What Housing Policies Should Angelenos Be Advocating For, Post-Measure S?

LA could use a few more neighborhoods that look like this. How can we make sure they get built, and that they're affordable to residents across the income spectrum?

Measure S is on the March 7th ballot, less than a week away. It's a disaster of a ballot initiative, and will only worsen the affordability crisis afflicting Los Angeles if it passes. Hopefully the work of the massive, unprecedented, coalition that's formed in opposition will be enough to see it defeated.

If there's one silver lining to the year-long debate over this initiative (oh god, what have I done with my life), it's been how it's raised the profile of planning and the important role it plays in shaping affordability, health, access, the environment, and economic development in our city. Once this vote is finally over, I'm excited to get back to advocating for positive changes, in partnership with those groups and organizations throughout the city that are actually interested in equitable reform (unlike the AIDS Healthcare Foundation and the Yes on S campaign).

In that spirit, below are just a few policy reforms that I think we should be pushing for in 2017 and beyond. If you have additional ideas, or nuance or caveats you'd like to include, please feel free to share them in the comments. Note that the list is not in order of priority; it's just a jumble of things I'd love to pursue.

If you'd like to be a part of the effort to turn some of these ideas into real-life policy, or you have your own ideas you'd like to contribute, I also hope you'll join our mailing list at Abundant Housing LA. We'll be shifting gears toward proactive reform and advocacy once Measure S is over and done with, and that's the best way to stay involved. And if you're leading an organization devoted to similar efforts, we'd love to partner with you going forward. Reach out!

Without further ado...


Begin a trial program for public/non-profit housing acquisition

The fact that we treat housing as an investment is at the heart of our affordability crisis. Investments by their very nature are intended to appreciate faster than wages, and so they're antithetical to long-term affordability and the economic sustainability of the city. We need to take a page from the many European cities that have adopted a policy of "social housing," which is housing owned and operated by the government or non-profits, rather than profit-seeking owners. (For the record, I would have a strong preference for non-profit rather than city government ownership in Los Angeles.)

Rather than focusing all of our affordable housing dollars on the construction of new housing—which is extraordinarily expensive, and for which the covenants expire after 55 years—we should also invest in acquisition of existing, relatively high-density, "naturally affordable" housing that can be preserved indefinitely. I wrote extensively about the potential benefits of such a program here (along with some additional benefits here), but the gist of it is that we can grow our stock of affordable housing exponentially, rather than relying on the linear growth and eventual plateau of our current model, and that it could be financially self-sustaining over the long-term. The city should create a program to test this acquisition-based model, with at least $10-$50 million in seed funds.

Bonus Housing Policy Priority: If the pilot program proves successful (and I think it would), we would then have the basis for a citywide ballot initiative to expand the program's funding, and impact, to tens of thousands of households throughout Los Angeles.

Potential growth rates of the traditional, construction-based affordable housing program (dark blue line) versus an acquisition-based program with equal annual funding. Source.


Develop a City-Administered "Housing Choice" Voucher Program for Tenants Evicted by the Ellis Act

The folks most directly and most negatively impacted by development are those evicted from their homes to make way for new apartments (or hotels, or condos, or whatever else). This is a real problem that we cannot brush aside with arguments about "greater good" or supply and demand. The payments property owners must make to displaced tenants are inadequate, and even doubled or tripled payments would still be insufficient for certain households.

Instead, the city should guarantee to every displaced tenant a permanent housing voucher, analogous to the federal Housing Choice voucher program, that ensures they never pay more than 30% of their income wherever they choose to live in LA. You can read more about this idea here. The city government earns a net profit on sales, business, and property tax revenues for every market-rate unit built in the city, and they can afford to set aside a small share of those funds to support the ~1,000 households displaced by the Ellis Act each year. It's the right thing to do and it's also good politics if we want Angelenos to support continued growth.

While we probably can't hope to turn displacement into an experience any household looks forward to, city-administered housing vouchers could actually improve the financial circumstances of many LA households (remember, over 60% of renters already pay more than 30% of their income toward rent, including 33% who pay over half their income on rent each month). And because housing choice vouchers are based on income, resources would be focused on those most in need—if you earn a bunch of money, the voucher doesn't do you any good (as it should be). This program could also be tied to the acquisition-based affordable housing program discussed above, so that displaced tenants could be rapidly relocated into nearby housing of similar quality and greater affordability.

Tenants of the Yucca-Argyle apartments rally to oppose their eviction and redevelopment of their homes.


Maximize Housing Potential in Transit-Oriented Communities, Especially Downtown LA

This one is pretty standard planner stuff, but it's really important: We need to allow as much housing as possible in Downtown LA and other transit-oriented communities. Especially in downtown, with the forthcoming DTLA 2040 community plan update, there's a real opportunity to capitalize on our billion-dollar transportation investments, create gobs of affordable housing, and test out innovative housing and business-retention programs by going all out on new housing in these communities.

I've written a novel's worth of words on what I think should be prioritized in the DTLA 2040 update; if you're looking for the abridged version, you can find it here. Maximizing downtown housing production also has the added benefit of taking the heat off of other, less development-friendly neighborhoods. They don't want new housing? Fine! We'll take it, and all the diversity, amenities, and value capture revenues that come with it. I've already begun pushing the City Planning department to accommodate more housing in their update, and I welcome you to join me in advocating for the same.

Beyond downtown, we need to commit to dramatically upzoning the areas within a half-mile of every Metro Rail station in the city. This should be a bare minimum precondition to good planning in our city. If we can't agree that rail-adjacent land is the ideal site for more housing, we're already dead in the water—no where else could hope to be more appropriate. Of course, any vulnerable renters and businesses impacted by redevelopment must be properly compensated, and part of that goes back to the housing voucher program suggested above. Whatever the cost, the long-term benefits of creating truly walkable, mixed-income communities around our rail lines will be far greater.

Emphasizing housing density and walkability can help us the types of neighborhoods that people love to congregate, and that make people—not cars—the top priority.


Encourage Diversity in the Types of Homes Being Built and How They're Constructed

Something that has struck me about living in LA is how little diversity there is in the supply of new housing: No unique construction materials, no car-free or car-lite apartments, no micro-units. It's just the same 7-story boxes and towers-on-a-parking-podium, and all of it is very car-oriented. Now to be clear, I'd rather see these buildings than nothing at all. But what we're building doesn't exactly inspire folks, and worse, it doesn't serve the diversity of needs and desires that exist among LA's many residents. It's one-size-fits-all, across the board. We need to proactively promote and encourage experimentation and new building types in our city.

One of the biggest barriers to creating relatively affordable housing is the amount we spend on parking. In multifamily housing, each space costs upwards of $30,000 to $50,000, which works out to around $200 to $400 per month added to rent. Take into account the cost of land, and that many new homes average 1.5 or 2 parking spaces per unit, and developers have often spent $200,000 per unit before they've even built any of the space that humans actually live in. It's unsustainable in every sense of the word. And as UCLA professor Michael Manville has found loosening parking requirements can both increase the diversity and decrease the cost of housing.

Unfortunately, developers (or the banks and investors that finance them) don't currently believe they can get away with building car-free or even car-lite housing in LA. Blame also lies with the city, which has yet to abolish parking minimums even in downtown, where these requirements serve absolutely no purpose. I would love to see the city, or a foundation with an affordability or sustainability oriented mission, to take the plunge and invest their own money in parking-free housing, to prove to private developers that demand exists and this housing type can be successful. Once the model is proven, I think we'll see it proliferate.

The same goes for micro-units—of which Los Angeles has virtually zero, while much smaller cities like Seattle have thousands—and cutting-edge building materials like cross-laminated timber. There's great potential for these innovative approaches to satisfy unmet demand, cut costs, and increase the diversity of housing options throughout LA. The city needs to invest the time and resources to test out these options, or at the very least to incentivize private builders to do so.

A 12-story cross-laminated timber (CLT) building planned for Portland, OR. The city must create a path for developers to try out innovative, often less expensive materials like CLT that can increase the diversity of building aesthetics and reduce the costs of new housing.


And Of Course, Repeal or Reform Proposition 13

Proposition 13 is at the root of many affordability and equity challenges throughout California. Although a full repeal is unlikely, there is growing support for significant reforms to Prop 13. We need to make it happen.

Not only has Prop 13 resulted in a massive transfer of wealth from poorer, ethnically and racially diverse, younger residents to richer, whiter, older Californians, it's also put a severe damper on housing development throughout the state. There are thousands of underutilized properties throughout LA that, in a normal market, would have already been sold to be developed into a higher and better use—housing, for example. Because Prop 13 places restrictions on property tax increases, even for commercial property, we end up with underutilized land, and owners who have very little incentive to sell. After all, they're not losing money on the property today, and maybe it'll be worth even more in a couple years. This is why even a place like downtown is still chock full of surface parking lots.

I'd love to see the tax restrictions of Prop 13 reformed for residential property, and eliminated for commercial property. I'd settle for just the latter though. And fortunately there's already an organization, Evolve CA, that's dedicated to making that happen. YIMBYs and affordability/tenant's advocates throughout the state should sign up.


What Else?

These are just a few policies—most of which I've written about in the past—that I think would be worth pursuing in the months and years to come.

Notably absent is reform to the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), which paradoxically encourages environmental degradation and increased global carbon emissions, in addition to increasing the costs of development and, ultimately, the cost of housing. I think reforming CEQA is important, but I'm not sure where to even begin in tackling such a big, entrenched, thorny issue. Your input is very strongly invited.

I also like the idea of adopting more "Master Plans" for infill development, like what we've seen at Warner Center. In this case, I just don't know enough about the inner workings of these types of plans to opine on them. To me though, they seem like an opportunity to expedite the planning process while simultaneously focusing more on a comprehensive vision for a community, rather than individual projects, and that is a win-win in my eyes.

There are a lot of great ideas out there, so please share them either here or straight to my email. If you've got a team already working on something you think jives with this vision, loop me in. We've got an energized community of Angelenos who want to transform the negativity and cynicism of Measure S into something positive, so let's get started. And again, if you're not already signed up, please join the Abundant Housing LA mailing list, because that's going to be our organizing tool going forward.