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Thursday, March 29, 2018
By DICK PLATKIN, CityWatchLA, 29 MARCH 2018
Greenwashing: The best know version of this ploy is greenwashing, such as Exxon’s and Chevron’s public service announcements trumpeting their restoration of ponds, shorelines, and meadows. Meanwhile, these and similar energy companies continue to extract fossil fuels, often with immediate pollution, followed by the huge generation of the Green House Gases responsible for climate change.
Now, the density hawks, whether hob-knobbing with San Francisco’s Scott Wiener in Sacramento, or hunkering down at LA’s City Hall, maintain that increased residential density achieved through the accelerated construction of new, market rate apartment buildings reduces the generation of these same Green Houses Gases.
While their claim that higher densities can reduce individual and cumulative carbon footprints is true for highly selective urban environments, especially New York City, their real estate proposals are the antithesis of the New York City model. They simply want to layer dense, energy-intensive apartment buildings on top of a generally low-density city, Los Angeles, whose infrastructure and public services are already severely taxed and predicted to fail. When, not if, the next big earthquake comes, Los Angeles will be without basic services for an extended period of time according to earthquake expert Lucy Jones.
“Every major piece of infrastructure in the Los Angeles area needed to sustain life — electrical lines, telecommunication networks and water aqueducts — crosses over the San Andreas fault line and would likely be severed in the event of a major earthquake. It could be days or weeks before power and water delivery are restored.”
Nevertheless, the density hawks are so committed to their greenwashing claims that their proposals, such as Senate Bill 827, nevertheless exclude the California Environment Quality Act (CEQA) from local land use decisions. Likewise, they ignore calls for the preparation and adoption of a new, mandatory Climate Change Element in California. Likewise, they never call for an optional Climate Change Element in cities, like Los Angeles. For that matter, they are equally tongue-tied regarding annual monitoring of basic climate change indicators, such as CO2 levels.
While they continue to champion the business model of major real estate investors, their aversion to these obvious environmental measures is hardly an accident. If they supported environmental monitoring, it would reveal that building our way out of the climate crisis actually makes things worse. For example, the Hollywood Community Plan Update, voided by Los Angeles County Superior Court Alan Goodman, included extensive increases in commercial and residential density. The plan’s Environmental Impact Report (DEIR) determined, however, that the additional buildings and traffic generated by this plan would generate so much more Green House Gas emissions, that they could not be mitigated.
In the face of such overwhelming evidence that their “build more market housing” (in Hollywood and elsewhere) version of densification would worsen climate change, the density hawks nimbly turned to other ruses. But, as you will see, their back-up claims are equally specious. Like greenwashing, they, too, are just frail stalking horses for their real objective: supporting this year’s most profitable type of real estate investment: apartment houses.
Population boom-washing: Since their greenwashing claims failed to gain serious traction, the density hawks turned to population-washing, repeatedly claiming that Los Angeles was on the verge of an imminent population boom. To, therefore, plan for the future, the city needed to build new, high density apartment buildings so these new Angelenos would have a decent place to live. More specifically, the density hawks called for a deregulated housing market based on weak zoning laws, with a wink and a nod to weak code enforcement to greet the population boom with move-in specials. Well, poor code enforcement and zoning deregulation were right on cue, but the much-ballyhooed population boom failed to materialize.
As previously reported, the 1996 General Plan Framework’s population forecast for 2010 was 4,300,000 people. This figure, though, turned out to be 500,000 people higher than the actual 2010 US Census. Since then, according to demographer Wendel Cox, the boosters have four times claimed that Los Angeles finally exceeded the 4,000,000 mark. But, each time they had to walk back these claims because Los Angeles still has not surpassed the 4 million barrier. Furthermore, according to seismologist Lucy Jones, quoted earlier, the long-term damage from a certain major earthquake will lead to population decline – not gain -- in Los Angeles.
In San Francisco, like LA, a major center of gentrification in an expensive housing market, the same forecasts of an impending population boom were cited to justify rampant land use deregulation and up-zoning. But, in SF more people are leaving than moving in. In fact, the Wall Street Journal reports that despite the riches of the high tech boom, San Francisco declined by 24,000 people last year, mostly because too many residents were priced out of its expensive housing market.
Transit-washing: Since more people are leaving than coming to LA and SF, the real estate industry and their lieutenants have already contrived another whopper to justify zoning deregulation: it will increase the number of people living near mass transit stations ridership, and therefore reverse a long-term trend of declining transit ridership. This is because they believe – despite contradictory evidence -- that anyone who lives near transit will use it.
The fallacy of this “build more market housing near transit” argument was revealed by recent research from UCLA. In the Los Angeles metropolitan an increasing number of low income tenants own and drive cars, and no longer use transit. This is why the gentrification of neighborhoods close to transit services would not increase transit ridership. It replaces existing low income transit users, whose numbers are already declining, with affluent newcomers who drive cars and seldom or never use transit, even when they live close to it.
According to this report on declining transit ridership,
“The growth in vehicle access has been especially dramatic among subsets of the population that are among the heaviest users of transit… Living in a household without a vehicle is perhaps the strongest single predictor of transit use; the decline of these households has powerful implications for transit in Southern California.”
At no point does this important transit study ever mention increasing the residential density of market rate apartments near subway and bus stops as a strategy to reverse declining transit ridership. The reason is obvious. The construction of new market apartments will evict far more existing transit users than it will draw into the same neighborhood.
Voila! Transit-washing bites the dust, even though the revived Hollywood Community Plan is still based on the discredited claim that Hollywood must be up-zoned to increase the number of people living in transit-adjacent neighborhoods. Once they move in, they will quickly embrace transit and soon fill up busses and subway cars with their warm bodies.
Housing-washing: The final justification for the build-more-market-housing business model is that it will increase the supply of desperately needed affordable housing. How so? The claim is that the more market housing constructed in Los Angeles, the more affordable housing will eventually appear through filtering, also known as long-term trickle down. Since there is zero evidence of expensive housing trickling down to become affordable housing in Los Angeles, the density hawks then invoke another taken-out-of-context economic theory: supply-and-demand.
They imagine that a glut of expensive housing forces the price of housing down to the point that it becomes affordable, and apartments that rent for $2000-3,000 per month will be discounted to $600 a month because of high vacancy rates. Again, there is zero evidence of this happening in Los Angeles for two very good reasons. First, investors don’t like to go bankrupt, which happens when they charge affordable rents. Second, landlords can easily fill empty houses and apartments through highly lucrative Airbnb short-term rentals when they are faced with money-losing high vacancy rates.
If the filtering and the supply-and-demand arguments do not pass the smell test, you are right. And, in the Los Angeles Times, Tracy Jeanne Rosenthal explained why. Gentrification reduces transit ridership. In order to assemble building sites for new, market-oriented apartments; builders must evict current residents, most of whom are low income and the most likely demographic category to use transit. In contrast, the new residents of new market housing are much better off. Almost all of them own cars, which they use for most trips. According to Rosenthal, the more LA gentrifies, which is the program of the density hawks, the more transit ridership will decline, a finding confirmed by the previously mentioned UCLA transit ridership study.
How do we know that these four types of “washing” are really bogus?
Why are these four claims about the alleged benefits of unregulated real estate investments really a subterfuge for a speculative business model? Two reasons make it obvious that the claims are really hog-washing.
First, the density hawks never mention non-real estate programs to help resolve the crises they invoke, such as fare reductions to increase transit ridership, restoration of HUD and CRA programs to build affordable housing, and massive tree planting to ameliorate climate change.
Second, the density hawks are so committed to their one-size-fits-all market housing solution, that they see no need to monitor or inspect any new residential projects to validate their claims. Is permanent affordable housing actually appearing through filtering and supply-and-demand? Are new up-scale tenants giving up their cars to take busses and subways for most trips? Are existing infrastructure and services strained because of new real estate projects?
The answers could only complicate the build-more-market-housing business model, so the questions are never asked.
That is our job!
(Dick Platkin is a former Los Angeles city planner who reports on local planning controversies for CityWatchLA. Please send comments and corrections to email@example.com. Previous columns are available at the CityWatchLA archives.) Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.
Saturday, March 10, 2018
The “Build More Market Housing” Quack Miracle Cure for Los Angeles
By Dick Platkin* (Updated from CityWatchLA, Jan. 11, 2018, original)
Platkin on Planning: Los Angeles is heading toward a perfect storm of gentrification, well camouflaged behind spurious claims of boosting transit ridership and addressing LA’s housing crisis through planning, zoning, and environmental deregulation.
This perfect storm is propelled by huge tail winds from the State Legislature in Sacramento, with big city Democrats fronting for the real estate interests that fund and mentor them. San Francisco State Senator Scott Wiener and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti are their current favorites, but many more are lining up at the trough.
To begin, there is a treasure trove of successful programs that they could turn to if they truly wanted to increase transit ridership and address the climate and housing crises, but they are totally mute on these options. As for their cheerleaders, their silence is also deafening since the following public programs are at odds with their mantra to magically solve LA’s many urban ills: “build more market housing.”
Increasing transit ridership through the following is not on their to-do list:
· Reduce fares, the UK’s program to allow those over 60 to ride subways and busses for free is a perfect model for LA. For that matter, the pols could look closer to home. Between 1982-85 METRO used Proposition A funds to reduce bus fares to $ .50. As a result, ridership quickly rose. But neither elected official nor their kindred spirits ever call for fare reductions. Apparently, they cannot be used to promote real estate speculation.
· Real-time Transit Apps. In cities like New York and London, some riders use real-time mass transit apps, but it is seldom necessary because they know the next bus or subway car will arrive within minutes. Unlike LA, long headways and unreliable bus schedules are not an issue in those cities.
· Make stations appealing. In transit-oriented cities like New York and Tokyo, subway stops have stores and amenities, unlike LA, where passengers cannot even find a candy bar, bathroom, or newspaper vending machine.
· Make bus stops comfortable. In LA, most bus stops only offer a sign or a “bum-proofed” bench. But, if every stop had a bus shelter, the bus riding experience would be vastly improved, especially during rains and heat waves.
· Transform the neighborhoods around transit stations into Transit Oriented Districts/Communities. These include comprehensive planning and municipally funded public improvements for mini-parks and playgrounds, enhanced street and pedestrian lights, bicycle lanes and parking, boulevard trees, sidewalk repairs, zebra-striped cross walks, intersection punch-outs, and ADA curb cuts.
· At subway stations METRO and LADOT could add facilities for buses, cars, vans, taxis and ubers, pedestrians, and bicyclists.
· Los Angeles could carefully monitor the transportation-related behavior of residents and the demographics of transit passengers to determine which programs work and which do not.
Programs to address LA’s housing crisis:
The programs for fixing LA’s housing crisis are also well known, but are predictably ignored by the build-more-market-housing growth machine of real estate investors, building industry lobbyists, neo-liberal academics, Democratic Party politicians, chambers-of-commerce, contractors, construction unions appended to the contractors, and groupies. Their goal is to sweep away planning, zoning, and environmental laws that developers don’t like, not spend public money on unprofitable affordable housing projects. Therefore, they never call for the following:
· Restore discontinued Federal housing programs, such as public housing projects, as well as 236 and 221d(3) subsidized apartments.
· Vastly increase the funding for Section 8 housing. In Los Angeles, over 600,000 people want Section 8 housing, but only 400 people per year mange to get vouchers and move into affordable units.
· Restore the Community Redevelopment Agency’s affordable housing programs.
· Transform LA’s Rent Stabilization Ordinance into a Rent Control ordinance. This requires ending vacancy decontrol; applying rent control to all housing, not just rental apartments built before 1978; and restricting rent increases to the real cost of living.
· Restore and establish public social service and VA programs that treat homeless people afflicted by drug addiction and mental illness.
· Increase wages in order to reduce economic inequality, a leading factor responsible for homelessness, overcrowding, and rent gouging.
· Carefully monitor changing housing conditions, as mandated by the General Plan Framework, to determine which affordable housing programs are effective and which are not.
But, instead of these obvious programs, Sacramento and LA’s City Hall have only provided us with real estate-related schemes. They may have different names, but they are united by a single purpose. Their goal is to sweep aside zoning, planning, and environmental laws disliked by real estate developers, so they can build what they want, where they want, regardless of the consequences. These ordinances include the following, with more on the way from the build-more-market-housing crowd’s current Wunderkind, Scott Wiener.
Pay-to-Play is still a reliable way for developers to build what they want because City Hall approves 90 percent of their applications for zoning waivers and General Plan amendments.
Community Plan Updates are appended with lengthy land use ordinances that up-zone and up-plan hundreds to thousands of parcels at one time.
Density Bonuses are the local application of Senate Bill (SB) 1818, which allows, with no effective right of appeal, the waiver of many zoning provisions if developers promise to include a small percentage of uninspected low income units in their buildings. This ordinance is now being supplemented by a recently adopted Value Capture Ordinance that would require affordable units in exchange for zoning waivers (that will rarely be required under SB 827). Since neither ordinance contains any on-site inspection requirements, there is no way for the public or the City to verify that any of the new units are affordable and that their tenants are officially registered low income Angelinos.
Transit Priority Areas (TPAs) implement Senate Bill 743 in Los Angeles. This State law and its local implementation ordinance apply to nearly all of Los Angeles west, south, east of the downtown because it includes all local parcels located within a half-mile from an existing or proposed rail or bus stop. In those areas residential, mixed-use, and employment centers are exempted from two California Environmental Quality Act impact categories: parking and esthetics.
Transit Oriented Communities, the implementation of Los Angeles Measure JJJ allows increases of up to 80 percent in the number of permitted units in exchange for the inclusion of affordable housing units. Like similar programs, it, too, does not require any on-site inspections to confirm the presence of dedicated affordable units or qualified low-income tenants. Like Transit Priority Areas and the proposed Senate Bill 827, described below, this Los Angeles ordinance also applies to neighborhoods that are up to a half-mile from a subway, light-rail station, or frequent bus service.
Transit Neighborhood Plans reduce zoning requirements at light and heavy rail stations, such as the Expo Line. While they are supplemented by streetscape plans, these off-site, right-of-way improvements are only unfunded guidelines. They are not backed up by any public funds covering the design, construction, operations, or maintenance of any streetscape features, such as bike lanes, boulevard trees, street lighting, or pedestrian crossing points.
Re:code LA will eventually expand the list of permitted uses on most private parcels by eliminating the need for a Zone Change or Zone Variance to build non-permitted uses. Furthermore, even though re:code LA is billed as a zoning simplification program, it has already replaced the existing R-1 zone, which applies to about three-quarters of all single-family homes in Los Angeles, with 16 alternate R-1 zones.
The Fatal Flaws of Scott Wiener’s Perfect Storm: The perfect storm headed toward Los Angeles is based on proposed legislation sponsored by State Senator Scott Wiener. His draft SB 827 bill -- subsequently amended – grants cost free and highly lucrative General Plan Amendments and Zone Changes to private parcels up to a half-mile from a subway station and a quarter-mile from bus lines with 15 minute or less service. Any parcel in these “ transit rich areas” used for residential development will then qualify for the elimination of zoning provisions for design, building mass (Floor Area Ratio), building height up to 85 feet, number of stories, number of units (density), yards, and parking.
More specifically, in practice Wiener’s bill allows all residential projects to evade most zoning requirements in perpetuity. This legislation will become a cornucopia for those who own private parcels zoned that permit residential projects, including all commercial and three manufacturing zones. The value of these properties will soar because SB 827 would allow a much larger building envelope and expanded list of uses. Property owners could then sell their parcels at an enormous financial gain, dodging new property taxes because of Proposition 13. As for new housing construction, most flippers could care less since their goal is to cash in, not construct market housing. What a deal!
While we can speculate about SB 827’s ultimate provisions, we already know its fatal flaws, including new, but weak, amendments to protect affordable housing and honor hypothetical prohibitions on demolitions:
Flaw #1 – No Consideration of Public Infrastructure and Services: Senator Wiener and his fans have not given the slightest thought to the additional public infrastructure and public services that new transit-adjacent buildings and residents require. When the size of buildings and number of residents increase in areas near subway stations and bus stops, these neighborhoods will need more garbage pick-ups, street sweeping, schools, parks, recreation centers, senior centers, libraries, emergency services, and so forth. Their water mains, gas and sewage lines, and storm drains also need upgrading, as well as infrastructure for electricity and telecommunications. But since no mandates or funding for planning, construction, and maintenance are allocated through SB 827 for these many categories, we can expect a dramatic decline in the quality of life if/when the bill becomes a catalyst for new market-driven mega-mansions and apartment buildings.
Flaw #2 – No On-Site Inspections: SB 827 does not include any mandates or funding for local on-site inspection programs. City Hall and Angelinos will have no requirement or method to verify that any pledged affordable units exist and house legitimate low-income tenants.
Flaw #3 – No Monitoring of Transportation Behavior: We will also have no way to know, if as claimed by Senator Wiener, his financial backers, and his disciples, that people who move into new, transit-adjacent market and luxury housing routinely abandon their cars to walk up to a half mile to catch a train or bus. Furthermore, if this behavioral information is eventually collected, based on recent studies, we can assume that most well-off tenants will continue to drive their fancy cars for most trips. If so, SB 827 contains no repercussions when new tenants never or seldom use transit or when affordable units are rented out at market rates.
Flaw #4 – Guts Existing Specific Plans: SB 827 would gut many transit corridor Specific Plans in Los Angeles, such as those on Ventura/Cahuenga Boulevard, Crenshaw Boulevard, and Colorado Boulevard, as well as the Vermont/Western Transit Oriented District Specific Plan. Years of planning that went into these transit corridor plans, that involved local communities and that integrate transportation and land use planning, would be summarily dumped. Since Wiener’s legislation automatically purges Specific Plan provisions for design, density, yards, number of stories, height up to 85 feet, FAR, and parking, it moves LA in exactly the wrong direction. These transit corridor Specific Plans should be the model for future planning in Los Angeles, not discarded by a real estate industry bill adopted in and imposed by Sacramento.
Flaw #5 – Politicizes Transit Planning: Because SB 827 treats transit corridors as accessories to real estate speculation, it will heavily politicize transit planning. Developers will heavily lobby transit agencies to ensure that the corridors they want to gentrify will be upgraded to rail or frequent bus service. At the same time, communities interested in stopping mansionization and/or protecting low-rise apartment buildings already housing frequent transit users would be forced to bizarrely lobby for downgraded transit service. After all, if their local bus service falls below 15-minute headways, then SB 827 would not apply, as well as Transit Priority Areas and Transit Oriented Communities.
Flaw #6 – Ignores Proven Programs: SB 827 totally ignores the many proven public programs - described above - that would boost transit ridership and increase the supply of affordable housing. While SB 827 is likely to increase the supply of expensive market housing, it does not increase the supply of affordable housing in California. This is because its underlying economic theories, filtering plus supply and demand, are bogus. Increasing the supply of expensive housing would only result in more inexpensive, affordable housing if investors allowed their pricey projects to go deep into the red and become affordable. But, they don’t, and they won’t invest to lose money.
Flaw #7 - Displacement: There’s a reason why 37 affordable housing, tenants’ rights, and transit equity groups signed ACT-LA’s letter opposing SB 827. They’ve seen what the current approach to development has already done to low-income communities: rampant gentrification and displacement. For them, Wiener’s bill allows developers to ramp up these practices, driving even more families out of their homes and pushing them further away from transit services they already use.
Flaw #8 - Public Participation Nixed: Even with Senator Wiener’s amendments, SB 827 still bestows across-the-board, totally free and unscrutinized General Plan Amendments, Zone Changes, and/or Zone Variances on all properties in its coverage areas. Due process is eliminated, without any notifications, workshops, public hearings, debates, votes by the City Planning Commission and City Council, and rights of appeal. This bill is shockingly anti-democratic, and it shuts out elected officials and community members from the decision-making process.
Flaw #9 – Environmental Protection: By circumventing General Plan Amendments, Zone Changes, and Zone Variances, SB 827 also eliminates the application of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) to these planning and zoning discretionary legislative and quasi-judicial actions. Nevertheless, when developers dump more luxury projects on to our cities, traffic congestion gets worse. In pursuit of maximum square footage, they convert more green space to hardscape. As they level infill sites, we see our urban forest receding. Real estate investors are dying to see CEQA go away, and Scott Wiener is making their wish come true.
Flaw #10 – Out-of-scale residential development, including mega-mansions: Many of the neighborhoods that are a half-mile from rail and a quarter-mile from bus lines with frequent service (15 minutes headways) are zoned for single-family homes, duplexes, four-plexes, and small apartment buildings. Since SB 827 eliminates restrictions on design, density, height up to 85 feet, number of stories, and yards in these residential areas, it would eliminate existing zoning, including such zoning overlay ordinances as Historical Preservation Overlay Districts, Residential Floor Area Districts, Specific Plans, and Community Design Overlay Districts. The result will be four and five story mega-mansions and apartment houses up to 85 feet tall towering over much smaller existing homes.
Flaw #11 – Weak protections from dislocation: Recently added SB 827 amendments are weak and do not cover most properties in the SB 827 coverage area. Amendments to protect existing rent stabilized units are unfunded and do not apply to single-family homes (mostly R-1), duplexes (R-2), all apartments built after 1978, most older apartments in which tenants have moved out over the past 40 years, all commercially zoned parcels, and all manufacturing zoned parcels that permit R-3 or R-4 apartments.
Flaw #12 – Weak protections against demolitions: New provisions that honor existing prohibitions on demolitions would not apply to Los Angeles because the City has no such demolition prohibitions. Furthermore, requirements to post demolition permits, remediate lead paint, and remediate asbestos prior to demolitions are not enforced by the Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety. While on the books, developers are totally free to ignore these requirements, without the slightest fear of citations, orders to stop work, prosecutions, or revocations of building permits and certificates of occupancy.
Flaw #13 – Devastates the planning process. In California, all cities and counties are legally required to prepare, adopt, monitor, and periodically update a General Plan. The primary implementation tool of these General Plans is zoning, and SB 827 eliminates this implementation process in vast swaths of urbanized California. Without the ability to implement their General Plans, cities and counties will be unable to plan and properly comply with State imposed planning laws.
Flaw #14 – Ignores the real causes of homelessness. Homelessness, over-crowding, and rent-gouging are caused by the elimination of Federal and CRA programs to build and operate affordable housing, cutbacks in social service programs, anemic rent control laws, weak controls on evictions (e.g., cash and key), ineffective VA programs to treat PTSD, lack of local enforcement, and soaring economic inequality and growth of poverty. SB 827 is totally oblique to these and closely related factors. Its supply-side approach, to ramp up the construction of market housing through deregulation, leaves the major causes of homelessness, over-crowding, and rent gouging in place.
My conclusion about SB 827, by itself, and in combination with the supplemental land use ordinances I reviewed above, is that it is one of the most destructive pieces of planning legislation I have encountered in over three decades of professional work in the city planning profession. Like all miracle cures, it won’t work. It might make some landowners and landlords rich, but it fatal flaws will destroy many neighborhoods, without increasing transit ridership or reducing the cost of housing or amounts of over-crowding and homelessness.
· Dick Platkin is a former Los Angeles city planner who reports on local city planning controversies for CityWatchLA. Please send corrections and comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.