Newsom’s Budget Targets Housing

With the State continuing to enjoy a strong surge in revenue, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s proposed budget includes substantial funds to address housing needs.  Newsom wants to spend $2 billion on homelessness, and another $2 billion to address housing in general.  Of course, there are those who say this still isn’t enough, and others who say Newsom’s priorities are wrong, but there are a lot of good things in his proposed budget.  I’m not a Newsom fan, but I think that in some ways he’s on the right track.  As usual, the devil is in the details.

One of the things Newsom wants to promote is urban infill development, in other words building dense residential housing where infrastructure already exits, as opposed to more suburban sprawl.  This is nothing new.  State and local politicians have been pushing this for years, and in theory it makes perfect sense.  One of the main goals of this policy is to make people less reliant on cars, encouraging them to take transit instead, or to ride a bike or maybe even just walk.  The overriding goal is to fight climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

The problem is that we’ve been doing this for years and it hasn’t been working.  In fact, it seems like we’re going in the wrong direction.  LA and San Francisco have been building thousands of new residential units near transit hubs, and yet transit ridership has been falling for years.  Worse, in Southern California the rate of car ownership has been climbing steadily since 2000

So what do we do?  Well, there is evidence suggesting that high-priced new development in urban centers is causing gentrification, which displaces low-income transit riders.  I can tell you I’ve seen numerous instances in Hollywood where low-income tenants have been thrown out of their apartments to make way for new projects.  We need to preserve existing housing that’s accessible to low-income households, and to build a lot more affordable housing.  That’s why I’m glad that Newsom is setting aside $500 million for Low-Income Housing Tax Credits, and another $500 million to preserve and increase affordable housing stock.  Of course, much more money is needed, since the federal government has slashed funding for affordable housing over the last several years.  But the money Newsom is providing is a step in the right direction. In LA, the vast majority of transit riders live in low-income households. We need to help them remain near the transit hubs they rely on.

Another smart move Newsom has made is to earmark $100 million to support the conversion of office buildings to apartments.  This makes a lot of sense, not just because more people are working from home these days, but because it helps minimize the significant environmental impacts caused both by the demolition of old buildings and the construction of new ones.  As many people have said, the greenest building is the one that’s already standing.   

The funding Newsom has proposed will not solve our housing problems, but it will help.  That is, assuming the legislature supports his budget.  This article from CalMatters offers a more detailed breakdown.   

Newsom on Homelessness: ‘We’ve Gotta Clean Up those Encampments’

Seniors at Cathay Manor Forced to Live in Miserable Conditions

Cathay Manor Apartments in Chinatown

These days it’s difficult for seniors in LA to find affordable housing.  And it’s even more difficult to find affordable housing that’s properly maintained.  The seniors at Chinatown’s Cathy Apartments have been struggling to deal with elevators that don’t work, doors that won’t close, broken electrical outlets, leaky faucets and other significant habitability issues, without getting much help from the City of LA.

But last year the Chinatown Community for Equitable Development (CCED), an activist organization based in Chinatown, stepped up and started demanding that local officials pay attention.  They began a social media campaign to put pressure on Councilmember Gil Cedillo and Congressional Rep Jimmy Gomez to take action. 

It worked.  Community pressure has forced Cedillo and Gomez to get involved.  And the LA Times reports that local, state and federal agencies have launched investigations into the causes of the problems at Cathay Manor.  The LA City Attorney’s office has also filed a complaint.  The landlord and the organization that operates the building have plenty of excuses, but according to the Times they’re getting around $3.5 million annually from the federal government.

So why can’t they take care of basic habitability and safety issues?  According to the complaint filed by the City Attorney’s Office, elevators are not operational, fire protection systems are defective, fire extinguishers are inoperable and inaccessible, and the owners can’t even keep the building free of graffiti and trash. 

The tenants at Cathay Manor shouldn’t have to deal with these problems.  Senior citizens on fixed incomes need access to safe, clean, affordable housing.  But not only has the City of LA failed by a long shot to provide the housing that citizens need, the City Council is doubling down on policies that promote huge density bonusses to developers in exchange for a small number of affordable units.  According to the LA Department of City Planning’s Housing Progress Reports web page, the City has approved 172,613 new units since July 2013.  Of that total, 87% have been for Above Moderate Income households.  (Above Moderate Income households are defined as households that earn 120% or more of the Area Median Income.)  The remaining 13% are for Moderate Income, Low Income and Very Low Income households.  The recently adopted Housing Element and the proposed New Zoning Code will only exacerbate this intolerable imbalance. 

If you want to read more about the situation at Cathay Manor, the Times story is below, along with the press release from the City Attorney’s Office and the complaint they filed. 

Moldy Walls, Cold Stoves and Broken Elevators: This Is Life at Chinatown’s Cathay Manor

Press Release Re Cathy Manor Complaint from City Attorney’s Office

Complaint against Don Toy & CCOA Housing Corporation

Angels Knoll

I love cities.  And I love Downtown LA.  But the older I get, the more I think about the damage that cities do to the environment.  At the beginning of the 20th century, Downtown was largely undeveloped.  In a little over a hundred years, it’s become a dense urban landscape crowded with office buildings and residential towers, crisscrossed by roads and freeways.  As a result, LA is hotter and drier, the air is dirtier, and like every other urban center, we’re contributing to climate change in a big way.

I was wandering around Cal Plaza a while ago, and ran across a piece of Downtown I’d forgotten about. As I looked out over the city in the direction of Hill Street, I saw that directly below me there was a small park.  It took me a minute to realize it was the same park I’d seen many times at the intersection of Fourth and Hill.  It’s been fenced off for years.  Much of the greenery is dry, and the trees could certainly use some attention, but it was so cool to run across a patch of green space in the middle of all the steel and concrete. 

Actually, it’s not technically a park.  It’s a small patch of land called Angels Knoll that had been owned by the Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA).  (I assume it got the name because it’s right night next to Angels Flight.)  When the CRA was dissolved in 2012, a petition was circulated asking the City to turn the land over to the Department of Parks & Recreation.  But that didn’t happen.  As one of the few remaining undeveloped parcels in the Downtown area, the property is worth a fortune.  The decision was made to put it up for sale.

A June, 2021 memo from CRA/LA, the successor agency to the CRA, sets the price of the parcel at $50 million. The buyer, Angels Landing Partners, is actually a joint venture by the Peebles Corporation, MacFarland Partners and Claridge Partners.  According to the LA Department of City Panning web site, the proposed Angels Landing project involves the construction of two skyscrapers, one rising 63 stories and the other rising 42 stories.  In addition to two hotels and 72,000 square feet of commercial space, the project also includes 180 condos and 252 apartments.  Apparently some affordable housing is supposed to be provided, but at this point it’s not clear how much. 

Of course, the project will generate lots of jobs and economic activity.  According to the Environmental Impact Report, it will also generate 10,179 metric tons of CO2 equivalent during the construction phase alone.  Beyond that, it will contribute to the steadily increasing temperatures in the LA area, along with a number of other massive projects planned for Downtown, Hollywood, Warner Center and elsewhere.

And we’ll also be losing one of the few remaining patches of green in Downtown.  City Hall has made its priorities clear.  They want the skyscrapers.  Of course, LA was built by developers and politicians who prioritized growth over everything else.  That’s how LA got to be what it is today.  But the older I get, the more I feel that this addiction to growth is incredibly destructive.  Our warming climate and shrinking water resources are a direct result of unchecked development. 

We really don’t need another skyscraper.  We absolutely need more parks.

Work Continues on Sixth Street Bridge

The Sixth Street Bridge’s arches rising above the surrounding landscape.

Work on the new Sixth Street Bridge is still moving along.  Originally scheduled for completion in 2019, it’s now supposed to be finished by summer of 2022.  This shouldn’t surprise anyone who follows the progress of large infrastructure projects.  It’s also no surprise that the cost of the project has risen from $420 million to $588 million.  But even though repeated delays and cost overruns are fairly common with projects of this kind, it seems like LA is especially prone to these problems.  (I guess it could be worse.  Just take a look at the California High Speed Rail.)

LA River running beneath the Sixth Street Bridge.

When the bridge is done, there are plans to create a 12-acre park within the bed of the LA River, with public art and recreational programs.  I hate to be cynical, but it will be interesting to see what actually materializes.  While the FTA and CalTrans are helping with funds for the construction of the bridge, I don’t know if they’re also kicking in for the park.  I mention this because the LA Recreation & Parks Department is chronically underfunded, and can’t even maintain existing parks.  I’m also concerned because it seems some of the features that were supposed to be included in the new bridge have been cut.  The original design had protected bike lanes.  Apparently those are gone.  And I’ve seen some chatter on-line about the removal of the stairs that would have connected the bridge to the park, but I haven’t been able to find any confirmation.

Downtown side of the bridge.

But the biggest cause for concern is that the completion of the bridge will bring further gentrification and displacement on the east side of the LA River.  Many residents of Boyle Heights and surrounding communities are worried that the Sixth Street Bridge will bring another wave of real estate investors looking to cash in.  The eviction of the seniors at Sakura Gardens is not a good sign.

Many people are excited about the new Sixth Street Bridge and its promised benefits.  I hope their optimism is justified.  When I first heard about the project years ago, I was excited, too.  I have to say that now my hopes are outweighed by a deep cynicism.  The City of LA’s leaders have been promising a more livable, equitable city for years.  Instead it seems that the population is increasingly divided and increasingly desperate.  Bridges are supposed to bring people together, but I’m worried that this one will end up driving people apart.

Can the City of LA Keep Growing If Its Water Resources Keep Declining?

The City of Los Angeles couldn’t exist without the water it imports from sources far beyond its borders.  While the ratios vary widely from year to year, on average we get about 10% of our annual supply from groundwater within the city limits.  The remaining 90% has to be imported from places hundreds of miles away.

Which means we really should pay attention to the Water Supply Alert issued by the Metropolitan Water District (MWD) on August 17.  The entire State of California, and in fact much of the Western US, is experiencing extremely dry conditions.  At this point the MWD is asking for citizens, businesses and public agencies to make voluntary reductions, but there’s a good chance that stricter measures will be needed in the not too distant future.  Through careful planning and good stewardship, the MWD has managed to build up significant reserves which might provide a buffer for the next year or two.  But we can’t be complacent.  This year the California Department of Water Resources has cut allocations from the State Water Project to just 5% of requested supplies.  It’s possible that next year the allocation could be reduced to zero.  On top of that, for the first time ever, the Bureau of Reclamation has declared a shortage on the Colorado River.  Lake Mead supplies much of the water that Southern California relies on, and storage there has been declining faster than even the most pessimistic observers predicted.  Right now the water level is lower than it’s been at any time since Hoover Dam was constructed. 

Which leaves us with the LA Aqueduct.  At the beginning of the 20th century, Los Angeles business leaders were working hard to promote the city’s growth, but they knew that the area’s water resources were limited.  In looking for solutions to this problem, they set their sights on the Owens Valley, over 200 miles away.  Using secretive and dishonest means, the City of LA managed to purchase rights to much of the water in the Owens Valley, and then began construction of the LA Aqueduct under the supervision of William Mulholland.  In LA the completion of the Aqueduct was hailed as an engineering marvel, and for a time Mulholland was celebrated as a hero.  Needless to say, the people of the Owens Valley didn’t see things quite the same way.  For them, the diversion of water resources to the Aqueduct resulted in disastrous environmental impacts, and set the stage for decades of litigation.

Mulholland Memorial Fountain from DWP Photo Collection at LA Public Library

In 1940, five years after Mulholland’s death, a fountain was built at the intersection of Los Feliz Boulevard and Riverside Drive to honor the man primarily responsible for the construction of the LA Aqueduct.  The choice to create a fountain was considered a fitting way to commemorate the role Mulholland played in securing the water that was necessary for the city’s growth.  For decades cool, crystalline plumes arched into the air and cascaded into the rippling pool below.

Today the fountain is dry and it’s surround by a chain link fence.  While a search on the net didn’t reveal any explanation, it seems likely that LADWP shut it down in response to the looming water shortage.  This is certainly a sensible step to take, but it should also raise questions about LA’s future.  Mulholland was celebrated because of his efforts to provide water that would support the city’s growth.  If the fountain is now dry, maybe this should be a cue to start asking how much LA can realistically grow in the future?

While government officials and the media routinely describe the situation as a drought, I don’t think that’s accurate.  In fact, I think it’s seriously misleading.  “Drought” is generally defined as a prolonged period of dry weather.  This implies that at some point the drought will end and things will get back to normal.  But there’s growing evidence that this is the new normal.  Both the State Water Project and the LA Aqueduct are fed by snowmelt from the Sierra Nevadas.  The Sierra snowpacks have been declining for years, and climatologists predict that they’ll continue to decline for the foreseeable future.  As for the Colorado River, California, Nevada and Arizona draw more water from this resource than it can deliver on an annual basis.  The construction of Hoover Dam masked this fact for decades, but the rapid decline of Lake Mead should be a wake-up call for all of us.  Right now it seems inevitable that water allocations to all three states will have to be reduced, but this will be a long, contentious, brutal process. 

So if all of the city’s water resources are declining, our public officials need to let go of the myth that LA can keep growing forever.  LA’s 2020 Urban Water Management Plan (UWMP) assumes that all it will take is more stormwater capture and a concerted effort to conserve.  Unfortunately, stormwater capture doesn’t really work when you’re hardly getting any rain.  And while Angelenos have shown a willingness to save water in the past, current forecasts seem to indicate that we’d have to push conservation to a whole new level.  The more you cut, the harder it is to cut further.  The UWMP’s conservation projections are extremely optimistic.  It’s hard to say whether they’re realistic.

The Mulholland Memorial was intended as a monument to the man who oversaw the construction of a massive infrastructure project that allowed the city to grow rapidly.  In the state it’s in now, it seems more like a monument to the folly of those who believed you could build a city of 4,000,000 people in an area with minimal water resources.

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

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.

Another Gathering Place Goes Down

Photo by Elina Shatkin/LAist

A couple days ago I came across a piece on LAist the really resonated with me. The author, John Kamp, talks about the impending demolition of a favorite hang-out, El Gran Burrito, near the Metro station at Santa Monica and Vermont. I’ve never eaten there, but Kamp’s description of this funky taco stand reminded me of so many other LA gathering places that have disappeared.

I understand the reasons why El Gran Burrito is getting bulldozed. The City has approved a Permanent Supportive Housing complex with 187 units, 105 for Extremely Low Income households, and 80 for Very Low Income households. (The two remaining units are for managers.) The City desperately needs Permanent Supportive Housing, and it makes perfect sense to build next to the Metro station so that residents will have easy access to transit. I really can’t object to the project. Still, we need to acknowledge what we’re losing.

Kamp identifies himself as a landscape and urban designer, and he’s not happy about the trend in LA toward “generic, modern, high-density apartment buildings with retail spaces on the ground floor”. He laments the loss of our “quirky, shacky spaces tucked into hillsides and between larger buildings”. I know where he’s coming from. And it’s not just the bland conformity that characterizes so many of the new buildings. The really painful thing is the loss of community. These low budget, lowbrow restaurants are where Angelenos gather and mingle. You stop in with a group of friends and run into some other folks you know, or maybe you start talking to a group of total strangers. You get to know the people behind the counter. You get to know the community.

I’m thinking of Carnitas Michoacan #3 in Boyle Heights, which got turned into a Panda Express. Longtime patrons were saddened to lose a place they’d been coming to for decades. Taix on Sunset has been purchased by a real estate investment group, and there are plans to construct a six-story mixed-use complex on the site. (The new project would include space for a scaled-down version of Taix.) One of the most depressing losses was El Chavo, also on Sunset, which was bought up by another real estate investment group. What used to be a cozy, old-school Mexican restaurant was turned into an oppressive modernist fortress. The plan was to make it into an upscale restaurant/nightclub with multiple bars. Last time I passed by the place looked like it was closed.

I also think of the way Union Station has changed. Up until a few years ago it had a great little bagel shop where you could pick up something to eat and drink while you were waiting for your train. There was also a small newsstand where you could get gum, snacks, sodas. Today both of them are gone. Instead of a mom-and-pop restaurant serving fresh bagels they now have a Starbucks serving cardboard pastries wrapped in plastic. Instead of the newsstand they now have a chain convenience store with all the personality of a concrete block.

But we also have to take the longer view. I love Union Station, but in order to build it the City razed a good part of LA’s original Chinatown. Many people were pushed out of their homes. As a compromise, the City agreed to build a new Chinatown, which is the one we know today. While many Angelenos have a real affection for the area’s funky charm, let’s face the facts: an authentic immigrant community was levelled with zero regard for how the residents would be impacted; the “replacement” was a faux-Chinese outdoor mall designed to lure tourists.

Nothing lasts forever. Especially restaurants. The City is constantly changing. If El Gran Burrito gets bulldozed to create housing for the people who need it most, I can see the justification. But in many other cases, including the ones listed above, it’s just a raw deal for the community. While fast food chains and investment groups boost their profits, neighborhoods lose gathering places that brought people together. Seems like this is happening more and more often in LA these days.

Kamp is one of the many Angelenos mourning these losses. If you’ve seen a beloved hang-out get bulldozed, you’ll want to take a look at his piece in LAist.

A Farewell To El Gran Burrito, East Hollywood’s Perfect Late-Night Pit-Stop

LA’s Future Is Homelessness

Homeless Encampment

Yesterday the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) released the results of the 2020 count of the homeless population in Los Angeles. Once again, he results are shocking. In 2020, a total of 66,433 people experienced homelessness in LA County, a 12.7% increase over last year. In the City of LA, the total was 41,290, a 14.2% increase. But it’s not just the overall numbers. Digging into the statistics is disturbing on so many levels….

  • Blacks make up about 8% of LA County’s population, but they make up 34% of the homeless population.
  • The number of homeless people over age 62 increased by 20%.
  • There was a 19% increase in homelessness among Transition Age Youth Households and Unaccompanied Minors, which includes both individuals 18-24 years of age and members of families headed by persons 18-24.

The press release highlights some of the positive work that LAHSA is doing, and I don’t doubt the agency is trying hard to address the problem. But it can’t. The real problem here is that housing is growing increasingly unaffordable, not just in LA but across the nation. Over the last several years real estate has become a huge draw for speculative investment. This isn’t just a local phenomenon, it’s a global one. The investors who have been buying up both single-family and multi-family housing in recent years have only one goal: To extract as much profit from their assets as quickly as possible. They have no interest in providing housing, and they don’t care how many people are homeless. (Unless, of course, those homeless people are camped out in front of their latest acquisition. Then they’re very concerned.) If you’re skeptical about these claims, I suggest you read Capital City by Samuel Stein. The author lays out the facts in horrifying detail.

But if you think the homeless numbers are bad now, brace yourself. It’s gonna get way worse. At the end of May, UCLA’s Luskin Institute on Inequality and Democracy released a report outlining the impacts the pandemic will have on housing. The report’s author, Gary Blasi, offers two estimates….

The most optimistic estimate is that 36,000 renter households, with 56,000 children based on U.S. Census figures for Los Angeles County, are likely to become homeless. If […] support networks have been severely degraded by the pandemic, those numbers could rise to 120,000 newly homeless households, with 184,000 children.

Sounds pretty bleak, doesn’t it? The report offers some good recommendations for policymakers and lawmakers, such as providing legal counsel for renters facing eviction and expanding rapid rehousing programs, but these will only mitigate the damage.

The root of the problem here is that many of our elected officials are basically pawns working for real estate investors. The Department of Justice’s ongoing corruption investigation in the City of LA has so far produced four guilty pleas, including one former councilmember. It’s almost certain that at least one current councilmember will be indicted, and the evidence released clearly indicates a widespread conspiracy that has turned the project approval process into a high-stakes pay-to-play game.

According to the LA Department of City Planning’s (LADCP) annual reports to the State of California, about 90% of new residential units approved in the City of LA from 2013 to 2018 were for Above Moderate Income Households. This means that the combined number of Low, Very Low and Moderate Income units approved each year comprised about 10% of the total. The LADCP, the Mayor and members of the City Council have repeatedy claimed that the high-end high-rises they’ve been greenlighting in Downtown, Koreatown, the Valley and elsewhere were going to help solve the housing crisis. At the same time, they’ve pushed for policies that incentivize the destruction of existing rent-stabilized housing. This appalling combination of greed, stupidity and denial has led us to where we are now.

I know they’re tough to look at, but I strongly urge you to read both the press release on the homeless count and the report from the Luskin Institute. The only way we’re going to get out of this situation is to take a long, hard look at the brutal facts.

2020 Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count Results

New Study Warns of Looming Eviction Crisis in Los Angeles County