Wednesday, April 25, 2018

rent

This year, Californians will get to vote to repeal Costa-Hawkins, a 20 year-old bill that placed a couple significant restrictions on what cities can do with rent control. [I won't go into the details on that - check it out yourself here.]

Full disclosure: I support the repeal of Costa-Hawkins. Cities should have the ability to provide greater housing stability to renters. However, I disagree that repealing Costa-Hawkins is an affordable housing prescription.

On its face, repealing Costa-Hawkins would seem to simply create more opportunities to provide for housing affordability. In reality, giving cities the ability to extend rent control to newer and, even, unbuilt housing, as well as establishing vacancy controls, would be a radical departure from existing policies that could have significant implications that we must consider if we are to have an honest conversation about this ballot measure.

There are two key areas that warrant further evaluation:
  1. California's existing rent controls have never applied to housing that has not yet been built. We have little idea what this change might do to new housing construction.
  2. Simply broadening rent control to newer or unbuilt housing is not actually a very good mechanism for guaranteeing affordable housing for those most in need.
Let's consider these in order.

FIRST
Rent control (or stabilization) in California has only ever existed retrospectively, for buildings constructed before 1980. Given this, the number of apartments that qualified for rent control started at its highest possible number and has decreased over time. In 1980, California's population was 23.7 million people, and today it is nearly 40 million. So, while rent control applied to nearly every multiple dwelling unit available in 1980, and it accommodated a large swath of the state's population at that time, both the share of population in rent controlled units and the absolute number of rent-controlled units has declined significantly in the interceding four decades.

One question then arises: what would be the impact of extending rent controls to unbuilt housing?

We have no direct experience telling us what the impact would be if rent control were extended to unbuilt housing. We can, however, make an educated guess. A decent corollary on this is the impact of Prop 13 on the housing supply in California. [I won't go into explaining Prop 13, but you can get more information here.]

For cities and counties, Prop 13 upended their entire revenue structure. Where they once depended largely on property taxes for income, they have since come to rely much more heavily on sales and income taxes, which come largely from commercial and retail property. Additionally, while turnover of existing homes might have once meant very little difference in the overall generation of property taxes, now it is the only mechanism through which a new assessment is triggered, and the only way that the amount of property taxes collected on a residence increases substantially. These factors are a double-whammy to the construction of new housing, which (a) is less lucrative than new commercial and retail space and (b) undermines how much additional property taxes can be realized in existing housing by reducing turnover in existing housing stock. Not only can cities limit the demand on their infrastructure by restricting the ability of new residents to call them home, but they can realize additional property tax revenues by forcing more turnover - and, thus, reassessments - in a constrained housing supply.

Where cities once saw the construction of new housing as a revenue generator, it now compares much less favorably to other uses. And how is this relevant to rent control? Consider this chart:

Image result for los angeles housing chart boom
Credit: Shane Phillips, Abundant Housing LA

Of note, Prop 13 passed in 1978, and immediately afterward the amount of housing being constructed in the City of LA declined. Since 1990, the average number of homes built each decade is less than half the average of what was built in each of the decades leading up to Prop 13's passage. If housing were as financially appealing to cities today, they'd be more likely to support its construction. Instead, a new review of cities' compliance with their own housing goals showed 97% failing to meet their (sometimes laughable) goals.

So, the imposition of an artificial limit on the revenue that a city can receive for a specific type of land use might be incentivizing cities to curtail their desire for more of that type of land use. Why would we expect anything different with the application of artificial limits on rent revenue that developers could realize (through rent controls) to unbuilt housing? If an artificial constraint is placed on the amount of rent that future housing could return to investors who lend financing to that project's construction, the only logical outcomes are either (a) less new housing construction and/or (b) developers seeking ways to further push up rents to finance their projects. Applying rent controls to unbuilt housing could have serious implications, and our history with Prop 13 tells us we have reason to be wary of the impact of this kind of measure on housing affordability.

SECOND
Rent control is not a policy prescription to provide affordable housing to those who need it most.

Our current rent control programs apply to housing stock that is at least 40 years old and with is often (though not always) substandard to new construction in meaningful ways. This connection between rent-control policy and the age and condition of the buildings to which it applies feeds into a common perception that rent control equals (relatively) affordable housing, since older housing will almost always rent for less than newer housing with more amenities and more stringent construction standards.

Image result for los angeles rent controlled apartment
Standard rent-stabilized buildings in LA



Image result for los angeles new apartment
Typical newer apartment building in LA

This connection between a building being old and its being rent-controlled colors our discussion of rent control. When we consider extending rent control to newer apartments, we're generally talking about apartments that have more amenities and more stringent construction standards and thus cost more up front. These newer apartments will, generally, be less affordable than older apartments. Does rent control make housing more consistently priced over the long-term for a tenant? Sure. However, does it make an apartment more affordable? Not necessarily. We have to decouple the idea of rent control from building age in any discussion of extending these types of provisions or newer or unbuilt housing, and that has a direct correlation to affordability.

Further, rent-controlled housing is available to anyone, regardless of income. Unlike designated low-income housing, which uses a means test to determine eligibility, rent control is simply a mechanism to lock in an agreed-upon rent, with limited increases over time. Not advocating here for a means test for rent control; just pointing out that rent control is not a mechanism for directing affordable housing to those who need affordable housing the most.

Still further, if a city were to institute vacancy controls, that would just create an issue with scarcity. Vacancy control, while limiting housing price increases, does nothing to address housing scarcity overall, and it would create fierce competition that would still likely result in those with the most means beating out those with the least. Short of additional means-testing-type measures to give a leg up to those with less income, vacancy controls would only create more challenges for both the lessee and the lessor. This is particularly true if cities continue to do little to address housing shortages overall.

----

WRAPPING IT UP
We can and should repeal Costa-Hawkins. If for no other reason, renters deserve the same year-over-year protections that Prop 13 extends to homeowners, creating consistency that enables a more stable community.

Still, our affordable housing policy cannot amount to "get into a place and don't move." Nor should we mistake repeal of this bill as creating affordable housing, even if rent control does provide some stability. We should be wary of the effects that extending these protections to housing not yet built could have on our ability to supply housing for our growing region.

Repeal of Costa-Hawkins is not an affordable housing solution, at least not in the way that is directed toward those most in need. We need to take a hard, long look in the mirror to make difficult choices to create real, meaningful change. This will require being open to supporting the creation of a lot more housing, even in our own neighborhoods. It will require supporting many housing projects that could impact our views, traffic, etc. And it will require demanding that our elected leaders create ways for permanent supportive housing and housing projects with designated affordable units to move quickly through the planning process from rendering to ribbon-cutting.

I welcome thoughts from others and thank y'all for hearing me out.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

postscript

Last night's public comment, committee debate, and subsequent vote 6-4 (including several abstentions) against SB 827 was a perfect encapsulation of California's daily housing debate. It is the reason that we are in this mess. Anyone who's been to even just one hearing on a proposed housing project - let alone myriad hearings - was surprised neither by the debate nor by its ultimate outcome.

Why not? Consider...

For starters, you had the predictable scorched-earth opponents of change -- people concerned about their views, traffic, parking, etc. People offering the usual tropes such as "[fill-in-the-blank] is in the pocket of greedy developers;" people otherizing YIMBYs as people who don't really *live* here or are just passing through; and people complaining about wealthy folks who live near transit who would still end up owning cars and driving (without acknowledging that these same folks are also likely to use their cars less, if they have them, than those who don't live near transit). Every single housing project hearing will be attended by scorched-earth opponents of change, who will typically open all of their comments with the number of years (or generations) they've lived within inches of the proposed project. Implicit but left unsaid in these assertions of validity owing to decades of homeownership is being a beneficiary of wealth-accumulation policies at all levels of government (e.g. mortgage interest deduction, Prop 13, etc.) that makes folks in this group simultaneously politically powerful and inordinately wealthier than any other city denizens.

On another hand, you had the proponents of equitable development who are also generally opponents of new market-rate housing -- people concerned primarily with the impacts of displacement and gentrification and allied here [for better or worse] with and giving cover for the above-referenced scorched-earth opponents of change, whose decades of opposition to any housing are the very reason for wholesale gentrification of places that were once the primary domain of lower-income communities and communities of color. These opponents of new market-rate housing often correlate displacement with transit expansion, and generally, though not entirely, remain wholly silent on scorched-earth opponents of change and direct their ire instead on... YIMBYs. If proponents of equitable development are present at a local hearing, it's usually to ask for more inclusionary affordable housing in a large project. Rarely will you hear unvarnished support for a project, and especially not for something that wasn't already big enough to have the resources to offer some inclusionary affordable housing.

And on yet another hand, you had the YIMBYs, decried by their opponents as being both well-funded/-organized and also so new to the conversation as to not understand its nuance. YIMBYs ask for more housing on a broad scale, sometimes appearing to lack sympathy for those folks caught in the middle when a project could result in some folks losing their homes. So, YIMBYs offer an array of ideas to shore up concerns about displacement and gentrification while decrying scorched-earth opponents of change and the racialized history (and often present reality) of homeownership that continues to benefit and enrich the scorched-earthers. When YIMBYs are present at a housing project hearing, they'll be in the minority, they will get booed and hissed, and they will generally be ignored by the adjudicators of said hearing, since they'll be perceived as representing the same proportional minority of population as present at said hearing. They'll be too "academic," "new," or "affluent" to influence the debate (never mind that affluence associated with homeownership is actually the very thing that has defined the housing debate and constrained the creation of new housing in California for decades).

And, finally, you had the elected officials, bemoaning the affordability crisis, speaking in high-minded platitudes about the need for change, desperate to do something but not... this thing. This thing is the worst thing, or just not quite the right thing. This thing needs to be tweaked a little here or a little there, but there's nothing to do about it now. This thing is good, but it's not "perfect." This thing is what we want, but, oh darn, we just can't support it because you didn't talk to me or X constituent, or you didn't address Y problem in precisely the manner that I would prescribe. So enough officials oppose it that it dies today. In the case of many housing projects, enough folks oppose it with the levers available to them, that if it comes back later, it does so in a much smaller form -- shorter, with more parking, with less affordable housing (cuz, let's face it, the progressive opponents of housing often have about as much real power as the YIMBYs) -- reaffirming the preeminence and superiority of the scorched-earth opponents of change over all else.

And, yes, something like SB 827 be back. Why? Because in the months to come, housing will just continue to get that much more unaffordable. Still the people with the most, real power in all of this will remain the wealthy, mostly white homeowners. Not the tenants activist groups. Not the progressive opponents of new housing. Not even the big greedy developers. And also not the YIMBYs. Which is not to say that a bit more shoe-leather, a lot more organizing, a lot more coalition-building, and a lot more work supporting electeds on board with this effort and opposing those against it won't also work. All of that will be necessary. But it is to say that, like with the countless housing projects that have been and will continue to be downsized owing primarily to the power of scorched-earth opponents of change, so too will SB 827 be pressed to continue to move in that direction, even though it will be back.

In the meantime, tens of thousands more people will leave California. Myriad more businesses will depart for cheaper accommodations and lower wages and more affordable housing prices in places like Texas, or Georgia, or Florida -- resulting in worse greenhouse gas emissions nationwide and worse housing outcomes there and here. Thousands more will be displaced, kicked out of their homes through the Ellis Act or allowed to live in rotting buildings that are unfit for human habitation. And millions of homeowners will continue to reap benefits far and away exceeding what they would earn in a professional job -- just for owning a home.

What we witnessed in the State Senate yesterday was simply a much grander scale of the same, daily local debates that take place across California every day, all the time. The players were essentially the same, and the dynamics virtually unchanged after decades of these very issues getting us to this point. Our failure to recognize the familiarity, and our repetition of the same roles and outcomes, is disheartening and maddeningly familiar.

If California is ever going to dig itself out of the crisis into which we placed ourselves through decades of no- and slow-growth policies, it's going to take even more resolve, even more collaboration, and even more vision. SB 827's one and only hearing showed for all the world what many of us have seen and experienced regularly at the local level for years. The question now is whether we have finally had enough and can make this the last time that we let these dynamics bedevil us. We better, because the future of this amazing state is at stake.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

opportunity

This week, a large coalition of Los Angeles-based social and environmental justice, mobility, public health, and community empowerment organizations came together to publicly oppose California State Senate Bill 827, which was introduced last month by Senator Scott Wiener. So far, the bill has only been introduced and referred to committee, with no public hearing yet or opportunity for amendment in the public process.

[If you're looking for a primer on SB 827, check out this link, or this link, or this link (this last one from Senator Wiener responding to concerns raised in the first two weeks after introduction). If you're looking for reasons why SB 827 is a radical departure worth considering read this, or this, or this, or this.]

The coalition letter, titled "Re: SB 827 (Wiener) Planning and Zoning - Transit-Rich Housing Bonus - OPPOSE," stated its concern about the impacts that SB 827 could have on low-income communities and communities of color. So, let's dive in to what this letter says and why it does a disservice to the bill.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

focal

One of the things that I've come to observe in LA both as a visitor and as a resident is its lack of a focal point. Most cities, for better or worse, have some physical, visual center that define their center.

In Toronto, it's the CN Tower. In New York, it's One World Trade Center. In Tokyo, it's the Skytree. In Chicago, it's the Willis (formerly Sears) Tower. In Seattle, it's the Space Needle. In DC, it's the Washington Monument. And on and on.


Image result for toronto skyline
This skyline is instantly recognizable, yes?
Image result for chicago skyline
How about this one?

Los Angeles used to have a striking, visual focal point in its City Hall. And, in order to ensure that building's primacy, for years the City's zoning disallowed any structures to be built in excess of City Hall's height. Once that rule was relaxed, however, the skyscrapers that quickly sprung up in downtown hid the City's striking seat of government from view. LA's further construction of freeways throughout the region's core splintered City Hall from neighborhoods to its north and east and placed more emphasis on getting through downtown than on getting to downtown.

We face a unique opportunity that arrived officially today, as the International Olympics Committee selected LA as the host of the 2028 Summer Olympic Games. Almost a decade away, these games provide an opportunity right now to take more creative approaches and to galvanize our region around a shared purpose.

Part of the LA Olympic bid was an expectation that downtown's core would be reunited with its older neighborhoods to the north by capping the 101 freeway trench, creating new open space and reclaiming land from several on- and off-ramps in the process and providing new opportunities for more housing and commercial space where now is just pavement.

Image result for la olympic bid park 101
This is a freeway trench today.

This is where a lack of a focal point comes back. LA has a transportation focal point: Union Station. It has a historic center: Olvera Street. And these two places are directly across the street from each other. Just to their south is several parcels of City-owned land splintered by freeway on- and off-ramps that would disappear under a proposed freeway cap park plan and be replaced by a small office building.

Image result for union station olvera street overhead
The parcels in question are where you see the U-shaped trees in the lower center portion of this picture
(currently freeway ramps and a couple small surface parking lots).

Does LA really need a 3-story office building in such a prominent location? Next door to a transit facility forecast to handle 100,000+ passengers/day within a few years? Across the street from our region's historic and cultural center? Just a couple blocks from our civic center, which will be easily accessible on foot once the cap park is completed? And directly adjacent to what will be our newest and most striking city park?

This city block is over 3 acres in size.

The block bounded by Alameda to the east, Los Angeles to the west, and the 101 to the south is a prime opportunity to think outside the box, to be creative, and to offer LA a new focal point, one that embraces LA's growing transit infrastructure while mixing the new with the old at the city's historic heart. Once the current on- and off-ramps at that block have been removed, this property will be a completely City and State-owned block that could be a unique opportunity to engage the community, create a design competition, excite kids and families and even the jaded older folks across the region around a new idea, and ultimately give our region something unique and special in the process that will serve as a focal point for generations to come.

Let's do this, LA.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

pollution

Pollution on our streets and highways is all the rage to talk about these days. Over the weekend, the LA Times came out with a story about the installation of air filters (or lack thereof) on new housing construction abutting our area freeways. City Watch LA had a blog post yesterday that declared LA's bike lanes as criminally toxic as the water in Flint. And anyone paying attention to community discussions at neighborhood meetings and on sites like NextDoor will hear often about how anything slowing down traffic increases pollution.

Here's what I don't get: WHY DO WE THINK THAT THE STATUS QUO IS OK?


Sunday, July 9, 2017

misanthrope


Mis-an-thro-py (noun): A dislike of mankind  
Mis-an-thrope (noun): A person who dislikes humankind and avoids human society
Mis-an-thro-pic (adjective): Disliking humankind and avoiding human society
“Why is everyone else traffic?”

It’s a simple question, really, but it belies a much bigger challenge in a culture that relies so heavily on the most inefficient means of transportation: cars. Go to any community meeting discussing a possible new park or creative space or commercial venture or new housing, and the chief concern will be traffic and parking. Watch the local news about a big event coming to town, and the primary areas of focus will be traffic and parking. Traffic reports are as frequently provided on every radio station and every television station as reports of the weather, and more frequently than anything else.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

personal

There's a part of Measure S that is personal for me. No, not because of its impact on land use and planning in LA - although that definitely hits home on a number of levels. And not even because it feels like the older generation telling the younger generation to bug off - although that also hits home for many reasons.

Measure S is personal because of how it is being financed. Officially, the campaign in favor of Measure S has received contributions of about $2.5 million in one year. What's noteworthy about that is that almost all of that $2.5M (well, about 98%) has come from one source: the AIDS Healthcare Foundation. Whenever this financing has been raised by members of the community wanting to understand AHF's involvement, the measure's proponents have typically pointed to AHF's advocacy for hospice care in the early days of the HIV/AIDS crisis.

This answer leaves me wanting, for a few reasons. And, ultimately, it leaves me upset and, personally, offended.