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Teachers Shouldn't Need a GoFundMe to Keep a Roof Over Their Heads

Recently, a close friend of my sister's was wrongfully evicted from a rent-stabilized apartment in Echo Park. Due to his subsequent sub-standard living conditions, he caught pneumonia. Then he suffered a heart attack as a complication. A preschool teacher at my child's former school was homeless earlier this year. Then a second teacher, who was plowing 100% of her teaching salary into rent (she covered food and the rest of her bills by babysitting in the evenings) lost her apartment. I could write another ten thousand words of housing crisis anecdotes...

The GoFundMe asking parents & alumni to donate so two teachers, who live in separate households, don't go homeless.

How did this happen?

According to the state of California Legislative Analyst’s Office we are 500,000 to 1,000,000 homes short of our housing needs in coastal California. Another report says we are 551,000 units short of affordable housing in Los Angeles alone. According to McKinsey we must build 3.5 million units to meet demand.

The Southern California Association of Governments report has this visual:

Housing construction stopped keeping pace with population growth. Shane Phillips created this chart:

We are in a four decade-long housing drought.

Since 1980 Los Angeles rents have increased 55% above inflation. That sharp increase strongly correlates with the drop-off in construction in the above chart. It also correlates strongly with the passage of Prop U, a 1986 anti-housing measure that downzoned vast swaths of Los Angeles. The inevitable consequence of the mismatch between the supply of housing and the demand for it is that over 58% of Los Angeles renters are now rent-burdened (paying more than 30% of their monthly income on rent). Statewide 54% of renters and 38% of homeowners with mortgages are cost-burdened.

The evidence is very strong that we need a lot more housing. The question then becomes whether market-rate developers should be trusted to build our way out of the crisis or whether we should build more socialized housing? For reference, the most recent census information shows Los Angeles has 1,447,026 housing units. The city of LA estimates we have only around 65,000 subsidized units or approximately 5.1% of our housing stock:

My personal opinion is that we need to reject the status quo and increase socialized housing production. LA voters felt the same way and voted to pass measure HHH in 2016: a $1.2 billion bond measure to create 10,000 new units of housing for the homeless over ten years. Unfortunately, 10,000 apartments is a very optimistic estimate of the amount of housing that will be built.

Depending on the source, subsidized housing in coastal California costs somewhere between $300,000 and $825,000 (!) PER UNIT to construct. The UC Berkeley Terner Center estimates $425,000/unit:

With federal help that number can be cut in half, but He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named is in the Oval Office. Not only is more federal help not on the way, the President's budget calls for deep cuts to HUD. Consequently, HHH will most likely build substantially fewer homes than originally projected.

Homelessness skyrocketed in LA County by 18,000 people last year. If that isn't dire enough, up to fifteen thousand affordable housing covenants in Los Angeles expire between 2015 and 2020. The LA Times recently reported, "Homeless Problem Worsening Despite Tax Measures." We’re spending a billion dollars to not even keep our heads above water.

Even worse, Low-Income Housing Tax Credits (LIHTC) have been used to help finance 90% of affordable housing units in the past, but the recent disastrous tax give away to the rich just weakened the incentive to do so leading to an estimated loss of 200,000 units over the next decade nationwide.

Okay, then the state needs to step in and build more subsidized housing, right? Yes, absolutely. Our progressive legislators are acting on that very impulse. They’re placing a bond measure on the ballot asking voters to approve three billion dollars for the construction of new subsidized housing. Yet, even this substantial bond measure (that still needs two-thirds of the electorate to vote for it) will likely build fewer than 10,000 units STATEWIDE. 4.5 million Californians live in households that pay more than 50% of their monthly income rent.

The state government knows it can't/won't build enough housing to alleviate the housing crisis. Consequently, it has tried to motivate private developers to produce more low-income and middle-class housing through incentives and regulatory reforms. Local jurisdictions have also passed “inclusionary zoning” measures like Los Angeles's Prop JJJ to incentivize developers to include a percentage of affordable housing in some market-rate developments, but in practice affordable housing comprises only five percent of the units we're currently constructing in Los Angeles.

Therefore, it is self-evident that there is no credible plan for socialized housing construction to address the housing crisis. Market-rate construction (with density bonuses, inclusionary zoning, etc.) is the only plausible option left to build the 1,000,000 to 3,500,000 homes California needs.

So, If we only have one tool left in the toolbox - privately developed, market-rate housing w/ inclusionary zoning incentives - where should we build it? Our two choices are either building up or building out. By every conceivable measure density is better than sprawl. Urban infill development near transit has the highest potential to address a number of California's most intractable challenges: traffic (infill development leads to fewer Vehicle Miles Traveled), air pollution (thousands of Californians die of premature pollution related deaths every year), taxes (sprawling infrastructure is far more expensive to build and maintain), utility costs, public health, economic growth, economic mobility, and on and on...

Most importantly, our planet is potentially becoming uninhabitable due to greenhouse gas emissions.

Transportation is the single largest source of GHG in the state of California. California cannot reach its GHG reduction goals laid out in the Paris Climate Agreement without building housing more densely near transit.

Okay, all of the evidence shows that we need to build much more market-rate housing (with affordable housing incentives included) and whatever subsidized housing we can manage to pay for, densely, near transit. Why aren’t we building it?

In short: Exclusionary zoning, burdensome regulations, and neighborhood opposition.

There’s a new book, The Color of Law, about the history of zoning. To summarize, zoning was largely invented to segregate people of color from white communities and economic opportunity. A de facto system of segregation remains in place today: the majority of the land in Los Angeles is zoned for single family housing (areas in yellow & green):

Here is the zoning in a wealthy, westside neighborhood around our $2.5 billion rail investment:

Note that none of that sea of yellow rectangles is subject to rent stabilization laws. Also note that "Research on transit users finds that most people will walk no more than 1/2 mile to get to commuter rail, with a large drop-off beyond 1/4 mile." Hence, when we build rail lines through neighborhoods zoned for single family homes, we are building transit systems designed to fail. As a bonus we just made all those homeowners much wealthier due to their proximity to our $2.5 billion public investment. Privatized the profits. Socialized the losses.

Single family zoning is especially damaging to poor people because a wealthy person can afford a quarter acre of land for a single family home in Los Angeles. The only way lower income families and the middle class can hope to live on a quarter acre of land in LA is if dozens of them reside on the same plot of land: apartments are how regular people compete with rich people for land in cities. And it’s illegal to build apartments in most of Los Angeles. This scarcity drives up the cost of land zoned for multi-family housing and the cost of land typically accounts for nearly half of the total cost to construct new housing in LA.

Let’s say someone manages to buy an artificially-inflated, scarce parcel of land zoned for multi-family housing in order to build a desperately needed apartment building. Even then, local communities still hold veto power over the construction of those new apartments. A UCLA Lusk study encapsulates neighborhood opposition to new housing with this chart:

That chart is the housing crisis printed in black and white. "A growing body of economic literature suggests that anti-growth sentiment, when multiplied across countless unheralded local development battles, is a major factor in creating a stagnant and less equal American economy."

What the chart doesn’t show is that the most affluent communities are the most successful at blocking new housing. Thus, new development gets concentrated in the areas with the least political power: lower income areas and communities of color. This cycle accelerates displacement, gentrification, and the destruction of rent-stabilized housing.

As a cherry on top, LA (with a few exceptions) and most other cities in California also have onerous parking minimums which increase the cost of housing construction by up to a third. You should read this important thread that explains how parking minimums prevent the construction of affordable and middle class housing.

To recap: We need to build more dense housing near transit. The government can’t or won’t pay for much of it, so it must be built by private developers incentivized to include as much affordable housing as we can squeeze out of them. Reducing parking minimums will increase the amount of housing built by up to a third and make it more affordable. We also need to increase the amount of land on which it is legal to build apartments and force affluent areas to build their fair share.

Lo and behold, a smart, progressive California legislator from San Francisco, Senator Scott Wiener, just wrote a revolutionary piece of legislation that incorporates all of the things that we know we need to do to tackle the state's housing crisis: SB-827. The bill would force exclusionary neighborhoods near transit to allow dense housing by right. It would also reduce parking minimums in those developments thereby increasing the production of more sustainable and equitable housing.

And, yet, before SB 827 had so much as a single hearing or opportunity to amend it, a coalition of wonderful non-profit organizations just signed onto a letter authored by ACT-LA opposing the legislation...

How did this happen?

You can read their own words here. Their main arguments are: they believe SB-827 will accelerate the destruction of low-income housing thereby accelerating displacement and undermine recent city policies to incentivize and protect low-income housing. The bill will also deny historically underserved neighborhoods a greater say in their future.

To support the letter's assertions they include citations to articles and studies. However, some of their citations directly contradict the main points of their letter. For instance, they claim:

To back up that claim they cite two studies. One study is from the UC Berkeley Urban Displacement Project. The executive summary of that study reads:

"...the Importance of Increasing Production of...MARKET-RATE HOUSING." Furthermore, the same study concludes:

In other words, every two market-rate homes constructed reduces displacement on a regional level as effectively as one unit of affordable housing. It also states:

SB-827 is the only credible remedy that will alleviate the "extreme mismatch between demand and supply."

Here is another citation from the same ACT-LA letter:

Putting their two citations together, today we're building 1900% more market-rate housing than affordable housing. I have already established that there is no reasonable expectation for that ratio to change based on current funding levels (or if the $3 billion bond measure passes). Thus, our market rate housing will reduce displacement 850% more effectively than our affordable housing construction.

Furthermore, the San Francisco Planning Department memo on SB-827 says, "SB-827...would likely result in the production of MORE AFFORDABLE HOUSING" due to inclusionary zoning.

In transit rich areas...

Another point ACT-LA makes in the letter is that Los Angeles is on track to reach its market-rate construction goals and then again blames market forces for displacement (contrary to their own study):

Yet, according to Shane Phillips's chart at the beginning of this essay, we need to build closer to 200,000 units per decade to equal the housing production that preceded our era of rapidly escalating rents. Los Angeles's housing goals are woefully inadequate and we're not the only city with this problem: Beverly Hills has a population of 35,000 and their housing goal is THREE apartments over the next eight years. THREE TOTAL APARTMENTS. Even though we're building a multi-billion dollar subway under their town. SB827 would force Beverly Hills to build their fair share.

The letter also illustrates a string of recent planning successes based around community engagement including:

The Cornfield Arroyo Specific Plan has not produced one unit of housing in the four years since its inception. Not one.

The letter includes another citation: It recommends allocating $250 million per year of Cap & Trade funds for affordable housing near transit. I love that idea! However, using our $425k/unit as a general guide, that equals 588 units produced STATEWIDE per year. California has forty million people.

Their letter, and a recent editorial in the LA Times, argues that low-income people are the heaviest transit users therefore building "luxury" apartments in transit rich neighborhoods is counter-productive. Yet, ANOTHER STUDY cited in ACT-LA's very own letter shows that all income levels reduce their driving substantially when they live in transit rich neighborhoods:

Chart from ACT-LA cited study.

And, yet, another study shows that 74% of the residents of a "luxury" building above the subway stop at Vermont and Wilshire DON'T drive to work. Unlike the rest of Los Angeles where approximately 70% of residents drive to work alone. Add another recent study from UC Davis that supports building homes for all income levels near transit to reduce VMT.

The authors of the ACT-LA letter also fear that SB-827 will undermine incentives to build affordable housing specific to Los Angeles's Prop JJJ (JJJ allows density bonuses in return for inclusionary zoning among many other good things). Their view is that If SB-827 undermines those incentives, then less affordable housing will be built. Once again, the SF Planning Department holds the exact opposite view. Senator Wiener also addressed this concern in his letter introducing SB-827:

Okay, I've been a little unfair to the ACT-LA letter authors. Let's be clear: there is a vast moral gulf between wealthy NIMBY's who block new development because of their perceived inconvenience and vulnerable populations who will be out on the streets if they lose their rent-stabilized apartment. Many of the neighborhood plans ACT-LA rightly celebrates in their letter are based on research on how to add transit investments to low-income communities without having those investments displace the community they were meant to serve. ACT-LA is staffed by wonderful, smart people doing important work.

Also, after 400 years of getting screwed over by white guys in power, vulnerable communities of color have earned the right to demand greater self-determination. Yet, there must be a compromise that can balance the needs of vulnerable communities with the need to markedly increase California's housing production near transit. One good suggestion I've read is exempting communities with low CalEnviro scores from SB-827. We can't find that compromise because the signatories shut the door to the process before it even began.

We have been living in a housing famine for so long that people have forgotten what abundance looks like. Seventy years ago a sharecropper could move from Alabama to Los Angeles to build airplanes because we built enough housing. Forty years ago refugees (like my wife’s family) could escape a war having lost virtually all of their possessions and resettle in LA because we built enough housing. Today, that door is closed to all but the wealthiest: "California exports its poor to Texas, other states, while wealthier people move in."

The status quo is a humanitarian disaster. I call on ACT-LA and the other signatories to put down the letter and pick up the phone to find compromises that will provide progressive, equitable solutions to protect LA's vulnerable communities while expanding opportunity and housing security for the forty million residents of our state.

Teachers shouldn't need GoFundMe's to avert homelessness.

Terence Heuston


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