LA must commit to building more housing—now

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Our elected officials should be sprinting to fix our housing crisis. But they continue to drag their feet. Instead of taking the drastic action that Los Angeles needs, lawmakers are taking incremental, politically safe steps to address a growing epidemic that has forced an estimated 42,828 people to live unsheltered on city streets.

It’s time to demand concrete goals for more homes in our neighborhoods. It’s time for residents to hold our elected officials accountable.

The Los Angeles City Council passed two more ordinances Wednesday intended to create more housing for the city’s homeless residents by loosening regulations for supportive housing projects and allowing developers to convert motels into apartments.

This legislation should, in theory, unleash a flood of new housing projects—that is, if Angelenos don’t keep blocking them.

It’s becoming increasingly clear that these types of ordinances easing restrictions may not be not enough to accelerate the construction of new homes. Nine supportive housing projects have been fully funded by the implementation of Measure HHH, $1.2 billion homeless housing bond approved by voters last July. Only two have brokenground.

It’s not just supportive housing that’s lagging. According to the housing scorecard from the mayor’s office, the city is also not meeting its goals for creating more affordable units.

The construction of new housing might even have slowed overall. In 2017, the number of certificates of occupancy issued—a good measurement for how many new homes have been created—was 20 percent lower than 2016, according to department of building and safety data analyzed by Abundant Housing.

Because there’s no easy way for the average Angeleno to find out which projects are being proposed, we often don’t know if our councilmembers are advocating for the specific types of housing that our neighborhoods need. We don’t have the data easily accessible to hold our elected leaders accountable and ensure that enough new homes are being built or preserved.

We need to put the pressure on our elected representatives to show us what they are doing every day—with specific numbers, locations of proposed projects, and detailed goals—to address our housing crisis.

Last month, we got a peek at what this could look like. All 15 city councilmembers pledged to build 222 supportive housing units in each of their council districts by July 1, 2020.

The idea behind the pledge was to get each district to contribute its fair share of homeless housing. “It needs to be done across our city, and everyone needs to bear the burden,” said Councilmember Nury Martinez.

As part of the agreement, some councilmembers made a big deal about “fighting” NIMBYs who wouldn’t want homeless housing in their neighborhoods. Councilmember Paul Koretz said his wealthy constituents would be the most likely to oppose such developments, but he promised not to cave. “I’m 100 percent committed,” he said.

The number works out to 3,330 units of supportive housing. That’s one-third of the way to Measure HHH’s goal to create 10,000 units of supportive housing citywide.

But in some cases, 222 units might only be a single project. For example, Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell’s district is home to the first Measure HHH project to break ground, PATH Metro Villas, which consists of 187 permanent units and 88 short-term beds, and was already in motion well before the pledge.

Several councilmembers will also get units counted toward their total even if they didn’t want them in the first place. Councilmember José Huizar will get “credit” for the approval of Lorena Plaza, the 49-unit Boyle Heights supportive housing project, even though he had previously opposed the project since 2013.

In Koretz’s district, a huge Department of Veterans Affairs plan calls for 900 supportive units as part of a court settlement. Maybe he won’t have to fight for supportive housing at all.

If City Councilmembers want to pat themselves on the back for delivering 222 units of supportive housing by 2020, fine. At the very least we now have a number to hold them to.

But it is mostly a symbolic pledge. As many have noted, councilmembers have extraordinary power to bolster or block the housing being proposed for their districts. To truly make an impact, councilmembers need to double or triple or quadruple that 222-unit commitment—and they need to make the same types of commitments to a wide range of housing.

In 2016, Mayor Garcetti signed an executive directive to build 100,000 new units of housing by 2021 (which is probably still not nearly enough).

Included in the total is a goal of 15,000 affordable units. That’s 1,000 affordable units each council district needs to add or preserve by 2021. The mayor’s office admits the city is “slightly below target” on the most recent report. How many councilmembers will be able to meet that goal?

Here’s another example. As part of its new accessory dwelling unit pilot project, which is getting lots of attention this week, the city’s Innovation Team has a goal to add 10,000 ADUs across the city by 2021. That’s 666 ADUs that need to be built in each council district. Which councilmember can say he is on his way to approving those 666 granny shacks?

We also need more transparency to ensure councilmembers follow through with their commitments. The city administrative office issues a quarterly report on the city’s homeless strategy, but it’s not written in a way the average Angeleno can understand.

Plus, public-facing data sometimes isn’t current or specific enough to use. The recent housing goals report from the mayor’s office was last updated in June of 2017. Even then, the information about where these projects are located requires diving into the city’s data portal.

United Way’s Everyone In initiative provides a tracker that shows the number of new supportive units that have been approved and funded in each council district, as well as the number of existing supportive units. It also shows the disparity between the number of units “approved” and the percentage of units “funded.” A councilmember might approve a project, but until those units are fully funded, they can’t be built.

On any given day, we should know exactly how many more housing units our councilmember is working to add, where those units are located, if they are funded, and how we can advocate for them. Without a centralized, user-friendly database to learn about each new project, Angelenos will continue to find out about proposed developments when it’s too late—after groups have organized to fight them.

Let’s install a housing creation leaderboard in Grand Park to publicly display how many total units of housing are being built or preserved in each council district, highlighting the number of supportive and affordable homes.

Let’s put signs on every residential construction site that notes how many supportive or affordable units are being added, with a URL where neighbors can get more information, find out how many total units their district has created, and apply for the housing, if applicable.

Let’s launch a citywide competition to develop the city administrative office’s database of 129 city-owned parking lots that have been designated as ideal sites for supportive or affordable housing. Which district can add the most units using one of those sites?

Dividing up housing creation per council district will also help to illustrate that it’s not really about fair share—some districts should be building way more.

Underserved communities have historically shouldered the weight of the city’s social services; it’s time for other communities to pitch in. And when it comes to market-rate housing, much, much more of it should be built in wealthy neighborhoods that have been purposely under-building for too long.

Councilmembers, we are happy to hear your personal guarantee that you will fight for 222 more people to have homes in your district by 2020. It’s a worthy effort. But it’s not enough.

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