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Two Peas in a Pod: Trump and California Dems Quibbling over the Housing Crisis

PLANNING WATCH-Despite their high-octane quibbling, when it comes to the local and statewide housing crisis, the White House and California Democratic officials are mostly two peas in a pod.

They have few disagreements on what they would and would not do. At the most fundamental level they are in total agreement. Instead of restoring gutted public housing programs and preserving existing low-income housing, their supply-side market approach is to peal away zoning and environmental regulations on private investors. In their fact-free world, they believe this market deregulation miraculously results in “more housing” which, in turn, is supposed to push down the cost of all housing. Voila! As investors then enrich themselves, market forces will, for the first time, eliminate homelessness. 

The LA Times, to its credit, almost got to the heart of this tempest in a tea pot with it November 26, 2019, story, “Trump has limited options to combat homelessness in Los Angeles.”  What a more accurate headline would have said is that “Trump and local officials have limited their options to combat homelessness in Los Angeles.” This alternative header would have made it clear that they have few differences. Neither side is willing to address the underlying causes of homelessness. Instead they only nibble around the edges, superficially treating symptoms, like hounding homeless encampments, as homeless counts increase. 

When it comes to the causes of homelessness, they have many areas of implicit agreement. Just consider six major issues they both ignore

  • Restoring terminated federal government HUD housing programs, continuously eliminated since the Nixon administration, in the early 1970s to the current Trump era.  
  • Refunding slashed social and mental health services. 
  • Strengthening rent control, such as moving the Los Angeles city Rent Stabilization Ordinance cutoff date from 1978 to 1995, per State law. 
  • Reinstating the low-income housing construction role of Community Redevelopment Agencies, which Governor Brown and the State Legislature dissolved in 2011. 
  • Shoring up funding for Section 8 housing subsidies, one of the few remaining low-income HUD housing programs. While one local official, LA County (Republican) Supervisor Katherine Barger has asked the Federal government for more Section 8 funding, at present 600,000 Angelenos are in line for Section 8 vouchers, while only 400 per year find Section 8 apartments. 

By refusing to address the underlying causes of homelessness, the Trump administration and local and California state officials, nearly all Democrats, invariably fall back to posturing and treating symptoms. In this regard, the Los Angeles Times story mentions the following. It reveals how similar the two parties are at the policy level. Furthermore, despite on-site visits to Los Angeles and San Francisco, the Trump administration has so far only vented a few broad comments on California’s housing crisis, not an actual plan – if one actually exists. Based on these comments, the eventual Trump plan would include the following, which means they will be preaching to California’s Democratic choir.

 

LAPD use of force against homeless preempts Trump. 

  • Reducing regulations for new market housing. Nothing new here, as well. In Sacramento Democratic Senator Scott Wiener will again try to push through SB 50, his “build more housing” act. If finally adopted, it would impose sweeping zoning and environmental deregulation on all California cities and counties. With or without SB 50, Los Angeles is already on board with Donald Trump through its Density Bonus, Community Plan Update, and Transit Oriented Specific Plan ordinances. They are all based on cutting regulations to, knock-on-wood, spur the construction of market (i.e., expensive) housing. 
  • Building temporary shelters. This is the essence of Measure HHH, the enormous homeless initiative that Los Angeles voter approved in 2016. According to LA City Controller Ron Galperin, after three years it has only managed to build a handful of units. 
  • Pushing legal limits to punish homeless people. Sorry, Donald, California is already one step ahead of you with local ordinances to ban sleeping on/in sidewalks, alleys, parks, and cars. While the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that cities cannot ban sidewalk sleeping until they provide shelters, the City of Los Angeles is appealing that ruling

Since the principal approach of the Trump Administration and local officials to address the housing crisis is zoning deregulation, we need to ask, one more time, if these supply-side programs work. 

Prof. Jerry Nickelsburg, lead investigator for the UCLA Anderson School’s quarterly economic forecast, had a clear answer to this question,  “The prospect for the private sector building out of the (California) housing affordability problem over the next three years is nil.” The reasons ought to be obvious: 

  • Private investors build to make serious profits. This results in high-end real estate projects in choice areas, ignoring cities and neighborhoods where local zoning allows new by-right housing, but local markets cannot cough-up enough renters willing to pay $3,000 or more per month for a crowded luxury apartment. This is why homeless encampments often spring up near new luxury buildings.

 

Homeless encampment near new buildings in Downtown Los Angeles. 

  • Even if deregulation selectively results in more housing, it is the wrong type of housing. It is not and never will become low rent housing to address the shelter needs to the homeless, over-crowded, and rent-gouged. 
  • Instead of increasing the supply of low-income housing, new, expensive apartments reduce it. This housing often replaces demolished lower-priced housing, while the new buildings pull up rents for nearby low-income homes and apartments. 

Since the White House, the State House, and City Hall have few answers to resolve an enormous and worsening housing crisis, where does that leave us? While the situation is not good, it is not for a lack of solid analyses and proposals. For example, liberal magazines, like the Nation, have presented a clear path forward, as have mainstream news sources, like the New York Times and the alternative socialist press, like the Jacobin.  All of these approaches, whether mainstream, liberal, or socialist, acknowledge that there are no market solutions to America’s deepening housing crisis. They call for de-commodifying housing through programs that directly build and operate public housing. 

This gap, between the obvious solutions and the business-as-usual positions of both main U.S. political parties, is at the heart of the problem. While elections and political movements can, in theory, break this logjam, time will tell if this will happen, or if the homeless crisis worsens until the country eventually implodes, as predicted by Chalmers Johnson

 

(Dick Platkin is a former Los Angeles city planner who reports on local planning issues for CityWatchLA. He serves on the board of United Neighborhoods of Los Angeles (UN4LA) and welcomes comments and corrections at rhplatkin@gmail.com. Selected previous columns are available at the CityWatchLA archives and the Plan-it Los Angeles blog.