If you're interested pushing the city to adopt reforms that improve housing affordability and choice in Los Angeles, you can join me and hundreds of others as a member of Abundant Housing LA. (I'm the Policy Director, and a volunteer like all of our other members.) It's free, and we'll keep you up to date with key actions, updates, and meetings in the months and years to come! Measure S is decided on March 7th, but we'll be around long after that pushing to ensure that Los Angeles remains inclusive and affordable for new and existing residents alike.
On March 7th, Los Angeles voters will cast their ballots on Measure S, a housing moratorium that would block the construction of thousands of homes each year, including many affordable units.
Framed as a way to "Save Our Neighborhoods," what Measure S really amounts to is nostalgia in the form of a ballot initiative: an effort to reclaim some idealized past version of LA that probably never even existed, and certainly didn’t serve all Angelenos fairly or equitably. Worse, it looks to the past for answers just three months after voters overwhelmingly endorsed a forward-looking vision for their city in the form of Measures M, HHH, and JJJ.
A lot has been written about the likely consequences of this initiative, and it can be hard to keep everything straight. In an effort to summarize some of the key messages from those opposed to Measure S, I've compiled many of the most influential arguments, articles, and endorsements here, in one place. I couldn't include everything that's been written on the initiative, but please let me know if you think I've missed any critical materials.
What the Initiative Actually Says
There's a lot going on in Measure S, so first let me explain its major components. This is just an overview, and you're welcome to read the initiative for yourself, but fair warning: it's got a lot going on, and even after reading it a dozen times I still find new complications every time I go through it. The complexity alone should have you leaning toward a No vote. California has a long track record of unintended consequences resulting from "ballot box planning."
The most important aspect of Measure S is its 2-year moratorium on zone changes and height district changes, and its permanent ban on general plan amendments for developments less than 15 acres in size (which is basically all of them). Because the general plan and zoning in Los Angeles is very out of date, this means that a very large amount of the housing being built today—especially housing on surface parking lots, run down commercial strips, and vacant industrial sites—would be banned for the next several years, at least.
In addition to the moratorium, Measure S requires that the city's general plan and 35 community plans must be reviewed (though not necessarily updated) every 5 years. This aspect of the initiative is very reasonable, and most folks on both sides of this issue agree that these updates need to happen on a regular basis. The question is, how much collateral damage will accrue while the moratorium is in place and these updates are developed? They can take several years and hundreds of public meetings to complete, and LA is already in the midst of a historic rental housing shortage.
The initiative also makes some relatively minor changes to how environmental consultants are contracted and how much flexibility the city has on parking requirements. The consultant requirements are good fodder for voters, but won't really change things much either way. The parking changes, on the other hand, may unintentionally result in the closure of hundreds of existing restaurants, bars, and hotels in walkable areas of the city; the reasons for this are complicated, but feel free to ask if you want the detailed explanation.
Overview of Likely Impacts of Measure S
On the face of it, Measure S basically just sounds like a bunch of technical tweaks to the city's planning process: general plan amendments, environmental review, blah blah blah. So what will it actually do? What will happen when these changes are put into effect? Over a year ago, back when it was still being called the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative, I wrote an article on the top 7 reasons to vote No on Measure S, which describes some of the most important likely impacts if it's approved by voters in March. Those reasons:
- It will result in the construction of fewer homes for low- and moderate-income households.
- It will raise rents for everyone else, increasing the likelihood of evictions and forcing more development into low-density neighborhoods with higher displacement rates.
- It's being bankrolled by a shady CEO with a record of using his organization's funds to pursue ego-driven personal crusades.
- It will eliminate approximately 12,000 jobs in construction and related fields each year.
- In the long run it'll mean worse traffic for LA, and will hamstring our ability to provide alternatives to being stuck in gridlock.
- It ensures that our infrastructure—water and sewer, electrical lines, roads, etc.—remains underfunded.
- It embodies a fundamentally pessimistic view of LA's future, viewing our best days as being behind us.
Section 7(B)2 of Measure S also includes some language that would open up literally every development in Los Angeles to litigation, even if it doesn't request a general plan amendment or zone change. If your neighbor doesn't like the addition you're planning for your home, they'll now have grounds to sue.
This should come as no surprise because Robert Silverstein, a lawyer notorious for suing anything development-related in Los Angeles, is associated with the Measure S campaign and its financial backer, the AIDS Healthcare Foundation. If Measure S passes, Mr. Silverstein will have more work than he knows what to do with.
The Coalition of Measure S Opponents
It's frankly amazing that Measure S even has a shot at passing this March, given the breadth and depth of the coalition that's organized against it: it really speaks to the power of a good slogan and a campaign strategy built on fear and anger. Say what you like about any individual opponents of Measure S, but the coalition as a whole is unassailable. There are groups in this list that almost never agree on anything, but they're united in their opposition to this initiative.
Below are a few of the heaviest hitters, with links to some of the most persuasive statements urging Angelenos to vote no:
- United Way of Greater Los Angeles
- Mayor Eric Garcetti
- The Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce
- The Los Angeles County Federation of Labor (Unions)
- LA Times Editorial Board
- County Democratic Party
- County Republican Party
- California Green Party
- Police Protective League and United Firefighters
- Los Angeles Sentinel
- Skid Row Housing Trust, Inner City Law Center, Downtown Women's Center, Chrysalis, and the Los Angeles Mission
- The Coalition for Economic Survival, Southern California Association of Non-Profit Housing, Alliance for Community Transit — Los Angeles, East LA Community Corporation, TRUST South LA, LURN (Leadership for Urban Renewal Network), SAJE (Strategic Actions for a Just Economy), Little Tokyo Service Center, Community Health Councils, National Community Renaissance, Bet Tzedek
- National Resources Defense Council, League of Conservation Voters, Climate Resolve
- Dozens of professors of Urban Planning, Public Health, Social Welfare, and more at USC, UCLA, CSUN, Occidental, and Berkeley
This is not a complete list by a long-shot; you can view the full list of Measure S opponents here. Then you compare it to the infinitely less expansive list of Measure S supporters, here. The supporters are largely retired government officials, homeowners associations, and various representatives of 1- and 2-person organizations (some of which do good work, admittedly, but don't have the same weight, impact, or history as the opponents).
The Yes on S Campaign's History of Cynicism, Lies, and Misrepresentation
Since the very beginning of this campaign, the Yes on S folks have been extraordinarily dishonest about what their initiative will do, who supports it, and why they're pushing it. Over at Abundant Housing LA, we put together a 9-point list debunking some of their most common misrepresentations. Below are just a few examples.
1. They keep saying that 100% affordable projects are exempt, and they're not. Zone changes and height district changes are allowed under Measure S, but general plan amendments are not—not ever again—and it's general plan amendments that 100% affordable projects most often depend upon to move forward. An analysis of city-owned sites available for affordable or permanent supportive housing found that, due to the general plan restrictions, 9 out of 10 would be banned from building housing if Measure S were to pass.
2. They also keep saying only 5% of projects would be blocked, but the actual number of units blocked is much, much larger. Saying that Measure S bans 5% of projects may be true in the strictest sense, but those projects might represent upwards of 50% of new units. The Yes on S folks know this, so they're choosing their language carefully to undersell how much of the housing market will be impacted by their housing ban. An analysis of city documents showed that there were over 19,000 units proposed in 2016 that would require a general plan amendment or zone change—more units than are typically built in a single year. In a 3 week period in 2017, 3,400 new homes were proposed, mostly in downtown LA, including 1,300 units reserved for low-income or formerly homeless families. All would be banned indefinitely if Measure S were approved.
3. They're deliberately misrepresenting support for Measure S. Just this past week, the Yes campaign has been sending out an advertisement that strongly implies that Mayor Garcetti supports their initiative. This couldn't be further from the truth, and the mayor has called them out and described these tactics as a "dirty trick." Last year, they were caught listing Leonardo DiCaprio as a supporter without his consent. Other supporters have withdrawn support after learning the full scope of Measure S's impacts, including Father Greg Boyle and the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority.
4. They keep saying that Measure S will stop evictions, house-flipping, and mansionization and fix campaign finance (1, 2, 3, 4), but it doesn't address any of these issues. Measure S exclusively impacts larger developments. By making a bad housing shortage worse, it will actually increase pressure to evict rent-stabilized tenants, and will redirect investment toward existing housing, leading to more house-flipping and mansionization. The language of the initiative is also completely silent on campaign finance reform, so if you're expecting a more transparent process as a result of Measure S, you're going to be disappointed.
5. They moved the initiative to March because voters in off-cycle are older, more conservative, and less diverse. Originally, the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative was intended to be on the November 8th ballot, but was moved to the March 7th municipal election because off-cycle election demographics favor an anti-change, anti-housing initiative like Measure S. Turnout falls from 70-75% in presidential elections to less than 15% of registered voters in off-cycle elections, so the Yes campaign is hoping that 150,000 voters in March can overturn the will over the more than 735,000 residents who embraced a more inclusive vision for Los Angeles by approving Measure JJJ. (And 916,000 who voted for Measure HHH, and 2.26 million who voted for Measure M.)
Measure S is Funded by a Guy With a Vendetta, and a Horrible Reputation for Mis-Using HIV/AIDS Funding to Pursue Personal Crusades
The genesis of the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative began with a spat between Michael Weinstein, the CEO of AIDS Healthcare Foundation, and a development company named Crescent Heights. The developer wanted to restore the Palladium theater and build two 29-story condo towers in Hollywood along Sunset Boulevard, and this didn't please Mr. Weinstein, whose offices are on the 21st floor of the Sunset Media Center just across the street.
Nine months after threatening to sue the developer, Weinstein had formed the Coalition to Preserve LA and written Measure S (and also sued the developer). You won't be surprised to learn that if Measure S passes, the Crescent Heights project can't be built—along with the collateral damage of thousands of market-rate and affordable housing units across the city. Note that Weinstein has no history of advocacy around planning, housing affordability, or homelessness, so his claims that this is for the benefit of low-income residents living with HIV/AIDS ring a bit hollow.
As of February 16th, Weinstein's AIDS non-profit had contributed approximately $4.6 million to the Yes on Measure S campaign, well over 99% of their fundraising. That's $4.6 million that could have been spent helping those with HIV and AIDS, but is instead being poured into an effort that will worsen affordability citywide, erect new roadblocks in our efforts to reduce homelessness, and cost thousands of jobs and millions in city revenue. It'll also protect Weinstein's 21st-story view, though, so there's that.
Weinstein has a poor reputation among most of those who work in the HIV/AIDS community, and beyond, known for being a bully who uses the financial backing of his non-profit organization to force his puritanical views on others. His organization is responsible for the "condoms in porn" law in Los Angeles County, and has described PrEP, an HIV prophylactic, as a "party drug."
He also was the writer and sole financial backer of statewide propositions 60 and 61, both on the November 8th, 2016 ballot. Prop 60 would have brought the condoms in porn law to all of California, while Prop 61 would have changed rules regarding how prescription drugs are priced in the state. Notably, Prop 60 would have also opened the door for frivolous lawsuits by folks like Mr. Weinstein, while 61 would have exempted his organization from the price mandates that everyone else would be subject to. After spending $19 million of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation's money on these ballot initiatives, both narrowly failed, fortunately.
If there's one consistent theme to Michael Weinstein's initiatives, it is a populist message ("Safe sex!" "Cheaper prescriptions!" "Save our neighborhoods!") wrapped around a personal crusade or self-serving end-game. Measure S is no different.
City Council Is Already Addressing Many of the Issues Raised by Measure S
If the people behind Measure S deserve any credit, it's for raising the profile of these important city planning issues, and forcing a debate over the future of Los Angeles. Even if their intentions in writing the initiative were suspect, and it will do more harm than good if it passes, they've certainly brought urban planning to the fore. Their greatest success has been forcing City Council into action where for years it has been dragging its feet.
On February 8th, Council voted to make 3 important reforms to LA's planning process, all of which were clearly motivated by the threat of Measure S:
- They will be hiring scores of new city planners to update all 35 community plans and keep them updated on a 6-year cycle, at a cost of $10 million per year. They had actually already begun adding to their community plan staff about a year ago, but they've committed to growing it even more, and keeping it staffed up.
- They will be creating a "pre-approved consultant list" for environmental review, essentially satisfying the demands of Measure S without having to burden city staff with the management of yet another bureaucratic process.
- They will be evaluating general plan and zone change requests in batches, rather than on a project-by-project basis. Every 6 or 12 months they'll review all of the requests within a geographic area, so that their holistic impact can be assessed. Once all the community plans are updated, of course, fewer projects will require these changes.
Now, the question is what Measure S has to offer that will actually result in better outcomes than what City Council has already approved. The main difference, at this point, is that it will enact a 2-year moratorium on zone changes and permanent restrictions on general plan amendments, with all of the negative impacts described above: higher rents, more evictions, worsening homelessness, less affordable housing.
If the Yes campaign is really motivated by a desire for reform, they've achieved their goal. By that metric, they've already won. Their unwillingness to back down even now is just one more bit of evidence (unnecessary, at this point) that Measure S isn't about reform, it's about stopping change—change of any kind—and pursuing Michael Weinstein's personal crusade to preserve his Hollywood views.
If Measure S passes, we'll have done nothing to stop gentrification, evictions, homelessness, or rising rents. Fixing these problems was never its goal.
This is an initiative that was written by homeowners, for homeowners, and is targeting an electoral demographic made up primarily of homeowners; it is not in the best interests of renters. What it says is: "This is my city, I was here first, and if you're new to LA or financially insecure, you can get the hell out." Unfortunately, there are quite a few people in Los Angeles for whom that message resonates.
These are people who do not believe that Los Angeles can reinvent itself for the better, as it has numerous times in the past. They see nothing to be gained from growth and inclusion, and have nothing to offer to those seeking greater opportunity within our borders. It's a depressing and pessimistic view of our city and its potential.
If you think we can do better than that—and if you voted yes on Measures M, JJJ, or HHH last November, you probably do—then I urge you to get out to the polls on March 7th and VOTE NO on Measure S. The polling suggests that this will be a close election, so please show up and encourage your friends, family, and colleagues to do the same. With such low turnout, every vote holds a lot more weight.
Measure S will appear on the March 7th, 2017 ballot; you can find your polling location and a sample ballot here. If you vote by mail, your ballot should have already arrived. This initiative is only for City of Los Angeles voters. The last day to register for the March 7th election is February 20th, fifteen days before the vote. If you need to register or are unsure of your voter registration status, you can quickly check it here.
Turnout in municipal elections is extremely poor (only about 15 percent of registered voters actually cast a ballot), so your vote really matters in this election. There are other important things on the ballot too, like mayoral and councilmember elections, and a county initiative (Measure H) to fund homeless services, so there are plenty of reasons to make your voice heard. Please show up and vote No on Measure S!
If you use Facebook, you can commit to voting No (and sharing with all your friends!) here. If you'd like to help raise general awareness about the upcoming election—many residents still aren't even aware there's a vote coming up in March—you can also invite friends to this event.