Yesterday, the Planning Report posted an interview with Jill Stewart, former editor of the LA Weekly, on her new project heading a ballot initiative for the Coalition to Preserve LA. The so-called Neighborhood Integrity Initiative proposes to halt any development in the city that would require a zone change for a period of up to 2 years. In the interview, Stewart takes aim at transit, transit-oriented development and any attempts to rectify historical inequities in the wider realm of Southern California land use and transportation policy. Moreover, she does so in the name of the people that she is actively seeking to disenfranchise. She and her universally-beloved financial backers at the AIDS Healthcare Foundation portray themselves as crusading heroes for the little people of a city swiftly marching into a dystopian future, all thanks to corrupt local officials and greedy developers. While I will leave it to others who are better informed than I to tackle the nuances of land use and local politics, I found it impossible to sit idly by while listening to this wealthy elite promulgate their hideous ideals of social injustice. And so, I hope you’ll join me as I wade into the morass.
What exactly does the Coalition want? What do they hope to achieve by preserving LA like a fly in amber? All we can do is read between the lines. As with any con job, there is a small kernel of truth which is intended to misdirect the attention of the mark. There is a dire lack of affordable housing in Los Angeles, and it is easy to see that the city has not done nearly enough to keep the pressure on developers to provide Below Market Rate housing. Stewart begins with a premise that even I find myself agreeing with: namely, that “spot zoning” or approving specific projects and adjusting the zoning code permit a specific project is not an effective way to plan a city’s growth. Absent from her commentary, however, is any mention of the lawsuits (such as the one that scrapped the Hollywood Community Plan, which was explicitly couched in the rhetoric of protecting the views of wealthy Hollywood Hills landowners) that have made the prospect of updating General Plans to reflect the reality of a growing Los Angeles something of a Sisyphean task. With that sensible path barred by activists like Stewart, the Council took the route which remained to them.
Los Angeles is not a hunk of petrified wood. It is a growing and changing city. The only group that could ever hope to achieve its goals by dragging its heels and calling for an absolute fossilization of the city at any given point is the group that has all and wants to share none. This is ultimately the same story of haves and have-nots that has been playing out in California at least since the era of The Grapes of Wrath. The Coalition’s utter lack of real proposed governance strategies and the absence of even a potential mechanism to bring the General Plan up-to-date (“We’ll see who decides it’s of interest, jumps in, and wants to do it.” Stewart offers in one casual aside) put the lie to the suggestion that her group is interested in any meaningful reform. Rather the Coalition would like to see new housing development simply stopped in its tracks.
Are we to presume, like Stewart, that everything is grand in L.A. and if we stick to the letter of the law, things will be fine and dandy? Well, not so fast. The shortage of not just affordable housing but of all housing stock has tremendous impacts on Southern California and especially on its poor and minority communities. These impacts reach far beyond Stewart’s petulant and patronizing observation of East Hollywood that it is filled with “older”, “not gorgeous” apartments. I happen to be a resident of East Hollywood. My 90029 zipcode is the 87th most crowded in the entire U.S., with 20.2% of housing units having at least 1 person per livable room. Multiple families and 3 or more generations of families share one bedroom apartments in my “affordable” neighborhood. Los Angeles and Orange County combined have 9 of the top 10 most crowded zip codes in the country. Overall one third of the top 1% most crowded zip codes are in Southern California. And that’s today, with residential housing creation rates below where they need to be to keep pace with population growth, but far above where they would be if this moratorium were to take effect.
The concerns of my community and those of the working-class neighborhoods of Los Angeles are distinct from the agenda of wealthy obstructionists, but unfortunately they are easy for the latter group to conflate. After all, the Coalition might say, anti-displacement activists in San Francisco’s Mission District just tried and failed to pass a moratorium on new development in their neighborhood. Surely, then, they are representing a struggle to help the oppressed fight gentrification. Stewart essentially casts herself in this mold when she claims that the evils of transit-oriented development are opposed across class lines. But the Mission moratorium measure was the desperate last act of a community facing an unprecedented churn of population, wealth, and political power. However bad things may be here, the pressures of San Francisco, and especially the miniscule 1.865 square miles of the Mission, are a world apart from those of the sprawling 469 square miles of the city of Los Angeles. It is true that, just like the Mission, some neighborhoods in Los Angeles have suffered more than their fair share of displacement. But it is disingenuous for wealthy Westside and Valley communities to pretend that this is a communal struggle when it is their staunch refusal to accommodate any of the region’s new residents that has disproportionately shifted those newcomers to the south and east. Historically, it has been easy for people like Stewart with malign intentions to hide the fact that the rising tide of gentrification creeping ever further inland is a direct result of their own obstructionist tactics. Just because you don’t create new housing to prepare for population growth, that doesn’t stop people from coming. It will, however, increase pressures that force lower-income residents further and further outward from regional centers. Los Angeles in 2016 is a testament to the cliche that failing to plan is planning to fail.
There is another narrative which Stewart has conveniently neglected, and which those of a libertarian “what’s mine is mine” bent seem especially prone to forgetting. The map of population and demographic dispersal in Los Angeles does not look the way it does by chance. It is not the result of some grand game of musical chairs, where everyone had an equal opportunity to be one of the lucky few with seat at the end. No, no, no. Governments in the 20th century engaged in explicitly racist policies designed to protect the preeminence of wealthy whites at the expense of all others. The growing awareness of what is now known as social justice stems from an understanding that “place matters.” This is perhaps why environmental and affordable housing groups understand what Jill Stewart cannot seem to fathom: that the ballot measure she is proposing will have nothing less than a cataclysmic impact on minority, POC, and low-income communities throughout the Southern California region.
What can you expect if this ballot measure passes? Purchase and rental prices will grow with increasing speed. Ellis Act evictions, already on the upswing in Los Angeles, will skyrocket. Entire communities will be priced out of the city, and, having lost their rent-stabilized apartments, will likely be unable to buy their way back into the market. Because Stewart is also, to put it mildly, skeptical of transit, the workers of the city will be stuck in a higher volume of traffic coming from further out, sacrificing years of their lives and suffering the deleterious health effects of spending hours each day getting to work. Stewart has actually saved many of her most outrageously venomous barbs for transit. She clearly believes herself to be a singular voice of reason on the issue, with the rest of us being blinded by politically correct idealism. As she puts it: “People who can afford to own cars continue to drive their cars. This is true in Paris, in London, and every other city with a lot of transit. No amount of discussion will get people to give up that freedom. It’s a fantastic thing, to be able to drive your car.” Which of course is why 34% of commuters in London and just 9% in Paris travel to work by way of their fantastic automobiles. Apparently, she does not think that those numbers are worth fighting for, even for a city like Los Angeles where more than 3/4 of commuters travel by private automobile. Stewart additionally cites a major drop in Metro ridership, which is a reference to the much-discussed Los Angeles Times article which has been criticized by transit experts for picking arbitrary comparison points and for extrapolating a trend that may or may not exist in order to craft a favorable narrative. Finally, at the end of the interview, Stewart bares the naked ambition of her ilk in proposing a tax credit for those who “agree” to work from home. Setting aside the unconditional surrender to reduced mobility which she apparently desires, this proposal is ultimately class warfare. It rewards the few who can opt to work from home with a tax rebate, while everyone else suffers the burdens (social, environmental, financial) of driving. How many maids do you know who can “agree” to work from home? Waiters? The truth is that this suggestion is the equivalent of a bullet point from a tax plan by Ted Cruz. Designed by the wealthy, for the wealthy.
There are issues, a great many of them, in the housing politics of Los Angeles city and county. But the Coalition to Preserve LA addresses itself to only one: the privation of a healthy and socially robust life by a wealthy elite. I am sure that many advocates in Los Angeles fighting gentrification and displacement honestly will continue to do the great work that they have done in working to provide affordable housing to all Angelenos. For all our sake, we can only hope that siren song to self-destruction goes unheeded.