Monday, February 24

Emily Merz: LA needs legislation encouraging development of affordable housing

(Lexi Sanchez/Daily Bruin)

There are more homeless individuals in Los Angeles than UCLA graduate and undergraduate students combined. 11,000 more.

In the last six years, the number of homeless individuals in LA has increased 75 percent, from 32,000 to 55,000, according to the Los Angeles Times. 41,000 of those individuals are completely unsheltered, living in cars or on the streets.

Discussions of affordable housing in LA are not new. The city passed propositions last year and the year before to provide the city with billions of dollars to build affordable housing units. But with current site review laws, more housing for homeless individuals is a pipe dream.

Since 2008, 55 percent of permanent housing projects have 49 units or fewer. And that’s no coincidence. LA city planning laws mandate that development projects with 50 or more units must undergo a site plan review by the City Council, incentivizing developers to build fewer, larger and more expensive units. A site plan review is a lengthy process in which the city planning commission determines whether or not to approve a proposal based on its drawings and details for development.

The current site plan review policy has kept developers from building high-density projects that could house homeless or low-income individuals. Developers just don’t have the interest in developing this kind of housing, especially if they have to go through the lengthy site plan review process.

There’s a solution to the arbitrary bureaucracy of these zoning laws. The Permanent Supportive Housing Ordinance, which the LA City Council is considering, would increase the minimum number of units for a housing project to automatically trigger a lengthy site plan review from 50 to 120 units, if the development meets certain criteria. This ordinance would incentivize developers to maximize the number of units they build in addition to mandating that half of the units be designated for homeless individuals and pricing all units at city-defined affordable levels.

You don’t have to look far to see examples of the current site plan review’s failures. Few apartment complexes in Westwood even come close to the 50-unit threshold.

“Developers could be building 50 to 120 units, but they don’t want to deal with the review process, so they only build 49 luxurious units,” said Michael Skiles, Graduate Students Association president. “One hundred twenty units that could be affordable are turned into 49-unit luxurious apartments that students can’t afford.”

The Permanent Supportive Housing Ordinance would increase the availability of housing in places like Westwood by allowing developers to bypass site plan reviews when building high-density apartment complexes. This comes at a time when Los Angeles has more than a billion dollars in bond money from Measure HHH, passed in 2016, that it is using to construct and incentivize developers to construct housing units for homeless individuals. In effect, the proposed ordinance would speed up the process of developing affordable housing while the city is working out how to distribute the funds it has received from past city measures.

And the city urgently needs more affordable housing units if it wants to solve its homelessness crisis.

“People don’t want to think about homelessness as a zoning problem,” said Heidi Liu, law clerk for Public Counsel, a public interest, pro bono law firm. “But at the end of the day … what keeps the housing from being built is discriminatory laws.”

Some of the greatest pushback against the proposed ordinance comes from neighborhood councils and residents. Residents of Santa Monica and Westwood have fought tooth-and-nail to prevent the city from building homeless shelters or providing services that would assist homeless individuals, Skiles said. Similarly, in Venice, groups like Venice Vision argue the proposal would remove local autonomy over development and concentrate homeless populations in certain neighborhoods, according to the Los Angeles Times.

But concerns about high concentration of homeless and low-income individuals in “quaint” Westside neighborhoods aren’t legitimate. For years, these areas have passed the burden of housing the homeless to other parts of the city, said Angus Beverly, a member of Westwood Neighborhood Council. But the Westside, especially Venice, still has a sizable homeless population that isn’t served when residents are fighting against development of high-density housing in those areas.

The proposed ordinance resolves the site plan review process that has killed countless projects that would have otherwise helped homeless and low-income individuals. Homelessness has plagued Los Angeles for years on end, and the city needs to get creative in how it handles the issue. That means getting rid of the bureaucracy surrounding the construction of much-needed housing, not propagating it.

Opinion staff columnist

Merz is a staff columnist for the Opinion section.

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  • James Dan

    “…..incentivize developers to maximize the number of units they build in
    addition to mandating that half of the units be designated for homeless
    individuals and pricing all units at city-defined affordable levels.”

    Unless the government is funding the construction, you will not see private developers building such housing; why would a developer, financing a project themselves, agree to limit rent to “city-defined affordable levels”?