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Partnerships, Solutions Sought in Advocates' Fight for Affordable Homes

Social policy: Augmenting city's nearly empty housing trust fund is deemed an urgent need.

February 24, 2001|DIANE WEDNER and JENNIFER OLDHAM | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Housing advocates met with Los Angeles business leaders Friday to ask the private sector to help form financial partnerships and devise solutions to the state's worsening affordable housing crisis.

The meeting is part of an effort by Los Angeles officials, nonprofits, community groups and local businesses to form a united front to address one of the most pressing problems facing Southern California.

The most urgent need, participants said, is to augment a $5-million housing trust fund created last year by Los Angeles city officials. The fund was a key recommendation of the city's Housing Crisis Task Force, a group of nonprofits, community leaders and lawmakers who issued a report last spring titled "In Short Supply."

Until recently, the city of Los Angeles spent little from its general fund on housing, compared with other major U.S. cities, including New York, Chicago and Denver. New York, for example, allocated $265 million out of its general fund last year for housing, while Los Angeles set aside only $5 million to subsidize housing.

"We've had 16 years in the desert when we weren't spending anything," said Peter Dreier, a professor of public policy at Occidental College. "We have a lot to fill in."

The city's housing trust fund is, in fact, nearly empty. Participants recommended that for funding ideas, Los Angeles look to cities such as Boston, which required commercial developers to pay fees into a city housing trust.

Combined efforts at the state and local levels are needed to combat the economic impact of spiraling home prices, tight inventory and a dearth of low- and moderate-income housing. California lawmakers allocated $500 million from the budget surplus last year to ease the state's housing woes, a one-time infusion of funds that some experts say is only a start.

As cities grapple with resurging anti-growth sentiment, housing experts are urging the creation of a grass-roots movement in Southern California, in which developers, business leaders, environmentalists and neighborhood groups work together to fight for approval for affordable housing.

One way to do so, conference members said, is to confront old assumptions about affordable housing. Misconceptions about the quality of multifamily housing construction and design, who occupies the units and the default rate on financing historically have contributed to the failure to get these units approved.

Many affordable-housing complexes are built on par with market-rate units, and tenant selection is quite rigorous, according to Tony Salazar, an executive vice president of McCormack, Baron & Associates, a company that specializes in redeveloping urban neighborhoods.

"There's no difference between a unit occupied by someone making $200,000 a year or someone making $10,000 a year," Salazar said of his developments.

Mixed-income housing is sorely needed in Southern California, where construction workers are sometimes forced to live in their trucks and physicians have turned down jobs at Kaiser Permanente, one of the state's largest employers, because they found the cost of housing too high.

"I think the private sector has to be involved," said Leland Wong, director of government and community relations for Kaiser Permanente's California division. "We have a stake in this."

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