The most important decision Los Angeles voters will make on March 7th is whether to support or oppose Measure S, a slow-growth, anti-development ballot measure cloaked in the language of government reform. It may be tempting to vote yes because the measure is superficially appealing and speaks to many real problems facing Los Angeles. But in fact it’s not a solution; it’s just a way for voters to give a big middle finger to the pols at City Hall and the powerful, high-rolling real estate developers who bankroll them. And while that might feel good on election day, it will unleash a series of consequences — intended and unintended — that will hurt Los Angeles in the long run by worsening the city’s housing crisis and stifling economic development.
Measure S is aimed at the many Angelenos who are concerned that L.A. is becoming too tall and too dense and who blame elected officials for ignoring the impacts new development could have on traffic, parks and neighborhood character. In many cases, they worry, the politicians are simply doing the bidding of wealthy developers in return for campaign contributions.
These are legitimate concerns. City leaders have consistently failed to modernize the General Plan, the city’s master planning document that hasn't been updated in 20 years, and have stalled efforts to update the city's 35 community plans, which set the goals and rules for development in a neighborhood. Because the plans are too old to reflect what neighborhoods currently want and need, or what the housing market demands, building projects are too often considered on a case-by-case basis, with individual council members dictating what's appropriate on a particular site and granting zoning changes and General Plan amendments.
If Measure S had simply mandated that the City Council and mayor finally update the General Plan and the community plans, and if it had required regular updates going forward, The Times Editorial Board would have wholeheartedly endorsed it. If the measure had also barred developers from hiring their own consultants to produce traffic studies and environmental impact reports, we’d have said, “Sure, that sounds like a way to ensure unbiased analysis.” If the measure had aimed to put some reasonable constraints on the City Council’s ability to engage in “spot zoning” or to change the land use of a single piece of property at a developer’s request, we would have been open to that, too.
Measure S does all those things. But its proponents were not content to stop there. Instead, they added an unreasonable and irresponsible two-year moratorium on all real estate projects that require a General Plan amendment, zone change or increase in allowable height. In addition, Measure S would enact a permanent ban on General Plan amendments for any property less than 15 acres.
Why is that unreasonable? Because the existing city’s land-use plans are so out of date and so riddled with inconsistencies that it’s not unusual to need a zone change to build a simple apartment building in a row of existing apartment buildings. Of course, updating the plans will help but that will take at least six years and possibly more. In the meantime, Measure S would block the construction of new and much-needed housing — both market rate and affordable.
Los Angeles is in the midst of a severe housing crisis because over decades, housing construction has not kept up with population growth. That’s why the city currently has an apartment vacancy rate of less than 3%, a record low, and why rents have skyrocketed. Roughly one in three renters spends more than half their income on rent, leaving little money for food, healthcare, education or savings. Measure S would worsen the housing shortage.
Some proponents of Measure S have said it will discourage gentrification and protect residents threatened with displacement. But that’s not true. The measure would do nothing to create more affordable housing or to protect existing affordable housing. In fact, Measure S will make it nearly impossible to convert a parking lot, a defunct public building or a strip mall into housing — those are all changes that would require a General Plan amendment, zone change or height increase.
Building on underused sites is the best way to create more housing without displacing existing residents. One analysis of General Plan amendments proposed in 2015 found that the projects would create 6,000 units of housing while displacing just six existing units. Without the ability to seek land-use changes, real estate investors will likely turn to existing residential properties. That means small, often rent-stabilized apartments could be converted to condominiums (a trend that led to thousands of evictions a decade ago) or could be demolished to make way for larger projects. That means more displacement. Not less.
In addition, Measure S would make it harder to address homelessness. Just three months ago, L.A. voters passed Measure HHH to build 10,000 units of low-income and permanent supportive housing for the homeless. But the city’s first plans under the bond measure — to build several hundred units of housing on the sites of old fire stations, an animal shelter and other city-owned properties — would be blocked by Measure S because the projects would require General Plan amendments. Future proposals would no doubt face similar obstacles.
Measure S would also stifle economic development in communities that want the investment. In the Exposition Park neighborhood, for instance, residents were promised that the old Bethune Library site would be turned into an affordable housing complex with a grocery store. The city began looking for a new partner to develop the land last year, but the project would be blocked by Measure S because it requires a General Plan amendment.
In Panorama City, community leaders want to revitalize their commercial corridor, but the Measure S moratorium would block efforts to convert vast surface parking lots into shops and apartments. And an ambitious plan to turn the struggling Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza into an “urban village” with new shops, condominiums, apartments, offices and a hotel could be stalled by the moratorium because the project needs a zone change.
To their credit, the proponents of Measure S have already forced the City Council and Mayor Eric Garcetti to get serious about reforming the city’s broken land-use process. Last week, the council voted to develop an ordinance mandating community plan updates every six years. That’s stricter than Measure S, which calls for a review every five years along with “possible updating" of the community plans.
Many residents are understandably anxious about increasing urbanization, about gentrification and displacement, about the crisis of homelessness, about development and livability and traffic — and what it will be like to live in Los Angeles 25 or 50 years from now. These are challenges that can’t be fixed by ballot box planning. It will take work on the part of residents, builders, businesses and the city’s elected leaders to develop and implement a plan for how to add more housing while preserving neighborhood character, including ethnic and income diversity.
Don’t be swayed by the misleading promises of Measure S. Don’t hold hostage badly needed housing with this overly broad ballot measure.