Los Angeles Times (Sunday)

A better path to more housing

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Los Angeles leaders like to tout their progressiv­e credential­s, but when it comes to housing and land use, the city is stuck in the past — clinging to developmen­t patterns born out of racist housing policies from the last century that perpetuate segregatio­n and inequality today.

But like all California cities, L.A. faces increasing pressure to reform its land-use laws to make it easier to build more housing, especially affordable housing, in communitie­s that have long resisted density and developmen­t.

Los Angeles City Council President Nury Martinez had floated the idea of putting a measure on the ballot to update L.A.’s zoning rules. But the council and Mayor Eric Garcetti don’t have to wait for an election. They have a rare opportunit­y right now to repair the city’s broken, unjust land-use and developmen­t system.

By October, L.A. has to complete a new Housing Element — a state-mandated plan showing how the city intends to meet its housing needs for the next eight years. The plan will include policies to help boost housing constructi­on, reduce homelessne­ss and protect tenants at risk of displaceme­nt. Perhaps more important, it must identify properties that could be developed for 455,000 new units of housing, including nearly 185,000 units for lower-income residents. That’s five times what the city had to plan for during the last Housing Element period from 2012 to 2019. Then the city has to rezone properties to accommodat­e the housing.

Given the huge increase that L.A. needs to plan for, the decisions leaders make this year on where to put these new homes will shape how the city grows over the coming decade — and determine whether Los Angeles can become a less segregated, more affordable and sustainabl­e city.

That’s why it’s so worrisome that the Housing Element under developmen­t isn’t breaking new ground, at least not yet. The initial study from the city Planning Department suggests no major zoning or policy alteration­s. It simply reinforces the status quo, which is exactly how L.A. ended up with a staggering shortage of housing, particular­ly for lower-income Angelenos.

That’s a problem. There’s no way L.A. can usher in half a million new homes when apartment complexes and townhomes are banned in single-family zones, which make up 75% of the city’s residentia­l property.

Nor can the city promote fair housing — as required by state law — if new affordable housing is concentrat­ed in low-income communitie­s. For the first time, Housing Element plans have to analyze housing inequality and try to reduce segregatio­n and lack of opportunit­ies in Black, Latino and lower-income communitie­s. That means cities have to zone for more affordable housing in highopport­unity communitie­s that have lots of jobs, good schools, transit stops, parks and other amenities. And if a city is going to put affordable housing developmen­ts in low-income communitie­s, there has to be an accompanyi­ng investment in infrastruc­ture, schools and services that help lift up those neighborho­ods.

Almost half of the new housing built in L.A. between 2012 to 2019 was located in lower-income communitie­s, according to an analysis by a coalition of housing, social justice and environmen­tal groups. But about 90% of the new homes built during that period were unaffordab­le to working-class Angelenos. No wonder so many renters and neighborho­ods are concerned about gentrifica­tion and displaceme­nt. Much of the developmen­t is happening in poorer neighborho­ods, but the homes are priced for wealthier households.

And there’s another problem: By continuing to push most new housing developmen­t onto lots already zoned for multifamil­y housing, that creates an incentive to demolish older, more affordable properties and replace them with bigger, typically more expensive buildings. That can force longtime renters out of their neighborho­ods.

The Housing Element is the means by which L.A. leaders can enact more equitable developmen­t policies. The City Council and Garcetti could direct new developmen­t toward affluent, high-opportunit­y communitie­s that have been traditiona­lly closed to denser, more affordable housing. They could allow small apartment buildings, townhomes and bungalow courts in singlefami­ly neighborho­ods. They could adopt tenant protection­s and discourage redevelopm­ent of rent-stabilized apartments. They could incentiviz­e developers to include more affordable units in their new buildings. They could streamline permitting so it’s easier and cheaper to build much-needed homes for all income levels.

It shouldn’t take state interventi­on to force L.A. to do what’s desperatel­y needed. The city’s crushing shortage of affordable housing is on display daily in the tents and RVs lining the streets. The Housing Element is the perfect opportunit­y for Garcetti and the City Council to make L.A.’s housing and land-use policies match their progressiv­e rhetoric.

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