LA Voters have Two Measures to Address Affordable Housing

A couple weeks back DnA explored the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative (NII), an effort to get a measure on the ballot that would put a halt to dense, tall residential projects made possible by getting variances and amendments from the general and community plans. The lightning rod for this movement was the Palladium Residences, a 30-story, two-tower, residential complex around a renovated Hollywood Palladium that required a planning amendment to be this large.

Well, last week, the LA City Council approved the Palladium Residences project, at the enlarged scale. Supporters praised the project for helping alleviate LA’s housing shortage. Meanwhile, the group fighting to get the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative on the November 2016 ballot announced they were postponing until March 2017.

Now, to add to the confusion surrounding the proposed initiative, there’s another one, the Build Better LA (BBLA) initiative.

Organizers behind the Build Better LA initiative train signature gatherers on Saturday, March 26, 2016. Photo by Avishay Artsy.
Organizers behind the Build Better LA initiative train signature gatherers on Saturday, March 26, 2016. Photo by Avishay Artsy.

What is the Build Better LA initiative?

This is a measure backed by unions, community groups and housing advocates. It would require any developers seeking a waiver for height or density limits under current planning rules to include affordable housing and hire local workers. (Read the full text of the initiative here [PDF])

A certain number of units in the building would have to be affordable to people who make a certain percentage of the median income for that neighborhood. It uses different measures of low income based on the median income of the community.

A developer would be required to rent five percent of the units to extremely low income tenants and six percent to tenants who qualify as very low income. Or, developers could opt to set aside five percent of the units for extremely low income tenants and 15 percent for low income tenants.

There’s also a local hiring provision to make sure the workers constructing these buildings come from LA. It requires 30 percent of the work should be done by LA residents – and 10 percent of those workers should come from disadvantaged communities. That could mean that they’re a veteran , they’re homeless, a single parent, have no high school degree, previously incarcerated, is a product of the foster system, etc. The initiative also requires that 60 percent of the workers be graduates of a Joint Labor Management apprenticeship training program (the kind we heard Kelly Candaele talking about in this DnA segment), or have equivalent experience, so not necessarily union members.

Is this a response to the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative? And how is it different?

BBLA did come out after the NII but organizers say it wasn’t a response. Rusty Hicks, head of the LA County Federation of Labor, told DnA producer Avishay Artsy that it came out of a conversation about housing and affordability that had been going on in LA for a long time.

Volunteer signature gatherers practice their pitch for Build Better LA on Saturday, March 26, 2016. Photo by Avishay Artsy.
Volunteer signature gatherers practice their pitch for Build Better LA on Saturday, March 26, 2016. Photo by Avishay Artsy.

“When the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative came forward, it kind of sped up the conversation. Maybe spurred action,” Hicks said. “But our initiative really wasn’t a response to the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative. We just felt it was important to put forward a proposal that said this is what we stand for, not what we’re against, solely what we’re against. We don’t believe stopping development in the city for two years while you go through a process of good planning is the way to go. We believe that we need housing and we need housing today. And that’s what our initiative does.”

Hicks added while he doesn’t necessarily agree with planning by ballot box, this is necessary to ensure affordable housing gets built and good jobs are ensured. The measure would sunset in 10 years.

How are the folks at the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative responding?

As expected, The Coalition to Preserve L.A. (which backs the NII) is criticizing this competing measure, even calling it a “wolf in sheep’s clothing.” The NII would stop all developments that require zoning changes for two years, and BBBLA would let them continue as long as they include an affordable housing component. NII proponents are pointing out loopholes in the BBLA initiative. For example, the City Council, by majority vote, can merely “adjust,” i.e. reduce, the developers’ promised affordable housing units if these politicians decide that the developer can’t make a “reasonable return on investment,” thus allowing the developers an easy way out of the mandate. The affordable units don’t have to be in the same building, in fact they can be up to 3 miles away. And under BBLA, developers who don’t want to build affordable units can pay an in-lieu fee into a city-managed “Affordable Housing Trust Fund.”

What about developers and business groups? How are they responding?

Developers don’t want further restrictions on their ability to build in LA. We heard from one developer, Robert Champion, who wrote in an email that this a “thinly disguised effort to require housing developers to use union labor which will increase housing costs by 15-20% and put non Union contractors out of business.”

The measure does have the support of SCANPH, the Southern California Association of Non-Profit Housing, which represents affordable housing developers. They lost a lot of funding – $250 million a year – when the redevelopment agencies went away a few years ago. According to SCANPH head Alan Greenlee, right now in LA there are at least four developments that are applying for funding for every one development that gets funded. And SCANPH says in a report that the region has a shortfall of about 500,000 affordable units.