Los Angeles: A Hollywood Ending for its Housing Crisis?

by on April 9, 2019

Boyle Heights' Mariachi Plaza

I’m heading to Los Angeles this week to discuss Generation Priced Out: Who Gets to Live in the New Urban America at two events: the LA Times Book Festival Sunday at 3pm (Hancock Foundation, Signing Area 1) and at UCLA’s Luskin School  in the Public Affairs Building, Room 2355 on Monday at 12:30pm. I grew up in the city and have a long chapter in the book about LA’s housing shortage, rising tenant resistance and its strategies to improve affordability.

LA’s Threefold Crisis

I argue in Generation Priced Out that cities seeking to stop the pricing out of the working and middle-class cities must take three actions:  protect tenants, preserve rental housing, and build a lot more units. Los Angeles has fallen short in all three areas.

Los Angeles’s problem has been the enormous political clout of two constituencies that benefit from rising housing prices: Big Real Estate and homeowner groups. Both are much more powerful than their counterparts in San Francisco.

Landlord groups have kept Los Angeles’s rent control and rental housing protection laws much weaker than in San Francisco. And homeowner groups have played a key role in preventing the city from building anywhere near the number of new housing units needed to meet job and population growth. The city has added one million new residents since 1970 but nowhere near enough new housing to meet this demand; this artificial scarcity has proved an economic boom for those fortunate to own homes.

These two constituencies profiting from unaffordability have had their political clout boosted by Los Angeles’ history of off-year local elections. These elections combine what is often extraordinarily low turnout (most recently under 20%) with the empowerment of a disproportionately older, white homeowner electorate.

When politicians see this voter turnout, they understandably cater to its demands. This is true even in districts with many tenants and people of color; their political influence was long reduced because they did not vote in the elections that chose mayors and council members.

Fortunately, starting in 2020 Los Angeles’ local elections will match the presidential cycle. This should make a huge difference in empowering the forces for greater affordability (my book urges all cities to end off-year local elections).

Growing Tenant Resistance

Tenant resistance in Los Angeles is growing in the face of rising rents.

In my book I tell the story of a struggle by mariachi musicians in the at-risk neighborhood of Boyle Heights to stay in their homes despite facing steep rent hikes and lacking rent control protections. The landlord evicting the tenants even sought to profit off their legacy by renaming their building Mariachi Crossing.

It’s a remarkable account of great lawyering, defiant and courageous tenants, and dedicated activism by the tenants’ supporters. It’s also a story of how groups like Defend Boyle Heights are castigated by outsiders (including the LA Times) for engaging in the “By all means necessary” approach that is often necessary to prevent displacement.

Los Angeles activists are proving that absent tenant legal protections,  popular resistance is essential.

Not In Our Neighborhood

Los Angeles may have the nation’s most powerful homeowner groups. Residents of Westwood, Bel Air, Brentwood, and Hillside combine vast wealth with top-tier political connections. Los Angeles Councilmember Paul Koretz is the most vocal local official against ending exclusionary single family home zoning because no issue more riles up his wealthy constituents than the notion of apartments (housing renters!) being built nearby.

Homeowner groups have stopped the city from building the rental units Los Angeles needs to meet rising population and job growth. The Hillside groups even opposed ADU’s in other neighborhoods. The city’s anti-development politics restricted housing policy from the 1980’s until a new pro-housing coalition backed by organized labor and Mayor Garcetti emerged.

In many respects it is a new day in Los Angeles. A pro-housing coalition has won passage of major funding for homeless and affordable housing (77% of voters passed a $1.2 billion sales tax for housing homeless persons in November 2016), and increased housing production.

But many voters backed housing homeless people so long as it was not in their neighborhood. My book describes how “progressive” Venice mobilized to stop homeless housing, and the same proved true everywhere else. One downside of a district election system is that if one council member defers to residents and stops a homeless shelter or housing people in other neighborhoods expect their representative to do the same.

Los Angeles had an even worse wrinkle in that no affordable project could be built in a district unless the council member specifically signed off. This put even more pressure on council members to defer to anti-housing constituents. Fortunately, this undemocratic process has been stopped.

Sharply rising construction costs since the November 2016 election will likely reduce the goal of 10,000 new units to closer to 7000. This is a statewide problem worsened by a series of fires that shifted construction workers to rebuilding efforts. Some progressive groups unfairly bashed Garcetti for lowering the 10,000 goal and for the lack of occupied units two years after the ballot measure; but the former was out of his control and the latter is a function of the construction process.

Los Angeles is now aggressively building homeless housing but delays in getting units occupied has left people frustrated. Many cities face similar problems. In Seattle, whose housing production timeline is as fast as any city, the city’s Mandatory Housing Affordability (MHA) measure was attacked for not meeting its goals when its implementation was suspended by a lawsuit!

Cities have been forced to address the homelessness and low-income housing crisis since the 1981 Reagan HUD budget began a four decade process of the federal government abandoning its historic responsibility to house the poor. I credit Los Angeles voters for finding local funds and believe the opening of projects will soon make a difference.

A Brighter Future?

Despite its extreme affordability crisis, I see a brighter housing future for Los Angeles for two reasons: a rising urbanist consciousness—reflected in groups like Abundant Housing and strong labor backing for housing—- and the vast availability of buildable land. Drive around Los Angeles and you will see enough land to build hundreds of thousands of housing units—if the city changes its zoning to increase density and raise heights (the city may set the national record for most parking lots where housing is the best use!)

LA has an energy it lacked for decades. And while its shortcomings are often painful (why so few protected bike lanes in a city whose terrain and climate should make it a biker’s paradise?) its upside is huge.

Randy Shaw is Editor of Beyond Chron and author of Generation Priced Out: Who Gets to Live in the New Urban America

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Randy Shaw

Randy Shaw is the Editor of Beyond Chron and the Director of San Francisco’s Tenderloin Housing Clinic, which publishes Beyond Chron. Shaw latest book is Generation Priced Out: Who Gets to Live in the New Urban America. He is the author of four prior books on activism, including The Activist's Handbook: Winning Social Change in the 21st Century, and Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century. He is also the author of The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco

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