Speaking Out on the Housing Crisis

HP 01 Crowd

Housing is the hottest issue in California right now. Here in LA housing costs continue to climb, the pace of evictions is quickening, and the number of homeless is increasing by leaps and bounds. The folks at City Hall talk a lot about taking action, but nothing they’ve done so far has had any significant impact. The situation just keeps getting worse.

So a group of housing advocates, homeless advocates, and renters’ rights advocates decided to stage a protest on Fairfax last Friday. They put up a line of tents along the curb to dramatize the plight of those who are currently homeless, and also the thousands more who will likely become homeless in the next few years.

HP 10 Ellis

Protesters lined up on Fairfax.

The media showed up with their cameras to cover this tent city press conference. The organizers called on Mayor Garcetti and the City Council to develop a plan to create affordable housing, ensure responsible development, and expand rent control.

A number of people spoke about different aspects of the crisis. Victor García, a recent graduate of UCSB, talked about the invisible problem of student homelessness. He told the crowd about UCLA students living in their cars because they couldn’t afford student housing and apartments in Westwood were way beyond their reach. García would like to see an end to California’s Costa-Hawkins act, which the limits the expansion of rent control.

HP 30 VG

Victor Garcia speaks about student homelessness.

Emily Martiniuk told her own story, a harrowing account of being evicted at age 59 and having nowhere to go. Contemplating suicide, she had the presence of mind to check herself into Olive View Medical Center, and eventually was able to move into a permanent supportive housing facility. She escaped long-term homelessness, but there are tens of thousands of people on the streets of LA right now who weren’t so lucky. Martiniuk has travelled the US in recent years, speaking about the importance of creating more permanent supportive housing.

HP 35 EM

Emily Martiniuk is a vocal advocate for permanent supportive housing.

As cars drove by on Fairfax, protesters stood at the curb holding signs and chanting slogans. Just before I left I heard them shouting, “Tent city! Do something, Garcetti!” Hopefully somebody at City Hall is listening. It would be great if the Mayor and the City Council finally did decide to do something about this crisis.

HP Tents

Mayor Missing in Action

garcetti-mia

On Wednesday, February 15, eight neighborhood councils sponsored a forum for candidates in the mayoral race. Almost all of them showed up to share their views on the state of the City and to present their vision for the future. Unfortunately, incumbent Eric Garcetti couldn’t make it. Certainly the Mayor is a busy guy, and it might be understandable if he couldn’t appear in person, but his office did tell the organizers that he would be sending a representative to speak in his place. Inexplicably, Garcetti’s representative didn’t make it either. Why is this?

As everybody who lives in LA knows, we’re facing major challenges right now. Nine of the eleven candidates for mayor felt it was important to show up and speak to the community. Apparently the Mayor didn’t feel like it was worth his time.

The neighborhood councils organizing this event spent a lot of time putting it together. Citizens concerned about their communities gave up their Wednesday night to learn where the candidates stood on the issues. But the Mayor couldn’t even send a representative to outline his agenda for a second term. Spokesman Yusef Robb didn’t offer an explanation for Garcetti’s absence, stating only that he was “unavailable”. Anastasia Mann, President of the Hollywood Hills West Neighborhood Council, said she was told by the Mayor’s office that Garcetti didn’t need to be at the event since the other candidates weren’t doing well in the polls. Mann expressed her disappointment at the Mayor’s decision. I’m disappointed, too.

While we’ve seen improvement in LA’s economy during the last four years, Garcetti seems unable (or unwilling) to deal with a number of problems that have only grown more pronounced during his tenure. Families are struggling to cover spiralling costs for housing. Homelessness has risen dramatically. Some of LA’s communities have seen huge spikes in crime. The City’s budget is awash in red ink, even though revenue is up. And in spite of the Mayor’s insistence that the City is promoting transit-oriented development, transit ridership continues to decline.

If you ask me, it’s clear that Garcetti’s tenure as Mayor has been a disaster for Los Angeles, and maybe this explains why he didn’t show up at the forum. If he had been there, he would have had talk about why the City is in such dire straits. So it’s really not surprising that he didn’t have time to appear at this event.

On the other hand, the Mayor does have time for events where he has a chance to suck up more campaign cash. He apparently flew to Sacramento on Wednesday to meet with state officials and attend a fundraiser. It’s clear he hopes to run for higher office, probably governor or senator, and doesn’t plan on serving the full term if re-elected. Maybe that’s why he doesn’t seem terribly interested in solving LA’s problems. Running a city can suck up a lot of time, and who needs the headaches when your number one priority is funding your political career?

Garcetti’s spokesman was right. He is “unavailable”. Also disinterested and disengaged. Apparently the only thing he’s really passionate about is fulfilling his political ambitions. It shouldn’t be hard to find a candidate who cares more than the Mayor about finding solutions to the City’s problems, because the Mayor doesn’t seem to care at all.

Following Through on Earthquake Safety

Photo of building damaged in earthquake from LADBS web site.

Photo of building damaged in earthquake from LADBS web site.

For a while now I’ve been meaning to follow up on a post I did in 2014 about seismic retrofitting. Back then Mayor Garcetti proposed evaluating buildings based on how they’d weather an earthquake, and to make the information available to the public. This was to be the first step in creating a program to reinforce thousands of soft-story apartment buildings, i.e., older wood-frame structures with parking tucked under the units.

It was a great idea, but I have to admit I was skeptical about the Mayor pulling it off. Everybody agreed that it was important to upgrade these older buildings, but implementing such a program meant that landlords and tenants would have to shell out a lot of money to make it happen. I was afraid that after the initial hype faded away, the initiative would die a quiet death at the hands of some committee at City Hall.

I was wrong. Garcetti brought Lucy Jones on board, and she successfully spearheaded the effort to make this happen. The City Council adopted the ordinance in 2015. Earlier this year the Department of Building and Safety started sending letters to property owners letting them know what they have to do to comply. The program will be rolled out in phases, tackling the most risky buildings first. Landlords will be allowed to pass a portion of the cost along to tenants.

The Mayor deserves credit for making this happen, as does Lucy Jones. It wasn’t easy selling it to anxious landlords and tenants. It’ll take years for the process to be completed, but this ordinance will save lives when the next earthquake hits.

If you’d like more information, follow this link to the page at the Department of Building and Safety.

Soft-Story Retrofit Program at LADBS

Inept or Corrupt? Does It Matter?

Construction on the Wilshire Grand in Downtown LA.

Construction on the Wilshire Grand in Downtown LA.

Last week City Controller Ron Galperin published an audit detailing the City’s record on collecting and spending development impact fees. As I read the press release, it’s hard to say whether I was more shocked or angry. The upshot is that the City of LA is failing to collect tens of millions of dollars in fees from developers, and it’s not even spending the money that has been collected. Here’s the lead from the press release.

City Controller Ron Galperin issued an audit that found the City of Los Angeles is failing to exercise its power to charge citywide development impact fees, which State law says can be collected from developers to mitigate their projects’ impacts on neighborhoods and defray the costs of public facilities and infrastructure, such as roads, bridges, libraries, parks and police stations.

I have to ask, What the hell is wrong with out elected officials?! Are they so inept they don’t realize that we can and should collect this money? Or have they gotten so much campaign cash from developers that they feel compelled to let them off the hook when it comes to charging legitimate fees? Either way, these revelations are shocking. This City’s infrastructure is crumbling, we’re seeing an avalanche of new development which is putting an even greater strain on roads, water and public services, and the people at City Hall aren’t even asking for money that we need to address these problems.

The whole thing is just mind-boggling. Here’s another paragraph from the press release.

In preparing their report, auditors in Galperin’s office compared Los Angeles with other western cities. In FY 2013-14, San Francisco had $3.6 billion in permitted construction and collected $96 million in impact fees. Portland had $1.5 billion in permitted construction and collected $31 million. Meanwhile, Los Angeles had $5.3 billion in permitted construction but collected less than $5 million in impact fees. Based on these numbers, auditors said Los Angeles had the potential to collect tens of millions of dollars more in fees.

So even though the value of permitted projects in LA was greater than San Francisco and Portland put together, our local government collected less than 5% of the total fees received by those two cities. Again, I’m shaking my head in disbelief.

Recently Mayor Garcetti made a show of announcing a program to collect linkage fees from developers to fund affordable housing. But in 2011 the City hired a consultant to produce a report which showed that LA could be collecting between $37 million and $112 million annually. Why have our elected officials taken so long to act? It’s going to take at least another year for the City Council to enact this program, and during that time we’ll lose out on many more millions.

Here’s a quote from the letter that Galperin sent to the Mayor with the audit.

The City of Los Angeles’ approach to collecting and spending impact fees to date has been haphazard and most often neighborhood-specific rather than Citywide, as is customary in some other localities, and sometimes, not sensible. No central entity has been responsible for monitoring the fees. And key officials from various City departments told auditors they did not know what other departments were charging.

This City has so many pressing needs, and we’re constantly told by our elected officials that we don’t have the money to address those needs. But according to Galperin’s office, we’ve had the ability to access a major revenue stream that City Hall has almost completely ignored. It’s insane.

If you want to look at the audit, here’s the link.

Audit of Development Impact Fees

And after reading the audit, you might want to call your City Council rep and ask why we didn’t start collecting these fees years ago.

Talking About Displacement

MTA construction along Crenshaw Blvd.

MTA construction along Crenshaw Blvd.

Speaking at a recent Los Angeles Current Affairs Forum, MTA CEO Phil Washington talked about how the growth of LA’s transit network has been accompanied in some areas by gentrification and displacement. Washington is concerned about the fact that low-income residents are being pushed out of the communities they call home, and he wants the MTA to do more to address the problem.

It’s good to hear somebody at the MTA talking about this. The question is what can actually be done. Earlier this year the MTA Board agreed that when new residential units were built on the agency’s land their goal would be to set aside 35% for low-income renters or owners. That’s fine, but it’s not nearly enough. What we really need is to have the City and the County commit to changing their planning practices. Mayor Eric Garcetti and Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas serve on the MTA Board. They should both support Washington and take a public stand against displacement. Then they should push for the City and the County to create policies to address the problem.

While gentrification is happening all over the city, the growth of LA’s transit system definitely seems to be a catalyst. Downtown, Koreatown, Hollywood, and Highland Park have already seen thousands of low-income residents displaced. Leimert Park and Boyle Heights seem to be next on the list as the MTA continues its rapid push to expand, bringing an influx of developer dollars to neighborhoods near rail stops. As property values skyrocket, rents go up, too, and low-income tenants who can’t afford to pay must find somewhere else to live. Tenants in rent-controlled apartments can be forced out by landlords who use the Ellis Act to convert their units to condos.

I’m really glad to hear Washington talking about displacement, and I hope others back him up on this issue. This is a conversation we need to have, and it should have started long ago.

MTA construction in North Hollywood

MTA construction in North Hollywood

High-Speed on the Horizon?

Lt Comp 1 Db

Could we see universal high-speed connectivity come to Los Angeles in the near future? Maybe. The CityLinkLA initiative, backed by Mayor Eric Garcetti and Councilmember Bob Blumenfield, aims to make internet access available to all. Here’s a brief outline from the CityLinkLA web site.

CityLinkLA is an initiative designed to address both the digital divide and our virtual competitiveness. Launched in 2014 by Mayor Eric Garcetti and Councilmember Bob Blumenfield, CityLinkLA is an effort to encourage the private sector to deploy advanced wireline and Wi-Fi digital communications networks so that every residence and business in Los Angeles has access to world-class, high-speed Internet and at prices comparable to those in other innovative communities around the world. The goal is to provide basic access to all for free or at a very low cost and gigabit (1 Gbps) or higher speed access at competitive rates. CityLinkLA is envisioned to include wired gigabit access to every home and business and as close to ubiquitous wireless coverage for the entire City as possible.

First, let me say that I totally support the goal of giving everybody high-speed access to the internet. And I give Garcetti and Blumenfield credit for getting the ball rolling on this. High-speed connectivity will play a major role in making urban centers competitive in the future, and other other cities have already gotten the jump on us. Tech is something Garcetti understands, and he’s done a great job of luring tech companies to the LA area. Entertainment and media companies will also see the attraction of widely available broadband access. And I’m glad the CityLinkLA web site clearly states that one of the goals is to make the internet available to everybody, regardless of income or neighborhood.

But I do have a few reservations. There are different ways to wire a city for universal access. Take Chattanooga, Tennessee and Austin, Texas. Chattanooga’s network is owned by the city, and offers very high speeds to everyone for very low rates. Austin, on the other hand, is pursuing the same approach as LA. That is, inviting private industry the opportunity to do the job, in the hope that competition will keep rates low. And so far that doesn’t seem to be getting the job done. For details, check out the two articles below.

Chattanooga’s Super-Fast Publicly Owned Internet from CNN

Austin Shows Us What Broadband Competition Was Supposed to Look Like from TechDirt

Personally, I’d prefer to see LA offer broadband through a public utility, because I think it would lead to lower rates, more transparency and more control. Having said that, it’s important to note that Chattanooga is pretty small (population under 200,000) and LA is really big (population almost 4,000,000). There would certainly be huge hurdles to overcome in setting up a publicly owned network here. I’d like to know, though, if anybody really explored that possibility before opening this up to private companies.

My other reservation has to do with the fact that the City is offering some of its assets to the private sector in order to make the deal attractive. To a degree, this is reasonable, but I think we have to analyze this carefully to make sure we’re not compromising the City’s infrastructure or giving sweetheart deals to companies that stand to make a pile of money. In other words, we have to control the process, and we need to make sure we’re not getting ripped off.

I want to thank Stephanie Magnien Rockwell, Policy Director at Bob Blumenfield’s office, for her quick response to my e-mail asking for more information. She sent me the link to the council file on this initiative, which you’ll find below.

Council File: 13-0953, CityLinkLA

If you’re interested in getting more details, there’s tons of info here. It’s worth highlighting the fact that a number of neighborhood councils have submitted statements in support of the intitiative, though the South Robertson Neighborhood Council “requests that the City
include provisions protecting and requiring net neutrality”. Not a bad idea. For a thorough breakdown of the intitiative, click on this link to read the CAO’s analysis.

CAO’s Report on CityLinkLA Inititative

And here’s the link to the CityLinkLA web site.

CityLinkLA

This could be a real breakthrough for Los Angeles. High-speed access for all would be a huge step forward, but there are also huge risks involved. We need to stay informed and engaged as this process unfolds.

A New Vision or Another Con?

A view of the Hollywood Freeway from Franklin

A view of the Hollywood Freeway from Franklin

A while ago I was walking down Franklin around rush hour, and I came across a sight that’s becoming way too familiar. Looking down Vine, I saw a line of cars that extended all the way down the block.

Looking down Vine at rush hour

Looking down Vine at rush hour

I pulled out my camera, because I’ve kind of gotten obsessed with documenting traffic in LA. You probably think this is a pretty weird pasttime, but it keeps me off the streets. Oh, wait. No, actually it doesn’t….

Intersection of Vine and Yucca

Intersection of Vine and Yucca

Anyway, I walked down Vine taking pictures, and guess what I saw when I got to Yucca?

Cars lining up in the left turn lane on Yucca

Cars lining up in the left turn lane on Yucca

If you guessed another long line of cars, you were right. If you don’t live in the area, this may not seem like anything remarkable. But having lived in Hollywood for a while, I can tell you that this is a pretty recent phenomenon. Yucca used to be very quiet. I’d say up to three or four years ago Yucca was empty even at rush hour. Obviously that’s changed.

I kept on walking, and you’ve probably already guessed that when I got to Argyle, I saw yet another line of cars crawling along.

More cars backed up on Argyle

More cars backed up on Argyle

But the thing that surprised me was, traffic on Argyle was backed up all the way to Hollywood Blvd..

Still more cars backed up on Argyle

Still more cars backed up on Argyle

I walked up Argyle, shooting more photos as I passed underneath the bridge.

Traffic crawling north on Argyle

Traffic crawling north on Argyle

Then I was back at Franklin, and by now everybody knows what I found when I got there.

Westbound traffic on Franklin

Westbound traffic on Franklin

You may be asking, where were all these cars heading? Well, they were all trying to get on the northbound Hollywood Freeway. And traffic on the freeway was moving pretty damn slow.

Northbound onramp for the Hollywood Freeway

Northbound onramp for the Hollywood Freeway

I think we’d all agree that LA’s streets are way too congested, and we’ve got to start thinking about transportation in new ways. Cars are a dead end. We’ve got to stop building to accomodate them. The recent expansion of the San Diego Freeway showed what a waste of time that is. We can add as many lanes as we want, and they’ll all end up choked with traffic.

So some people see the City Council’s adoption of the Mobility Plan 2035 as a major step in the right direction. It sure sounds swell. With chapters titled “Safety First”, “World Class Infrastructure” and “Access for All Angelenos”, the MP 2035 paints a picture of a utopian LA, where everybody can get everywhere they want without ever needing a car.

But a lot of people are skeptical about the benefits the plan will actually provide, and I’m one of them. I totally support increased access to all modes of transportation, and if you take the MP 2035 at face value, it sounds great. The question is, will the plan deliver what it promises, and to answer that question you have to look at what our elected officials have actually been doing for the last several years.

Under the heading Key Policy Initiatives, the plan includes the following goal….

Consider the strong link between land use and transportation

No doubt about it, land use and transportation have to be considered together. For years now the Mayor and the City Council have been pushing transit oriented density (TOD). In theory, planning for higher density near transit centers will create a new dynamic where people will find using public transit preferable to driving a car. Now, if we were building affordable housing near transit centers that allowed easy access to the areas where jobs were concentrated, this might actually work. But that’s not what the Mayor and the City Council have actually been doing. Instead, they’ve been pushing relentlessly for high-end, high-rise housing that caters to people with six figure incomes. Check out the proposed 8150 Sunset, Horizon Hollywood and Shenzhen Hazens project in South Park for three examples. There are many more in the planning stages. Do the rich ride the subway? I’m sure some of them do, but let’s be honest. In LA, this is the demographic that is least likely to use public transit, while people at the lower end of the economic spectrum often have no other choice.

This is not transit oriented density. It’s profit oriented density. The Mayor and the City Council can tell us they’re linking land use to transportation to make transit more accessible, but recent history shows that this is mostly a con used to push through projects that only benefit developers who are looking to make a pile of money. Not only have our elected officials’ efforts to create affordable housing been pathetic, but by pushing gentrification in areas that used to be affordable, they’re actually forcing low-income workers farther away from job centers.

So if you ask me whether the MP 2035 will deliver what it promises, I can’t say I’m optimistic. Even before Garcetti became the Mayor, when his council district covered much of central Hollywood, he pushed through a number of “TOD” projects, telling residents that this would solve our transportation problems. Take a look at the video below and let me know if you think it’s working.