After several months of partial closures for repairs and upgrades, it reopened in November of that year, and problems started almost immediately.  While Metro promised that service would be better than ever, there were numerous issues with gate crossings, power lines and signals leading to frequent delays. 

Then there’s the fact that Metro keeps pushing back completion dates for the new lines and line extensions that are being constructed.  Yeah, I know they had to deal with the impact of the pandemic, but the Crenshaw Line was supposed to be finished in 2019, before the pandemic hit.  Metro is now projecting they’ll finally wrap it up in 2022.  The Regional Connector was supposed to be done in 2020, but now Metro is saying it will open in August 2022.  While it’s true that large scale rail projects often run behind schedule and over budget, I have to wonder why Metro keeps promising more than they can deliver.  I suspect that when they first announce these projects they know that their projections are absurdly optimistic.  It’s easier to sell it to the public if you promise quick completion and low costs.  But when construction consistently drags on way longer than expected and the cost always goes way higher than the original estimate, the impression taxpayers get is that the agency is run by inept bureaucrats who don’t know what they’re doing. 

And this impression is reinforced by the fact that ridership has been sinking for years.  According to Metro’s own statistics, estimated weekday ridership for systemwide bus and rail went from 1,459,150 in 2014 to 1,174,751 in 2019, a 19% drop.  (I’m not including stats from 2020, because people were warned to avoid using transit due to the pandemic.)  Some folks like to blame the decline on a supposed passenger preference for rail over bus, citing growth on the Gold and Expo Lines, but actually ridership fell in both categories.  It’s true that the Gold and Expo Lines have been performing well, but overall estimated weekday rail ridership went from 351,833 in 2014 to 295,889 in 2019.  Certainly construction on the Blue Line was a factor, but the Red Line has been losing riders, too, and the numbers for the Green Line were down about 25% over the same period. 

To be fair, I don’t believe the loss of ridership is all Metro’s fault.  For years the LA Department of City Planning has been helping real estate speculators gentrify working class neighborhoods.  In the process, thousands of low-income households have been forced farther away from transit hubs like Koreatown, Hollywood and North Hollywood.  I remember a meeting of the Central LA Area Planning Commission where tenants who lived in a rent-stabilized building had filed an appeal of a project that involved the demolition of their homes.  One woman told the Commissioners that if she lost her rent-stabilized apartment she couldn’t afford to stay in Hollywood, and that would mean losing access to the transit she depended on to get to work.  The Commissioners didn’t care.  They denied the appeal, and cleared the way for demolition of 40 rent-stabilized apartments to make way for a new hotel.  Hard to believe that LA City Planning has been claiming for years that they’re totally committed to transit-oriented development.  If you point out to them, say at a City Planning Commission hearing, that transit ridership has been dropping for years, they ignore you. 

But we could also ask if Metro itself is driving displacement.  When you look at the decisions made by the politicians who dominate Metro’s Board, it’s hard to believe that their highest priority is creating a reliable, efficient transit system that will serve those who need it.  They’ve spent billions of taxpayer dollars building a massive rail system while making round after round of cuts to bus service, and ridership keeps sinking lower.  Are they really interested in getting people out of cars and onto transit?  Or are they more focussed on creating infrastructure that will promote new development?  Every time a new rail line is announced, real estate investors rush to snap up whatever they can in the surrounding area.  Numerous observers have pointed out the relationship between gentrification and new rail lines.  Maybe that’s really what it’s all about. 

Whatever Metro’s priorities are, riders don’t seem to be very high on the list.  The careless, inept rollout of the recent service changes demonstrates how little the Metro Board actually thinks about the people who rely on transit to get to work, to get to school, to do their shopping.  Far from trying to attract new riders, it seems like Metro is trying to drive people away.

Garcetti to Leave for India: Goodbye and Good Riddance

The Biden administration just announced that it’s nominating LA Mayor Eric Garcetti as ambassador to India.  Thank god he’s finally going.  Garcetti’s term in office has been a disaster for LA.  He’s spent the last eight years on a campaign of relentless self-promotion, while letting the city go to hell.  I only hope the Senate approves him quickly. 

Garcetti’s term in office has been marked by rampant corruption and dishonesty.  There was the brazen pitch for Turf Terminators in his 2015 State of the City speech.  The Mayor lauded the company for helping residents save water by replacing their lawns with drought-tolerant plants.  He neglected to mention that Turf Terminators had helped round up tens of thousands of dollars for his campaign coffers and the Mayor’s Fund.  Then, after sucking up millions of dollars from turf-replacement rebates and facing withering criticism for doing substandard work, the company quickly folded. 

Another ugly episode was the Sea Breeze scandal.  Developer Samuel Leung’s massive residential project was rejected outright by the City Planning Commission, but Garcetti stepped in and rescued the project, which was eventually approved by the City Council.  Later Leung confessed to money laundering, having funnelled over $600,000 to various officials through associates and employees.  Of that total, $60,000 went to a committee that supported Garcetti in the 2013 mayoral election. 

And let’s not forget that Ray Chan, who worked for Garcetti as Deputy Mayor for Economic Development, has been charged by the Department of Justice with conspiracy, bribery and lying to federal agents.  The US Attorney’s office alleges that Chan was part of a wide-ranging pay-to-play scheme, where developers received favors in return for funnelling money to city officials.  Five of those charged by the DOJ have already entered guilty pleas.  Chan’s trial may begin later this year. 

If the City of LA was thriving, then maybe you could overlook a certain amount of corruption.  But Los Angeles is falling apart.  In 2013, the year Garcetti was elected, there were 29,682 homeless people within the city’s boundaries.  By 2020 that number had risen to 41,290. While the Mayor will now tell you that solving homelessness is his highest priority, he basically ignored the problem during his first term in office, focussing instead on jetting all over the country in an effort to position himself for a presidential run.  And at the same time as the homeless numbers were rising, Garcetti turned the Department of City Planning into a rubber stamp for high-end housing projects, driving gentrification and displacement in neighborhoods across LA.  

While he claims to be fighting for the environment, his record in this area is decidedly mixed.  It’s true that the he played a role in reducing the City’s dependence on fossil fuels to generate power, but he’s failed miserably in cutting emissions from transportation.  Garcetti has been claiming for years that his policies are getting people out of cars and onto transit.  Unfortunately, the facts show the complete opposite.  LA’s DASH system has suffered a huge loss in ridership, from 26,619,776 unlinked trips in 2013 to 19,292,677 unlinked trips in 2019, a 27% decline.  Having also served on the board of LA Metro during his term in office, Garcetti must take some of the blame for the fact that the countywide agency has seen an approximate 20% loss in ridership since 2014.  Metro ridership is now actually lower than it was in 1985, even though the County has added more than a million residents since then.  And while transit ridership has been declining, per capita car ownership has been rising steadily. 

The Mayor’s lack of concern for LA’s urban forest has allowed its continued decline during his term in office.  Under Garcetti, City Planning and Public Works have consistently been willing to let developers and others cut trees down whenever they feel like it.  While there are always promises of replacement trees, in fact there’s no real oversight, and the City doesn’t seem to actually verify whether replacement trees ever get planted.  Solid waste is also a huge issue.  It’s true that cities all over California are struggling to deal with refuse since the recycling market collapsed, but Garcetti seems perfectly happy to just ignore the problem.  The Department of City Planning approves huge new projects, claiming that 50% to 75% of the waste produced will go to recycling.  In fact, the City is recycling less than 35% of the solid waste it collects.  The rest is going to landfills, which produce significant greenhouse gas emissions.

I actually feel bad dumping Garcetti on India, since I know that country is facing huge challenges right now.  Hopefully he’ll just be following instructions from the State Department.  In some ways, his talents may be a good fit for a diplomatic post.  He dresses nicely, speaks well, and he’s good at reading from a teleprompter.  He’s also great at schmoozing, which I understand is something ambassadors do a fair amount of. 

But during his time as Mayor of LA, Garcetti has shown himself to be a soulless, spineless, shameless hack.  I can’t call him a public servant, because he has no interest in serving anyone except himself.  I’m praying that the Senate confirms him quickly, though it’s hard to believe Republicans won’t rake him over the coals with questions about the sexual harassment scandal he’s embroiled in.  They’d also be perfectly justified in grilling him over the fact that his former Deputy Mayor will soon be facing trial on charges of conspiracy and bribery. 

But hopefully they’ll approve him.  Hopefully he’ll leave LA quickly.  Hopefully we’ll soon be rid of this worthless parasite.  I’m keeping my fingers crossed. 

We Need to Start Talking about LA’s Water Crisis Now

Map from US Drought Monitor, May 6, 2021

Most people who live in LA are probably already aware that this year has been an especially dry one.  We’ve gotten less than half of our average rainfall.  But it’s really important to say that it’s not just LA and it’s not just this year.  Actually, much of the Western US is dangerously dry, and there’s an increasing amount of research which seems to indicate that this could be a long-term trend.  In other words, it’s likely that things will continue to get drier and hotter in LA, California and the West. 

I’d been wanting to write about this for a while, but LA Times columnist Michael Hiltzik saved me the trouble.  He recently wrote an excellent piece laying out the serious challenges California is facing, both in the near term and the long term.  To put it briefly, all of California’s water resources are declining.  The snowpacks that feed our rivers and lakes are shrinking.  We’ve depleted much of the groundwater that was so plentiful at the beginning of the 20th century.  And because western states have been taking more water from the Colorado River than is actually available, we’ll probably continue to see reduced deliveries from Hoover Dam for the foreseeable future. 

This is all very bad news. 

Whether or not this dry spell is partly the result of cyclical changes in the weather, research increasingly shows that climate change is going to take a serious toll on LA and the West.  It seems inevitable that some farmland will have to be taken out of production, though that will be a difficult and hugely controversial process.  Many species of California’s trout, steelhead and salmon will probably be extinct by the end of this century.  And while we’ve all seen the horrific damage that wildfire has caused in California’s vast natural forests, we should also be worried about the less visible but still serious impacts to our urban forests.   

Here in LA we may be spared from having to take immediate action to deal with this crisis.  The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and the Metropolitan Water District have been managing our resources carefully, building up reserves that could see us through the next few years.  But I’m afraid this is creating a false sense of security.  The way it looks now, it’s not just a matter of riding out a few dry years until things go back to normal.  This is the new normal.  Even if annual precipitation stays roughly the same in the future, shrinking snowpacks and the decline of the Colorado River mean water deliveries to the LA will continue to fall, and we have limited groundwater resources.  Unfortunately, our local leaders don’t seem to want to deal with this situation.  LA’s Mayor and City Council have been silent on this issue, and I don’t hear anything from the Board of Supervisors, either.  Maybe they think that if they just ignore the problem it will go away. 

This problem isn’t going away.  We need to start dealing with it.  Hiltzik explains how serious and how widespread the challenges are.  The time to act is now. 

Water Created California and the West. Will Drought Finish Them Off?

Fighting the Eviction of the Seniors at Sakura Gardens

On Saturday afternoon a crowd of protesters gathered in Boyle Heights to push back against the pending evictions of seniors from Sakura Gardens by Pacifica Companies.  The battle has been going on for months, but time may be running out.  While Pacifica’s first relocation plan was rejected by the State, they’ve come back with a second plan which is still being considered.  And as the pandemic winds down, the current eviction moratorium will probably expire in the next few months.

Protesters gathered to lend their support.

While the Japanese American community has been leading the charge, many other communities have lent their support.  On Saturday a diverse group of speakers from a range of groups railed against the inhumanity of evicting seniors from this intermediate care facility, especially given the lack of alternatives that offer the same level of care.  According to Save Our Seniors, most of the residents are over 90.  And anyone who’s dealt with the challenge of seeking a care facility for an elderly parent knows how hard it is to find the right place at a price you can afford. This becomes even more difficult when the parent’s primary language is not English.

Speakers representing a range of groups showed up to decry the evictions.

At the protest I ran into a friend, activist Grace Yoo, who helped organize the event.  As we were talking about the insanity of displacing seniors with significant health problems, Grace asked, “How can this be happening?”  Unfortunately, the answer is simple.  Greed.  Pacifica knows they can make a lot more money by getting rid of the seniors and redeveloping the property.  While this is a particularly brazen assault on a fragile community, if you’ve been following the news in LA over the past decade, the story is a familiar one.  Pacifica doesn’t care about people.  They care about profits. 

If you want to learn more about the situation, Save Our Seniors offers lots of background and frequent updates.  They also explain how you can get involved.  Please think about taking action.  These seniors and their families need your help.

Save Our Seniors

LAPD Turns to Media Suppression

Photo by Brian Feinzimer for LAist.

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. 

Reporters, Legal Observers Cry Foul after Being Caught Up in LAPD’s Mass Arrests at Echo Park Protest

Showdown in Echo Park

Photo by Elizabeth Chou, Southern California News Group

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.

Still from video posted on Twitter by Services Not Sweeps

Just Upzoning the Suburbs Won’t Solve 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.

Seniors at Sakura Gardens Face Displacement

Photo from Los Angeles Conservancy by John Sequeira

Yet another story about displacement in LA, this time involving elderly residents at the Sakura Gardens senior care facility in Boyle Heights.  Last year members of the Boyle Heights Neighborhood Council (BHNC) learned that owner Pacifica Companies was planning to build a new multi-family residential complex, and that they’d be phasing out the intermediate care facility on the site.  The plans sparked outrage throughout the community, and the BHNC voted to oppose the project.  You can read their statement here.

Boyle Heights Neighborhood Council Statement

And because many of the current residents are of Japanese descent, the local Japanese-American community was also appalled by the proposed project.  This is just the latest insult.  A hundred years ago Little Tokyo covered a good deal of territory on both sides of the LA River, but the City of LA has been cutting it up for decades.  Just a few years ago a number of Japanese-American artists with deep roots in the area were evicted from 800 Traction.  Now yet another developer with yet another project is ready to push dozens of senior citizens out of Sakura Gardens.  Here’s an article from the Rafu Shimpo.

Boyle Heights Neighborhood Council Opposes Pacifica Proposal

If you see a problem with this, there’s a petition you can sign.

Stop Pacifica from Closing Sakura ICF

This is a discretionary project.  The LA City Council could vote to reject it, and they should.  This year they’ve put forward a number of motions aimed at dealing with homelessness, but they don’t seem to understand the most basic issue here.

The best way to keep people from becoming homeless is to stop evicting them.

Should Bank of America Share the Blame for California’s EDD Payment Scandal?

Graph showing California unemployment numbers from CalMatters

There’s been widespread reporting on the thousands of fraudulent unemployment claims filed with California’s Employment Development Department (EDD).  Less has been written about Bank of America’s (BofA) role in the scandal.  For years the State has contracted with BofA to handle payments via debit cards.  Now questions are being asked about whether the bank failed to implement adequate security measures. 

Unemployed Californians with legitimate claims are facing severe hardships because they haven’t been able to access unemployment payments.  In this story CalMatters asks what went wrong, and why wasn’t fraud detected sooner.

How Bank of America Helped Fuel California’s Unemployment Meltdown

Happy New Year?

Artists painting murals during the protests in Hollywood this year.

Seems like everyone agrees that 2020 was the year from hell. We had a deadly pandemic spreading like wildifre across the globe. In the US we had the incredibly weird and stressful presidential election.

And here in LA? Where do I start?

While the homeless population has been growing for years, the number of people experiencing homelessness in LA County shot up by 12% in 2020. The City of LA saw an even larger increase of 16%. There were months of protests in the streets against police violence. Though not many people seem to have noticed, it’s been an unusually dry year, which should be cause for alarm since our water resources are continuing to decline.

And then there were the numerous indictments filed by the Department of Justice against current and former LA City officials. The charges included bribery, extortion and money laundering. I count five guilty pleas so far, but it’s hard to keep track. Then there are former Councilmember Jose Huizar and former Deputy Mayor Ray Chan who claim innocence. They’ll go on trial later this year. The saddest aspect of all this is that these prosecutions come as no surprise to thousands of Angelenos who have been following local politics. The acts described in the indictments sound like business as usual at City Hall. And don’t get me started on what’s been happening at the City Attorney’s office under Mike Feuer.

All of us are hoping that 2021 will be better than 2020, and really that’s setting the bar pretty low. Yeah, it would be great if Covid-19 went away and we could get back to some kind of normal. But other than that, how much will change? Most of the problems I listed above have been with us a long time in one form or another. Will the new leadership in Washington bring about a new era of peace and equality? Don’t bet on it. Will our elected officials finally agree on a way to successfully address homelessness? Nothing they’ve done so far inspires much confidence. Will LA City Hall become more transparent, open and honest? Don’t make me laugh.

But in spite of my extreme cynicism, I’m not giving up, and neither should you. This year we’ve seen legions of healthcare workers and others make huge sacrifices to care for people infected with Covid-19. In LA we saw tens of thousands of people take to the streets to protest injustice. And even if the culture at LA City Hall is hopelessly corrupt, there are numerous community groups working hard to address homelessness, hunger and poverty.

LA will never be perfect, but it could be a lot better. We can make it better. We can give our time as volunteers. We can give our money to non-profits with a proven track record of helping people. Even just staying informed and staying engaged can make a difference. If you’re not registered to vote, then get registered. And then next time we have an election, take the time to vote. Find a news source you trust, and then subscribe to it, because supporting journalism, especially local journalism, is crucial.

The new year will not be any better than the old year unless we make it better. We can’t just sit back passively and hope everything will turn out all right. We have to get involved and stay involved.