[CD13 ELECTION] Candidates On Affordable Housing

CD13 candidates from top left: Jessica Salans, incumbent Mitch O'Farrell, Sylvie Shain, David de la Torre, Bill Zide, Doug Haines.

CD13 candidates from top left: Jessica Salans, incumbent Mitch O’Farrell, Sylvie Shain, David de la Torre, Bill Zide, Doug Haines.

Five candidates qualified in December to run against incumbent Los Angeles City Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell for his seat representing Council District 13 (CD13), which spans from East Hollywood to Glassell Park. As part of an ongoing series on campaign issues leading up to the March 7th election, we interviewed O’Farrell and his challengers about affordable housing in the district.

Since taking office in 2013, O’Farrell has authored nine motions related to affordable housing, according to a review of his council files, as CD13 has become a hot bed of rising rents and land-use clashes.

The district, of about 250,000 residents, has 80% renters and a majority of them, according to the U.S. Census, are spending well over a comfortable amount of their paycheck on rent.

The district also has an aging housing stock, which keeps some rents low due to rent control, but as a result, has attracted well-heeled developers anxious to do away with these aging duplexes and bungalows for shiny new—and often luxury—housing.

All of it adds up to a crisis.

“I would argue I have done more on this subject…than arguably anyone else,” O’Farrell said in an interview.

But O’Farrell is especially proud of a 2014 motion he co-wrote with Councilmember Jose Huizar, whose district includes downtown Los Angeles.

The policy is called “Value Capture” and would make it city law that developers must build low-income units as part of their projects, or pay into a city affordable housing trust fund in exchange for zoning changes, variances or other exceptions.

The practice, in part, already occurs in the city based on a state law allowing projects to be denser than zoning rules allow in exchange for affordable housing or through case-by-case city approvals, again despite zoning rules, after negotiations with developers. In both cases, some have cried foul that developers’ donations to elected officials tip the scale for the approvals they want.

O’Farrell and Huizar’s motion is still being studied and has not been voted on by the City Council, but O’Farrell said he expects it will be approved.

“We don’t have an ordinance that exists right now,” O’Farrell said. “It’s a pretty ground breaking initiative in that sense.”

But according to Doug Haines, who is one of five candidates running to replace O’Farrell in March, value capture is just a “gimmick” that only will take the community out of the process.

Policies like this, he said, “are tricks to evade the city’s zoning laws. [This is] taking away the ability of the community to challenge any of these projects.”

Haines has been at the forefront of fighting one of O’Farrell’s most controversial projects, a Target store which currently stands half-built in the district at the corner of Sunset Boulevard and Western Avenue.

The development is still embroiled in litigation, mainly over its proposed height, which exceeds zoning rules in the area, but which was approved by the Los Angeles City Council.

“Zoning is a social contract,” he said, “No one gets special privileges.”

Candidate Bill Zide, who has served on both the Hollywood Studio District and East Hollywood neighborhood councils, said O’Farrell’s value capture policy is a good beginning but it does not go far enough.

“It’s a nice idea; it’s a good start,” he said, “but I would want to see real guarantees and guidelines that are all enforceable.”

Zide said he advocates a three-prong approach to the affordable housing issue. The first step, he said, is maintaining the rent-stabilized affordable housing stock already in existence.

According to Zide, Los Angeles is building about 500 units citywide and losing 2,000 rent stabilized units a year.

Causes for that loss include abuses of the Ellis Act—a state law that allows landlords to evict tenants if they want to leave the rental business provided they don’t re-rent the units within five years—and are also “partly due to construction that Mitch approved. They can never catch up,” he said.

He also wants to incentivize developers to build affordable housing and mandate that larger developments provide 15% to 20% of their units for affordable housing.

According to Zide, developers respond to this kind of policy with the argument that it doesn’t “pencil out” for them to create so many affordable units, but the problem with that, he said, is that they never reveal their numbers.

“What they’re really saying is ‘We’re not making as much money as we want to make,’” said Zide.

Finally, Zide wants to ensure data—including population, income and vacancy rates—used to determine development decisions is accurate and based on the specific location of a given project.

For example, Zide said, as the median income in Hollywood and in some areas of CD13 is lower than the median income of other parts of Los Angeles, that gap needs to be reflected in the prices set for affordable housing.

“So the question is what does [the rate] reflect?” said Zide. “Is it truly affordable,” for constituents of the district? “If we’re losing [rent stabilized] units, are we getting units that are a fair replacement?”

Candidate Sylvie Shain, a tenant’s rights activist who entered the race after fighting to stop Ellis Act evictions at the Cherokee Apartments in Hollywood and who faced an Ellis Act eviction as a resident of the area’s Villa Carlotta, is widely respected by her fellow challengers as a seasoned advocate for affordable housing.

Shain said that O’Farrell has failed to make tangible progress addressing the district’s affordable housing crisis since he took office.

Instead, Shain said, O’Farrell and City Hall have focused on delivering rhetorical victories that offer little real relief to district residents.

“It’s like everybody’s starving so they throw a few breadcrumbs of affordable units so that the local leadership can feel good and can hop on the PR train,” Shain said.

According to Shain, a large majority of projects in the district are destroying affordable units, rather than creating them. She criticizes O’Farrell and other city officials for what she calls a “hijacking” of the term “affordable housing.”

New development projects, she said, are touted as victories for low-income renters because they include a handful of affordable units.

But, she said, they often result in a loss of affordable units because the projects require the conversion or demolition of more existing affordable units than they replace.

“There isn’t an effort to really get serious about this, to have a number of different options, to look at each project on a singular basis to really determine if we are giving more [affordable units] than [we are] taking away,” she said.

Challenger Jessica Salans said O’Farrell has not made affordable housing a priority.

“I think what we are facing is an incumbent who has proposed incredibly weak legislation across the board,” she said.

Salans said she intends to fight high rents and overdevelopment to ensure that even the district’s most disadvantaged residents have access to housing.

“We can’t let the market decide what is a basic human right,” she said. “Everybody deserves a home over their head, something sustainable and livable that people can be safe in.”

Salans is pressing for a wider-reaching rent stabilization ordinance and the creation of neighborhood boards with diverse socio-economic membership that could rate proposed development projects.

She said she also wants to work to repeal the Costa-Hawkins Rental Housing Act, which allows landlords to raise rents after a renter leaves to any amount they want and the Ellis Act—two state laws that affordable housing advocates have been fighting for years.

Salans said she wants to go on the offensive with developers as well, holding them accountable to the recently passed Measure JJJ—which requires developers to build more affordable housing if they get exceptions from zoning rules.

Candidate David De la Torre was a founding member of the Elysian Valley Neighborhood Council and is currently chair of the area’s neighborhood watch.

De la Torre said that he thinks O’Farrell’s value capture proposal is good insofar as it would mandate developers to contribute to affordable housing solutions, but disagrees that collected funds should go to a city trust.

“Let’s give it to the communities,” said De la Torre, for example to the Council District in trust of a community or directly to neighborhood established non-profits.

“The city has shown not to be moneywise,” De la Torre said. “I’d rather trust that money being placed with [the] community as it relates to tangible improvements and benefits that they can breathe, touch and appreciate,” he said.

De la Torre said he is also in favor of creative solutions for affordable housing that are “outside the box of traditional housing.”

“Accessory Dwelling Units, best known as backyard homes or ‘granny flats’ are a prime example,” he said. “We need to update the local ordinance to facilitate these housing units which can serve to alleviate the city’s housing needs.”

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