PLATKIN ON PLANNING-If you are concerned about planning issues in Los Angeles, then you have undoubtedly heard about the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative, and perhaps a counter-initiative, the Build Better LA Initiative.
Affordable housing: You have may have also heard the repeated claims by the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative’s opponents that it would block the construction of affordable housing. Nice try, but it takes far more than repetition of a talking point to actually make it true.
This is why I still stand by my previous Citywatch articles: the critics have not yet presented evidence that LA's zoning laws and General Plan designations impede the construction of affordable housing projects. While Neighborhood Integrity Initiative supporters are already looking under every rock for any relevant data, we also invite those who make the “affordable housing argument” to back it up.
More specifically, I have repeatedly reached out for evidence, in particular the addresses and case numbers of affordable housing projects that required City Council legislative actions to pull building permits. Until advocates, experts, or CityWatch readers can furnish data such supporting these affordable housing claims, I will assume that the critics are only blowing smoke.
Filtering: A related affordable housing argument is called filtering. It is based on the parallel claim that new, expensive housing filters down to eventually become old and affordable, given enough housing construction and time. Ergo, we should open the floodgates for luxury housing construction in order to meet the housing needs of everyone else.
The State of California, through a recent report from the Legislative Analyst’s office, has argued that filtering takes a generation to actually work. Under perfect conditions this could be true, but I would go much further than the Legislative Analyst to rebut the filtering argument for Los Angeles. (Note photo above showing old housing in Angelino Heights --not yet affordable after a century.)
In LA, the price of older housing is going up, not down, and since 1980 the cost of LA’s housing has more than doubled in constant dollars. Even if we accept the caveat that filtering only works when there is substantial construction of new housing, it is still a phantom in LA. Porter Ranch is one of the few LA neighborhoods with substantial construction of new housing over the past 25 years, but where is the evidence that nearby communities with older housing, such as Chatsworth, Northridge, or Granada Hills, have, therefore, had a decline in housing prices or rents? For that matter, what about the vast stretches of post-war homes and apartments in the Valley that are now more than 50 years old? Has any of it filtered down to become affordable housing?
According to Appfolio, exactly the opposite has happened despite large amounts of aging housing. Apartment rents in the south Valley went up 9 percent in 2015.
To date I have only heard second-hand anecdotes about apartment buildings whose landlords let buildings deteriorate, especially those near USC. In these cases, however, landlords deliberately ran their apartments into the ground so existing tenants would voluntarily leave. Once they did, however, the landlords made basic repairs and then leased the same units out to students, but at a much higher rents. The result is filtering upwards, not downward.
But such anecdotes about such landlords are not hard data, and as we continue to look, we also patiently wait for the critics of the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative to finally document filtering in Los Angeles.
Free market fables: So far, the claim about filtering, like the affordable housing argument, is just another free market fable thrown at the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative to see if it sticks. At one time this Pollyannaish belief in the cure-all properties of deregulated real estate markets was confined to the recesses of Ayn Rand and the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal. But, these myths have now oozed into the deep crevices of the Democratic Party, including nearly all elected officials at City Hall and even some affordable housing advocates.
Free market myths and fables, however, cannot substitute for hard evidence when it comes to setting public policy.
If the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative’s opponents were truly concerned about affordable housing – instead of using it as a weak stalking horse for the needs of real estate speculators to build luxury mega-projects -- their time might be better spent advocating for alternative affordable housing programs, such as these:
1) Inclusionary zoning. Many cities already have zoning requirements that force developers to include about 20 percent affordable housing units in all apartment and condo projects. LA only has a density bonus ordinance, and John Schwada has shown that it has produced few genuine affordable units.
2) Housing preservation. Each year LA loses thousands of affordable units to demolitions to clear sites for high-end projects, such as McMansions. This has to stop, but calls for the preservation of existing affordable and lower cost housing are sparse.
3) Rent control changes. At present landlords can automatically raise rents by 3 percent per year. This, too, must stop. Likewise, vacancy decontrol must go. This loophole allows landlords to raise rents to whatever level the market will bear when a tenant moves.
4) More resources from the Federal government. Affordable housing requires the restoration of Federal housing programs, as well as State programs, such as community redevelopment agencies. While a collection basket for LA's Affordable Housing Trust Fund is always welcome, it cannot substitute for well-funded public housing programs.
None of these approaches conflict with the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative, offering further evidence that it does not stand in the way of affordable housing.
(Dick Platkin is a former LA city planner who reports on local planning issues for City Watch LA. Please send any comments or corrections to firstname.lastname@example.org.) Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.