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A foundation, at least

October 01, 2008

It is easy -- too easy -- to be underwhelmed by the housing plan released this week by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. Much of it we have seen before: streamline the development process, encourage denser housing near transit stops, build permanent supportive housing to get the chronically homeless off the streets. Great ideas, if only they would be fully implemented. Even controversial elements such as "mixed-income housing" -- a mandate that all new developments include "affordable" units -- come with few particulars and leave the nuts-and-bolts discussions for later.

But the mayor's "Housing That Works" is one of those few programs that are more revealing from a distance than in the details. It represents the first time that Los Angeles has pooled its many housing programs and funds, analyzed them and produced a comprehensive, if still sketchy, plan for making the most of its resources.

Previously, the Housing Department and the Housing Authority might squabble over the same dollars. The Planning Department would go one way, the Community Redevelopment Agency the other. Leaders of the agencies were notorious for their backbiting. The city has been a headache to deal with for private and public grant-makers who wanted to help solve the housing shortage but often gave up after being snagged one time too many in the bureaucratic shuffle.

Say it has taken too long (it has). Say the City Hall mentality should never have been allowed to get so bad in the first place (it shouldn't have). The point is that Villaraigosa has put together a $5-billion capital plan that puts housing resources into a single budget and allows the city to forecast its housing needs, and its ability to meet them, over the next five years.

That allows the housing finance and development industries to have more confidence in the city's work. And there should be no doubt that such work is needed, even now -- especially now -- that foreclosures are emptying whole streets of their residents. The city can and should stabilize neighborhoods by buying, rehabilitating and reselling -- often at affordable prices -- the vacant homes, and by encouraging builders and owners to increase the supply of rental units near major transit stops.

The challenge -- or one of them, anyway -- is to do this while enhancing the quality of life in the affected neighborhoods. That's easier said than done, and it requires Villaraigosa's new housing Cabinet to solicit, and listen to, community input in the planning process. Now, bring on the details.

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