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LA affordable housing initiative appears headed to November ballot

Everyone agrees housing has gotten too expensive in Los Angeles, but how to solve the problem? On that, there’s a lot less consensus.
File photo by GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP/Getty Images
Everyone agrees housing has gotten too expensive in Los Angeles, but how to solve the problem? On that, there’s a lot less consensus.

In November, Los Angeles voters will likely be asked whether to approve a labor-backed initiative which aims to build more affordable housing and require more construction jobs to be filled by local workers.

Supporters said they submitted almost a hundred thousand signatures Monday morning to the city clerk, considerably more than the 62,000 signatures required. 

"Voters in Los Angeles will soon not only get the opportunity to vote on the future of our country, but they will vote on an initiative that brings housing people can actually afford and good, local jobs they could rely on," said Rusty Hicks, executive secretary-treasurer of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, in a written statement.

Known as the "Build Better L.A. initiative," it would force developers to build a certain amount of affordable housing if their project is bigger than what’s allowed by the city zoning code, something that happens now on an ad hoc basis.

“It would ensure that when a developer gets a zone change from the city – which creates a lot of value for the developer – they return some of that value to the community,” said Laura Raymond, campaign director for the Alliance for Community Transit-Los Angeles and a member of the Build Better L.A. Coalition.

However, Gary L. Toebben, president & CEO of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, says if the city requires builders to provide below-market rate rents, they’ll make less on the project as a whole. To recoup that, they’ll likely charge their market-rate tenants more, which will hurt middle class residents of the city who do not qualify for affordable housing. 

“This is not an incentive," said Toeben. "This is hold a gun to your head.”

Toebben warns that if the initiative passes, developers may not want to build in Los Angeles at all because their profit margins would be slim to non-existent, so housing would become even more scarce than it is now.

“We not do think adding a penalty or a fee to existing housing being built is the right way to go,” he said.

Though business and labor groups diverge on this measure, they both oppose another initiative that could be on the ballot in 2017 called the “The Neighborhood Integrity Initiative." That idea is backed by the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, and calls for a two-year moratorium on big housing projects that exceed city zoning regulations.

Lawmakers are also grappling with the housing shortage, which is being felt far beyond Los Angeles. Last week, Governor Jerry Brown said the key to creating more affordable housing statewide is to incentivize developers who build housing for low-income residents. Brown said he'd back state legislation that fast-tracks the permitting process for those developers.