Will LA start building public housing again?
Proposed legislation calls on city staffers to study European models for social housing and how they might be brought to Los Angeles
Government-owned housing that would serve a mix of incomes could help LA crawl out of its deepening affordability crisis, says Los Angeles City Councilmember Mike Bonin, who announced a broad package of housing legislation at City Hall today.
The Westside councilmember introduced what he’s billing as a local version of the “Homes Guarantee,” a national platform advanced by progressive housing advocates and Democratic Socialists to make housing a right.
“We need to be, in Los Angeles, treating housing as a human right, not as something to be traded,” Bonin said this morning, speaking with a coalition of about two dozen activists outside City Hall.
Bonin’s package includes a measure that calls on city staffers to research European models for social housing and how they might be brought to Los Angeles. It suggests several potential funding streams, including new taxes on house-flipping and out-of-state real estate transactions.
He blamed the real estate market for the city’s 36,300-person homeless population, calling the crisis a “predictable result” of a system that regards houses as a gold mine “rather than as something to live in.”
His proposals also include rejiggering how much rent can go up in rent-controlled apartments each year and requiring limited liability companies to disclose the names of individuals involved in the purchase or sale of a property.
The Homes Guarantee plan has the support of several local groups, including Strategic Actions for a Just Economy, LA Forward, and ACT-LA.
“Our city’s homelessness and housing affordability crisis demands bold policies, including public investment in social housing that guarantees all families have a roof over their head,” ACT-LA director Laura Raymond said in a statement.
Bonin says the current U.S. model for public housing is flawed. He envisions buildings that avoid concentrating poverty in one area by serving mixed incomes—with tenants paying rents on a “sliding scale”—and locating homes near public transit with access to amenities and shops.
With a sliding scale, you’d pay “what you can afford at the moment,” says David Levitus, executive director of LA Forward, which has been pushing for a social housing model like this in Los Angeles. “That way, people who have done well in life and who have good-paying jobs are helping to pay the costs, and if you lose your job and your income goes down... you’re paying less.”
That would be a radical departure from how the city has handled building affordable housing.
Los Angeles already owns 14 large public housing developments, most of which are located in South LA, with a few in Boyle Heights, Chinatown, Pacoima, and San Pedro. Most were built in the 1940s. They hold 6,518 units combined and are only available to tenants who earn up to $58,450 (the limit is higher for families). Rent payments are partially subsidized by the federal government.
As of last year, according to the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles, there were 45,384 people on the waiting list for public housing.
Right now, the city is on an affordable housing building blitz, thanks to a voter-approved, $1.2 billion bond initiative to help pay for the construction of 10,000 units of affordable and permanent supportive housing. Most of those units are being set aside for formerly homeless residents and come equipped with on-site services.
The first affordable apartments financed under that ballot measure opened in January, three years after the initiative passed.
Bonin’s proposal doesn’t address the hurdles that are currently preventing more affordable housing from being built in Los Angeles: high construction costs, lots of red tape, and zoning that favors single-family homes.
Social housing could, however, address one of the biggest problems facing LA’s affordable housing stock: It doesn’t stay permanent forever.
Affordable housing developers typically leverage public financing like Measure HHH with private financing, and under agreements with the government, agree to make some or all of the units they’re building affordable for a certain amount of time, typically 30 or 55 years. Once that time is up, the apartments become market-rate.
In Los Angeles County, 5,256 affordable homes converted to market-rate between 1997 and 2018, according to the California Housing Partnership. The partnership estimates that another 12,121 affordable homes are currently at risk of converting to market-rate in LA.
For Bonin’s proposals to move forward, they’ll needed to be vetted by City Council committees and then the full City Council.