Would Measure S Have Gripped Los Angeles in a Housing Shortage?
The Los Angeles area is suffering from a housing deficit that has pushed median prices up to $610,000. Over the past 5 years, prices have increased $240,000 leading to increased homelessness and evictions. So would it have made sense to pass a broad measure that would essentially ban any large scale housing construction? The backers of Measure S, the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative, argued that it would have, although for other reasons.
Measure S was however defeated this March after a heated, costly battle primarily over the long-standing practice of changing zoning rules to permit buildings that are taller or denser than the established regulations would normally allow. It would have imposed a 2 year moratorium on such zone changes, in particular, “spot zoning” to allow individual construction projects (such as apartment towers, shops and offices) to proceed when they would otherwise require a special permit and could be halted by a court case.
Although housing growth in Los Angeles added nearly 20,000 units every year from the 1940’s until the 1980’s, it then slowed dramatically as more land-use regulations were enacted and less land was physically available. In the past 7 years, less than 25,000 new units have been added but the population has grown by about 179,000 which is why developers want to take down smaller existing structures and build huge sky-scrapers with 1,000’s of new housing units.
Rusty Hicks, executive secretary-treasurer of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor said “Defeating Measure S has spared our city from a future that would’ve meant fewer jobs, fewer funds for critical public services, fewer new homes for those who desperately need them, and even less affordable rents.” Business groups and the mayor opposed the measure explaining that it might prevent developers from building the high density housing that is desperately needed in the L.A. area, thus eliminating possible jobs and hurting the city economically. Furthermore, opponents say the measure would block the rezoning of unused or under-utilized land that would better used for housing construction.
However, neighborhood activists and supporters of the measure said it would help reform city hall’s “corrupt” planning process and prevent huge construction projects that increase traffic congestion, pollution, and lead to gentrification. Campaign spokesperson Ileana Wachtel said “We were up against the establishment. It’s tough to fight the status quo and it’s tough to fight really wealthy developers.” Others warned against the increasing “Manhattanization” of L.A. and that any such new housing developments would likely be too expensive for the many economically disadvantaged residents of the city and lead to an even larger homeless population. The measure would also have required public review of the city’s general plan every 5 years, ostensibly so that city residents could make sure no changes were being made that they didn’t like, although opponents point out that it would really just add more unneeded bureaucracy and procedures.
Real estate developers, labor unions, and other opponents of the measure raised more than $8 million to defeat the measure, while supporters only raised $5 million. About 99% of the money supporting the measure was donated by the nonprofit AIDS Healthcare Foundation because of a high-rise Hollywood project. Some of those opposed to the measure feel that the director of the foundation only wants to stop the construction project because it will block his view of the Hollywood sign.
The director of the Measure S campaign, Jill Stewart, argued that the political culture of the city has given rise to a “pay-to-play” culture in which politicians agree to rewrite zoning rules for real estate developers who sink money into their campaigns. In an attempt to appease Stewart and other advocates of the measure, Mayor Garcetti pledged last fall that he would ban private meetings between developers and city planning commissioners which would expose any conflicts of interest or favoritism.
Much of the debate between supporters and opponents was centered around the effect it would have on tenants as rents continue to soar- supporters believed it would prevent the displacement of longtime renters by stopping the builing of over-priced luxury apartments and condominiums which would require that older less expensive dwellings be demolished. Opponents also accused the campaign of deceptive and irresponsible tactics such as saying the measure would help house homeless vets when it really wouldn’t, or using mailers that resembled eviction notices triggering a complaint by the Sheriff’s Department which stated such tactics were illegal. The city leads the nation in homelessness, but just passed a ballot measure that would allocate $1.2 billion in bond revenue to fund 13,000 low income units. But it will be difficult to build these if Measure S passes, because developers often need zoning waivers to make their projects viable. For example, minimum parking requirements can greatly increase the cost of each unit, and don’t make sense since many homeless people don’t own cars- a change in the zoning rules would allow for less space to be allocated to parking and more to housing, thus saving money for the developer. The fact is, if developers can’t make enough money they won’t build anything!
Nonetheless, the measure was defeated by a 2-to-1 margin indicating either that voters had a clear understanding and preference, or perhaps that opponents of Measure S simply ran a better campaign!
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