The fight over tall buildings, neighborhood character, and how to add much-needed density to Los Angeles is playing out as a clash between homeowners and real estate developers. But most people living in LA are in neither of those groups—and we all have a huge stake in the way our neighborhoods grow and change.
We also have the power to direct that future.
If Los Angeles voters pass Measure S on March 7, it will freeze some of the largest development projects in the city. The ballot measure would impose temporary but severe restrictions on what gets built, including any projects that need zoning changes or are taller than what the city’s outdated planning guidelines allow. It would also trigger changes in the way the city’s planning department works (some of which the city has already made on its own).
Land-use decisions are complicated—and Measure S is particularly difficult to parse. There’s also a great deal of uncertainty around it, not just about what projects the measure would impact, but how an untested idea like this would affect a city like LA.
So we’re breaking down the issues into eight major piecesand providing the data, facts, and theories that will give you the context and the confidence to make the most informed decision.
LA is building a lot less housing than it used to …
There are a lot of new buildings going up in some neighborhoods, mainly Koreatown, Hollywood, and Downtown. But there’s still not enough new construction to keep up with the demand for housing in Los Angeles.
From 1980 to 2010, LA’s housing stock grew by just 20 percent, and from 2010 to 2015 there were only 25,000 units built in the city according to the Census’ American Community Survey.
“To contain rising housing costs, California would have to build significant[ly] more housing, especially in coastal urban areas,” according to the nonpartisan Legislative Analysts Office.
The housing market is so tight, that over the course of 2016, the metro area’s vacancy rate dropped from 3 percent in the first quarter of the year to 2.4 percent, according to the most recent Census data. A vacancy rate of about 6 percent is considered “healthy,” and large U.S. cities with 7 percent or higher vacancy rates are affordable to most renters, according to an annual survey by NYU’s Furman Center.
… but LA has more people than ever before.
LA is one of the fastest growing cities in the country, having added nearly 160,000 new residents between 2010 and 2015, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. A recent report from the California Department of Finance estimates that the city’s population eclipsed 4 million for the first time in its history in 2016.
That puts the city on pace to grow more between 2010 and 2020 than it did in the previous two decades combined. In order to accommodate all those new residents—not just transplants, but also the children and grandchildren of longtime Angelenos—the city must build new housing.
A housing shortage can drive up the cost of your rent.
One of the primary reasons why housing prices are so insanely high in LA and the rest of California is due to the supply shortage and increased demand.
“There are more people who want to live in LA than there are houses for people in LA,” USC’s Richard Greene told KPCC.
The Legislative Analyst’s Office found that if a county in California with a home building rate in the bottom one-fifth of all counties during the 2000s had instead been among the top one-fifth, its median home price in 2010 would have been roughly 25 percent lower, and its median rent would have been about 10 percent lower. It concludes there’s a “strong” relationship between home-building and prices.
Building more now won’t immediately make your rent cheaper.
Los Angeles is already so behind on new housing that it’ll need to build thousands of units each year just to stanch the bleeding.
What would Measure S do?
- Impose a two-year ban on projects seeking General Plan amendments or zone or height district changesthat result “in more intense land use.”
- Block affordable housing that requires a General Plan amendment. If 100 percent of the units in a project are affordable, it could be allowed zone or height district changes, but those sometimes require General Plan amendments as well.
- Permanently prohibit General Plan amendments for any property smaller than 15 acres.
- Trigger the “immediate systematic public review” of the General Plan.
- Require updates to the General Plan and the city’s 35 Community Plans every five years.
- Bar developers from picking their own consultants to produce mandatory environmental impact reports, which are used to determine a new building’s impacts on traffic, views, historic landmarks, etc. Under Measure S, the reports could only be prepared by city staffers or agencies contracted with the city.
The Legislative Analyst’s Office report found that the state’s coastal cities could need as many as 240,000 new units yearly to keep housing costs from rising faster than the countrywide average. (California’s median housing cost was more than double the U.S.’s in 2015.) And homeownership is now impossible for most Angelenos, which means people are staying locked into the rental market longer.
So, if development were to suddenly ramp up right now, it’d still be a while before the vacancy rate began to rise and rents began to fall, or at least began to rise a little more slowly. That’s why Los Angeles needs to start building a lot of housing as soon as possible, so things aren’t infinitely worse in a decade or two.
—Adrian Glick Kudler
Luxury housing might help lower the cost of your rent …
Much of the new condos and apartments built in Los Angeles are “luxury housing,” a term developers give to units where rents are not capped or set aside for tenants with qualifying low incomes. You might look at these apartments with their spiffy amenities and think, “These aren’t for me, I can’t afford these.” But there’s a theory that says these market-rate units are beneficial for everyone—even the renters who are priced out of them.
As the years go by, older market-rate housing becomes more affordable as newer, flashier units are added to the market. If enough market-rate units are built,the overall number of units added will meet demand, and apartments at every price point start to become more affordable to renters.
Economists call this “trickle-down” or “filtering” housing theory, which is based on the rule of supply and demand. To boil it down: If 5,000 units were built that higher-income residents could afford, that would be 5,000 fewer residents competing for lower-priced housing.
… But luxury housing on its own won’t help low-income tenants.
The positive effects of “filtering” can take generations, which doesn’t help low-income tenants whose rents are rising right now. Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley studied San Francisco’s housing market and concluded that in order to prevent displacement in strong markets, it’s imperative to aggressively preserve the affordable housing that already exists.
“This does not mean that we should not continue and even accelerate building,” the researchers wrote in a brief published in May 2016. “However, to help stabilize existing communities we need to look beyond housing development alone to strategies that protect tenants and help them stay in their homes.”
Most of Los Angeles’s planning guidelines are old …
LA’s community plans have been called “the cornerstone of the city’s long-range planning efforts.” Right now, 29 of 35 community plans are at least 15 years old. The plans are so dated, they are nearly useless.
LA’s zoning code—the toolsthat community plans use to guide growth and land use citywide—hasn’t been updated since it was first cranked out 71 years ago in 1946. If it were a person, it would be eligible for retirement by now.
It’s not like LA hasn’t tried to refresh its neighborhood planning guidelines. In the best-known example, an update to Hollywood’s community plan was approved in 2012, but overturned in 2013 following a lawsuit filed by backers of Measure S. That sent it back to the drawing board, and the city is just now barely getting around now to doing the new environmental impact report.
… which has led to haphazard development.
The plans are so old, developers often ask for exceptions to build projects that are denser or taller than what’s allowed. It’s up to planning commissioners and city council members to approve the projects.
This practice, called spot zoning, has almost become the rule rather than the exception. A Los Angeles Times analysis found that 90 percent of requests for zoning and height changes and General Plan amendments get the green light.
Because developersdonate to the political campaigns of local elected officials, it at the very least gives the appearance that money drives planning decisions. And even Mayor Eric Garcetti acknowledges that it’s a bad way to go about planning. Granting piecemeal approvals has, he said, “led to haphazard development and overcrowding.”
The City Council just this month voted to draft a new ordinance that will require updates to the community plans every six years. If the plans are updated more regularly, these spot approvals might become less common.
Editors: Adrian Glick Kudler and Jenna Chandler