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Why That Terrible NIMBY Ballot Measure Would Be A 'Horror Show' For Housing In L.A.

(Photo by Sandy Gonzalez via the LAist Featured Photos pool on Flickr)
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Editor's Note: As of December 2016, the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative is known as Measure S.

New poll data shows that the controversial Neighborhood Integrity Initiative ballot measure likely won't pass in March 2017. We'll get into the details, but first, a quick recap for those who haven't been following this particular fight.

The Neighborhood Integrity Initiative, a wolf-in-sheep's-clothes of a ballot measure likely to appear before voters in March 2017, positions itself as being about preserving Los Angeles from the dangers of overdevelopment, but what it would really do is freeze all development in the city for the next two years. More specifically, the NII would place a citywide two-year moratorium on any projects that require a zoning change, and permanently prohibit any projects that require amendments to L.A.'s General Plan. Not giving exemptions, that sounds reasonable right?

Here's the problem: LA's planning process is fundamentally, painfully out of date (all but six of the city's 35 community plans, which make up part of the General Plan, are more than 15 years old), which means that almost every major project ends up needing exemptions of some kind, given how archaic the guidelines are. Mayor Eric Garcetti and City Council called on the City's Planning Department to revise those guidelines earlier this year, though that process likely won't be completed until 2026. That's the one thing the NII gets right—that we desperately need to update those plans, and the ballot measure would call for them to be updated within a two-year period, but putting the city on ice for two years is far too high a price to pay.

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Earlier this month, the initiative's backers announced a slew of celebrity supporters (who knew, apparently NIMBY sprawl is the only thing Leonardo DiCaprio likes more than girls born in 1992! #yolo) and tried some hostage negotiation tactics with Mayor Eric Garcetti, offering to dump their campaign if he met a list of demands within a week. He did not, and they did not. So the battle continues.

On Monday, opponents of the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative released new polling data showing that (at least by their count, and that of polling firm Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin, Metz & Associates) the NII likely won't pass on the March 2017 ballot.

Their poll, which was conducted in May 2016 using simulated ballot language based on the NII petition, drew the support of only 37% of likely March 2017 voters, with 44% opposed and 19% undecided. While that information should be comforting given our thoughts on the NII and its potential effects, we'd like to remind our readers that approximately 12 people vote in our March elections (just kidding, but unfortunately not by that much: last year's March election saw a dismal turnout rate of 8.6%), so this thing could still totally pass. And you should be really scared about that possibility.

As even our most out-of-touch citizens surely know, L.A. is in the middle of a serious housing crisis at the moment, and it's in this context that the potential effects of the NII get Halloween-level terrifying.

"We feel that this measure is going to be really devastating for affordable housing," Anne Miskey, CEO of the Downtown Women's Center, told LAist.

"A moratorium on projects would be bad for prices, I think unquestionably."

"The lack of housing in Los Angeles is the main reason we have so many people living on the streets and in shelters. We have almost 15,000 women in the county experiencing homelessness and this measure is just going to make it impossible for them to find homes. We need to have more housing, not less," Miskey said, adding that there was "a broad coalition" within the affordable housing and homelessness services provider communities "that says this is just the wrong way to approach this."

According to Paavo Monkkonen, a housing scholar and Urban Planning professor at UCLA, a larger housing supply isn't necessarily going to lead to a drop in prices, "but the increase is going to be lower than it would be otherwise."

"A moratorium on projects would be bad for prices, I think unquestionably," Monkkonen said.

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What's especially troublesome, according to policy expert and Abundant Housing cofounder Mark Vallianatos, is the manner in which the NII would undercut or block a big portion of new housing in the city. Simply put, the NII would be "a horror show" from a housing perspective.

As Vallianatos, who cowrote The Next Los Angeles: The Struggle for a Livable City explained over the phone, General Plan amendments and zone changes are both essential to the production and approval of new housing in the city. Last year, we saw the most new housing units permitted in the City of Los Angeles in more than 25 years.

"If you look at the units that are permitted, something like 60% sought either a General Plan amendment or a zone change, which shows that the very procedures that the NII would seek to ban or restrict are the ones that are creating a lot of our housing, at a time when we need tons of new units." Just as important but perhaps less discussed is the effect of General Plan amendments and zone changes on displacement, or perhaps more accurately, the lack thereof. These are both tools that can allow new units to built in large numbers without demolishing almost any existing units. After studying the data from last year, Vallianatos found that 20 developments in Los Angeles sought General Plan amendments, leading to permits for 7,522 new units, which would demolish a total of six units. That's a more than one-thousand-to-one ratio of new units to demolished units.

"It's pretty impressive," Vallianatos said. "If i was trying to quote-unquote preserve L.A., as in preserve the actual people and buildings of LA, I'd be all over this. I'd be like 'let's do more of this,' right? And instead, this is what they want to permanently ban."

As mentioned above, the NII would also dictate a two-year moratorium on any zone changes for projects that go from less dense to more dense (i.e. making a single-family home into multifamily units, or turning a parking lot into a mixed-use complex). By Vallianatos' calculations, last year 1,196 new units were approved using zone changes for projects that would lead to a total of 12 existing units being demolished. That's almost exactly a hundred-to-one ratio of new units to demolished units, so not quite as extreme as the thousand-to-one ratio above, but still pretty good.

As Vallianatos explained, these two processes (General Plan amendments and zone changes) are "amazingly comparatively efficient at getting units up without directly displacing people." They are "much, much better in terms of not getting rid of any other homes than the general development that we've seen over the past several years."

"I feel like the fact that the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative is going after these two types of development shows that they are completely out of touch with the needs of the city," he said.

An Expo Line test train rests at the La Cienega station, with the downtown L.A. skyline in the distance. Photo by Steve Hymon/Metro via Wikipedia.
Beyond the housing crisis, Los Angeles is also in the midst of transitioning into a different kind of city—a more walkable, transit-oriented, less segregated city. Research has also shown that zoning regulations that restrict the density of a neighborhood correlate to higher housing prices, and more segregation. And preserving Los Angeles under formaldehyde and outdated zoning guidelines would stop that transition in its tracks.

"It would slow it down and hinder it," Vallianatos said, speaking of how the NII would affect that transition to a more transit-oriented city. "And that's the point of the NII. In some ways, it's a last gasp effort by veterans of decades of slow-growth politics in Los Angeles, who see the writing on the wall that we are starting to shift, and that younger people are starting to want a different way of living, and so they're trying to put legal brakes on that evolution."

"What makes it even worse," he added, "is that we as taxpayers are spending tens of billions of dollars of our sales tax money expanding Metro and making other changes, and then to have this group of people who already have their own homes and are our looking backwards instead of forwards, to have them come in and put a break on things would be very damaging," Vallianatos said.

"Building near the places where we've been investing in transit is especially important," according to Monkkonen. "We don't want to waste all that money by building Metro lines that don't go to places where people live and work."

So what happens if it does pass? "People who own houses will be fine with it, because they own a house. The big issue with this is for renters and people without a lot of money," according to Monkkonen.

And in broader terms, also anyone who dreams of a more livable, connected Los Angeles. As Vallianatos said, "The city exists for the people who live today, to try and make it better into the future. And we need to allow the city to adapt under changing circumstances."

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