The housing crisis won’t fix itself

When LA city and county voters voted overwhelmingly for investments in transit and affordable housing, and against Measure S’ restrictions on new homes, we noted the momentum that these victories would give to advocacy for more homes in LA.  We still believe that there is a new pro-housing majority in Los Angeles. We can’t, however, rest on our laurels and assume that we will magically get more homes and lower housing costs.

Without continued pressure, it will be easy for LA to slip back to a status quo in which it was very difficult to build or invest in homes. Politics and policies around housing reflect decades of slow-growth assumptions. Many public officials and private interests either have a stake in maintaining this disfunction, or will need encouragement to shift into a more pro-housing frame of mind. We need to be bold and strategic to change the dialogue around housing and development, and the rules that govern how homes are built and regulated.

Abundant Housing LA is still optimistic that we can make a difference. We are establishing local teams of members and supporters who can advocate for good proposed housing developments in specific places. This will help us work towards the vision we laid out just after Measure S of “more housing, neighborhood by neighborhood” But in this post we want to highlight troubling signs that LA is stuck in old ways on housing.

housing production going in wrong direction?

We just posted housing permit numbers for the City of Los Angeles for the first quarter of 2017.  While 3 months of data isn’t enough to predict the annual trend, the numbers aren’t great, nor terrible, when compared to the past couple of years. As we have argued before, the baseline rate of home building in LA is too low to meet population growth, so whether it ticks up or down, it is still insufficient.  The graph below shows that our housing challenges are part of a state-wide trend in which out “housing booms” create the same amount of housing as was built in “housing crashes” in earlier decades.

slide from Ben Metcalf, CA HCD

slide from Ben Metcalf, CA HCD

The recent decline in permits for small multifamily apartments of 2-49 units is somewhat troubling given their traditional role in providing more affordable homes.  Units permitted in early 2017 were proposed and entitled months or years earlier, so we’re not yet seeing the results of any recent shifts in policy or trends. We have heard anecdotal claims that the number of homes proposed in the City of LA has dropped in 2017, which could be the result of uncertainty over Measure S and/or the impacts of Measure JJJ. We will try to see if there has indeed been a decline in new applications.

Housing for the homeless facing barriers

Measures HHH and H represent an incredible opportunity to speed up production of permanent supportive housing for homeless Angelenos and pair new homes with services. The City of LA has also stepped up to identify publicly-owned sites that could be used for permanent supportive and/or affordable housing.  From Boyle Heights to Venice in the City of LA (and Temple City, where residents want to block permanent supportive units on nearby County land), some residents are fighting badly needed homes that can help get our neighbors off of the streets. We need to ensure that local opposition to supportive housing doesn’t snatch defeat from victory.

It is too easy to stall, shrink and stop new housing

While we dodged Measure S’s ban on developments that need planning changes, many individual market rate and mixed-income housing developments in LA are still being slowed, shrunk or stopped. Abundant Housing LA is following and supporting several projects where local opposition is leading to delays or to proposed developments being reduced in size.    This cuts the number of new homes and sometimes completely eliminates affordable units sought under density bonuses.

Community and specific plans are aiming too low

One good thing that came out of Measure S was a commitment by city leaders to speed up updates of old community plans. The City of LA is also working on transit neighborhood plans.  Updated plans can potentially help expand the number and diversity of homes in LA. Plan updates can increase the number of new homes that can be built by “up-zoning” in the right places. More modern zoning with reduced parking and more realistic dimensional and design standards can also mean that more new developments can proceed without needing to seek variances, which slow down projects and can open them up to more lawsuits and political fights. As specific plans, transit plans can “pre-clear” developments in the area through the overall plan Environmental Impact Review- which means that individual projects won’t have to go though a lengthy environmental review.

Unfortunately, most plans that the city is currently updating or creating are aiming for too little new housing to make a significant dent in our housing shortage.  Most community plans in the process of being updated provide just enough new space for anticipated population growth, but do little to address past under-building and LA’s existing housing crisis. There are also moves to continue piecemeal down-zoning of LA in places like Silverlake and Echo Park.

One way you can help ensure that plans make space for more homes is to attend our May 25 general meeting, focused on the the Downtown LA plan updates.  Los Angeles is not the only local city being too cautious in their planning. Our friends at Santa Monica Next are encouraging Santa Monica to allow more in this draft downtown plan.

Policies are adding costs to building homes

California Governor Jerry Brown didn’t include an increase in funding for affordable housing in his 2017 budget because he wanted to first make sure that lawmakers would “cut the red tape, cut the delays, cut whatever expenses we can” that act as obstacles to new homes, especially below market rate homes.
Abundant Housing LA supports more funding and removing barriers. Locally, we are happy that the City of LA is seeking to raise more money for its affordable housing trust fund, but are concerned that the revenue source would be a $12/sf “linkage fee” on most new homes (and $5/sf fee on new commercial property). It is unclear what impact this fee will have on construction,. It exempts multi-family units of 2 to 5 units, but we worry that the added cost will hurt the rest of the small and medium size residential market.

We think it is bad policy to load the costs of new affordable housing onto the tiny fraction of properties where new homes are being constructed rather than onto society as a whole. We have encouraged the city to consider raising funds in ways that don’t add costs to home-building, such as a parcel tax.

The housing crisis won’t fix itself

We don’t want to overemphasize these warning signs. We also see some positive trends including numerous state bills to address housing issues, legalization of ADUs in more places, a wider embrace of the YIMBY label, upcoming plan updates, etc. It is clear, however, that the housing crisis won’t fix itself. We haven’t yet turned the corner to becoming a city and region that fully welcome more homes.

In a follow-up post we will try to generalize these examples to identify what one could call the main “structural obstacles” to a future with enough homes for all Angelenos. And, of course, we will continue to provide opportunities for members and allies to keep supporting more homes of all types as well as better rules.


Los Angeles Housing Development Update, 1Q 2017

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SFH1

Welcome to the third installment of Abundant Housing LA’s Quarterly Development Update™!

This is where we dig into public City of Los Angeles data to figure out what’s really going on in our housing market. How much housing are we permitting? How many of our new homes are single-family, large apartment/condo buildings, great quality wood products from Reclaimed Wood Paneling which would make the houses much more likeable, or “missing middle” housing? And how are we doing on Mayor Garcetti’s goal of building 100,000 new homes in 8 years? Where is the market headed?

This time we’re looking at numbers through March 1st, 2017, the latest full quarter for which data is available. First up is a snapshot of overall permitting activity through the first 3 months of the year.

LA_housing_permits_2013-1Q2017

(Note: We are not including a projection for the rest of the year, as we did for 3Q 2016, because we believe a single quarter is too little information to guess at permitting activity for the coming 9 months.)

The data for the first quarter doesn’t look great, to be honest. It can be hard to make out given the scale of the 2017 bar relative to those for the prior years, but we’ve been outpacing previous years’ single-family home permitting and have fallen behind on almost every other development size. This becomes more clear when you look at the numbers themselves, below.

LA_UnitCount_1Q2017

Here it’s easier to see that we’ve already permitted more than 1/3 of 2016’s single-unit buildings in the first quarter of the year, and are on pace for almost 3,000 such homes by the end of the year. Most of those are probably tear-downs and rebuilds, so they’re unlikely to be adding much of anything to net housing in the city. Meanwhile we’ve permitted less than 25% of the previous year’s units for 2-4 unit, 5-19 unit, and 50+ unit buildings. We’re roughly on pace for the same amount of units in 20-49 unit buildings. Our per-month permitting through March is short of both 2016 and 2015, though again, it’s still a bit too early to assume that this trend will hold true for the remainder of the year. It could go up, and of course it could also go down.

Next we break down the units per building, looking specifically at what share of total permits are for projects with at least 50 units.

HousingPermits_large_projects_1q2017

Thus far we’ve seen a smaller overall share of new homes in buildings with 50 or more units (right around 55%) compared to previous years; this isn’t too surprising given how many single-family developments were permitted. Unlike earlier years, almost all of the permits have been for the largest class of structures: those with 200+ units.

Last, and as always, we look at how we’re progressing toward the Mayor’s goal of 100,000 new homes by 2021.

LA_housing_goal_1Q2017

Short answer: not bad! Long answer: We’ve still got 4 years to go, a recession likely within that time frame, and an acknowledgement at all levels of government that 100,000 units isn’t going to cut it if we’re really serious about solving our affordability crisis (which means creating enough market-rate and affordable units to house all Angelenos). And permits are not the same as construction, so we need to make sure that these projects actually get built in a timely manner.

Did you pick up anything else from the data? Let us know in the comments, and join us on Facebook and our mailing list to keep the conversation—and our advocacy—going strong.


Valuing homes (not just in dollars)

LA apartments
In a recent report on why too few homes are being built in California, the State Legislative Analyst’s Office concluded that “real improvement can come only with a major shift in how communities and their residents think about and value new housing.”

As a YIMBY organization, Abundant Housing LA focuses on projects and policies to increase housing supply, reduce costs, and expand choices.  But taking the the LAO’s challenge to heart: how can we get residents and decision makers to value new homes?

Part of the problem may be our language. We frequently speak and write of “units” and “housing” –  but by this we mean homes. And by homes we mean places for people. Starting with people and their needs and stories and aspirations, whether in featuring individual Angelenos or speaking about “neighbors” as this humorous anti-NIMBY campaign does, can help personalize housing politics and policy.

Beyond language and tone, we were formed to address a housing crisis, so we naturally tend to focus on problems.  Housing shortages, high rents, homelessness, evictions, people leaving the region, opponents and obstruction of new housing, bad rules etc. all vie for our attention.  These are all issues worth explaining and addressing, but they are negatives. They work by generating concern and outrage to inspire improvement and push-back.

Problem-solving has its place, but how can we also promote positive reasons to value homes? Forget about new or old, attached or detached, big or small for a minute. What is the value of a home, or rather, the multiple values (and not just in dollars?)

A home is, at its most basic, shelter– a place to sleep, providing protection from the elements.

A home is also a dwelling – where we live, a place to organize our private lives, to spend time and to make memories.

A home is self-expression– a source of meaning and identity and control over one’s surroundings. Architectural styles, neighborhoods, and interior styles allow residents to affirm and vary their individual and shared identities and ways of living. Architectural critic Charles Jencks, celebrating what he termed LA’s ‘daydream houses,’ argued that even homes combining snobbery, kitsch and shoddy materials have an ‘immediate, sensual quality’ that make you look and, “however, reluctantly, smile.” Planner and artist James Rojas has studied how Latin American immigrants have altered suburban homes in LA to imbue them with aspects of their places of origin: taller front fences at which to stand and talk with neighbors, paved front yards that, along with front porches, act like interior courtyards, shrines, etc.

A home is also an investment– whether we own or rent, the single thing that we probably spend the most money on. Economists would say a home has exchange value. As a group that wants to reduce housing costs, it is tricky to view a home as simultaneously being affordable and a source of savings or wealth, but we have to keep in mind the attraction of homes as property.

A home is, or can be, an economic tool – more that just a passive investment. It can be the location for a home business, collateral for a loan, rooms to sublet. In her book My Blue Heaven: Life and Politics in the Working-Class Suburbs of Los Angeles, 1920-1965, historian Becky Nicolaides shows how residential property in the city of South Gate in the 1920s was “highly valued for its function as a site of local production” – especially gardening and raising animals. In contemporary Los Angeles, homes are more likely to be places to store occupational equipment, offices for freelancers, places to rent long or short term, but the goals are the same: survival in tough times and wealth-building in good times.

A home is space in the city – a place and way for people to stay in or move to Los Angeles. If we want to be a welcoming, diverse place, we need more homes to create more space. The flip side of a home as individualized expression is the notion of the home as a grid of possibilities and succession. A space, that as Aaron Betsky writes of the dingbat – “allows for any kind of person to inhabit it without feeling out of place.”

There are probably many other reasons to value homes. Whichever appeal most to you, we hope that valuing homes can help lead to a city, region and state with enough room (and homes) for all.