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A roof over their heads

October 31, 2005

MAYOR ANTONIO VILLARAIGOSA'S proposal for a $1-billion city bond measure for affordable housing came as a big surprise this month, even to some of the people who build such housing. It could be a terrific idea. But it needs fleshing out before voters, including the homeowners, landlords and small businesses that would foot most of the bill, can say yes.

There's no disputing the need. The Times' Steve Lopez has shown what happens on skid row, where shelter only starts to solve the problem. The less visible working poor and their families need subsidized apartments that are bigger, cleaner and safer than the fleabag hotels or garages they may occupy now. Teachers, police and other civil servants deserve help in a city where they otherwise can't afford a home.

It's hard to preserve healthy skepticism in the face of such want. But questions need answering.

Foremost, can a housing bond pass, given California's requirement for two-thirds approval by voters? San Francisco passed a $100-million measure in 1996, a time when dot-com optimism was blossoming. Bonds for $200 million more failed narrowly in 2002 and 2004. A statewide housing bond for $2.1 billion passed in 2002, but it was funded from general revenue, not property taxes.

Building-industry backers of an L.A. bond commissioned a poll that found more than 60% of likely voters might approve it, and that the number rises a few points when the bond's purpose is explained. But a poll financed by advocates always has doubts attached. Homeowners already carrying the costs of three big school bonds (and a fourth is on next week's ballot) may be inclined to balk.

Next, who benefits? (Aside, of course, from the people who would gain a roof over their heads, or a better one.) A City Council proposal to require private developers to include affordable units in their projects, as numerous other cities do, failed last year in the face of strong business objections. A successful bond would avoid a bloody rematch. A bond, however, could also preclude alternatives such as charging commercial developers a fee to fund affordable housing. Even if the bond failed, other funding ideas would have lost momentum.

How would it be administered? The money would go, at the rate of $100 million a year, to the city's housing trust fund. Established in 2003, the fund hasn't gotten $100 million a year in the past, but housing advocates say the housing department has still done a good job of funding and monitoring its projects. But in 10 years, when the bond would be used up, would there be any will to keep the trust fund going?

Villaraigosa deserves credit for seeing the depth of need in Los Angeles. It's understandable that he doesn't want to pick a fight with developers and businesses if there's a way around it. But he needs to give this idea a thorough airing before deciding that a housing bond is the right (and only) remedy.

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