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L.A. Trust Fund Is a Good Foundation for Affordable Housing

November 14, 2002|Mike Feuer | Former L.A. City Council member Mike Feuer was the chair of Mayor James K. Hahn's Housing Trust Fund Advisory Committee. He is an attorney in Los Angeles.

With a $42-million trust fund this year -- increasing to $100 million in two years -- Los Angeles at last is poised to devote meaningful resources to combating our affordable-housing crisis.

Yet even a sum this size will just begin to make an impact on an emergency that has been building for decades. To make this money count, city leaders must direct the lion's share to our greatest need: creating as much new housing as possible, swiftly and cost-effectively.

This seemingly benign proposal will test city leaders' political courage, discipline and capacity to educate and inspire L.A.'s communities. Some powerful homeowners groups, for example, have routinely opposed locating multiple-unit housing in their neighborhoods -- especially housing affordable to seniors struggling on fixed incomes or families who cannot pay skyrocketing market rates.

I recall vividly one extended skirmish I had as a City Council member with a homeowners association over an affordable senior housing development. The building is now built, occupied and noncontroversial. But it was fought, tooth and nail, by well- organized opponents who (as I was reminded often) vote.

They claimed to be concerned over the "density bonus" at issue: more units on site than had been approved years before for a market-rate condominium, although the building itself would be smaller than allowed. In a dynamic that plays out throughout the city, the naysayers were vocal, visible and unmoved by data underscoring the need for the development and its lack of negative effect on their quality of life. Conspicuous supporters were harder to come by. Potential tenants, for example, don't always realize they have a stake in a building that might never be constructed.

L.A. neighborhoods, and the officials who serve them, must learn to say yes to such developments. It is essential that officials educate communities on the positive contributions such projects make. Otherwise, the housing gap between the well-to-do and working-class families will become a chasm.

The cold reality is that we live in a city where, according to the 2000 U.S. census, more than 370,000 housing units are overcrowded, 100,000 units are severely overcrowded and tens of thousands of residents live in garages. L.A. needs 60,000 more housing units by 2005.

Facts like these led housing experts -- who were convened by Mayor James K. Hahn to advise him on the trust fund -- to place top priority on building more affordable rental units. This committee felt strongly that the fund's effect would dissipate if officials failed to concentrate on this and a short list of other, secondary goals, including preserving the affordability of existing housing whose subsidies are threatened and easing first-time home purchases for workers in needed professions such as nursing, teaching and public safety.

The committee's recommendation to focus the fund's resources could precipitate battles on other fronts too. Some may instead want to devote much of the fund to repairing existing units or to tenants on the verge of eviction through no fault of their own. These are worthy goals. And it's sometimes easier for officials to attempt to satisfy multiple constituencies by sprinkling small amounts of money in different directions. They must resist that temptation here.

The money will be well spent only if most of it leverages other public and private dollars. That means that L.A.'s trust fund should meet or exceed the national average for similar programs: Nationwide, $1 allocated by housing trust funds results in an additional $7 for housing from sources ranging from tax credits to conventional financing.

The mayor and City Council have infused more money into a municipal housing trust fund than leaders in any other city in the nation. Last week, California voters passed a $2-billion statewide housing bond measure. Handled properly, this could be a defining moment for a city finally coming to grips with a housing crisis that threatens our economy, transportation system and basic quality of life.

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