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Measure S Gives Communities, People of Color and Tenants a Chance

Construction in Hollywood. Getty image by George Rose
High-rise construction in Hollywood, California. || Photo by George Rose/ Getty Images

Commentary: Often the casualties of “progress” are the poor and people of color. Such is the case in Los Angeles’ current planning and development process.

Measure S, L.A.’s citizen’s initiative to reform planning on the March 7 ballot, is about a broken and corrupt planning process and its implications on power.

Numerous billionaire developers, who are the principal financial backers of the campaign opposing Measure S, profit mightily from building luxury projects by breaking the height, density and zoning laws – a process known as “spot zoning.” By rezoning a site from 6 stories to 30 stories, the land's value can be driven up more than $100 million dollars.

City Hall officials repeatedly grant these lucrative "spot zoning" exemptions from the rules to moneyed special interests who have showered these elected officials with millions in campaign contributions, lobbying, and donations made to their preferred organizations.

The luxury units in vogue among developers are heavily advertised to rich out-of-town individuals and companies, including many overseas investors looking to cash in on L.A.’s speculative real estate market.

Our luxury-housing glut has been widely acknowledged by the city's Housing Department, the Wall Street Journal and others — huge vacancy rates of 12% to 20% in complexes and towers built in the past decade. And still it's profitable for the investors.

The power and capital behind luxury mega-developments is so strong and the pay-to-play system is so ingrained in City Hall that even the voices of affluent homeowners groups goes unheard. 

Measure S Challenges The System

Measure S forces developers to follow the rules, makes the City update the General Plan for the future, moves the planning hearings into the community set for times when the people can attend them, and requires the environmental studies for the projects be produced by independent parties, not the developer. 

In the two years that work gets underway to update the General Plan for the city, Measure S places a time-out on the projects that require "spot zoning" - just 5% of new development in the entire city – which today are almost all luxury hotels, luxury housing or occasional office projects. The vast majority of 100% affordable housing projects are exempt from the moratorium. 

The initiative is quite simple, but it is considered radical, because of what it challenges — specifically, corruption at City Hall and the ability of uber-rich investors and companies to make billions by gaming the land.

What is really radical is the potential change that will occur to communities like South L.A. and the Eastside if Measure S does not pass.

Measure S explained in less than 2 minutes

The Casualties of Hollywood’s Progress

One only needs to look to Hollywood, which has seen a flurry of luxury towers sprout up since the opening of the Red Line stations in 2000, to see what this “progress” may mean for South L.A. and the Eastside, where new light rail lines recently opened.

Billionaire developers would rather have the Hollywood conversation revolve around the false claim that the measure was prompted by a proposed luxury skyscraper that would obscure someone's view, because that sidesteps what any long-time observer of Hollywood must be witnessing: gentrification.

Despite the construction of lots of new housing, census data shows that 13,000 mostly Latino residents were pushed out of Hollywood from 2000 to 2010, along with dozens of Latino small business owners. This has been described by one publication as “Hollywood’s urban cleansing.

Why did this population drop hit Hollywood despite an increase in housing capacity in the new luxury towers?

How many of those luxury towers came at the cost of demolishing rent-controlled apartment buildings that housed the working class and poor?

How many long-term tenants surrounding the luxury towers were kicked out or left due to harassment from landlords?

Where did the 13,000 people go? What do they now rely upon now because they’ve been disconnected from their neighbors and community institutions, and what is the public cost of pushing so many people from their homes?

And what are the regional implications of public policy that considers Hollywood's outcome a “template for a new Los Angeles,” as stated in 2012 by then-Mayoral candidate and Hollywood Councilmember Eric Garcetti?

These are critical questions. And a conversation about them would uplift the stories, voices and concerns of the poor and working class people of Los Angeles. It would call on those in comfort to evaluate the class and race implications of L.A.’s form of “new urbanism” and “transit-oriented development.”

When you look through the eyes of historic ethnic communities and poor people to view the “new urbanism” of Hollywood, it helps explain why we, and so many others who occupy all sides of the growth debate, believe Measure S is urgently needed. Many rightfully question whether the poor, working-class and people of color are supposed to be a part of this “new Los Angeles.”

Save Wyvernwood
Save Wyvernwood movement at a press conference held by Councilman Jose Huizar | Photo: Irfan Khan / Getty Images

L.A.’s Biggest Mega-developments of Luxury Housing Are in Historic Black and Brown Communities

Based on a May 2016 article in a real estate publication, 5 out of the 6 largest proposed luxury projects in the city are not in downtown or Century City including the Crehshaw Mall, which was not mentioned in the article. They are in the historic black and brown communities of Boyle Heights, Crenshaw-Baldwin Hills, and Historic South Central. Four of the 5 developers want the City Council to grant them extremely lucrative "spot zoning" to build taller and denser than the zoning laws allow.

The largest is 3.5 million square feet, “New Wyvernwood.” The developers would demolish more than 1,200 garden apartments that house thousands of people in historic Boyle Heights to create a 4,400 unit “urban village” of market-rate housing akin to Playa Vista with much taller towers.

Next is the Crenshaw Mall redevelopment in Leimert Park. In addition to a renovation of the mall, the grounds would add a 12-story hotel and nearly 1,000 all market-rate housing units.

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The third is Cumulus. Set in Baldwin Hills at La Cienega/Jefferson, this 30-story building surrounded by a fortress-like series of ten-story towers would be South L.A.’s first-ever skyscraper. It includes more than 1,100 units of market-rate housing.

The Reef in Historic South Central next to L.A. Trade Tech College has over 1,350 market-rate units.

With “market-rate” now averaging $2,500 for a studio apartment in L.A., it is clear that these massive luxury housing projects are not for existing residents. If allowed, these mega-developments will unleash a gentrification tsunami that will wipe out our historic black and brown communities.

More for March 7 Elections

Where Are 43,756 People Supposed To Go?

In the case of The Reef, a displacement study concluded that if the luxury housing mega-project were built, 52% of the residents in a 2-mile radius would be at a very high to moderate risk of “financial strain or displacement.” An estimated 43,756 people would be displaced, more than the total population of Culver City, due to the domino effect surrounding such projects — increased rents and overly aggressive landlords who harass and push out long-term tenants.

In fact, we need not theorize about this. The mere proposal of New Wyvernwood several years ago set off an increase in tenant harassment and illegal rent hikes by landlords in the area.

One only need look north to housing rights advocates in the Bay Area to see what the future may hold for L.A. if we don’t take seriously this threat from large luxury housing projects in low-income communities.

Fred Sherburn-Zimmer, director of San Francisco’s Housing Rights Committee, stated that every time a big market-rate housing development is put into a working-class community, evictions threats and rent hikes take place.

Sherburn-Zimmer also pointed out the false promise of trickle-down housing theory: “If we get ten affordable housing units, and 100 people are displaced, we didn’t get sh**.”

Furthermore, spot zoning has a negative effect on affordable housing development. When every land owner in L.A. values their plot based not on the zoning on the books, but rather what they what they think they can get City Hall to rezone the land to, that pushes up land costs.

Raised land costs make building truly affordable housing more difficult. This, and a recent reduction of available funding for affordable housing, is largely why fewer than 500 units of affordable housing are built every year, while comparatively, since 2001 more than 20,000 irreplaceable rent-controlled units have been lost to demolition or condo conversion.

The stories of tenants in Boyle Heights help explain the challenge even with new affordable housing development. To qualify for a “low income” affordable housing unit, a family of four must make between $43,400 - $69,450 a year. Even if they could make it to the front of the very long waiting list, most low-income tenants in existing rent-controlled apartments can't meet the strict income and verification requirements to qualify.

To be clear, we need more affordable housing development – it is much better than market-rate housing. But the historic under-funding to build more and better-maintained affordable housing and public housing is a poor excuse to continue a corrupt planning process that will erase L.A.’s black and brown centers of commerce, culture and political power.

In Los Angeles, for the poor and working class there is no adequate replacement for our existing rent-controlled apartments – the homes where people currently live. The threat to the stability of existing residents posed by massive rule-breaking to erect luxury towers approved in L.A.'s broken and corrupt system, best characterized as “free market development,” demands a Measure S. Now more than ever we need our historic centers of black and brown culture, and neighborhoods in general, to be strong.

NOTE: KCET does not endorse any proposition. The commentary expressed here is solely the opinions of the respective authors and does not reflect the views of KCETLink.

This article is a part of a series that KCET is producing to examine issues of gentrification and displacement across California. Sign up to be informed of its launch later this year. Articles and digital videos coming soon.