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Measure S: The Los Angeles luxury housing debate

The Vermont, at Wilshire and Vermont in Koreatown, is an all-luxury apartment building with more than 400 units.
Leo Duran/KPCC
The Vermont, at Wilshire and Vermont in Koreatown, is an all-luxury apartment building with more than 400 units.

Measure S supporters say it will stabilize rents. Opponents say it will raise rents.

Well, which is it?

The impact Measure S will have on housing affordability in Los Angeles continues to be a leading point of contention as a vote approaches on March 7.

Measure S would, among other things, put a two-year moratorium on real estate projects in the city of L.A., which require changing what the land is currently zoned for, often because the developer wants to build bigger or higher.

If passed, Measure S is expected to temporarily stop development projects, including the construction of thousands of pricey new apartments – the type going up in desired neighborhoods in Hollywood and downtown.

Michael Weinstein, who heads the Measure S campaign, said slowing the expansion of luxury housing will help lower-income residents.

As the president of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation in Hollywood, Weinstein said many of his clients can no longer afford to live in Los Angeles because the new housing is out of their reach, and new luxury buildings drive up the rents in nearby buildings.

"Whenever you gentrify by building luxury towers, the lesser units around it go up in price," said Weinstein, citing his experience of living in New York. "They don’t go down in price."

But opponents of Measure S disagree. Mark Vallianatos of the group Abundant Housing LA advocates for development projects at all price points. He said if you stop building new units, supply can’t meet demand. That means low and middle-income earners become forced to compete with the wealthy over whatever existing housing is available.

The affluent "are going to bid up the price of existing apartments, condos, existing single-family homes," Vallianatos said. "That’s what we’ve seen happen in Los Angeles over the past decade."

The newest housing isn’t anything the average renter can afford today. But Vallianatos said it will be eventually – likely 25 years from now, when it’s no longer new.

Vallianatos said new construction can't be the only solution to the city's housing woes. He said the city needs to invest in affordably-priced housing and provide rental subsidies to low-income residents so they're able to find homes at market-rate prices.

Measure S supporters agree that the city needs more affordable housing. But they blame market-rate housing developers for the diminishing number of affordable units. More than 20,000 rent-controlled units have been taken off the market over the last two decades. Landlords can evict tenants from rent-regulated apartments if they meet certain criteria under a state law called the Ellis Act.    

But Measure S opponents say the initiative would do little to protect rent-controlled units. An analysis of Ellis Act evictions between 2011 and 2015 by the Los Angeles Times backs up that assertion, finding that Measure S wouldn't have been able to stop roughly 90 percent of the developments that replaced the rent-controlled buildings.