Too Much of a Good Thing?
Union-backed L.A. City Initiative Ordinance JJJ would impose strict labor and affordable housing requirements on developers
By Gary Walker
Los Angeles voters have the opportunity to directly influence land-use planning through voter initiatives on Nov. 8 with a series of ballot measures designed to create more affordable housing.
Los Angeles city Initiative Ordinance JJJ, which would mandate that developers seeking zoning exemptions make 25% of new apartment units and 40%
of new condominium units affordable for low-income tenants, could set the tone for the success or failure of similar future initiatives.
Also titled “Build Better L.A.,” JJJ is the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor’s counter to the Neighborhood Integrity Act, a March 2017 ballot measure that would put a moratorium on major developments and reshape planning guidelines and general plans. It also requires developers to pay a “prevailing wage” and hire Los Angeles residents as at least 30% of a project’s work force.
Fernando Guerra, a political science professor at Loyola Marymount University in Westchester, recognizes the appeal that JJJ might have to voters who are disenchanted with city leaders’ inability to create more affordable housing. But he does not believe JJJ would put the city on the right path.
“It is a very bad way to plan for any large city. This would have a tremendous impact on developers and will make it much more difficult to build more affordable housing,” said Guerra, who runs LMU’s Leavy Center for the Study of Politics, a nonpartisan education and research institute.
Guerra said the affordable housing requirements would make it too expensive for some development firms to build, and that will have adverse consequences for those who need affordable housing the most: the homeless.
“If you can’t build housing in general, then you won’t be able to build housing as easily for those who are homeless,” he said.
David Levitus, a past member of the West Los Angeles Neighborhood Council’s Land Use and Planning Committee, supports JJJ because he thinks it does address the dearth of affordable housing.
“There is a clear affordability crisis and a clear homelessness crisis. Something needs to be done, and the City Council has not done much to address either crisis,” Levitus said.
Guerra said local planning officials and elected leaders have largely themselves to blame for voters wanting to be more involved in city planning policy — a desire he thinks could propel JJJ to victory on Nov. 8.
“Cities have brought this on themselves by not updating their general plans and their planning procedures, which has created chaos,” he said. “I truly believe this movement is about voters being frustrated by the lack of updated planning by cities, and that’s why I think it has a good chance of passing.”
Sabrina Venskus, a public interest attorney who won a case against developer Playa Capital before the second stage of Playa Vista was built, thinks changes to planning codes would remedy much of the contention over development.
“I think the only thing that will adequately address the need for affordable housing is inclusionary zoning and rent stabilization for all new development. Without those measures, I think that we will never build our way out of the affordable housing crisis,” said Venskus, who is representing a group of Venice residents suing Los Angeles to prevent more exemptions to coastal-area zoning restrictions.
In order to fix the affordable housing crisis, Venskus recommends that the state legislature abolish the Costa-Hawkins Act, a 1995 law that prohibits strict rent control on many residential units in most cities.
Without Costa-Hawkins, “[Los Angeles] can be free to amend the Los Angeles Rent Stabilization Ordinance and the zoning code to require all new for-sale housing contain a minimum percentage of low-income for-sale units, and all new apartments could be subject to rent-stabilization.”
Levitus is not bothered by a provision of JJJ that would allow developers to contribute to a housing fund in lieu of building affordable units in new buildings.
“An upside to putting money into the affordable housing trust fund is more nonprofits might be able to access it to build [more affordable housing],” he said.
Guerra thinks that if JJJ is successful, it could leave an electoral coattail for the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative to ride in March.
“[The measures] sound appealing, but they will hurt most people when it comes to building more housing,” he said.