Los Angeles voters next week will consider the largest municipal housing bond in U.S. history, a $1-billion package that promises both to boost the supply of increasingly scarce affordable housing and force the city to rethink 60 years of land-use policy.
Measure H, which is backed by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa as well as some of the city's biggest developers, would create an estimated 10,000 affordable housing rental units, increasing the total number of such dwellings in Los Angeles by about 13%.
The bond, which requires a two-thirds majority and would add $50 to $60 to the average homeowner's yearly property tax bill, also would provide financial assistance to qualified home buyers.
Measure H comes at a time when housing prices have become a potent political issue. The average rent in the city has nearly doubled in the last 12 years and now hovers around $1,700 -- out of the range of most working-class Angelenos.
And though the city has made some progress in building low-income housing over the last decade, it has been largely offset by gentrification and rising home values. A recent study by the Southern California Assn. of Non-Profit Housing found that 12,800 affordable rental units had been built using city money since 2001, but 11,000 existing rent-controlled apartments were either torn down or converted to condominiums during the same period.
The city uses a complex formula to determine who is eligible for affordable housing units. A household qualifies now if it earns less than $44,960 a year.
Villaraigosa and others say Measure H represents an unprecedented effort to deal with what they consider a housing crisis.
Some neighborhood activists in the San Fernando Valley and elsewhere have come out against Measure H. Most opponents say that it would unfairly burden property owners and that the city should not tax homeowners to build affordable housing. They also fear that new affordable units would add density to single-family neighborhoods.
But to some urban planners, passage of Measure H also would force Los Angeles to confront larger questions: Where should housing be built, and how dense should it be?
They say it would place two competing forces that have long dominated land-use policy in Los Angeles on a collision course: the need for more housing to keep up with the growing population and the desire of residents to keep their neighborhoods free of new development.
Measure H would suddenly give developers a hefty community chest with which to build affordable housing. But they would face the same hurdles -- city zoning laws that make it difficult to build dense multi-unit dwellings in large swaths of the city, and the expected community opposition -- that have long stymied efforts to increase the city's affordable housing stock.
"This illustrates the gap between housing policy and planning policy," said Michael Woo, a city planning commissioner and former City Council member. "It's being treated as a housing issue without thinking how it affects the physical development of the city."
Some planners worry that if the city doesn't change its zoning rules, the bulk of Measure H's money would end up being spent in the same few neighborhoods where affordable housing projects are generally accepted without much opposition.
There is a geographic imbalance when it comes to where city funds help building affordable housing: About 82% of those units are in just five of 13 council districts that cover downtown, northeast Los Angeles, South Los Angeles and the Hollywood area. Only about 15% of the units are in the San Fernando Valley.
JoAnne Yokota, executive director of Beyond Shelter Housing Development Corp., said rising costs for buying land and construction have become a major impediment to developing affordable housing in Los Angeles. Beyond Shelter, which has completed about 600 affordable units since 1992, now estimates that it costs about $300,000 to build one such unit.
Until recently, the biggest problem Beyond Shelter faced was opposition from residents who didn't want an affordable housing complex near their homes.
But recently, Yokota said, she and her colleagues find themselves competing against condo developers in areas of town where just a few years ago affordable housing developers had no problem acquiring land, including Koreatown, the MacArthur Park area and downtown.
"Every landowner thinks their property is worth more," Yokota said. "That adds to the cost, which means you have fewer projects that can be built and financed through these programs because the money doesn't go as far. Every little cost adds up to something."
Since taking office last year, Villaraigosa has spoken often about his vision of a denser and more vertical Los Angeles -- with apartment towers lining commuter rail lines and struggling neighborhoods coming back to life by converting old industrial and office buildings into homes.