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’

Traffic-Oriented Development

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For over a decade people at City Hall have been talking about transit-oriented development (TOD). In theory, if we create high-density residential and commercial developments near transit centers, people will be encouraged to take busses and trains instead of driving their cars. Makes sense, right? So for years the City has been telling us we have to build up instead of out, that we need to go vertical instead of horizontal. And they’ve approved a slew of high-rises, all the while insisting that this will get people out of cars and onto transit.

Before I go any further, I’d like you to watch a video. It lasts about twelve minutes, and it was shot during rush hour not too far from Hollywood and Vine.

I hope the video makes my point clear.* The City keeps approving high-rises, and when communities complain that congestion will get worse, planners and politicians invariably say that the people who live and/or work in these buildings will surely take transit. But they’ve been saying that for over a decade now, and it ain’t working. The MTA station at Hollywood and Vine is a hub for a number of bus lines, as well as the subway. But these people are all driving right past it.

I’m not against TOD, but to make it work, you’ve got to do some planning. Instead of creating a well thought out framework for all this development, the City keeps dumping project after project in the Hollywood area. Mayor Garcetti will tell you that the City did produce the Hollywood Community Plan Update (HCPU), and residents sued to overturn it. That’s true. Among the HCPU’s many shortcomings, the population figure it was based on was inflated by about 10%, in spite of the fact that US Census numbers were readily available. The judge who threw the plan out called it “fatally flawed”.

To give you an idea of how little City Hall cares about planning, let’s go back to those two buildings in the video. The residential high-rise on the southwest corner is just getting started, and the hotel on the northeast corner isn’t quite finished. But look at how bad traffic is already, long before these projects are completed. Unbelievably, the City is considering approval of a third high-rise at the very same intersection. How clueless can you get?!

As I said in the video, I don’t own a car and depend on transit to get around. I support planning to encourage transit use. But TOD isn’t working in LA. Why? I think primarily it’s because that’s not really what the City is building. If our elected officials were really interested in building TOD, they’d be pushing high-density housing made up mostly of affordable units. But instead, the City has been encouraging developers to build high-priced housing by offering them generous entitlements.

I got on the Department of City Planning web site and took a look at multi-family projects in Hollywood and North Hollywood that have been built near Red Line stations since the subway was completed. The Lofts and The Gallery at Noho Commons combined contain 724 units. Eastown, when the second phase is completed, will have over 1,000. The Jefferson has 270, and is the only one that offers any affordable housing, 27 units. So out of about 2,000 apartments, only 27 are accessible to people in lower income brackets. And if you’re not one of the lucky few to snag one of low cost units, you can expect to spend at least $2,000 a month for a one bedroom. Let’s not even talk about what it might cost to live at The Vermont, which sits just across from the Vermont/Wilshire station. And call it a hunch, but I don’t think the massive Wilshire Grand Tower, which is rising up next to the 7th/Figueroa station, will be offering any affordable units at all.

According to a story published by the LA Times earlier this year (Measuring Income along LA’s Metro Stations, March 4, 2016), the median income in almost all communities served by the Red Line is well below the County median of $55,870, ranging roughly from $22,000 to $46,000 a year. (Universal City is the lone exception, with residents there making well above the County median.) For the people in the lowest income bracket, renting an apartment at the newer “TOD” buildings would consume pretty much all their earnings, and even at the higher end of the scale it would mean spending over half what they make in a year. The City says these high-density projects encourage transit use, but most transit riders couldn’t afford to live in them.

Could this be one of the reasons that transit ridership is lower now than it was back in 1985? There may be many reasons for the decline, but you’ve got to wonder why the MTA is serving fewer people than it did three decades ago. The drop in ridership is even more disturbing when you realize that the population of LA County (the area served by the MTA) has grown by over a million since 1985. Does anyone see a problem here? City Hall has been telling us for years that their policies will get people off the road and onto transit. Instead, we’ve seen a net loss in transit ridership since the eighties, in spite of the fact that the population has continued to climb. And the traffic that used to just clog the main thoroughfares is now spilling over onto side streets.

The City’s claim that they’re promoting transit-oriented density is bogus. What they’re really doing is allowing developers who spend a fortune lobbying City Hall to cash in on projects that don’t serve the majority of Angelenos. They’re backing projects geared towards the affluent, which is what developers want because that’s where the highest profits are. Meanwhile lines of cars sit on our streets and freeways at rush hour, burning fossil fuels and spewing greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere.

You call this transit-oriented development? I call it a disgusting sham.

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Just in case you’re thinking traffic is bad because it’s a Hollywood Bowl night, it’s not. The video was shot on Tuesday, October 25. Nothing was on the schedule that evening. But I can tell you the back-up on these streets can get way worse when something is happening at the Bowl.

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