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A House of Cards for Affordable Housing

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I sit on euphemistically named "oversight boards" for two dissolving redevelopment agencies in southeast Los Angeles County. You might say board members like me are redevelopment's morticians. We're straightening the tie on the corpse of the not-at-all-dearly departed.

Redevelopment didn't have many mourners when the California Supreme Court pronounced it dead in December 2011.

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But single-parent families, the elderly, the disabled, and members of the aspiring working-class are learning that the death of redevelopment will mean fewer opportunities to find a place to live they can afford.

Redevelopment agencies - in existence in one form or another since 1945 - had long been required to set aside 20 percent of their revenue for the construction of housing units for renters priced out of the state's overheated real estate market. Those set-aside funds eventually became the state's principal financing resource for new, below-market-rate housing.

Over the decades, state mandates gave each city a series of housing targets: so many units for large families, so many for families with incomes below the local average. Those housing targets - with the expectation of redevelopment agency funding to meet them - turn up in municipal general plans, the specific plans for individual projects, the new regional plans under SB 32, and in the plans that are shaping transit development throughout the state.

Given the slow accumulation of funds and the high cost of construction, progress wasn't swift in turning agency revenue into new housing units. But that was the indirect means by which conservative state legislatures had handled the hot-button issue of publically financed housing in California - by putting most of the burden for affordable housing on cities and making their redevelopment agency the source of funding.

Redevelopment agencies in Los Angeles County had $364.2 million in unspent housing funds in 2012, according to the county auditor-controller's office. Orange County cities had about $257 million on hand. The total housing set-aside statewide is still a mystery to the Department of Finance. But DoF wants every penny of it.

Most cities are now negotiating with the state over the fate of housing projects that were in progress when redevelopment died. (Other cities are suing, sometimes successfully.) Some of these projects will eventually reach completion, but hardly what might have been built. In the meantime, state mandates for affordable housing are still on the books.

Optimists in city government - and there aren't many these days - hope that there's life after redevelopment and that the new supermajority of Democrats in the state legislature will provide other means to finance affordable housing. If the means are found, don't be surprised if the state's solution to the problem of affordable housing is willfully ignorant of local conditions, unusually cumbersome, and crowded with benefits for the consultants and lobbyists who clog Sacramento.

It could be a house of cards and hardly any shelter Californians who need an affordable home.

D. J. Waldie, author and historian, writes about Los Angeles twice each week at KCET's SoCal Focus blog.

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