RAPHAEL BOSTIC, director of the Bedrosian Center on Governance, Price School.
This op-ed originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times on Feb. 4.
Los Angeles, a city where 63.1% of residents rent their homes, is in the midst of a crisis in rental housing.
A recent study by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development laid out the stark facts. Los Angeles rents have increased, after adjusting for inflation, by nearly 30% over the last 20 years. During the same period, renter incomes have decreased by 6%.
One important part of the problem is an inadequate supply of affordable rental units. Only 37 units are available and affordable for every 100 would-be renters living at the average renter income level.
Moreover, the foreclosure crisis, which many predicted would relieve pressure on the rental market by increasing the volume of rental units, has instead exacerbated the problem. Families who lost their homes through foreclosure have turned to the rental market and are competing for units, which has made for an even tighter rental market and more upward pressure on rents.
The effects of the affordability problem extend well beyond those struggling to find places to live. Adequate affordable housing is a key factor for continued growth in a region. Without it, employers can’t hire enough skilled workers, and cities have trouble attracting new businesses.
What’s more, the abolishment of redevelopment agencies in California, which each year provided more than $1 billion statewide and $50 million in Los Angeles alone for affordable housing, has stymied development at a time when we need it most.
It’s against this backdrop that the next mayor will take office. The three leading candidates — Eric Garcetti, Wendy Greuel and Jan Perry — all seem to recognize the challenges, and at a forum last month convened by Housing for a Stronger Los Angeles, they expressed a commitment to solving the city’s housing crisis. Here are some ways the next mayor can address some of the key challenges:
Establish a dedicated, consistent source of funding to support affordable housing. Finding new money in a time of tight budgets is never easy, but for years policymakers have agreed on the need for a dedicated pool of money for city-backed loans to support the construction of affordable housing. This would not be a giveaway because loans would be repaid. Rather, it would be an investment in the city’s future, and the next mayor needs to see that such a fund is created and sustained.
Take advantage of the opportunities presented by transit expansion. Over the next 10 years, Los Angeles will be adding dozens of new transit stations. What happens around these stations could help ease the city’s housing crisis, but only with thoughtful community planning. Yes, we need higher-density, transit-oriented developments, but it will be crucially important to ensure that this housing isn’t exclusively for the affluent. The mayor should lead the way on this.
Attack homelessness with renewed vigor. Los Angeles has more homeless people than any American city other than New York, and the number of homeless veterans continues to be unacceptably high. The next mayor should focus resources from across government and the private sector on addressing the issue. This will require a comprehensive assessment of the needs of those on the streets in order to develop the kinds of assistance and housing that will make the biggest difference.
Address the city’s foreclosure crisis before it debilitates neighborhoods. Concentrated foreclosures can lead to neighborhood distress that extends beyond the foreclosures themselves. The city must provide leadership that limits the extent of this damage, both by working with at-risk neighborhoods to make sure homeowners are aware of the resources available to them and by using the considerable financial leverage it has to encourage lenders to work with homeowners in trouble.
Preserve the affordable units that we have. Construction can ease pressure on rents, but only if it adds units to the total stock of housing. Merely tearing down old units and erecting new ones doesn’t help. The city needs to exercise its zoning and permitting power to encourage development that expands housing opportunities.
Los Angeles is an expensive place to live. Its broad economic base, diverse and interesting population and temperate climate make it a very desirable place to live, which necessarily drives up costs. This won’t change. The next mayor must take an assertive approach and deal with the affordability challenges directly.