City Council Formally Opposes SB50…and Addresses Other Hot Topics

In a busy meeting yesterday, the Los Angeles City Council voted 14-0 to formally oppose SB 50, the bill introduced by California State Senator Scott Wiener calling for the elimination of most local zoning rules across the entire state of California, and supporting much denser development in any “job rich” area within half a mile of major transit lines.

Before the vote, three City Council Members – Paul Koretz (who originally introduced the motion to oppose the state-level bill), David Ryu, and Mike Bonin – spoke strongly against SB 50.

Koretz began his remarks by saying “there are so many reasons to oppose SB 50, it’s difficult to know where to start.”  First, he cautioned, SB 50 should not be mistaken for an “affordable housing bill,” and that it is really just a “handout for developers,” allowing them to build large numbers of luxury units, with no low income or workforce-priced housing.  Instead, he said, the bill relies on long-disproven “trickle down” theories to eventually reduce housing costs…without any evidence so far that the approach will work.  In fact, he said, citing developments in his own district, large numbers of new luxury units do not seem to do anything so far to lower the price of other housing.  “If anything,” Koretz said, “it’s likely to increasing the price of housing.”

Koretz also noted that SB 50 would likely eliminate Los Angeles’ local Historic Preservation Zones, allowing demolition of currently protected historic homes.   Also, he said, the bill is intended to spur new construction in cities that have not kept up with their housing targets, but Los Angeles has already made great strides in that direction with its new Transit Oriented Communities guidelines, and “this legislation doesn’t acknowledge that.”  And finally, he noted that the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, in Senator Wiener’s own district, voted 9-2 to oppose SB 50, for many of the same reasons.

Next, Council Member Ryu picked up where Koretz left off, noting that while SB 50 does include some new eviction protections for renters, it – like last-year’s quickly-rejected SB187 – is a one-size-fits all approach, which doesn’t differentiate between cities already building their share of housing and those that aren’t.  Also, said Ryu in support of Koretz’s claims that large amounts of new construction don’t necessarily make housing more affordable, Seattle recently built more than 24,000 new units in just one year…and saw rents go down by only $2.

Finally Ryu also noted that SB 50 targets “job rich” areas for most new construction, but does not acknowledge that job densities shift up and down, and/or move over time.  This is just one more reason, he said, why idividual cities should be allowed to set their own housing targets and policies instead of imposing the same rules for every city at the state level. “We need local solustions for local housing needs,” Ryue said, characterizing SB 50 as a “knee-jerk, blunt instrument that doesn’t understand the nature of our housng crisis or how to solve it” here in Los Angeles.  We do need new zoning laws and community plans, Ryu continued, but we need “housing that serves our community,” and our own residents should lead the process, “not legilsaltors hundreds of miles away.”

Finally, Council Member Mike Bonin, who represents much of LA’s west side – including neighborhoods like Venice, which he says has been “ravaged” by gentrification and loss of affordable housing in recent years – agreed with his colleagues, saying he hears constantly from constituents that their own children can no longer afford to stay in Los Angeles as they reach adulthood.  But while we need to do a better job of producing enough affordable housing, and to protect what little still exists, Bonin said, SB 50 “gives away way too much in exchange for way too little.” We need to do “a hell of a lot more” than SB 50 offers, he said, to build more affordable housing and protect existing homes.  Bonin also said he would much prefer to listen to the counsel of the more than 50 housing-related organizations around the state that have “serious concerns” with SB50, and that “the stated intents of this bill do not yet match the particulars of this bill.”  Finally, he contended that the state government should “give guidance on what we can actually do to help this problem, as opposed to making this problem worse,” as he believes SB 50 would do.

Public comment on the item, at the meeting, was limited by City Council President Herb Wesson to about a dozen speakers on each side of the issue.

Most of those speaking in favor of SB50 (and against the Council’s motion to oppose the bill), insisted that “we need housing now” and that we must do all we can, as soon as we can, to build more of it, a process SB 50 would enable. Others insited that the simple law of supply and demand dictates that sharply increasing housing supply is the only way to reduced demand and costs, so even if most units built are at market rate or luxury levels, reduction in demand will eventually adjust prices downward.  Finally, still other SB 50 supporters said that if Los Angeles is truly committed to fighting climate change and carbon emissions, then it must significantly increase housing density near transit lines, to increase use of public transit, and to decrease the use of gas-powered automobiles in the city.

Meanwhile, speakers who opposed SB50 and supported the Council’s motion to oppose it, echoed most of the points made earlier by the three council members.  These speakers agreed that no studies so far have shown that construction of luxury, market-rate housing decreases overall housing prices…that we need local solutions to local problems (and that “democracy works fom the bottom up, not the top down”)…and that SB50 is an “abominable bill” all around, ignoring the needs of local communities to the point that it could, in fact, destroy them.

In the end, the Council voted unanimously, by a vote of 14-0, to oppose SB 50…an action that was met with cheers from attendees.

Other Business

While the SB 50 testimony and vote took up the lion’s share of yesterday’s Council meeting, there were some other fairly notable votes and discussions.

City Trees’ new mascot, Leafy, introduced at yesterday’s city Council meeting Arbor Day presentation.

First, at the top of the meeting, Council Member Ryu presented a proclamation in honor of Arbor Day (which was yesterday), noting that trees have a “profound effect” on our lives and health.  Ryu spoke of the importance of protecting the city’s huge and divers tree canopy, and in favor of restoring funding and personnel to the Division of Urban Forestry, which was effectively gutted by budget cuts during the last recession.

As part of the presentation, Adel H. Hagekhalil, General Manager of the Los Angeles Bureau of Street Services, also spoke of the city’s need for trees, and his optimism that we can restore proper attention to our valuable tree canopy.  “It’s amazing to me,” he said, “what’s possible and what’s do-able.”  Council Member Grieg Smith agreed, saying that we “must recreate our street tree division and make it whole again.” And finally, Elizabeth Skrzat, executive director of City Plants, introduced that organization’s new mascot – Leafy – who Skrzat said will now become “the Lorax of the City of Angels.”

A bit later in the meeting, the Council passed, without discussion, two other motions on issues stakeholders have been watching closely.  First, Council Members voted unanimously to authorize a report on creating a Green New Deal for Los Angeles.  And, second, they also voted unanimously to authorize funding and six new staff positions for the city’s new home-sharing (short-term rentals) ordinance, which was passed in December, 2018 and which will take effect on July 1 of this year.

And finally, while no official discussion was held, or votes taken, on the topic, the public comment portion of the meeting was dominated by about 20 speakers who came to address the issue of oil drilling near residential areas, the city’s lack of action on a report about such activities (which the City Council requested two years ago but still hasn’t been delivered), and additional calls for a 2,500-foot “health and safety” buffer between homes and fossil fuel extraction sites in the city.

This is an issue that has been discussed at several recent meetings of the Greater Wilshire Neighborhood Council and its Land Use Committee (both bodies supported the call for the report on oil drilling health and safety issues, but did not weigh in on the buffer zone recommendation).

At yesterday’s City Council meeting, 13 of the 20 speakers who pressed the Council to release its report on the fossil fuel drilling health and safety issues and called for the 2,500-foot buffer zone (if not outright closure) of residential-adjacent fossil fuel operations, represented grass-roots community groups such as StandLA, and SCOPE-LA, which work to publicize the negative health and environmental effects of oil and gas extraction in their neighborhoods.

Most of those urging the speedy release of the long-promised report and instituting the buffer zone agreed with one speaker who said the oil industry in communities such as Wilmington and Jefferson Park is “killing us softly.” Many testified that they have suffered adverse health effects (nosebleeds, headaches, asthma, heart issues, and various forms of cancer) from the operations, or have family members who have suffered and/or died of those conditions.  They also spoke of the long-term harm to their largely under-served and underprivileged communities, with one high school student testifying that a large oil spill in her neighborhood near a Wilmington oil field went completely unacknowledged by local officials, including their city council office.  Residents, she said, received only “breakfast burritos and gas cards” from the oil company as compensation for the spill. The incident, she said, led her to realize that “it’s up to me to take a stand for my community.” One speaker, Jasmine Johnson, representing Physicians for Public Health LA, went even further, saying oil drilling should never have been allowed in residential areas of Los Angeles, and that in addition to the immediate institution of a 2,500-foot buffer zone, there should be a five-year phase-out of all such activity, with the sites then cleaned up and repurposed to benefit their communities.

Meanwhile, the seven speakers urging the Council to exercise caution on the issue, and to preserve oil industry jobs by maintaining drilling activity in the metropolitan area, were members of Arms of LA, an organization that promotes jobs in the building trades, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), and CREED-LA, another construction-industry promotion organization.

The speakers from those groups asked the City Council members to recognize the local importance of oil industry jobs and the living wages they pay, as well as the fact that California and Los Angeles have some of the strictest regulations and safest oil industry work records in world.  This group contended that it’s better to keep jobs here in Los Angeles, with its strong regulation, than lose drilling operations to other cities, states or countries where health, safety and environmental standards are not as high.

[Note: while this item has not yet been agendized for further City Council discussion, it has been making its way through neighborhood councils around the city.  One speaker yesterday reported that as many as 40 neighborhood councils and more than 70 other organizations have so far supported the original city council motion calling for the health and safety report, as well as for the additional request for a 2,500-foot health and safety buffer near residential zones.  Dan Kegel, who tracks the issue for the Greater Wilshire Neighborhood Council’s Sustainability Committee, told the Buzz this morning that 30 neighborhood councils so far have filed official Community Impact Statements supporting the original City Council Motion calling for the report – City Council File #17-0447 – but several others have likely weighed in with other kinds of communications. Of the 30 neighborhood councils filing CISs so far, Kegel said, 25 have called for both the speedy release of the report and for the additional measure of a 2,500-foot buffer zone.]

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About Elizabeth Fuller

Elizabeth Fuller was born and raised in Minneapolis, MN but has lived in LA since 1991 - first in the Sycamore Square neighborhood, and since 2012 in West Adams Heights/Sugar Hill. She was long-time board member of the Sycamore Square Neighborhood Association, currently serves on the board of the West Adams Heights/Sugar Hill Neighborhood Association, spent 10 years with the Greater Wilshire Neighborhood Council, volunteers at Wilshire Crest Elementary School, and is the co-owner/publisher of the Buzz.

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