Measure S – the ballot measure that would institute a two-year moratorium on development projects requiring a zone change or General Plan amendment, while the city updates its General and Community Plans – is proving to be the most discussed and hotly debated item on the March 7 ballot. In some ways, it’s similar to the 2016 presidential race in its degree of polarization – people on both sides of the planning discussion agree the current system is very broken, but people disagree vehemently on the way to fix things. Is Measure S’s big hammer the right tool for the job…or an instrument that’s just too big, too blunt, and perhaps aimed in the wrong direction entirely?
On Tuesday, February 28, the Mid-City West Community Council and the Greater Wilshire Neighborhood Council co-sponsored a community forum on Measure S, at which GWNC-affiliated city budget watchdog Jack Humphreville argued in favor of the measure, and Luke Klipp, president of the Los Feliz Neighborhood Council, took the “con” side. The wide-ranging 90-minute discussion was moderated by Greg Goldin, an architecture critic for Los Angeles magazine, co-author of the book “Never Built Los Angeles,” and a Miracle Mile resident.
In his introductory remarks at the event, Goldin called Measure S “one of our most contentious ballot measures…ever.”
Humphreville said he got involved with the issue because he felt the planning process in Los Angeles has become a “broken and corrupt system” in which developers and their representatives benefit, while the rest of us “get the shaft.” As an example, he cited the notorious Sea Breeze development project, for which the Los Angeles Times discovered developers donated $600,000 to city council members, who then voted in favor of the project even though the Area Planning Commission and other city groups had opposed it.
Humphreville acknowledged that there is a huge need for more affordable housing in the city, and that there are some efforts already in the works to address the situation…but he’s not convinced they will help. For example, he said Measure JJJ, which was approved by voters last fall and which some people think will increase the number of affordable units being built, may actually “put the breaks on” housing construction by increasing labor costs. Humphreville also acknowledged that Mayor Eric Garcetti has promised updates of the city’s General and Community Plans, and to prevent developers from commissioning their own Environmental Impact Reports, two things Measure S backers have been lobbying for…but he said he’s not confident those things will actually come to fruition without the legal force of Measure S behind them. “We need some plans,” he said, “and under the current system, we ain’t getting no plans.”
Klipp introduced his position by noting that housing prices in his Los Feliz neighborhood have risen 30-40% in the last few years, with almost no new housing being built there. In fact, he said, construction in the last decade has been scarcer than at any time in the last century, even though the population is increasing and prices are soaring. And the problem is citywide, he said. The current rental vacancy rate in Los Angeles is only 3%, which indicates a real scarcity…so the city needs to have the flexibility to change the building rules for potential construction sites, when necessary, to build the housing we need.
Klipp agreed with Humphreville, however, that ending the current “pay to play” system is important, and that we do need to “get money out of politics.” But he said Measure S would not do that – in fact, it doesn’t address that issue at all. And it also doesn’t address other big housing issues, such as mansionization or small lot subdivisions. Instead, said Klipp, Measure S would simply prevent, for at least two years and maybe more, many good development projects that would help address the city’s housing crisis.
Goldin noted that while new housing may be necessary, it does often seem that many areas, including Miracle Mile, have gone from being quaint 1920s-era communities to “pockmarked with mansions” very quickly in recent years. He asked what kind of impact, if any, Measure S would have on that problem.
Humphreville acknowledged that Measure S does not address the mansionization issue, but said mansionization is another indicator that the city needs to update and strengthen the plans that govern our building processes. He said the city and developers are spending billions of dollars on development, without any overall sense of where the buildings go and what’s appropriate (which good plans would provide), and the resulting buildings will be with us for the next 50 years or more.
Klipp said he would like to think that L.A. has the “luxury of taking a breather” from big developments, while city plans are updated, but he noted that many people are being evicted from their homes right now, and Measure S wouldn’t help them. Also, he said, Measure S has already sparked valid discussions for the city, and created movement on issues like updating plans and keeping developers out of the EIR process. He said he agrees with Humphreville that, “you’ve got to plan” but that “I think we have to do it in a way that’s realistic to the moment.”
Effects of a Building Moratorium
Among criticisms of Measure S are the contentions that it would stop all housing construction, and eliminate large numbers of construction jobs during the required moratorium period. Humphreville countered, however, that by-right construction projects would still proceed under Measure S, and only those projects requiring zone or General Plan changes would be stalled…so there would still be construction activity in the city, and construction jobs.
Klipp, however, noted that the largest construction projects are those that employ the most people, and they’re the ones that tend to need zone or plan changes to get off the ground. They’re also the projects that would be postponed or possibly cancelled under Measure S.
Most by-right construction, Klipp said, is smaller projects, especially when it comes to housing. New housing could still be built under Measure S, he said, but it would be mostly individual homes, or smaller multi-family buildings, not large developments with large numbers of units. Which means the city’s ability to keep up with demand would be compromised. Also, he said, larger projects tend to replace the fewest number of older homes with the larger number of new ones, so we may only lose one or two older, smaller buildings to build 500 new housing units. Also, in many cases, the large new housing developments are built on empty lots in industrial areas, or parking lots, which don’t remove any existing units and which do need zone changes to allow construction of housing there. So even if Measure S stops those projects, he said, it wouldn’t really preserve a significant number of units in older buildings.
Goldin agreed that there is currently a housing crisis, but questioned whether the new units being built in our neighborhoods actually serve those who need housing the most. For example, he noted that while 1,800 new units have been built in Miracle Mile in the last few years, almost all are luxury, market-rate buildings and none of them are for low or moderate income renters.
Humphreville agreed, contending that most new developments these days are very expensive, and the average family can’t afford $3-4,000 per month for a 1,000 square foot apartment.
But Klipp disagreed with the implication that Measure S would change that situation. “Measure S wouldn’t create a single unit of affordable housing,” he said. He said that while most of the 20,000 new housing units being built or planned are in the luxury bracket, Measure S would still stop construction of about 1,000 units of affordable housing. He said “we need to take a look at the definition of luxury. To me, real luxury would be that we can even talk about stopping building housing.” Klipp also noted that even City Controller Ron Galperin, whose job it is to analyze numbers like this, also recently went on record opposing Measure S.
Humphreville, however, contended that much of the construction that would be paused by Measure S is actually surplus, despite the overall housing shortage. He pointed out that while the city’s overall vacancy rate is 3%, the vacancy rate in newly constructed housing is a much higher 12%. “They haven’t sold,” he said.
Klipp countered by saying that, if you look at it another way, however, the same math confirms that, despite the vacancies, 7,000 of 8,500 new units built in 2015 are occupied, and only 18 units were demolished to build them, which is a huge net gain for the city.
Visions for the Future
Goldin pointed out that proponents and opponents of Measure S seem to be divided by fundamental differences in their overall visions of what Los Angeles should look like. On one hand, Measure S supporters tend to envision L.A. as a rather suburban place, made up of small-scale neighborhoods…while those on the other side see it as a newer, denser, high-rise metropolis.
Humphreville agreed with this assessment, saying it comes down to a fundamental vision. “Do we want to Manhattanize…or have a lower-scale city?” And that, he said, is why it’s so necessary for the city to take the lead in planning. He also noted that Measure S opponents often worry that attempts to revise the city’s plans will just result in a never-ending stream of crippling lawsuits. But he said the most famous case of a lawsuit overturning a proposed new plan, in Hollywood, happened because the city overestimated projected population increases to justify new new density limits in the plan. “They cooked the books,” Humphreville said.
Supporters and Opponents
Klipp noted that there isn’t a clear split on Measure S along standard party or philosophical lines. The “coalition” forming against Measure S, he said, includes people and organizations on all parts of the political spectrum, including the Republican, Democratic and Green parties…as well as many other groups with a wide variety of interests, including the United Way, the American Civil Liberties Union, other housing organizations and many other well-respected groups and agencies. Klipp also said the densification and building discussion is not unique to Los Angeles at the moment. “All over the world, people want to move back to cities, but we’ve neglected them for so long that we don’t have room for everyone who wants to live there now.”
But Humphreville said that no matter which way the city wants to go – either more or less dense – it will need effective plans to get there, which is what Measure S is all about.
Goldin noted that groups on both sides of the question have deeply vested interests, from developers to Chambers of Commerce and labor groups. He also noted the problem of foreign capital and absentee ownership that has arisen with a similar building boom in New York City, where some estimates indicate that up to 40% of new luxury units are owned by non-U.S. residents who don’t live in them. And homes sitting vacant don’t do anything to solve our housing problem.
But Klipp pointed out that while that may be a valid problem, Measure S doesn’t address the issue of foreign capital and ownership, which could still be a factor with or without Measure S’s moratorium and new city plans.
Goldin asked why some community and housing groups oppose Measure S, and Klipp explained that less overall construction, under a Measure S moratorium, would put more pressure on our current limited housing supply, pushing prices up even faster. He also said people shouldn’t change the whole housing code just to prevent specific projects they don’t like, because they might also be stopping a lot of good projects.
Humphreville asked if some of those projects that might need zone or plan changes couldn’t just be built at other locations, where they would fit the existing zoning and wouldn’t need special entitlements. But Goldin noted that sometimes the site that requires a zone or plan change really is the ideal site for other reasons. Humphreville said that makes the development of new plans, which would do a better job of defining appropriate locations for new development, more important that ever. These buildings, he said again, will be with us for 50-100 years, so why can’t we wait just another couple of years for new plans to guide them?
Parking and Commuting
At this point, Goldin shifted the conversation to another controversial aspect of Measure S – parking. Under the proposed measure, it would be much harder for developers to secure reductions in mandated parking, even for low-income housing where tenants are less likely to own cars and more likely to rely on public transportation. So isn’t this a “poison pill” Measure S?
Humphreville disagreed, noting that because Los Angeles has 37 large business districts, instead of a single downtown business center, even low income residents often rely on cars to get to and from work. He cited recent dips in ridership for Metro, which has a relatively high percentage of low income riders, and said this indicates that even people of modest means are not giving up their cars in large numbers.
Klipp agreed that many apartment dwellers, especially those with higher incomes, do retain and drive their cars to work, but he said work commutes account for only 25% of all car trips, and that many people would like to live in denser neighborhoods where they could walk to shopping and other services. Under Measure S, he noted, developers couldn’t ask for reductions in parking requirements of more than 30%, and the city wouldn’t be able to grant many of the parking waivers – such as allowing restaurants to lease off-site parking and use valet services – that it does now. Those practices, he said, actually help keep older buildings in older neighborhoods, especially those used as restaurants, occupied and valuable.
Goldin noted that it doesn’t seem possible that large new luxury developments could both remain mostly empty, and also cause new gridlock, as some Measure S supporters have claimed. But Humphreville said gridlock is already a fact in places like Hollywood, so any new population increases will only make it worse, even if buildings aren’t fully occupied.
Meanwhile, Klipp contended that one of the worst commutes in the city, west toward Santa Monica in the morning and back east toward downtown in the evening, could have been avoided if Santa Monica had constructed more housing units during its own building boom of the last couple decades, instead of just mostly office and commercial buildings. This is another reason, he implied, that Measure S’s moratorium on residential development could be harmful in the long run – if people can’t live near their places of work, they have to commute, so traffic and gridlock increase.
Goldin asked how Measure S could help get developer money out of local elections, as its supporters say it would, and perhaps even encourage public financing of campaigns. But Klipp said Measure S would not really address those issues…and there would need to be another ballot measure to specifically address campaign financing if people want to do that.
Origins and Finances
Goldin also brought up the origins of Measure S as the brainchild of AIDS Healthcare Foundation leader Michael Weinstein, who is also its biggest financial backer, and asked whether those origins should, in any way, influence people’s support for or against it.
Klipp noted that the AHF has donated more than $5.5 million to the Measure S effort, while only about $10,000 has come from other sources. He said he always wonders about situations in which efforts like this have just one dominant backer. He also noted that $5.5 million would have paid for lots of AIDS-related services, so it’s odd that the AHF would put the money toward this effort instead of things like building housing and support services for its main constituents.
Humphreville said that while Measure S does have that rather singular origin, the “No on S” movement has also been largely financed by a single category of supporters – big developers – who would like to limit stricter planning efforts in the city.
Bringing up another argument popular on the “no” side, Goldin asked if building any kind of housing isn’t good for the overall housing problem, since it does increase the number of available units. Not if it’s all “high end joints,” said Humphreville, nothing that the oft-mentioned “trickle-down” theory (the more high end units are built, and the more wealthier people who move into them and out of older housing, the cheaper old housing will become) also doesn’t work here in L.A. – prices of all kinds of housing just keep rising, no matter how much more gets built.
Klipp said the short answer is “yes,” building more units of any kind is a good idea when there’s a general shortage, as there is now…but he added that if the major issue is a need for more rent-stabilized housing, Measure S is the wrong way to address that.
Goldin asked how Measure S would help put greater controls on zoning, and Klipp acknowledged that if Measure S is defeated, things will continue much as they are now. He said, however, that Measure S has already done its best work by sparking discussion of the important issues surrounding zoning in L. A. It has been “a phenomenal organizational tool around the question of what we want L.A. to look like,” he said, and expressed optimism that it will lead to a more comprehensive planning process for the city, starting the day after the election, even if it doesn’t pass. On the other hand, he said, voting for Measure S would be like “opening Pandora’s Box.”
Humphreville agreed that these are important discussions that the city needs to have, but he said believes Measure S is the only way to force the city to finally have them. Humphreville said he has “zero” confidence in the city making meaningful progress and delivering new plans in a reasonable amount of time, without Measure S to make sure it happens. “I’m a little cynical about what goes on at City Hall,” he said. “It’s going to work for their buddies, and their buddies are the ones with the cash.”
When Goldin asked where tools will come from to reform the planning process if Measure S doesn’t pass, Humphreville noted that a current provision in the City Charter denies the City Council the power to overrule many of the city’s Commissions and Departments…but that’s not the case with Planning — the City Council can overrule Planning Commission decisions, and that will continue if Measure S doesn’t pass.
But Klipp said our current zoning codes would actually prevent construction of many existing buildings if strictly adhered to, so the city needs to be able to maintain its flexibility in the form of variances and amendments, which is exactly what Measure S aims to halt. He noted, too, that almost all affordable housing units built in the last few years were in large developments that required zone changes and, thus, would have been prevented under Measure S.
Finally, as the discussion came to a close, Humphreville noted that Klipp’s neighborhood, Los Feliz, has – as Klipp mentioned earlier – largely escaped the current densification trend because it, like the Park Mile area of Greater Wilshire, is protected by a very strong neighborhood-specific plan. People in those two neighborhoods already benefit, Humphreville implied, from the kind of stronger planning Measure S could provide on a wider scale. “We’re the lucky ones,” he said.
A video recording of Tuesday’s forum is now available on the Mid-City West Community Council’s website.