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01.16.2013
Talking Cheap
Forum reveals Los Angeles mayoral candidates all pushing for affordable housing improvement.
The Star Apartments, affordable housing by Michael Maltzan.
Courtesy Michael Maltzan

As its past preferences for liberal politicians and progressive propositions have indicated, Los Angeles can be described as a city of good intentions, in particular its pursuit of affordable housing and addressing homelessness.  The issues may not have gained any traction in last fall’s national election, but they definitely are this political season in southern California.

How these urban ills sap the spirit of the city and its promise of the good life have become a major topic of debate in the hotly contested mayoral race now ramping up to a March 5 primary day, when the roster of declared candidates is to be cut to two for a June election faceoff. The frontrunners, City Councilman Eric Garcetti, Councilwoman Jan Perry, and City Controller Wendy Greuel, all participated in a forum on the topic last Friday at downtown LA’s Cathedral Plaza Conference Center.

Exacerbating the issues are the severe cutbacks in all subsidized housing programs on all levels of government, which in Los Angeles has been calculated at  $72 million in public funding for site specific affordable housing and millions more in supportive initiatives. The result has spurred spiraling rents, raised housing prices, and continued to add to the rolls of city’s homeless population, last estimated at up to 50,000. Nowhere is the issue of income disparity more evident in Los Angeles than its housing market, where nearly three quarters of the resident workforce earn less than $50,000 a year. An income of $82,000 is needed to purchase the metropolitan area’s median priced home of $320,000.

In addition, there has been a correspondent waning of interest in the private sector in funding affordable housing beyond usual so-called “guilt grants.” An impressive rostrum of professed socially conscious and committed architects are brimming with affordable housing concepts, green and ready to go but mired on some bureaucrat or banker’s desk for lack of funds.

An impressive 500 plus attendees from the city’s broad planning and development communities packed the well-promoted event in downtown Los Angeles. The gathering featuring Garcetti, Perry and Greuel, and moderated by Raphael Bostic of USC, frankly was less a forum for ideas and more a single-issue rally. Opening remarks by Robin Hughes of Abode Communities and co chair of the sponsoring Committee of Housing for a Stronger Los Angeles set the tone:  “We are here to build a coalition.”

All three candidates agreed and each pledged if elected to vigorously pursue more funding, and better focused programs. This included not just addressing homelessness, but ending it.  To do that, the three agreed that needed was more mixed income housing open to an expanded Section 8 program, enhanced by  a battery of social services.

Garcetti noted that his advocacy of shelters in select neighborhoods that he represented earned him the ire of residents. Perry reminded the audience that for more than a decade she has represented a district that included Skid Row, and all its woes, which she works tirelessly to address. Greuel also talked of her heartfelt concern and constant efforts in the many public positions she has held over the years.

Respectfully acknowledging their opponents’ efforts, all three pledged to address the vexing issue of foreclosures, and to carry on the pro housing policies of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. This included the mayor’s 12 to 2 development reform plan, aimed at getting the city’s fractured departments to cooperate more closely on accelerating the approval process for housing where most needed.  Mention was made of the demise of the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency, but cognizant of its mixed reputation the candidates reiterated that for agencies to survive they must be more goal oriented.

Noted several times was the need for the county’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority to include more affordable housing in its planned transit oriented development projects. Perry in particular said if elected mayor she would appoint more planning and housing advocates to Metro’s board.

As the candidates talked a slide show featuring the impressive designs of several affordable housing projects flashed across a screen, offering a glimpse of hope for the future.

There is no question that housing will be a high priority for whomever is elected, bolstered by a public and private coalition. But as Greuel, later reflected, funds alone will not solve the city’s housing problem. It will take a commitment of concerned stakeholders to expedite actual projects. That includes not only the planners and political appointees who attended the forum, but also their managers and department heads that didn’t.

Sam Hall Kaplan