California is in the grips of a four-year drought; even with the state announcing its first enforceable water reduction mandate, the drought shows no sign of stopping. Many across the state push the blame onto others; farmers citing the population boom for the cause, and the ever growing cities citing the disproportionate agriculture water use as the cause. There is simply a lack of water when compared to the staggering demand coupled with the reluctance of enforcement, it has created a massive crisis. The state of affordable housing in Los Angeles is similar to the water crisis: it is difficult to solve, hard to explain its real roots and requires increased regulation. If business as usual persists, the results will be disastrous.
Los Angeles County is in one of the most ominous affordable housing crises in its history, building over the course of over ten years. Throughout the county, 59% of households have a high rental burden, making their units unaffordable, one of the highest in the county. In the City of Los Angeles, the numbers are almost as bad, with 47% of renters experiencing a high rental burden, and frighteningly 39% of total occupants are one paycheck away from homelessness.
More telling is that households that have incomes at or below the federal poverty line (roughly $11,000 a year for one person) are at a rate of 85% high rental burden. Those living at or below the poverty line has grown so substantially that in 2015, it surpassed 25% of households in the City of Los Angeles. There is a duality in this crisis, one: the rent is too high for nearly 60% of people in the county, two: approximately one million Angelenos don’t make enough to afford groceries.
We are moving back to the days of shantytowns and tenement buildings, but now it is more subtle, it's moving into your uncle’s condo, two families sharing a bungalow or couch surfing.
We are moving back to the days of shantytowns and tenement buildings, but now it is more subtle, it's moving into your uncle’s condo, two families sharing a bungalow or couch surfing. Part of this subtly can be blamed on the direness of people’s lives, often working two to three jobs just to survive. This strain affects the health and wellbeing of all Angelenos, prompting the Los Angeles Department of Public Health to declare the lack of affordable housing the number one public health threat to the entire county.
Right now, California is at a crossroads. Ignoring the massive housing crises stemming from LA and the Bay Area gives the real possibility of it spreading throughout the entire state. Gov. Brown commented in 2013 that those who were being dislocated from the housing crisis in the Bay Area should move to the Central Valley and commute to the city center via the highly touted high-speed rail. Brown has repeatedly vetoed efforts to regulate housing across the state, and the bills he has entered do not regulate, they only minimally increase a trickle of funds going to affordable housing. Brown has shown he believes that the economic bonuses of building unaffordable units for many outweigh the need for government to regulate on behalf of the majority of Californians. However, a lack of affordable housing throughout the entire state is stifling the overall economic output of California, further compounding this crisis.
In 2010, it became apparent that local regulation is hapless erstwhile there is not firm regulation emanating from Sacramento. Geoff Palmer, a prominent developer, won a lawsuit in 2010 against the city's Mixed Income Housing Ordinance. It required developers to dedicate a portion of units to be affordable. Palmer, allied with other developers, sued to build projects without any affordable units. Palmer won his case, citing the 1995 Costa-Hawkins Rental Housing Act, which allows landlords to set rents at any rate at the beginning of the tenancy.
Compounding this is the rampant abuse of the Ellis Act, allowing landlords to evict entire buildings without repercussion for redevelopment or rezoning. The combination of these two laws has caused a toxic mix in the economics of affordable housing in California. In essence, it is currently legal for landlords to tear down any size of rent stabilized, rent controlled, or affordable housing units and replace them with luxury condos, without consequences. While I am not calling for a moratorium on development, far from it; I am calling for smart policies to roll out that would truly have the people’s interests at heart. After all, the government is in service to its people, not just its property owners, we are well past that era in America, I hope.
Until state law is amended, no local ordinances that require affordable units will be enforceable. This is where Sacramento comes back into the picture. Until there is real legislation that requires affordable units in new developments, this problem will continue ad nausea.
It took the state of California over four years of continual drought conditions to formally and dramatically address the issue. Sacramento could have avoided these dire cuts and actions had they actually paid attention to the experts. It is time for Brown and the rest of Sacramento to wake up and address this housing issue as they have begun doing with the drought.
There is an opportunity to save neighborhoods and communities, but we have to act now. Pass regulation that overhauls the Costa-Hawkins Act & the Ellis Act. Let’s press Brown to do the right thing and require that affordable units be built, or we might lose the communities that make California and Los Angeles great.