On December 29, 2011 the State Supreme Court dealt California’s 400 redevelopment agencies an unanticipated death blow. This includes the Los Angeles Community Redevelopment Agency, where I have served as a commissioner since 2002. Based on the court’s decision and the legislation that eliminated redevelopment agencies in California, the L.A. CRA and all other agencies will shut their doors on February 1, 2012.
The demise of redevelopment agencies, however, does not mean that we have to abandon the noble and necessary goal of public investment in distressed communities. To do so would punish those most in need and make it virtually impossible to address the poverty and unemployment currently faced by millions of Californians.
It is now up to the state legislature to act quickly to give cities a new tool to create good jobs, affordable housing and more sustainable communities. Here are three steps the legislature and Governor Jerry Brown can take to make this a reality.
First, scratch the word “redevelopment,” which has made many well-meaning neighborhood groups bristle at the thought of big developers coming in to “redo” things. In 2012, California neighborhoods —while distressed — are by and large “developed” and don’t need to be flattened, cleared or re-created, as the word redevelopment implies. In fact, many distressed communities are actually cultural landmarks and have numerous historic structures that simply need some investment. So let’s create a Community Revitalization Program that gives cities a set of practical tools to renew and improve what’s already there.
Second, let’s make this new program fit our collective vision for 21st Century sustainable cities. The legislature has created a new framework for sustainable urban development that has yet to receive any significant funding. Senate Bill 375, championed by Senate Pro Tem leader Darrell Steinberg, mandates that cities and regions develop plans to integrate mass transit with housing development and create more sustainable urban environments. Assembly Bill B32, California’s celebrated climate change amelioration bill, requires all Californians to reduce our carbon footprint during the next 18 years. On top of these groundbreaking laws, we have the L.A. County Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s projected $72 billion investment in the build-out of 12 new transit lines in L.A. County, with hundreds of new transit stops projected for L.A.’s neighborhoods. Let’s give cities a tool to bring all of these mandates together — doing so would go a long way toward creating the sustainable urban environments California needs.
Finally, let’s give cities a tool to help get us out of this Great Recession. As economist Joseph Stiglitz recently argued, we need government investment to help incentivize the kinds of things that the private market will not deliver on its own. That means living-wage jobs and careers for the people in greatest need, public infrastructure and affordable housing.
This new tool should be precision-crafted so that everyone understands what the terms are: Public dollars can only be spent on projects that create construction careers, permanent living-wage jobs and affordable housing units for people who live in or near the areas where the development is proposed. Investors and developers who don’t want to be part of the solution should use private banks, not scarce public dollars.
While the death of California’s redevelopment agencies is a blow to cities, this could also be a moment of opportunity to create a more vibrant, equitable and sustainable future for all Californians and a model for the country.
The Frying Pan