Op-Ed: California Must Pass Housing Legislation To Give Our Generation A Chance

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(Photo by Bruce Evans via the Flickr Creative Commons)

By Adam Sieff

Los Angeles County has one of the tightest housing markets in the country, and by some measures, the most inequitable. Economic growth and better urban infrastructure has made Los Angeles an attractive destination for job-seekers and immigrants, as well as wealthy foreign investors and traders looking for a stable place to re-invest American currency. But this increase in housing demand has not been matched by a commensurate increase in supply. As a result, prices have soared. Fully one-third of Angelenos fork over half their income for housing, as do more than 50 percent of the poorest among us. Meanwhile, the federal government considers anyone paying more than 30 percent of their income for housing “cost burdened”—meaning they may struggle to afford food and clothing, among other basic prerequisites to simply staying alive and living with dignity. The sheer volume of visible humanity left to fend out on L.A.’s streets and underpasses is evidence, and an indictment, of the crisis.

The 58,000 homeless men and women of Los Angeles are the most acute victims of current housing conditions, and they deserve our most immediate support. But perhaps no other demographic suffers more from extortionate rents and prohibitively expensive home prices than young people. The Census Bureau estimates that fully-employed young people today earn 6 percent less in real dollars than the same age group earned in 1980, and 10 percent less than that corresponding group earned in 2000. This decrease in real wages combined with exploding housing costs leaves little opportunity for Angelenos under 35 to save, pay down debt, build wealth, or merely make a life in Los Angeles.

As a board member for the L.A. County Young Democrats, I hear this every week from our members: a social worker moves to San Bernardino and swallows a two-hour commute; two software engineers move their startup to Portland so they can grow; lawyers making six-figures consider moving to Texas because homeownership is a realistic near-term possibility. And all these people have graduate degrees—for the majority of people who don’t have any post-secondary education, the stories only get worse. It is no wonder that finding affordable housing is consistently identified as our membership’s most pressing concern. Even people who don’t usually pay attention to politics are demanding action. The pro-housing vote is real, it is frustrated, and it is growing.

That is why L.A.’s representatives to the state legislature must act on a package of critical housing legislation currently pending before them.

There are essentially two ways to make housing more affordable, and the legislative package we endorsed includes measures aimed at both. The first is to roll-back zoning restrictions and limit land use decisions that artificially depress the housing supply below actual demand and drive up prices as a result. Any housing policy that fails to boost supply inevitably ends in displacement. There is simply no level of subsidy or regulation that can make a desirable place to live affordable to everyone who wants to live there unless we build enough housing to accommodate demand.

California law already requires cities and municipalities to project the number of housing units they will need to build to meet anticipated growth. Under Senate Bill 35, residential projects proposed for cities that have failed to meet those targets would get to bypass costly land use reviews that stymie supply and often lead to litigation. These rules are strategically abused to raise construction costs beyond the point where a homebuilder can earn a return on its investment. The goal is to shut down the project before it can even begin, and the end result is typically either no new housing units, or unaffordable luxury units whose rents are high enough to recoup the increased costs of the review. Although not a perfect solution—SB 35 would only streamline projects that conform to existing zoned densities, and only up to the point of the growth projection—the bill is projected to produce thousands of new housing units a year. This is exactly the kind of action we should pursue, even if not to the degree we need.

The second strategy involves increasing subsidies to make existing housing stock more affordable to more people. This is what existing affordable housing policy principally attempts to do. The problem is that the money is drying up from federal sequestration and the repeal of California’s community redevelopment program. Senate Bills 2 and 3 would help restore consistent funding by issuing a housing bond (debt is cheap because of still-historically low interest rates and California’s improved credit risk) and by assessing a small fee (typically $75) on select real estate transactions. While affordable housing subsidies might eventually be better used to help people build equity rather than avoid eviction, boosting statewide affordable housing funds will help young people afford cities like Los Angeles by developing or maintaining thousands of dedicated-affordable units.

Young Angelenos are asking for a chance, not a handout; a fair shot to build a life here, not a guarantee that we’ll succeed. Youthful ambition has delivered scores to our city for decades on the promise of the possibilities that lie at the New World’s edge. It delivers them still. Either our elected leaders will act to make space for my generation to gain a foothold here, or they will let us be priced out to places that will. At a time when millennials are driving innovation, consumption, and economic growth more than any other generation, that is an outcome Los Angeles cannot afford. In the meantime, we are paying attention—and yes, we vote.

Adam Sieff is an attorney in Los Angeles. He is a board member of the L.A. County Young Democrats.