Righteous passions are aroused these days about chickens penned in cages so small they can’t move and elephants locked in the L.A. Zoo without room to roam in anything like a natural way.
Voters and officials alike seem touched by these concerns about man’s inhumanity to animals and want to see the quality of their lives improved by giving them space to breathe.
So I can’t help but wonder why we don’t care as much about man’s inhumanity to humans with regard to the same issue of quality of life and space to breathe.
I guess man’s inhumanity to humans doesn’t touch the same compassionate nerve as it does when it’s directed at animals. Maybe all these endless wars and violence have damaged the neurons that connect our brains to our compassionate hearts.
Density bonuses, subsidies for multi-million-dollar condos and luxury hotels, inclusionary zoning, exclusion of the public from development decisions and now Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s $5 billion “affordable housing” plan — it all adds up to people living in little boxes all stacked up to the sky and unable to road freely on gridlocked streets and highways, giant digital billboards flashing in their eyes day and night.
It’s not a pretty picture but then money rules in L.A. — not the people. And money has everything to do with the mayor’s plan for the city, not the quality of human lives.
Of course, the economics are different. Not a lot of chicken, calves or pigs are raised in L.A. anymore so they don’t make the city’s fat-cats rich or fill the treasury with currency to squander. The space they require long ago was filled with humans.
And the elephants at the zoo, though thrilling to children, won’t really help the city pay the bills that are piling up as it continues to spend far more than it takes in.
So when you look at Villaraigosa’s audacious five-year housing plan to create 20,000 new units — an average cost of $250,000 each assuming the money actually goes for construction — you have to understand it’s about the money and who it benefits.
The City Hall power structure has been in hard-sell mode for quite a while trying to convince the public that the population will soar no matter what we do, that the poor have an inalienable right to live in L.A. even if there’s nothing but low-paying service jobs and housing costs half their paychecks.
City officials are in a mad rush to build taller residential buildings and malls and entertainment complexes and offices, to pave every scrap of land as if living like caged chickens will make us happier and more prosperous.
It’s called densification. But slumification might be more apt.
I recently listened to Helmi Hisserich, Deputy Mayor for Housing and Economic Development Policy, provide the Planning Commission with a thoughtful and persuasive-sounding presentation of the plan.
But I was struck by a couple of charts she showed.
One compared the number of housing units built in 2007 in various income levels to the number of units needed at those income levels. For incomes below $29,000, it showed 1,019 built to 3,405 needed; for $29,000 to $42,000, it was 595 to 2,187 built; for $42,000 to $72,000, it was 14 — yes 14 units total — to 2,413 needed. Above that, from $72,000 to $120,000, there was actually more units built –12,661 — than needed — 6.104. You can bet there’s lots of housing being built and available for the affluent but for some reason the mayor’s team didn’t supply the numbers.
It seems so clear to me that whatever you believe, there is something askew.
We have a glut of housing for the affluent and relatively affluent and we’re doing a fair job of providing subsidized housing for the very poor and working poor.
But 14 units for the middle class — the people who are right at the average median income for households in L.A. $42,000 to $72,000?
These are the people who have jobs, often very hard jobs, and go to work every day and struggle to make ends meet. They are the bedrock of society, the class of people whose numbers are diminishing as the city continues to be inhospitable to business and industry with good-paying jobs, tolerates gangs and failing schools and looks the other way as sweatshop operators and slumlords thrive. Talk about broken windows.
A healthy society has a healthy balance of rich and poor with the largest number in the middle. The LAUSD is a prime example of what happens when the numbers get out of balance. It’s not the change in ethnicity that occurred over the last 30 years or even the stifling bureaucracy that has led to its breakdown. There’s simply too many students whose needs are too great so a third to half of them never get a diploma and the cycle of poverty goes round and round.
It’s through those eyes that I looked at the Mayor’s Housing Plan — an ambitious proposal to marshal $5 billion from public and private sources over five years to preserve or build 20,000 units.
So who will get these units?
For the chronically homeless, the goal is 2,200 units. For the very poor, households with less than $29,000 a year, there is 8,800 units. And for the poor with incomes of $29,000 to $42,000, there’s 3,800 units. That’s 14,800 units in all, or nearly 75 percent of what the mayor proposes.
This is what he means by “affordable housing.”
The remainder of the units — 5,200 — are intended for those with incomes at the L.A. median range of $42,000 to $90,000. That’s the middle of the middle class.
So let’s be clear about what’s on the table. The word “affordable” is a big lie. What’s affordable to one person, isn’t affordable to another. What we’re talking about is housing for the poor — not the middle class.
We’re talking about tearing down the Jordan Downs housing project and building a new project next to it for three times as many families in a much denser space. We’re talking about densifying the poorest areas of the city with more poor people and we’re talking about densifying the whole city — except for the most afflurent areas — with more market rate housing that will overwhelm the city’s resources and its infrastructure.
What we’re not talking about is what kind of city L.A. will become if the mayor and the developers have their way.
Are his goals the right goals for L.A.? Will more housing for the poor attract more poor people or will it make them less poor? Will businesses with good-paying jobs locate or expand without workers with the skills and employment records they require?
The issue isn’t the need for more housing for more people as the mayor and the power structure have defined it. The issue is how we make this a healthier, more prosperous and better city for the people who live and work here.
I don’t see how people living like caged chickens or elephants locked in the zoo achieves anything except turning L.A. into the Blade Runner city envisio
ned by filmmaker Ridley Scott a quarter century ago.