As the city of L.A. continues to appear on lists as one of the most expensive places to rent in the country, its voters are considering a ballot measure that would force local developers to provide housing for lower-income renters.
Called Measure JJJ, it targets developers who build what's become known as "mega developments," which are apartment buildings that are so large, they exceed the city's zoning code. In recent years, more of the city's new housing stock has come in the form of these mega projects.
If passed, JJJ would force those developers to set aside between 11 and 20 percent of the building's units for lower-income tenants, who would get a break on the rent.
Developers would also have to hire more union and local construction workers, to boost local wages. The measure also incentivizes developers who choose to build on land near transit sites, something city planners say allows the city to grow without dramatically increasing congestion.
The argument for JJJ
There are two adjacent, shining glass towers in Koreatown at the corner of Wilshire and Vermont.
Called The Vermont, it's an all-luxury apartment building with a pool deck on the roof, Starbucks on the ground and a private dog run.
A one-bedroom apartment starts out at $2,400 a month.
"That is not the type of building that the people of Koreatown needs," said Alexandra Suh of the Koreatown Immigrant Workers Alliance, adding that many of the people of this neighborhood are working class. "Would the majority of them have access to these luxury apartments? The answer is no."
She supports Measure JJJ because, had it been in effect when this 400-plus unit building rose up, then 90 low-income families would be calling it home, too.
"It would be a new chance at stability. Having housing creates peace," she said.
Suh argues that as more luxury mega-developments are being built, the people of Koreatown are being priced out of the neighborhood. Some have moved to cheaper zip codes far away or, worse, are unable to afford a roof at all.
"The causes of homelessness are complex, but one of them, surely, is the lack affordable housing," said Suh.
If her neighbors leave one by one, replaced by rich newcomers, then it won’t be the same neighborhood.
"I think some real estate people refer to this as Wilshire Center," she said. "They don’t want to call this place Koreatown."
But if Measure JJJ passed, it would prevent L.A. from only being a city for the rich, Suh said.
"It would mean that my kids have a chance to live in the neighborhood they grew up in."
The argument against JJJ
That same glassy building is not a beacon of disaster for developer Mott Smith.
"We assume the answer to the affordability problem must be affordable housing," he said, "and it’s easy to point to luxury units and say they’re the cause of it."
But, he said, it's not that simple. He opposes JJJ because it doesn't solve what he believes is the bigger problem: the housing shortage in Southern California. He believes this is the main reason rents are going up.
A 2015 study by California's Legislative Analyst Office backs him up on that, noting it's a state-wide problem.
To solve that, he said Los Angeles should cut some of the red tape and fees that makes it slow-going and expensive for builders like him. He points to the huge fees he must pay before he even breaks ground on a project.
"And I haven’t even bought a single piece of wood or a single yard of concrete, yet," he said. "That’s crazy."
Fewer fees and speed bumps would allow builders to create more supply to meet up with demand.
Smith said Measure JJJ actually makes this problem worse because it creates more hoops for developers.
Smith also said there would have to be thousands of big developments on the horizon to create enough affordable apartments for everyone that needs one. Otherwise, only a lucky few will benefit.
"It's not unusual to see several thousand people applying for 50 or 100 units," he said, referring to applications for affordable housing units.
And those affordable units are not guaranteed only to go to people who live nearby, ensuring that they stay in the neighborhood.
"Anybody in the state can apply," Smith said, "and so the idea that those subsidized units are going to provide stability for the family down the street here is unfortunately not true."
Meanwhile, if JJJ requires him to pay workers more and place more affordable units inside of his developments, then he will have to charge everyone else in that same building more to cover the costs.
What he wishes were up for a vote is a complete overhaul of the city's building rules and restrictions in L.A.
"Our planning system totally fails because it was built to turn farms into suburbs," he said. "It was not built to manage living, breathing, evolving cities like L.A."
But is JJJ good enough for now?
Ravamping Los Angeles' building and zoning code is not on the ballot this fall, nor does it look likely to gain traction anytime soon.
"The thing that’s the most challenging is the political aspect of this," said USC housing expert Raphael Bostic. "This is not something that’s going to happen overnight."
That could take years, too, when people are struggling to pay their rent now.
So on Nov. 8, L.A. voters will have to decide if Measure JJJ does enough good to be worthy of a yes vote.
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