Friday, October 03, 2008

What Works - And Doesn't Work - In The Mayor's New Housing Plan!

Below is my article in today's CITYWATCH about the newest housing plan for the City of Los Angeles. However, if you click the link above - the on-line version has live links to the plan itself and related stories. So read that instead.

Here are the four things you need to know about the proposed 40 page housing plan just announced by the Mayor.

First, much of it is common sense, well vetted ideas. Rebuilding crime ridden public housing projects into mixed income neighborhoods, developing specialized, supportive housing for the homeless with substance abuse and mental illness problems, bringing housing closer to jobs and transportation and making it easier for developers to get building permits while providing proper safeguards for neighborhoods, are all no-brainers. The only problem in the past has been the city's inability to make these often proposed policies actually (and, more importantly, effectively) happen.

Second, equally on the good news front, the plan proposes that all the various agencies, departments and fiefdoms that deal with housing in LA actually – in theory, at least – work together. And this is genuinely good news, assuming it really happens.

Third, though, on the bad news front, where bold new ideas are desperately needed to find ways to make housing more affordable for all the people of Los Angeles – no attempt was made to examine the root causes of the problem: nor was there any critical review of the many present policies that do not work. And if there was even one new or remotely innovative idea in entire 40 pages - I couldn't find it. But I did find a lot of the failed old polices that make our housing problems – worse and not better – in this 'new' plan.

The single biggest flaw is the plan's bringing back the discredited inclusionary zoning proposal but with a new name. In truest Orwellian Newspeak it is now called – mixed income housing – which is the single most dishonest aspect of the program.

Mixed income housing – when financially practical, is an excellent concept – but it is an end result; it is not a process. And there are many ways that mixed income housing projects can be successfully developed for the betterment of the overall community. But - to try and use inclusionary zoning to successfully create mixed income communities on any kind of meaningful scale will not only fail, but - as several independent studies have demonstrated – it will very likely make all housing in our communities more expensive.

So to try and force us – and the press - to call the process of forced inclusionary zoning – mixed income housing – is dishonestly designed to make it look as if people who support mixed income housing, but who oppose forced inclusionary zoning to achieve that, are opposed to mixed income housing. This is the type of blatant dishonesty that makes it hard for the public to believe anything politicians say.

And even if the independent studies on inclusionary zoning (as opposed to the studies done by people trying to push the program – and there is some legitimate debate on both sides of this issue) – do not convince you this type of program does not work in any meaningful way - common sense should tell you that any program that makes it more expensive to build housing – and far harder to get financing – is only going to raise housing costs in Los Angeles.

Now for some more details on why this type of program does NOT work to lower our overall housing costs, take a look at my earlier CITYWATCH article .

This article explains a way in which housing costs can be reduced for everyone in the city of Los Angeles – and how true mixed income communities can be developed. And that is only one of many changes in our current, failed housing policies that can create true mixed income neighborhoods.

But this 'new' plan does not examine any real world, pragmatic solutions because that would take actual thought and some real work as opposed to just having bureaucrats waving a magic wand and expecting developers to magically produce affordable housing out of thin air without their having to pass on their additional costs to those who rent or buy their other market rate housing.

That brings us to the fourth thing you need to know about the Mayor's Housing Plan; the part that explains why there are no new or innovative ideas – and explains why dishonest proposals such as the' mixed income' proposal are still being pushed – and explains why this plan will ultimately fail to work on the scale we need it to work.

The reason is that this entire plan was drawn behind not just closed, but locked doors at City Hall. And the only people allowed in the room were a handful of special interest groups; the people who will profit financially or politically from these proposals. And from the very start, the general public and the neighborhood councils have been carefully and totally excluded from the actual drafting of this plan. For an example of how one reporter has discovered policy is developed at City Hall – and how neighborhood councils are ignored at City Hall – click here . - and if you cannot read the full article, just read the second half of page 5 and the start of page 6 here.

Now, granted, before the actual drafting of the plan, there was a carefully controlled 'Listening Tour' where the public was invited to testify before the process started; but even then only those people who agreed with their plans were specifically invited to attend. And even then, when it came to the one neighborhood which has built the most affordable housing – and almost all the supportive services homeless housing – Downtown - even though we have been the only neighborhood to consistently welcome such housing – we were – as usual – specifically and deliberately excluded from this 'Listening Tour'.

And, as usual, the nearest meeting was over the river in Boyle Heights and a city provided list of the attendees shows a long list of subsisted housing advocacy groups and politically connected organizations (all of whom should, of course, be listened to on this issue) – but there was also a total absence of any groups that represented a broad range of people in our neighborhood. Nor was even one person listed from any organization that represented Downtown businesses or builders or home owners –or any of our local neighborhood councils.

Coincidence? I think not.

But even if we had been listened to during that tour – or even if we are listened to during the next series of carefully staged propaganda rallies, I mean community input meetings – it still will be meaningless because all the major policy decisions have already been reached in meetings behind the closed doors of City Hall; meetings that the neighborhood councils will always be excluded from unless there is a major policy change in the Mayor's Office.

And it is ironic that the one group of organizations that can most help the Mayor achieve meaningful housing reform in this city is the one group his staff refuses to allow him to meet with – and the one group they refuse to allow to take part in the policy decisions that most impact our neighborhoods.

We represent the people most impacted by the lack of affordable housing, the lack of jobs in our communities – and the horrendous traffic caused by the disconnect between jobs and housing. We are also the people best able to ask the questions that need to be asked before any policy is even drafted. But we are also the only people who are never invited to help draft the solutions to these problems.

Luckily, though, it is not too late.

With the collapse of the local housing market and the current inability for developers to get financing – even the most regressive members of the city council must realize that forced inclusionary zoning is dead on arrival – and that we have to find other ways of creating meaningful mixed income, workforce and low cost housing in our communities.

So I propose that there be not a meeting, but a series of working sessions between the mayor's housing team and representatives from the NC's – selected by the NC's – to reexamine the more controversial parts of his proposal and to look at some new ideas on how to solve our jobs/housing/transportation problems. And then open the locked doors of City Hall and invite not just the NC's – but a true cross selection of this city - to debate these issues and come up with a plan that will actually work in the real world.

(Brady Westwater is a writer, a long-time downtown and neighborhood council activist and Chair of the LA NC Congress Economic Development Committee. Westwater is a contributor to CityWatch. He can be reached at: ).

(Photos courtesy: Curbed LA)

(Other perspectives on the Mayor’s Housing Strategy: LA Times “A foundation at least” and Bill Boyarsky “Affordable Housing in the Worst of Times”

Vol 6 Issue 80
Pub: Oct 3, 2008

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