Livability Proponents Split on Measure JJJ, the Build Better L.A. Initiative

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Livability proponents are split on Measure JJJ, the Build Better L.A. initiative

This November, City of Los Angeles voters will decide Measure JJJ, termed the “Build Better L.A.” initiative. Measure JJJ is designed to create new affordable housing, especially around transit, built by local workers paid living wages. Some critics assert that JJJ would likely result in unintended consequences, including potentially dampening overall construction of new housing.

What Measure JJJ Does

Measure JJJ would add affordable housing under a mechanism similar to the current California density bonus law. With the density bonus, when developers want to build something taller than what current zoning permits, they can do so if they include some affordable housing. Under JJJ, for developments with ten or more residential dwelling units, if the city of L.A. grants a zoning variance (such as a permit to build taller or to build with less parking), the developer would be required to build affordable housing. The affordable housing could be onsite, or within a few miles of the project, or could instead take the form of an in-lieu fee paid to L.A.’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund.

The variance would also trigger requirements to hire locally and pay prevailing wages.

In addition, Measure JJJ would create a “Transit Oriented Communities Affordable Housing Overlay” zone within a half-mile radius of major transit stops. This TOC zone includes incentives for affordable housing, increased density, and decreased parking requirements, based on the current density bonus law.

Measure JJJ was introduced to stave off the so-called Neighborhood Integrity Initiative, which has now been moved to the March 2017 election.

What Measure JJJ Proponents Say

Labor and affordable housing groups are campaigning for Measure JJJ. The Yes on JJJ website asserts that it “will build new housing near mass transit to reduce congestion.” Sandra McNeill of T.R.U.S.T. South L.A. characterizes JJJ as a “proactive approach to more equitable growth in the city.”

Proponents claim that had JJJ been enacted three years ago, Los Angeles would have an additional 5,522 affordable housing units by now.

Alexandra Suh, Executive Director of KIWA, writing at Yes on JJJ, urges a yes vote to combat poor wages and expensive rents.

While we were working with low-wage workers on important issues like wage theft, low wages, and poor working conditions, we found that most of their money was going to rent. The workers we organize have been forced to double and triple up in ever smaller spaces. That’s why it’s so important to vote yes on JJJ this November.

When you talk to people around the city, you find that everyone has the same challenges. When we started talking about solutions to the housing crisis, the jobs crisis, the transportation crisis, the homeless crisis—it became clear that these priorities weren’t in competition. In reality they are all connected, and Prop. JJJ addresses them all.

Prop. JJJ is the result of years of planning. It’s a step toward creating a more sustainable city in which all of us can live, and solving the housing crisis in ways that don’t create new problems.

Proponents paint a great livable vision of plenty of new affordable housing around transit, reduced gentrification and displacement, increased transit ridership and improved public health, and numerous living wage construction jobs available to local residents.

What Measure JJJ Critics Say

Affordable housing comes in different flavors. There is specific legally covenanted affordable housing (which would be incentivized and built under JJJ) and there is older housing that was built as market-rate that has, due to age, supply and demand, and other factors, become somewhat affordable.

Architect Melanie Freeland, of Gensler, puts it bluntly that “today’s new housing is tomorrow’s affordable housing.” Freeland acknowledges Measure JJJ’s good intentions, but anticipates that “wage restrictions will end up making affordable housing more difficult to build.” 

Measure JJJ could build quite a bit of covenanted affordable housing, while depressing the overall construction of new housing in L.A. With supply already limited, and demand growing, this could potentially result in the unintended consequences of squeezing the new housing supply, raising rents, and increasing gentrification.

Urban planner Shane Phillips, of Better Institutions, writes that under JJJ’s wage provisions “smaller projects would become completely infeasible, reducing total housing supply and… driving up the cost of all housing—new and existing. So we get a few dozen or few hundred more low income units each year; meanwhile, the 1.3 million units already here get more expensive, faster.”

Architect Simon Ha, of Steinberg, in an editorial for the L.A. Downtown News, echoes this sentiment:

If the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative and/or the Better Build L.A. proposals pass, the affordability crisis could be exacerbated. If city fees rise and additional costs are added, rents will increase. If investors and lenders lack confidence that consumers will pay these higher prices, then the housing will not get built.

Phillips further argues that ballot initiatives are difficult to undo:

…ballot box planning in general has a horrible track record in California. Proposition 13 is the most harmful example at the state level… It begins with a decent idea and then leads to sweeping, economy-destroying unforeseen consequences. [The L.A.] City Council is currently at work developing “value capture” standards that would accomplish the same affordable housing goals found in this initiative, with the benefit of a lot more study and debate going into their development, and the freedom to adapt and reform them as circumstances dictate—not so with initiatives[.]

Phillips’ recommendation? “Vote No. But Contact Your Councilmember to Advocate For Similar Affordability Requirements Adopted Through the Formal Legislative Process.”

Another possible unintended consequence of Measure JJJ (and even more so of the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative) would be increased pressure to build to “by right” zoning code. In part due to no-growth NIMBY pressure, many of the city’s plans are out of date and woefully suburban. Should Hollywood development really be subject to more pressure to conform to a community plan last approved in the 1980s?

What Do You Think?

Streetsblog L.A. is not taking an official position on Measure JJJ. There are excellent progressive reasons to vote in favor of JJJ, as well as some potentially worrisome consequences that may or may not outweigh its important benefits.

Readers – what do you think? How do you plan to vote on Measure JJJ?

 

 

 

  • Stvr

    I’m a progressive. But I can’t support something that doesn’t do what it purports to do. No way does this make housing more GENERALLY affordable.

  • JJJ is backed by labor unions and it shows. It advances key parts of their agenda: local hiring and mandates for higher wages. The problem is, these things, and the requirement to build affordable units, translate into higher costs for market-rate housing. That makes that housing more expensive, which is a problem in a city where housing is already way too expensive. I think it embodies the false idea that market-rate housing doesn’t matter to affordability, which is really a much more serious problem than the lack of an inclusionary housing mandate.

    Contrast that with the existing density bonus law which rewards you for building affordable units by letting you build more units than local zoning would otherwise allow.

    There is a legitimate policy question out there: should we have subsidized housing, and if so, who should pay for it? JJJ’s answers are “yes” and “developers.” I agree that we should have subsidized affordable housing. If we were really being honest with ourselves, we would tax ourselves to pay for it, because that would deliver the benefit to the poor without making housing more expensive.

    If we really cared about affordable housing, we would chill out zoning regulations. Let developers build denser, let them build micro units, let them build with little to no parking, let them build granny cottages in peoples’ back yards (actually we just did that, see SB 1069, effective January 1st!). Couple that with real public funding for affordable housing, and you’ve got the makings of a solution.

  • Also, there is a fair point to be made that LA grants too many variances. State law actually regulates when variances are supposed to be given out:

    “Variances from the terms of the zoning ordinances shall be granted only when, because of special circumstances applicable to the property, including size, shape, topography, location or surroundings, the strict application of the zoning ordinance deprives such property of privileges enjoyed by other property in the vicinity and under identical zoning classification” (CA Government Code Section 65906).

    It’s supposed to be something rare for properties that otherwise can’t be built on because they have a weird physical feature. Even though some variances result in outcomes I appreciate in terms of making a city that is denser and more walkable, it creates a culture where you have a hard time enforcing any rules. If anyone can get a variance for just about anything, even when it’s not warranted, the rules cease to mean anything. Variances are also a pain in the ass in terms of staff time and uncertainty.

    We should write good rules and then actually stick to them. Building good urbanism shouldn’t be a “variance” from the norm, it should be the norm.

  • Joe Linton

    I think that the issue here may not be the variances – but the zoning. Perhaps our zoning codes are too restrictive, not nimble enough, too outdated.

  • Prop JJJ is not a typical left-right or conservative-liberal type of issue because it is written to benefit only one small group of construction workers belonging to a handful of unions. Everyone else in Los Angeles will suffer if it passes. Even many of the politicians who would normally support this type of measure are not endorsing it because they know what a disaster it will be for the city.

    It will dramatically raise the rental rates on all new apartments being built for two reasons. First, due to far higher construction costs and the high costs of building all the very low income housing. And one of the ironies is that the housing will be so low income that typical blue collar or working class families will not be able to qualify for the units. And the second reason that so many fewer units will be built, that this will cause rents to rise even faster than they already are riding.

  • neroden

    Why not abolish all of the zoning?

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