On Thursday morning LA Sheriffs arrived at an apartment building on Cahuenga in Hollywood to serve an eviction notice. Before they were able to enter the apartment, they heard a single gunshot from inside. Eventually they gained entry, and found an individual who had died from “an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound.”
Earlier this year, the annual survey conducted by the LA Homeless Services Authority found there were 41,980 people experiencing homelessness in the City of LA (a 1.7% increase from 2020) and 69,144 people experiencing homelessness in LA County (a 4.1% rise from 2020). Apparent inaccuracies that have been found in the survey have led many people to believe that the actual numbers are far higher.
In their 2020 report on vacancy in Los Angeles, SAJE, ACCE and UCLA Law found that the City was producing far more expensive units than affordable ones, leading to excessive vacancies at the high end and a shortage of supply at the low end. (See page 5.)
“Simply put, new expensive housing remains disproportionately vacant, thereby failing to free up units for lower-income families. In addition to the intentional maintenance of overpriced units for rent or sale described above, the system of housing production in Los Angeles has created, on the one hand, a surplus supply of high-rent housing with elevated vacancy for new and higher-priced units, and on the other hand, a massive shortfall of low-cost housing that has contributed to the houselessness crisis.”
We don’t know much about the renter who took his life on Thursday, but it seems likely that, knowing he was about to be evicted from his home, he shot himself because he felt he had no place else to go.
How is that possible in a city where tens of thousands of units sit empty?
It’s hard to know where to begin. The chain of events that’s unfolded in LA over the past few days is extraordinary, but maybe it’s just the logical outcome of the way this city has been run for the past several years. Honestly, while it’s surprising that the recording of three councilmembers talking about redistricting has been leaked, there’s really nothing surprising about the discussion. Anybody who’s been following LA City politics over the last decade knows that Los Angeles is run by a corrupt elite that’s rigged the system. We should all be angry, but I don’t know why anyone would be surprised.
The first City Council meeting after the Times broke the story was intense. I watched it on video. The Council chambers were filled with angry people chanting and yelling. President Pro Tem Mitch O’Farrell kept trying to calm the protesters down, but they were furious and wanted to let the Council know it. The crowd finally got quiet when it was announced that Councilmember Mike Bonin was going to speak. Bonin’s son was the target of one of the numerous racist slurs that Nury Martinez utters on the recording, and Bonin was visibly upset. He gave an emotional speech condemning racism in general, and thanking all those who had reached out to support him and his family since the news broke.
It’s understandable that Bonin was shaken by the release of recording, and I don’t doubt that his speech was heartfelt. He loves his son, and he knows that this episode will likely cause his son to feel pain and anger. But I wish Bonin would acknowledge all the pain that he’s inflicted on low-income people of color during his time in office. When public comment began, I wasn’t surprised to hear one of the speakers accuse Bonin of hypocrisy because of his actions as a member of the City Council. Referring to Bonin, the speaker exclaimed, “The one that’s pointin’ the finger has done the most name callin’. Put us off Venice Beach. All the black people. He put us all off Venice Beach for some real estate. Fuck you, Mike Bonin.”
Now, I’ve never heard Mike Bonin use any racial slurs, but there’s no doubt that Venice has grown a lot wealthier and whiter during his two terms on the City Council. (Bonin didn’t start this trend, but he’s done nothing to stop it, either.) And Bonin has taken plenty of campaign cash from developers and lobbyists during that time. While Bonin may talk about ending racism and creating a just society, he’s voted over and over again, along with the rest of the City Council, to support policies and projects that promote displacement and gentrification.
Former Councilmember Jose Huizar is facing trial on corruption charges, in part because he helped a developer reduce the amount of affordable housing required for the 520 Mateo project in Downtown. Did Mike Bonin object to reducing the affordable housing requirement? Hell no. He voted to approve the project.
Interestingly, many of the biggest residential projects recently approved in Downtown have zero affordable housing, and the developers of these projects are often allowed to skip paying the Affordable Housing Linkage Fee. Other residential projects in LA have to provide affordable units to get increased density, but in Downtown they can get more density by asking for a Transfer of Floor Area Rights. Has Bonin spoken out against developers using this loophole to dodge affordable housing requirements? Hell no. He voted to approve these projects just like the rest of his colleagues on the Council.
When a property owner wanted to demolish 40 rent-stabilized units in Hollywood to make way for a new hotel, did Mike Bonin object to the eviction of low-income families in the middle of a housing crisis? Hell no. He voted to approve the project. Mike Bonin has joined his fellow councilmembers over and over again in awarding zone changes and general plan amendments to developers, delivering huge profits for investors and fomenting real estate speculation while thousands of low-income people of color were kicked out of their homes and LA’s homeless crisis spiralled out of control. During his time on the Council, Mike Bonin has presented himself as a progressive who wants to fight injustice, but if he really wants to learn about the root causes of injustice, maybe he should take a look in the mirror.
The other speaker who caught my attention was Damien Goodmon, of Downtown Crenshaw Rising. Damien’s comments at the meeting were thoughtful and incisive, as usual, but one thing he said rang especially true for me….
“This entire city government is in need of an exorcism.”
That sentence really sums up how I feel about City Hall right now. The environment created by the Mayor and the City Council is so toxic, and the poison has also bled into the City departments and boards and commissions that are supposed to be serving the people.
Instead of real planning to confront the challenges that LA faces, we get plans formulated by lobbyists and land use attorneys that seemed designed to enrich their clients. Instead of meaningful debate on the issues by well-informed public servants, we get cheerleaders who pat each other on the back for doing a great job, no matter how bad the outcomes are.
Damien is right. LA City government needs an exorcism. But holy water and Latin chants aren’t going to do the job. Instead, we, the people, are going to have to take action. This isn’t just a matter of electing a new mayor and a few new councilmembers. This is a matter of changing the deeply corrupt culture at City Hall. We need to pay attention to what they’re doing. We need to call them out when they’re serving themselves instead of the people. We need to show them that there are consequences for their actions, whether that’s at the ballot box or in the courts.
And this isn’t a short-term commitment. This will take much more than a year or two. This is about long-term, concerted activism with the goal of making sure our public servants really serve us.
The pandemic wasn’t really over in April, but a lot of people, including me, were tired of being shut up at home. I wanted to get out into the world again. I’d been thinking for a while about paying a visit to Los Angeles State Historic Park on the outskirts of Downtown. I finally just got on the train and headed down there.
The park has been a work in progress for over a decade. I wrote a post about it in 2014, when many people still called it The Cornfield. Back then it was mostly just grass and dirt. Since then, it’s been transformed into a well-manicured open space….
It certainly seems popular. On the day I showed up there were plenty of folks enjoying the park, and it’s not hard to see why. It’s impeccably landscaped, with gently curving paths winding through the grass, and rows of beautiful trees. There’s a good-sized field for those who want to get a game going. It seemed like the crowd was mostly younger, with a number of moms and dads and little kids.
It also seemed like the crowd was mostly made up of relatively affluent millennials. I have no hard data on where they came from, but I suspect that many of them live in Downtown. If that’s the case, they’d have to be making fairly good money. The listings on Apartment.com show that most of the studio apartments in the 90012 zip code start around $2,000, with one-bedrooms going for between $2,500 and $3,000. Rents at the Llewellyn, a fairly new building just across the street from the park, go from $2,450 to $5,155.
The City has had a good deal of success in luring people to Downtown, but let’s face it. Downtown is not open to everybody. If we go with the standard assumption that you’re supposed to spend about a third of your income on housing, you’d need to make $72,000 a year to afford a studio apartment in the area. A small family would probably have to have a combined income close to six figures just to get into a one-bedroom.
Back in March, I was listening in on a meeting of the City Council’s PLUM Committee where Director of Planning Vince Bertoni boasted about how proud he was of the City of LA’s Transit-Oriented Development program. I can’t imagine why. While City Planning has approved numerous residential skyscrapers near transit stops over the last decade, transit ridership has been declining steadily since 2014. Even in 2014, LA Metro was actually serving fewer people than it did back in the 80s, and it’s only been downhill since then.
If you want to know how successful LA’s attempts at Transit-Oriented Development have been, take a look at the parking area next to the State Historic Park. It was packed with cars on the morning I was there. And Spring St., which is on the park’s perimeter, was also lined with cars.
Please note in the last photo above that the L Line (Gold Line) Station is visible in the background. I’m sure some of the folks who showed up at the park that day rode the train, but obviously a lot of people decided to drive instead, in spite of the fact that the station is just a few hundred feet from the park entrance.
LA City Planning talks a lot about revitalizing LA’s urban centers, but we need to ask what they actually mean by “revitalization”. The cost of renting an apartment Downtown makes it clear that living there is mostly for the affluent. While thousands of new units have been built in Downtown over the past decade, the vast majority of them are for the upscale crowd. The same is true citywide. According to LA City Planning’s Housing Progress Dashboard, of the more than 184,000 new units that have been approved since July 2013, only about 26,000, or 14%, have been for middle-income, low-income and very low-income households. To be clear, these three categories COMBINED make up just 14% of the new housing approved.
As I said before, the City has been successful in luring people to live in Downtown, and I’m glad of that. Looking at US Census data for the 90012 zip code, which covers much of central Downtown, it’s clear that the area has seen substantial growth. According to the American Community Survey (ACS), the population in 90012 has grown from 29,298 in 2011 to 37,268 in 2020.
Unfortunately, even as Downtown’s population has grown, ridership on transit lines serving the area has been dropping steadily. The graph below shows the changes in ridership on lines serving Downtown in 2014 and 2019. It includes all rail lines serving the area, but only selected bus lines.
You can see there’s been a significant drop. It’s important to point out that the biggest decline was on the A Line (Blue Line), and much of this was due to the fact that portions of the line were closed during 2019 for repairs and upgrades. (They didn’t do much good. Problems arose soon after the line re-opened.)
But even if we pull the A Line out of the chart, we still see a loss in ridership. If the City’s Transit-Oriented Development program is such a success, then why is transit ridership declining in Downtown, even as the population grows. (If you don’t trust my numbers, and you want to do your own research, visit Metro Ridership Stats. Under the heading Systemwide (Bus and Rail), click Details.)
I think the answer has to do with the kind of people who are moving to Downtown. While I hear a lot of hype about young urbanites who love walkable neighborhoods, the crush of cars I saw crowding around State Park leads me to believe that many of Downtown’s new residents own some kind of vehicle. Of course, that’s just my personal view based on my personal experience. To get a more accurate idea of how many Downtown residents are car owners, let’s take another look at the U.S. Census’ American Community Survey.
Looking again at the 90012 zip code, let’s check out the stats for vehicle ownership in 2011.
2011 ACS Data on Vehicles Available to Population in 90012 Workers 16 Years and Over in Households
No vehicle available 10%
1 vehicle available 42.9%
2 vehicles available 36.4%
3 or more vehicles available 10.7%
Now let’s look at the stats for 90012 in 2020.
2020 ACS Data on Vehicles Available to Population in 90012 Workers 16 Years and Over in Households
No vehicles available 6.6%
1 vehicle available 42.4%
2 vehicles available 40.0%
3 or more vehicles available 11.0%
You can see that the number of workers 16 years and over with no vehicle available dropped from 10% to 6.6%. The number with one vehicle available is basically unchanged. Those with two vehicles available went up from 36.4% to 40%. These are not huge changes, but they do show that percentages of workers 16 years and over with access to a vehicle has gone up, not down. And when we consider that the population in 90012 rose from 29,298 in 2011 to 37,268 in 2020, this seems to indicate that there are a lot more cars than there used to be in Downtown. Put this together with the drop in transit ridership, and it’s hard to understand why the City thinks its efforts at Transit-Oriented Development have been a success. (If you believe there are a lot more people walking and biking in the central city, feel free to show me the data. I’ve looked, and I can’t find anything less than six years old.)
I want to emphasize that I’m a transit rider and I don’t own a car. I also want to say that I believe we need to focus new development around transit hubs, in areas where jobs and businesses are close by. In theory all this is great. In reality, though, the City of LA doesn’t seem to have achieved anything. In fact, it seems like the numbers are going in the wrong direction. And if we’re going in the wrong direction, shouldn’t the City assess the situation, find out what’s wrong, and try to do better?
Unfortunately, rather than being used as a strategy to create a more sustainable city, Transit-Oriented Development seems to have become an excuse to approve residential projects that are far too expensive for the average Angeleno. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been at hearings held by City Planning where staff and/or Commissioners claim that big, new residential projects geared toward the affluent are exactly what the City needs to get people out of cars and onto busses and trains. When I present data showing that transit ridership has been going down since 2014, they don’t seem to hear. I’ve never gotten a response. The projects are always approved.
I think the State Park is cool. I’m glad people are spending time there. But I don’t buy the story that young urbanites are ditching their cars for busses, trains and bikes. The cars lined up across the street from the park seem to tell a different story, one that City Hall doesn’t want to hear.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I was on my way to the market when something caught my eye at the corner of Ivar and De Longpre. Actually, it was two things. The first was a massive new apartment building on Cahuenga, with a huge banner that exclaimed “NOW LEASING”. The second was a homeless encampment on Ivar. Seeing the pricey new apartments and the row of makeshift shelters so close together struck me as a perfect image of what’s happening in Hollywood these days, and really what’s happening across so much of LA. The City keeps telling us that building expensive new housing will alleviate the housing crisis, but upscale units like these are completely out of reach for the people who need housing most.
Part of what makes the scene so perfect is the banner shouting “NOW LEASING”. I have no idea how many of the units have been rented, and maybe it’s almost full, but I doubt it. A June 2020 report to the LA City Council from the Housing + Community Investment Department offers data on vacancy rates in various LA neighborhoods. While it uses multiple sources to assess vacancies, the report’s authors state that data from the LA Department of Water & Power is probably the most reliable. Does it surprise you that according to LADWP the vacancy rate in Hollywood is 10.7 percent? That’s 1,372 empty apartments in the Hollywood area, and I bet most of them are in new buildings like the one you see in the picture. You know, the ones where the rent for a single starts around $2,000.
Now, the US Census says that the average household size in LA County is 2.8 people. So if we multiply 1,372 units by 2.8 we find that you could house about 3,841 people in the apartments that are sitting vacant in Hollywood right now. Interestingly, the 2020 Los Angeles Homeless Count found that Council District 13, which covers much of Hollywood, has a total of 3,907 people experiencing homelessness. (A 22% jump over 2019.) In other words, you could fit almost all of the homeless people in CD 13 into the units that are sitting empty in Hollywood.
Of course, none of those homeless folks could afford $2,000 for a single. Let alone $3,000 or $4,000 for a one-bedroom or two-bedroom unit. But the LA City Council keeps telling us that if we just keep building housing, any kind of housing, even housing that the average Angeleno couldn’t possibly afford, it will help alleviate the housing crisis.
So they keep on approving high-end apartment complexes. And the homeless population keeps on growing larger.