Marc Haefele has an excellent, and troubling, op-ed in today’s LA Times on Zev Yaroslavsky: “LA’s anti-density warrior”. It is a portrait of one of Southern California’s most powerful politicians who, apparently, fights urban density for its own sake. Although it is the Republicans that I have labeled as the chief defenders of the “homeowner aristocracy” – those particular homeowners who seek to preserve their property values and obsolete concepts of the urban landscape at the expense of everyone else – Supervisor Yaroslavsky shows that it doesn’t take a conservative to help lock out the mass of Californians from their dreams of economic security:
Yaroslavsky flatly denies that there’s any good in the city’s turn to greater density to create more affordable housing. Before cheering neighborhood councils and homeowner associations, he argues that greater density will destroy the ambience of neighborhoods and fill the pockets of developers but will do nothing to add to the city’s housing stock. Recently, he took Times columnist Steve Lopez on a city tour to point out what Yaroslavsky considers overdevelopment eyesores.
It is a portrait of a politician playing to the homeowner aristocracy, despite the complete absurdity of the position that density has no place in providing the affordable housing the region so desperately needs. More below.
Last summer, spurred by several developments in Los Angeles, I wrote Redefining the California Dream for the 21st Century, where I explained that the 20th century California dream, based on suburban sprawl, was dying, why urban density was the only path to economic security for most Californians in the 21st century, and how a “homeowner aristocracy” was emerging to fight this in the delusional hope of hanging on to the 20th century vision.
The gist of the argument is that due to rising fuel costs and declining fuel supplies, folks are going to need to live close to where they work and shop, where they can commute without having to get in a car. This means more people will want to live in urban centers, and that will mean a need for affordable housing, which we are already witnessing. But density provides not just affordable housing but affordable living – with lower fuel costs and the more efficient use of resources that comes with urban living, working Californians can have a hope of economic security – of the California Dream that has driven our state for decades.
None of this is new knowledge. We’ve known since the 1970s that California needs an urban density strategy. The governor at the time, Jerry Brown, recently returned to that theme in his speech to the California Democratic Party Convention last weekend, describing this as “elegant density”.
But neither is Zev Yaroslavsky’s anti-density politics new. He came to political prominence in the late 1970s and early 1980s as a defender of “neighborhoods” on the prosperous Westside from various kinds of development. He has been one of the most dogged opponents of the proposed “Subway-to-the-Sea” and in 2000 helped author and pass an ordinance preventing the MTA from using sales tax money to build it.
His current fight against density is broadly-based, but has zeroed in on SB 1818, a 2005 law that makes it easier to construct new density projects as long as they contain a specific proportion of low or moderate income housing. To Yaroslavsky this approach “doesn’t take into account the individuality of neighborhoods.”
But there is nothing that says a neighborhood will lose its individuality if it grows more dense, and certainly nothing that says neighborhoods never change over time. What he is really saying is that density upends the 1950s model of detached single-family homes and single-story strip-mall commercial centers – which is of course the point, because that 1950s model no longer works for most people:
About 62% of the city’s inhabitants rent, and the monthly payment for a typical one-bedroom unit is more than $1,400, according to city housing statistics. That’s unaffordable to anyone making under $50,000 a year, given the rule of thumb that a tenant should spend no more than 30% of his or her income on rent. The housing meltdown has made matters worse, as foreclosures push former homeowners into a rental market with a 2.5% vacancy rate.
And as jobs become harder to find, it’s going to add even more pressure to this housing crunch. Ed Reyes, who represents the 1st District on the LA City Council, described to Haefele what conditions were like for most of those lower-income workers who managed to find a place to live in the urban center:
This density can be found on the 500 block of South Berendo Street in Pico-Union, in Reyes’ district. One of the buildings on the block contains 40 units and is 80 years old. Its pale blue exterior paint only partly hides rotting woodwork underneath. A 400-square-foot unit in this building can cost $900 a month. The apartment I recently visited had three double beds; the sink and refrigerator were in the living room. Considering the apartment offered 50 or 60 square feet a person at full occupancy, it was neat and clean, but irremediably run down.
“This is what we call invisible density,” Jaime Rojas of the Latino Urban Forum said. “To say that it doesn’t exist is wrong.” Hundreds of thousands of people live in such apartments in L.A.
And for every person living in a dilapidated building like this, there is another low-income worker who had to move to Ontario, or Palmdale, or Norwalk, and fight traffic and rising gas prices to make it to work. LA’s working core, the people who keep the city alive and prosperous, are in need of new density to make a living. So why should homeowner aristocrats and their political defenders try and stop them?
Reyes sees the rising anti-density fervor in the city as veiled opposition to finding suitable affordable-housing sites outside low-income ghettos.
That would not surprise me. Opposition to urban density in California has usually taken on a mixed race and class character, where mostly white and well-off homeowners fight against density that they worry will bring a “lower element” into the neighborhood.
The article closes by showing how out of touch Yaroslavsky is with the politics of affordable housing:
“There are funds available,” he replied, citing federal block grant money and county money that originates from such federal agencies as the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Such funding, however, has been scarce since the dawn of the Bush administration. Nonprofit housing groups say it started disappearing in the Reagan years.
Yaroslavsky didn’t seem to know this.
In other words, Yaroslavsky is still playing the same game in the late 2000s that he was in the 1970s and the 1980s, despite fundamentally changed conditions and an even more staggering need for dense, affordable housing. At precisely the moment when LA’s future can be secured by turning to a new density, which in turn would secure the future of its working population, those few who benefited from the late 20th century policies of sprawl and cars are working to protect what they have – even if it means nobody else can enjoy economic security.
Yaroslavsky’s LA is dead. It’s time he acknowledged it, and that the city moved on into a more prosperous and equitable – and dense – future.