Beyond Measure S: Building the Los Angeles of Today
It is tempting to hold on to the Los Angeles of yesterday. Cherished memories of Angelenos thriving in a sunny, suburban utopia of single-family homes with green yards, front and back, and two-car garages. Commutes were short and trips to the grocery store were quick. Today, however, there is not enough affordable housing near jobs to support the population, and every day we feel it on the roads and in our wallets.
On Tuesday, March 7, voters will decide whether Measure S, which mandates a two-year moratorium on new development, will become law. Supporters of the proposal, formerly known as the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative, say it will encourage affordable housing, fight City Hall corruption, empower communities, and prevent traffic from worsening. But Measure S goes too far. We believe it would drive up rents and housing costs and promote sprawl, putting even more cars on the road. There is a housing crisis afflicting Los Angeles, and policymakers and voters should carefully consider any law, resolution, or measure that restricts its creation.
Proponents of Measure S say they want their neighborhoods back, arguing that a rapid influx of development is ruining their communities, pushing up housing prices, and intensifying congestion. In fact, while the construction cranes hovering over downtown may have you thinking otherwise, new construction has actually lagged in recent decades. Eighty-seven percent of housing in Los Angeles was built before 1990, and the current rental vacancy rate is under 3 percent. The fundamental economics of supply and demand tell us that scarcity is what has propelled prices skyward. At the start of February, the median home price in L.A. proper was $611,600—an 8.4 percent leap from a year earlier. The higher the cost of housing, the farther away from job centers workers must live. Then, without accessible public transportation alternatives, more cars, traveling longer distances, clog the roads.
The authors of Measure S are right to pressure the city to take a hard look at land-use policy. The city should routinely review and update both the General Plan and the 35 community plans across its jurisdiction. However, a moratorium on all development for even two years may intensify the already dire housing crunch and spur developers to continue to move outside city limits, extending the vast sprawl we already see.
In 2015, housing and community advocates proposed a similar moratorium in San Francisco, prompted by overdevelopment in the Mission neighborhood, which had led to evictions and the displacement of working-class Latinos. However, a report by the San Francisco Office of Economic Analysis found no evidence that the intended benefits would be realized. On the contrary, the report predicted a detrimental upward pressure on housing prices, and ultimately the measure was defeated at the polls.
Last year, the Milken Institute California Center released two reports outlining practical policy solutions to Los Angeles’ housing and development issues. In The Supply Side: Defining a Pathway for Increasing California’s Development Opportunities, we recommended strategies that address supply shortages such as reforming regulatory, zoning, and planning processes to limit the ability of local interests to derail development; encouraging regional collaborative approaches; and providing incentives to preserve and create low- and middle-income housing. The CEQA Labyrinth: Fixing the Flaws in a Good Law looked at how the well-intentioned California Environmental Quality Act has been used to halt development, rather than balance it with environmental objectives. We discussed reforming the law to support needed housing and infrastructure while maintaining important protections.
Measure S is not about “saving our neighborhoods,” as advocates would say. It is about not letting go of a nostalgic vision; we need to accept present-day realities and challenges. On March 7, we encourage voters to consider what it means to build the Los Angeles of today—then let’s continue the conversation about real reform.
We invite you to join the California Center and Capital Public Radio in mid-May for a housing forum in Sacramento to advance policy solutions. Additional details coming soon.