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With focus on minimum wage, Los Angeles leaders slow to tackle affordable housing challenges

Finding affordable apartments is tough in Los Angeles, especially with its 2.7 percent vacancy rate.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
While other big cities announce major initiatives to tackle affordable housing, Los Angeles is still debating what it can do to provide housing for the city's poorest residents.

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio recently announced a 10-year plan to build 200,000 affordable housing units. In San Francisco, voters approved a ballot measure to build or refurbish 10,000 affordable units by 2020.

But in Los Angeles — by some measures the least affordable big city in America — there is no concrete plan on how to increase housing for low-income residents. The mayor has been all but silent on the issue, and city council members haven't taken steps to fix it either.

“I think the lack of affordable housing is the largest issue facing the city of Los Angeles,” Councilman Mitch O’Farrell, who represents the Hollywood area, said in an interview.

For more than a decade, housing advocates relied on Los Angeles' Affordable Housing Trust Fund to help build low-income housing. 

The fund, which was created in 2000, has been decimated, dropping from $108 million in 2008 to an estimated $19 million this year, according to the city Housing Department.

That's in part because money from the federal Housing and Urban Development Department dropped from $54 million in 2008 to an estimated $19 million this year. 

The fund's other source of money, the Community Redevelopment Agency, completely dried up in 2011, when Gov. Jerry Brown disbanded CRAs. The city still gets those tax dollars, but because they're not earmarked, O'Farrell said they're just going into the general fund.

“It’s been bad for the city in that we now are contributing zero dollars to the Affordable Housing Trust Fund," he said. "We have effectively gotten out of the game of providing revenue to build affordable housing in Los Angeles."

O'Farrell and Councilmen Felipe Fuentes and Gil Cedillo have proposed a solution: direct funds from old CRA districts into the Affordable Housing Trust Fund.

Other California cities, including San Francisco, Oakland and Santa Clara County are looking at the same thing. The money, which come from property taxes, are now called "boomerang funds."

But using those funds for affordable housing is just one piece of the pie, Fuentes said. 

"They’re a good step, but they’re not the silver bullet,” he said. Fuentes wants to tack on fees to developers to help fund affordable housing or change zoning rules to require affordable units.

The Los Angeles City Council’s Housing Committee is expected to discuss the funding issue in January.

"It is really the conversation that Los Angeles needs to have about what it’s going to be as it continues to grow," Fuentes said.

Housing does not appear to be a priority for Mayor Eric Garcetti. Last fall, he gave a speech on housing in which he called for building 100,000 new units by 2021, a breakneck pace of construction given trends over the past 25 years.

“There’s nothing more fundamental to our families and our neighborhoods than a home,” Garcetti said.

But the mayor’s office hasn’t provided any concrete details on how to do that. Instead, even in that speech, the mayor linked housing to his proposal on wages. He said attracting more middle class jobs and increasing the minimum wage to $13.25 per hour will make housing more affordable.

“If we pass this, this will allow more people to live their American Dream here in L.A.," he said.  "Those workers support overall with themselves a million people in this city who could be lifted out of poverty by work that we put together. That means they’ll have money left over after paying their rent.”

But based on data from the U.S. Census, a tenant would have to earn at least $23 an hour to afford the average apartment in the city of Los Angeles (the figure for Los Angeles County is $33 an hour, according to the California Housing Partnership).

Garcetti declined to be interviewed for this story.

Raphael Bostic at USC's Price School of Public Policy said it'll take the city years to build its way out of the problem.

“If we dropped 50-80,000 units in Los Angeles tomorrow we would be more at par in terms of a supply demand imbalance," he said. "It will take more than a decade for us to get that kind of supply online here."

But he said City Hall’s lack of consensus on housing may reflect a larger trend. When he polls residents, Bostic said they're dissatisfied with officials' progress on affordable housing. But it's not their biggest gripe.

“Traffic is something they worry about. The condition of the roads is something they worry about. Infrastructure and jobs are things that they worry about," he said. "Housing ... you know, it’s always seventh or eighth on the list."