As the LA City Council – representing the most unaffordable city in America – prepares its ordinance to adopt SB-9 (a new California law that allows for the subdivision of single-family zoned lots), housing reform faces a familiar problem: A law in itself is worth no more than the paper it’s printed on. Its impact comes from implementation and execution, issues that local government actors have become quite skilled at undermining, in part because of lawmakers enabling them to do so.
If you were to ask a housing policy advocate about the reforms that should be implemented in Los Angeles to address the housing crisis, they would likely refer to policies like state-funded affordable housing construction, a required minimum quantity of housing dedicated to low-income households (inclusionary zoning), changes to restrictive single-family zoning, and other shifts towards a more equitable housing landscape. These reforms have been implemented with positive results around the world: Sweden’s Miljonprogrammet (Million Homes Program) built over a million homes in 10 years, France’s SRU (Urban Solidarity and Renewal) created 800,000 social housing units and successfully distributed them across many municipalities, and many other countries have implemented policies similar to those aforementioned with success.
So, if these policies have been successful in countries all over the world, then we should just pass those laws and bring that reform to Los Angeles, right?
That’s exactly the problem: We already have passed these laws, we just haven’t utilized or enforced them effectively and failed to protect the very provisions within them responsible for their success.
For example, the Inclusionary Housing Ordinance (a piece of inclusionary zoning reform) was adopted by the LA County Department of Regional Planning in November 2020 as a way to mandate the production of affordable housing units in new residential project developments. When comparing this ordinance with successful implementations of inclusionary zoning like in France, there are key problems that impact the law’s effectiveness: Its proportional goals for affordable housing are far less ambitious by comparison (5-20% compared to 20-25%), its restriction to new construction limits its reach considerably, and it has far too many built-in loopholes to prevent it from being implemented in the few scenarios in which it applies.
This is easily observed when examining the site of the “Gelson’s Development,” a proposed housing development in Santa Monica at Ocean Park Blvd and Lincoln Blvd. The project would aim to bring 521 “mostly upscale market rate” apartments to Santa Monica, but due to its special status as a quasi-government project only has to provide 53 “affordable” apartments out of the 521 total, a figure that would be half of the required affordable housing units under the ordinance without an exemption.
How can a law that already falls well short of the requirements put forward by other international (and significantly more successful) counterparts be manipulated to a degree that it only partially applies in what should be an ideal, applicable situation? If Santa Monica’s city goal in its General Plan Housing Development is to provide 6,168 new affordable housing units by 2029, how does it intend to reach those totals if it cuts the required affordable unit count in half for a poster-child development like the one at Ocean Park and Lincoln Blvd?
If a law doesn’t apply in the exact situation it should, then why have the law at all?
This is the future I fear for SB-9, and all progressive reform to follow. City governments across the state have already demonstrated their willingness to use any trick in the book to circumvent the law, citing anything from the presence of mountain lions to shrubbery requirements. It’s hard to look at LA’s implementation of the Inclusionary Housing Ordinance, or similarly mismanaged programs like HHH, and not see a similar fate for the implementation of SB-9: Half-baked, underutilized, and mismanaged.
We have graduated from policy advocacy to policy execution. Ideas, even brilliant ones, can only take us so far. If we are to properly address the housing crisis in Los Angeles, we must do so through the proper execution and implementation of policy that upholds the very principles required for its success.
By Shane Smith