A2005 state law requires California cities to offer special incentives for developers to increase the supply of affordable housing. At its worst, the law known as SB 1818 can subvert local zoning codes and upend neighborhoods, pushing out longtime residents in the name of constructing luxury high-rises, with a few affordable units thrown in. At its best, it can carefully channel development pressure while keeping the character of existing neighborhoods intact.
The SB 1818 ordinance before the City Council today comes closer to the second scenario. Although not perfect, it is a useful and carefully crafted ordinance that entices builders to construct affordable units. It is the city's best bet for expanding the stock of affordable housing during the current economic slump.
Earlier versions changed the economics of construction, as intended, but also threatened to plunge existing neighborhoods into the shadows of new, higher complexes. Months of discussion and compromise have reduced this concern by mandating separations between housing on low-rise streets and the hoped-for higher apartment buildings. Design guidelines prevent blocky developments built out to the property lines or higher structures turning blank, windowless walls on their neighbors. Historic preservation zones are protected.
That is not to say that nothing will change. Los Angeles already is becoming denser, and its SB 1818 ordinance will move that process along even as it adds some wisdom to the economic forces that are packing more people into the city. But in passing the ordinance, the council must understand that it is trying the patience of residents who have put time and energy into creating specific plans and other community protections that, they were told, would prevent some of the changes the SB 1818 law will bring. The approach of some city officials has been to give ordinances like this one as little publicity as possible, in the hope of sneaking them into the books without anyone noticing.