Are Downtown Residents Really Dumping Their Cars for Transit?

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.

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’

Showdown in Echo Park

Photo by Elizabeth Chou, Southern California News Group

The conflict over the homeless encampment at Echo Park Lake seems to be over.  For now.  After months of growing tension, things came to a head this week when the City of LA announced that it planned to close the park and that all persons living on the premises had to leave.  Protests began on Wednesday morning.  Later that day city workers showed up and began erecting a fence, while the LAPD announced that those remaining inside the park would be cited.  Representatives of the LA Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) offered temporary housing for those who wanted it, and while there were many takers, some declined. 

After a couple of chaotic days, the LAPD announced on Thursday night that anyone remaining in the park would be subject to arrest.  Apparently by Friday the park was closed and all those who had been living there were gone. 

Of course, this is just the latest episode in the ongoing story of housing and homelessness in LA.  Nothing has been resolved, and really there’s no reason to think anything will be resolved any time in the near future.  The forces that are driving LA’s homeless epidemic are still at work, and the LA City Council is doing nothing meaningful to change the situation.  A renter relief program and a temporary eviction moratorium are just band aids on a gaping wound.  As long as the City Council continues to prioritize the wishes of real estate investors over the needs of LA’s renters, things will just keep getting worse. 

As an LA Times editorial pointed out earlier this week, while LAHSA’s stats show that in 2019 an average of 207 homeless people were housed each day, the daily average of people who become newly homeless was 227.  There are a lot of different factors that lead to people living on the street, but the biggest factor is that they can’t afford housing. 

While Mayor Eric Garcetti and the City Council constantly tell us that their number one priority is providing housing for the people of LA, the facts tell us something completely different.  According to the LA Department of City Planning’s Housing Dashboard, from July 2013 through December 2020 the City approved 162,706 new units.  Of those units, 87% were for Above Moderate Income households.  The remaining 13% is the total for Moderate Income, Low Income and Very Low Income households COMBINED.  During this period, the City of LA has produced more than double the number of Above Moderate Income units required by the State’s Regional Housing Needs Assessment (RHNA).  It has not come anywhere near meeting the goals for the other three RHNA categories. 

And let’s take this further.  The Housing Dashboard says that the total number of affordable units approved during this period was 20,591.  But according to the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project (which gets its data from the City of LA), during roughly this same period, January 2014 through December 2020, 9,444 rent-stabilized (RSO) units were removed from the market under the Ellis Act.  This leaves us with a net gain of 11,147 units accessible to Moderate and Low Income households. 

Right about now some of you may be saying, “Well, if we just ramp up allowable density the free market will solve our housing problem for us.  We need to upzone LA.”  My response is, take a look at New York City.  New York City has been on an upzoning binge for the past decade.  What have they got to show for it?  A bunch of super-tall skyscrapers that have created a massive glut on the luxury housing market, while the Coalition for the Homeless reports that in 2020 there were 122,926 different homeless men, women, and children who slept in New York City’s shelters. 

Getting back to Echo Park Lake, about the only positive thing I can say is that there was some really good reporting by the local press.  I was impressed by Elizabeth Chou’s work for the Daily News, and I’d like to link to the story, but it’s restricted by a paywall.  LAist also did a solid job.  Actually, one of the best commentaries on this mess was in an e-mail I got from LAist, their Morning Brief written by Jessica P. Ogilvie.  I couldn’t find it on their web site, so I’ll quote an excerpt….

The Echo Park tent community has found itself at the center of several heated debates over how to handle the city’s dire housing crisis. In January of 2020, a planned sweep of the encampment, which can lead to residents losing their belongings and being left with no place to go, was met by protesters who blocked city vehicles and stood near tents.

The following month, protesters once again joined residents to defend their right to be there.

Many who oppose officials’ plan to clear the area say that it’s a public relations maneuver, and blame the area’s city council representative, Mitch O’Farrell, for not doing more to ensure the safety of those living in the encampment.

Recently, officials and advocates have announced plans to ease the plight of L.A.’s unhoused residents by building community land trusts, making it easier to construct granny flats, and establishing communities of tiny homes.

But these efforts, while no doubt well-intentioned, are only the latest in an exhausting series of projects to get the problem under control. Some ideas have also included government-funded campsites, vacant hotel rooms, empty parking lots, neighborhood shelters, new legislation, emergency shelters, RV parks, prevention efforts, and more.

Mitch O’Farrell claims he cares about the homeless and wants everybody to have secure housing.  But this is the same man who recently voted to approve the hotel project at 1719 Whitley which involves the demolition of 40 rent-stabilized units.  And all the rest of his fellow Councilmembers, with the exception of David Ryu, joined him in voting to greenlight the project.

That should give you an idea of how much the LA City Council really cares about solving our housing problems.

Still from video posted on Twitter by Services Not Sweeps

Just Upzoning the Suburbs Won’t Solve Our Housing Problems

Anybody who pays attention to the news knows that there’s a heated, ongoing debate in LA, and across California, about how to solve our housing problems.  There are lots of different proposals floating around, but the message we hear most often from elected officials and the development community is that we have to upzone to allow a whole lot more density.  The argument goes that it’s just a matter of supply and demand.  If we upzone our cities and upzone our suburbs, that will unleash the power of the free market and we’ll have plenty of cheap housing for everybody  

One idea that’s especially hot right now is the proposal to upzone areas dominated by single-family homes (SFH).  Some State legislators have embraced this approach, resulting in bills like SB 1120.  The City of LA hasn’t yet made a move to upzone SFH areas, but the concept is popular among local progressives who believe we just need to build more housing.  Heated debates have erupted over the topic on social media.  At a recent hearing on the Hollywood Community Plan Update (HCPU) some members of the public expressed enthusiastic support for ending SFH zoning. 

It’s easy to see why the idea is popular.  Young people, especially young people of color, are finding it difficult or impossible to afford housing these days.  Whether you’re renting or buying, prices are sky-high.  If you accept the argument that just creating more supply will drive prices down, it must seem insane to maintain zoning that only allows single-family homes.  The argument is that older, affluent homeowners are selfishly defending their own turf, shutting out young people who struggle to make ends meet.  Proponents of upzoning SFH areas also point to the history of racism that used tools like zoning to promote segregation.

Taking the last point first, there’s no question that racism has been a huge factor in housing policy in LA (and across the nation).  There’s a well-documented history of real estate interests working with city officials to favor whites over people of color.  It’s naive to think that racism doesn’t still play a part in the housing market today.  Beyond that, it’s completely understandable that young people who can barely afford to pay the rent would look at the suburbs and ask why some people own single-family homes when they’re just a step or two away from homelessness.  And there’s another reason the idea of upzoning SFH areas is attractive: It’s simple.  If just building more homes will allow everyone to have housing, how could anyone argue against it? 

And that’s the problem.  The way case is being stated is too simplistic.  It assumes that all we have is a problem of supply and demand.  But the 21st century housing market is far from simple.  There are many reasons why housing is so inaccessible for so many people.  Zoning is a factor, but it’s just one aspect of the problem.  The biggest factor, one that’s often ignored in heated housing debates, is that real estate has become a global industry powered by trillions of dollars in investor cash. In The Vacancy Report (SAJE/ACCE/UCLA Law, 2020) researchers point out that in recent decades housing has rapidly become financialized.  Private equity and corporate entities have come to dominate the housing market, and they’re only interested in getting the highest rate of return as quickly as possible.

So if we’re talking about upzoning, it’s important to say up front that the value of urban and suburban land is determined by how much you can build on it.  As soon as you upzone a parcel, its value increases.  The more you can build, the more it’s worth.  If you take a parcel that’s zoned for one single-family home and upzone it to allow four, eight or more units, you’re actually making the land much more valuable and therefore much more costly.  The cost of land in LA is already extremely high, and increasing allowed density will drive the cost even higher. 

If the key issue is the lack of affordable housing, upzoning by itself does nothing to solve the problem.  As Patrick Condon points out in his book Sick City, when a city just increases allowable density, it’s really increasing the cost of the land, and that additional cost is ultimately paid by the household that’s renting or buying.  The benefit goes to the landowner, not the renter or buyer.  For a solution, Condon holds up Cambridge, Massachusetts, where city officials adopted an ordinance that allows increased density but only for the construction of permanently affordable units. 

This is a radical solution, and one that probably has no chance of being adopted in a city like LA.  The first people to object would be real estate investors, who would argue that they can’t possibly make a profit by building affordable units.  Exactly.  Because the Cambridge ordinance includes strict affordability requirements, it increases allowable density without jacking up the value of the land.  This opens the door to not-for-profit affordable housing developers who can build what we most need: housing accessible to middle-income and low-income people.  California legislators claim that bills like SB 1120 will help solve our housing problem just because they increase density, but without an affordability requirement, we might as well just be stuffing cash in the pockets of real estate investors.  

And now back to the Hollywood Community Plan Update.  The HCPU Community Plan Implementation Overlay (CPIO) is also based on the idea that increasing density will solve all our housing problems.  It offers generous incentives for residential projects in Central Hollywood that include some affordable housing.  Projects that offer between 10% and 23% affordable can receive a 100% density bonus, along with other incentives like increased floor area ratio (FAR) and reduced setbacks. 

This is actually a rehash of the Transit Oriented Community (TOC) Incentives, a program that’s already in place.  The City boasts about the affordable housing created by the TOC program, but what they don’t mention is that many TOC projects involve the demolition of existing rent-stabilized (RSO) units.  The City does require replacement units to be built, but it allows the developer to count replacement units toward the affordable total.  So a project recently approved at 4629 W. Maubert includes 17 new affordable units, but it also involves the demolition of 14 RSO units, meaning we have a net gain of 3 units accessible to low-income households.  The TOC approved for 1920 N. Whitley includes 3 affordable units, but replaces 3 RSO units.  No gain there.  At 1341 N. Hobart the approved project offers 7 affordable units, but will erase 9 RSO units, meaning a net loss of 2.  These projects will produce dozens of new high-end units, but there’s no shortage of those.  What we really need is housing accessible to low-income tenants.   

Since the vast majority of housing in Central Hollywood consists of RSO apartments, the hefty incentives offered by the HCPU are basically putting a target on the backs of renters who live in the area.  For instance, a developer buys a property containing a rent-stabilized four-plex where existing zoning would allow 20 units.  Taking advantage of the HCPU density bonus, they propose a new building with 40 units, including four extremely low income units to satisfy the affordable requirement.  The developer gets a huge profit as a result of doubling the allowed density.  The RSO tenants get an eviction notice.  And there’s no net gain in low-cost housing.  In other words, by jacking up density in Central Hollywood the HCPU incentivizes displacement.  And it gets even better for developers.  Under the Plan’s CPIO, City Planning can approve the project without holding a single hearing.  There’s no requirement for community engagement, and no possibility of appeal.  If the project meets the CPIO’s requirements, it’s a done deal. 

If just increasing density made housing more affordable, Manhattan would be one of the cheapest places on earth to live.  It’s not.  It’s one of the most expensive.  New York City has been on a building binge over the past decade, with massive upzoning leading to a swarm of super-tall skyscrapers.  What’s the result?  A glut of units at the high-end of the market, while middle-income and low-income households are still struggling to keep a roof over their heads, in spite of inclusionary zoning requirements that were supposed to deliver affordable housing. 

Increasing density can bring benefits, but only when coupled with careful planning.  Sweeping proposals to upzone large swaths of urban or suburban land will do nothing to increase affordability.  They’ll just funnel more money into the bank accounts of real estate investors.  And upzoning urban land can be especially dangerous.  Without strong protections for tenants (which the HCPU does not have) density bonus measures will likely lead to even more displacement. 

There are no simple answers.  Upzoning by itself will not solve anything.

Seniors at Sakura Gardens Face Displacement

Photo from Los Angeles Conservancy by John Sequeira

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

Boyle Heights Neighborhood Council Statement

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

Boyle Heights Neighborhood Council Opposes Pacifica Proposal

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

Stop Pacifica from Closing Sakura ICF

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

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

Now Leasing

Scene from the corner of Ivar and De Longpre in Hollywood.

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.

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

Rent Strike

LATU Rent Strike Vine Selma 2005 SM

Things are heating up. The Los Angeles Tenants Union (LATU) has called for a rent strike. And they’re not alone. According to a graphic posted by the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project, there are tenants withholding rent in the Bay Area and San Diego. The Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE) seems to be on board, too. Here’s an excerpt from a statement they released….

Today on May 1st, millions of tenants and homeowners across the country will be unable to make their housing payments. Many of us are choosing food and groceries over rent – a choice no one should have to make

We are turning our economic reality into political action, by going on strike today to demand rent and mortgage forgiveness! Governor Newsom has the power to cancel rent and mortgage payments for those impacted by the COVID crisis – join us in urging him to do it!

The health and well-being of our children, our seniors – all of us – is at stake. Together we have the power to force the politicians to recognize our reality. Together we need to make them recognize that housing is a basic human right.

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Rent strike graphic from ACCE web site.

Other groups are taking a different approach. Here’s part of a press release from a group called Street Watch LA….

An unhoused Los Angeles resident, Davon Brown, has gained access to an empty hotel room at the Ritz Carlton in Downtown Los Angeles with the intent to stay to shelter in place during the COVID-19 crisis. He entered the room after asking to see one before booking, and with the support of community organizers from Street Watch LA (an initiative by the Los Angeles chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America) he has refused to leave until Mayor Garcetti commandeers vacant hotel rooms for the unhoused during the pandemic.

Obviously the pandemic is pushing people to take extreme measures, but it would be a mistake to think this is just about the coronavirus. Housing prices have been soaring for years. Millions of people are rent burdened. There are tens of thousands of homeless people in LA County. We’ve been moving closer to a tipping point for years, and the virus may be pushing us over the edge.

I have mixed feelings about the rent strike. On the one hand, there are a number of landlords out there who work hard to provide decent housing at a fair price. I know some of them personally, and I worry that they could be impacted if their tenants stop paying rent. On the other hand, there are also a lot of predatory real estate investors who have been snapping up multi-family housing, kicking out tenants and then raising rents so they can flip the building. I’ve seen many of them in action, and honestly I think they should be in jail. They have no interest in providing housing. To them apartment buildings are just an asset, and all they care about is jacking up the value so they can make a quick profit.

To make things even worse, most of our elected officials either turn a blind eye or actively encourage this kind of real estate speculation. Over the past few years the City of LA has been granting permits to legally convert residential units into hotel rooms. Last year the City passed its Home Sharing Ordinance to prohibit landlords from offering apartments as short-term rentals, but the practice still seems fairly widespread. Mayor Eric Garcetti has tried to convince people that he’s concerned about the housing crisis, but in fact, first as a Councilmember and now as Mayor, he’s shown over and over again that he’s a fervent supporter of predatory real estate investment.

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Image posted on LATU Facebook page from a protest outside the mansion in Hancock Park where Mayor Garcetti lives.

I don’t know how the rent strike will turn out, but it seems to me that this is only the beginning. Middle and low income households have been hurting for years. While wages have mostly remained stagnant, the cost of living has continued to climb. Young people who can’t find a decent job have been forced into the gig economy, which in most cases means they don’t get sick time, they don’t get vacation days, and their employer can cut them loose by sending them a text.

The pandemic isn’t the problem. It’s just the catalyst. Things have been messed up for a long time. It’s just now that people are getting desperate enough to take action.

LATU Rent Strike Sign in Boyle Heights from LATU FB Page 2005

Photo of rent strike banner over freeway in Boyle Heights, also from LATU Facebook page.

 

LA Renters Are Being Priced Out

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I’m not a big fan of TV news, but I was impressed by this report from CBS. The title, Priced Out, says it all. Tenants are being displaced because real estate investors are buying multifamily buildings and jacking up the prices so they can cash in. This means working people are being forced out of their homes. The idea that we can build our way out of this crisis is ludicrous. Yes, we need to build housing, but the people who argue that high housing prices are simply the result of short supply don’t know what they’re talking about. According to the CBS report, median rent in LA increased 84% from 2010 to 2018. This is a direct result of a massive expansion in real estate speculation, and the impacts on LA households have been devastating. Click on the link to view the video.

Priced Out: LA’s Hidden Homeless

Dismantling Times Mirror Square: Housing vs. History?

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In late November, the LA City Council’s Planning & Land Use Management (PLUM) Committee considered giving Times Mirror Square landmark status. It was an interesting hearing. The application nominating the site for Historic-Cultural Monument status was submitted by a group of people, including local preservationists Kim Cooper and Richard Schave, as well as architectural historian Alan Hess. There’s really no argument that Times Mirror Square has played a huge part in LA’s history. The debate centered around how much of it should be preserved.

As someone who grew up with newspapers, I have to remind myself that these days most people under 30 see them as a useless holdover from the past. The number of print publications has fallen dramatically over the past 20 years, and while a number of major papers continue to publish on-line, they’re struggling to reach an audience. These days a lot of Americans get their “news” from sources that don’t even claim to be news outlets. Do people under 30 have any idea how powerful and influential major newspapers were before the internet? From the early days of the 20th century the Times had a huge impact on local politics, the regional economy, and the built landscape. If the Times had never existed, LA would probably look very different than it does today.

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Los Angeles Times Building at First and Spring, designed by Gordon Kaufman

At the PLUM hearing, nobody questioned the site’s historical significance. The debate was all about the structure, or really the structures. Times Mirror Square was actually built in pieces over decades. The first segment, located at First and Spring and designed by Gordon Kaufman, was completed in 1935. In 1948 the owners extended the complex to the corner of Second and Spring, and the architect for this phase was Rowland Crawford. The final segment, built on the west side of the site in 1973, was designed by William Pereira. (And if you really want to dig into the details, you’d also have to count the plant building and the parking structure.)

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The Mirror Building at Spring and Second, designed by Rowland Crawford

For those who don’t know much about the Times’ history, here’s a quick summary. The paper was founded at the end of the 19th century and played a major role in LA’s development throughout the 20th. In its early years, editor Harrison Gray Otis made the paper successful through ardent boosterism, pushing hard for LA’s growth. The Times played a key role in advocating for the construction of the LA Aqueduct. Otis’ conservative, pro-business policies were shared by his successors, Harry Chandler and Norman Chandler. But things changed when Otis Chandler took over in 1960. The Times adopted a more independent perspective and expanded its staff, striving to become a national paper on the level of the New York Times. The change was quickly apparent. While in the past the Times had fanned the flames of bigotry, soon after Otis Chandler took over it ran a series exposing racism in the John Birch Society. When Richard Nixon lost the race for California governor, he blamed the LA TImes. Before 1960 the paper had never won a Pulitzer. Since 1960 it’s won 44.

Unfortunately, in 2000 the Times was sold to the pack of idiots at the Tribune Company. They spent over 15 years turning what had been a regional media giant into a pathetic shadow of its former self. In 2018 the paper was finally freed from the toxic grasp of the Tribune when it was purchased by billionaire Patrick Soon-Shiong. Not long after purchasing the Times, Soon-Shiong announced that its offices would be relocating to El Segundo, and that Times Mirror Square would be sold to developer Onni Group.

And this is what the debate at the PLUM hearing was all about. Onni has proposed preserving the Kaufman and Crawford buildings, but getting rid of the Pereira addition in order to build two residential towers. The preservationists who nominated Times Mirror Square wanted to landmark the entire site, which would make development more difficult.

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Times Mirror Headquarters at the corner of First and Broadway, designed by William Pereira

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View of Times Mirror building along Broadway

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City Hall and the Clara Shortridge Foltz Criminal Justice Center reflected in the facade of the Times Mirror building

Back in September, the Cultural Heritage Commission (CHC) sided with the preservationists. In spite of a report from GPA Consulting that took great pains to play down the quality of the Pereira building, the CHC voted to include it in their recommendation, saying that all of Times Mirror Square was worthy of landmark status. Interestingly, GPA also dug deep into the Pereira firm’s archives to question whether the architect designed the project himself. They seemed determined to block the nomination of that segment, which is exactly what Onni Group wanted. But it’s commonplace for the principle of an architectural firm to assign a team to complete the bulk of the work on a project. While GPA argued at the hearing that the Pereira building was not a significant example of the architect’s work, many others, including architectural historian Hess, insisted that it was.

This is the second time I’ve run across GPA in covering preservation issues, and I have to say I’m not impressed by their work. When DLJ Capital bought the 800 Traction building and decided to evict the Japanese-American artists who lived and worked there, the new owners brought in GPA to evaluate the structure’s history. While GPA found that the building deserved landmark status, their report managed to avoid any mention of the Japanese-American community that had lived in the area for decades. They also whitewashed 800 Traction’s history by omitting references to the Japanese-American artists who had lived and worked in the building for years, some going back as far as the 80s. And somehow GPA failed to note that some of these artists played a key role in creating the Downtown Arts District. Seems to me that GPA Consulting basically serves as a hired gun, dedicated to helping real estate investors push their projects forward.

History is a complicated thing. Most of us know relatively little about the city we live in. Sometimes it turns out we aren’t even really familiar with the things we think we know well. In early December I went down to Times Mirror Square to shoot some photos. I have to say the visit was an eye-opener. I bet I’ve walked by the building a thousand times, but while I was taking pictures I realized there was a lot that I’d never really seen. Walking past the main entrance on First Street I’d certainly noticed the contrast between the Kaufman and Pereira buildings, but I’d never paid any attention to the Crawford building. I’d never looked closely at the lines or the materials. I’d never read the inscriptions on the First Street facade. I’d never really thought about the way the Pereira building shapes the space.

And I’d never noticed this plaque near the corner of Spring and Second.

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Looking at it made me think about the many changes that have happened in Downtown, and reminded me that things will always keep changing. There are whole histories that have been bulldozed and buried. Thousands of stories I’ll never know. And while I believe preservation is important, we can’t save every old building, or even every beautiful building. Inevitably, the City will keep growing. It can’t remain static. So we have to weigh these things, and ask whether the changes are happening for better or for worse.

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View of Times Mirror Square from Spring

A number of people spoke at the PLUM Committee hearing, and again, the discussion was pretty all much about whether the Pereira structure should be preserved. Obviously, the developer reps and the business community argued against preserving that portion. The Committee also heard from a number of union workers who shared that view. On the other side you had preservationists arguing that the Pereira addition was an important example of the architect’s work, and an important part of the building’s history.

I agree with the preservationists. While all three architects involved with Times Mirror Square did impressive work, Pereira had the most extensive relationship with the LA area. He played a crucial role in shaping the city’s modernist period, and designed some of its most remarkable structures, including CBS Television City, Otis College of Art & Design (original campus), and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (original campus). He also made significant contributions to Los Angeles International Airport,
the University of Southern California, and Occidental College. Pereira was a major player in creating the look of mid-century LA.

As for Times Mirror Square, I completely agree with the people who say the Pereira addition has a cold, corporate feel. That doesn’t make it bad architecture. In fact, it has a striking sculptural strength, and the way it shapes the space around it is impressive. Actually, I think it’s an appropriate expression of the power and position the Times held back in the 70s. Does it fit with the older buildings? Depends on what you mean by “fit”. The contrast between the Kaufman and Pereira structures is jarring, and I’m certain that’s what Pereira wanted. And remember, we’re talking about LA architecture. In most other cities this kind of mash-up would stand out as a bizarre oddity. In this city, it’s just one of many examples of extreme stylistic conflict. Over the last hundred years, the story of LA architecture has been all about brash, experimental eclecticism.

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Pereira building in foreground and Kaufman building in background

But it was pretty clear where the PLUM Committee hearing was going. The developer didn’t want the Pereira building to be declared historic, and that was a pretty strong sign the PLUM Committee didn’t want that to happen either. They’re very accomodating. Anybody who thought replacing former Chair Jose Huizar with Marqueece Harris-Dawson might change things was living in a fool’s paradise. At this PLUM hearing the main order of business appeared to be giving real estate investors whatever they asked for, just like when Huizar was running the show.

I did think it was interesting that people kept bringing up housing as an important issue. The developer, the union folks, the PLUM Committee all kept talking about how Downtown needed housing badly, and how Onni’s proposed luxury skyscraper would help ease that need. That’s weird. When I look at web sites for residential buildings in Downtown I find that a lot of them are offering discounts for signing a lease. Some are offering up to two months free rent. You wouldn’t think they’d be offering such great deals if housing was in really short supply.

Something else that’s weird. Onni’s reps are claiming that there’s a housing shortage in Downtown, but at one of their other buildings not too far away they’re turning residential units into hotel rooms. A few years ago the developer opened Level Furnished Living at Ninth and Olive. It was approved as 303 residential units, but in 2017 local activists discovered that Level’s owners were actually offering the units as hotel rooms. At first they were doing it illegally, but City Hall was good enough to grant them a TORS conversion for 97 units. This stands for Transit Occupancy Residential Structure, and basically it means you’re turning housing into hotel rooms. And it looks like were going to see more of this. Another developer has filed an application to build a 27-story high-rise at 949 South Hope. The project description calls it a residential tower, but if you look at the requested approvals you’ll see that the developer is asking for the TORS designation up front. In other words, once the building is open it could be used as housing or hotel rooms.

This is a brilliant way to reduce vacancy rates in Downtown. Obviously Onni is really on to something. If you can’t market your units as apartments or condos, just turn them into hotel rooms. That way you’re turning a profit even if there really is no demand for housing. And the best part is, once you slap on the TORS designation, these units don’t have to be counted when calculating Downtown’s vacancy rate. If an apartment or condo is sitting empty, then it’s a vacant unit. If it’s a hotel room, it’s just an empty hotel room. It’s sheer genius. The City can reduce the Downtown vacancy rate just by calling these units something else.

Of couse, if Onni is turning residential units into hotel rooms at Level, you’ve got to ask if the need for housing in Downtown is really that severe. And at the same time, you have to ask if the PLUM Committee has any real interest in easing LA’s housing crisis. More likely they’re just helping a developer create another valuable asset for their portfolio.

After public comment, the PLUM Committee members spoke briefly, and it was pretty clear they were all on board with Onni’s agenda. They voted to recommend granting historic status to the Kaufman and Crawford buildings, but not to the Pereira building. In early December the full City Council adopted the Committee’s recommendation. Looks like Onni will get to go forward with its two residential towers. And if we find out in a few years that those residential towers have somehow turned into luxury hotels, well, that’s just the way things work in the City of LA.

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