Measure S and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Status Quo

A rendering of The Reef luxury residential towers planned for 1933 S. Broadway. Source: Gensler + P-A-T-T-E-R-N-S, July 2015 DEIR
A rendering of The Reef luxury residential towers planned for 1933 S. Broadway. Source: Gensler + P-A-T-T-E-R-N-S, July 2015 DEIR

Measure S proponents from embattled communities argue that while development in our fair city tends to be driven by deep-pocketed interests, it is lower-income communities, particularly disenfranchised communities of color, who essentially end up footing the bill. At best, they argue, they are considered as an afterthought in planning; at worst, they have their homes yanked out from under them and/or are lied to, harassed, intimidated, and policed out of their neighborhoods as developers work to pave the way for a shinier, wealthier future.

They’re not wrong.

Segregation and exclusion are inextricably intertwined with planning’s history. They are embedded within its structures, policies, frameworks, narratives, objectives, and power dynamics. And the fact that there is so little representation of voices of color or others from the margins within planning and development even now means that many of those demons have yet to be fully excised. Or even acknowledged, for that matter.

But, as best I can tell, giving developers the finger by voting “yes” on Measure S would not only do nothing to change this situation, it might serve to make it worse.

Which is not to say a “yes” vote isn’t tempting.

When I think back to how last August’s city planning commission (CPC) hearing on the billion-dollar Reef project played out, it’s clear why people want to stick it to developers.

I could practically hear stakeholders’ eyeballs rolling back into their heads as Mayer Brown LLP attorney Edgar Khalatian spun tales of developer Ara Tavitian’s commitment to the South Central community, painted him as heroic for investing south of the 10 freeway, argued it was better for the community for The Reef to seek a zone change and dump funds into the Affordable Housing Trust Fund (AHTF) (instead of integrating on-site affordable units into the project), ran circles around questions from planning commissioners, and openly dismissed residents’ concerns about indirect displacement.

For its part, the CPC seemed limited to expressing annoyance at the developer for ignoring three years’ worth of recommendations that the 1,444-unit luxury residential and 208-room hotel project slated for 1933 S. Broadway include on-site affordable housing and reduce its asks regarding supergraphics and digital signage. The developer’s last-minute offer to throw three million more dollars into the AHTF pot only appeared to add to the commissioners’ sense that the project favored segregation to integration and engagement with the surrounding community.

While the CPC was ultimately able to exact the few concessions it sought (including that 5 percent of rental units–about 26–be set aside as on-site affordable), the absurdity of the exercise was lost on no one. An exasperated David Ambroz, CPC president, finally said of the developer’s years-long refusal to have even pretended to give an inch, “You ask for the moon knowing you’re not going to get it, and are proud of cutting it in half. That is not good negotiation.”

Which it might not be.

But when the cards are stacked in your favor, it doesn’t need to be good. You just need to know that you have the preponderance of power. Which Khalatian and Tavitian did. And they acted accordingly.

The preponderance of power granted to developers is what leaves so many inclined to think, “Yes! That’s exactly why we need Measure S! To curb the ability of developers to throw their weight around and get whatever General Plan amendments they want for at least for two years! To permanently ban such projects on lots smaller than 15 acres [a.k.a. most projects]! And to keep developers honest by prohibiting them from using their own consultants to produce studies that show only negligible impacts to traffic or the environment!” To folks fearing the demolition of their rent-controlled apartments or a mega-project-induced gold rush in their community, few things would be more satisfying than saying “no” to a developer who has zero stake in the neighborhood.

Like so many good things, however, giving developers the finger comes at a steep cost. And also like far too many good things in our fair city, the brunt of that cost is much more likely to fall on the shoulders of our poorest and most vulnerable communities.

For one, S has no capacity to stop people from moving to Los Angeles. And therein lies its most basic rub. We’re already behind in housing production, and especially affordable housing production – projects which also rely on General Plan amendments and which would also be held up, including those that are 100 percent affordable. [See a list of such projects here.] The scarcity of all levels of housing is one of the main reasons why rents are so high in the first place. That’s just math. Slowing housing growth would only turn up the pressure on communities where unscrupulous landlords are already intimidating tenants into leaving “voluntarily” and where house flipping has already gained some traction.

For another, while S would force the city to update its plans more frequently (something the city council recently voted to do on its own), possibly make forums easier to attend, and both limit and make (somewhat) more transparent the city’s relationship with developers, the real question we should be asking is, “To what end?”

I would never argue against greater flexibility and transparency in planning. But I would argue none of these things will address the structural injustices embedded in the planning process or the unsettling lack of voice communities of color and others on the margins currently have in it.

Let’s return to The Reef project for a moment to get a sense of why this matters.

Should you be so inclined to listen to the six-plus hours of testimony and deliberations at the CPC hearing (found here), what will likely stand out most to you is how poorly versed the commissioners and city planning staff appear to be on the significance of place for the residents of Historic South Central, the precariousness of the poverty experienced by so many there, how woefully inadequate the tools we have to address displacement are, or the extent to which cultural, social, economic, and physical displacement can be deeply traumatic and often violent processes in gentrifying communities. [See in-depth discussions of those issues here and here.]

It was frankly stunning to hear the planning commission stumbling over itself while deciding which income level to set for the on-site affordable units, for example. At one point, commissioners floated both “workforce” and “moderate” income-level housing. This, despite “moderate”-level income being defined as $77, 750 for a family of four (120 percent Area Median Income or AMI) and “workforce” being set even higher, at 150 percent AMI. Both are well above L.A.’s own AMI, defined as $64,800 for a family of four (see second chart, below).

Given that Historic South Central’s median income hovers around $31,000 and a sizable chunk of the population scrapes by on less than $20,000 a year (below), the only people in the community that would have been able to afford units set aside at those higher levels were likely already in comfortable and stable situations, at the very least. [Ultimately, the units were set at “Low-Income” – a level which, at $69,450 for a family of four, is still higher than L.A.’s AMI and more than double that of Historic South Central.]

A snapshot of income levels in Historic South Central. Of note are the 4,883 households earning under $20,000 a year. A significant number of those families are too poor to qualify for affordable housing meant for Very Low-Income earners. Source: L.A. Times Neighborhood Mapping Project
A snapshot of income levels in Historic South Central. Of note are the 4,883 households earning under $20,000 a year. A significant number of those families are too poor to qualify for affordable housing meant for Very Low-Income earners. Source: L.A. Times Neighborhood Mapping Project

Also of note was how heavily the commissioners relied on the Housing and Community Investment Department (HCIDLA) to get a sense of how far funds set aside for the AHTF would stretch in safeguarding existing affordability covenants, acquiring existing units, or building new units. While Helmi Hisserich, Assistant General Manager of Housing Development, was forthcoming in acknowledging that there were far fewer covenants in real danger of being lost than Khalatian and Ninth District Councilmember Curren Price had originally alleged, she was much less so in discussing the significant challenges HCIDLA has had in seeing those covenants extended for more than a few years at a time, especially in a booming market (like the one the passage of Measure S likely would fuel).

Finally, completely absent from the commissioners’ deliberations was the fact that affordable housing is often inaccessible to those who are most vulnerable to displacement. The tools we have to create and preserve affordable housing (including density bonuses) tend to target higher low-income brackets – those people earning between 30 and 80 percent of AMI. And on the rare occasion funding is available to target even lower-income levels, the minimum income required to qualify for those units – generally three times the proposed rent – can still leave many extremely low-income folks out in the cold. For those living with extended family or who are in multi-generational situation, family size allowances can also act as a barrier. Larger apartments at lower income levels can be scarce, meaning accessing housing might mean families have to shed a relative or two to qualify.

ncome levels as delineated for Extremely Low, Very Low-, Low-, and Moderate Income levels for Los Angeles. Source: State
Income-level limits as delineated for Extremely Low-, Very Low-, Low-, and Moderate Income earners in Los Angeles. To qualify for housing in any particular category, you cannot earn more than the stated income. Source: California Department of Housing and Community Development, State Income Limits 2016

There is, of course, so much more that was missed during the hearing. Push factors for displacement come in a variety of forms, many of which are indirect and none of which are well-captured by any of our current assessment tools (or even allowed, in the case of CEQA). It’s hard to track the extent to which the loss of local businesses (corner markets, clinics, etc.) or the disruption of social networks (neighbors that helped out in times of need) can eat into residents’ very tight food, health, or transportation budgets and make it tougher for them to make rent every month, for example. Or the role increased policing plays in erasing a community from the visual, cultural, and ultimately physical landscape.

But one has to first be aware these sources of vulnerability even exist before they can brought into planning discussions and addressed in a meaningful way. And too many within planning lack a visceral understanding of the damage done by decades of disinvestment, disenfranchisement, and denial of opportunity or how it has left some communities so uniquely vulnerable.

Measure S neither addresses a single one of these sources of vulnerability nor does it seek to close the gaps in our capacity to identify and address them.

Instead, passage of the measure would–much as it has done in the lead-up to the March 7 election–keep planners, advocates, and elected officials distracted with narrow and heated debates about transparency, traffic volumes, blocked views, spot zoning, whether or not Leonardo diCaprio was ever on board with the measure, shady tactics used by the Yes on S campaign, and how much housing would or would not be blocked by the measure. With each passing day, it feels like there is less and less space for dialogue on what it means to forge a truly inclusive planning process, and less and less room for discussion of how, where, and in what form we can encourage housing growth so as to do minimal harm in constructing a truly inclusive city.

As Eighth District Councilmember Marqueece Harris-Dawson suggested in both a Sentinel article and at a press conference in South L.A. last week, the measure doesn’t even allow for the most basic of conversations around the specific needs of communities like South L.A.

“This Measure was conceived at the top of a tall building in Hollywood,” he said, referring to the origins of the measure in AIDS Healthcare Foundation CEO Michael Weinstein’s selfish desire to protect his unobstructed view of the Hollywood sign.

And while there were very real displacement issues to consider in Hollywood, given the boom the neighborhood had experienced, Harris-Dawson continued, it made no sense to apply the same solution in South L.A., where for so many years, it was a colossal struggle to get an investor to even blink in the community’s direction.

“I don’t think…that when [the measure’s sponsors] were writing Measure S they traveled south of the 10 freeway,” he said. “They didn’t see that we still have a lot of vacant lots in our community. Big giant vacant lots! We still have far too many people who work in this community who cannot afford an apartment or a place to live. Much less one that you can buy. We need housing. We need commercial development.” Not limits on the community’s ability to build affordable housing, address homelessness, or just grow, period.

If they had just traveled south of the 10, reached out to him, or attended one of his many constituent meetings, he suggested “they might have come up with a different measure…”

Given the origins of the measure, that seems highly unlikely, to be honest.

But the fact remains that they didn’t make that effort.

So here we are.

Trapped in other people’s debates.

Unable to address the really urgent questions we should be addressing about how we are growing as a city.

And forced to take a developer-friendly position just to maintain a deeply imperfect status quo.

See you at the polls on March 7th!

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