Los Angeles, known for its creative industries, has seen steady growth since the 1980s due in large part to an influx of Latino and Asian immigrants. The city is situated within sprawling Los Angeles County, which encompasses 88 incorporated cities and many unincorporated areas. A recent study indicated that L.A. County is in need of more than 500,000 affordable units.1 This severe shortage has been caused in large part by a preference for low density, car-oriented development. Environmental regulations at the state level and local parking requirements make building costly and time-consuming, forcing developers to build high-end units in order to make a profit. As affordable housing is limited, affluent renters and buyers are pushed into low-income and black and immigrant neighborhoods. Real estate flipping by shadowy LLCs is further contributing to the acceleration of gentrification in these areas.2
Who Is Vulnerable?
L.A. County’s lack of affordable units has resulted in the concentration of poverty in certain neighborhoods. Families often double up in overcrowded units. Many low-income homeowners accommodate additional residents by constructing additions to their homes, but this construction is often unpermitted and unsafe.3
At the state level, the Ellis Act allows owners of apartments regulated under the city's rent-stabilization ordinance to convert to condos or tear down their structures and build new market-rate rentals, with little notice to tenants. This has resulted in nearly 1,300 evictions in L.A. since the beginning of 2017.4 The Costa-Hawkins Rental Housing Act further limits municipal rent control ordinances. As they run out of options, families often end up living in informal situations such as garages and garden sheds, or in mobile RVs.
These problems are compounded for undocumented residents, who may have low English proficiency and limited understanding of their rights. Fearing deportation, undocumented immigrants avoid interaction with City officials at all costs.5
Policy Responses and Limitations
The City of Los Angeles has recently enacted a wide range of policies in attempts to increase affordable housing supply. While these efforts are a step in the right direction, it is too soon to determine their long-term impacts. A density bonus, which allows developers to exceed floor area ratio (FAR) if they provide some rent restricted units, resulted in just 329 affordable units built over 6 years.6 A proposed impact tax on market rate construction would generate $100M per year for affordable construction. Like the density bonus, the linkage fee alone will provide a very small fraction of the units needed countywide.
In an effort to increase density in neighborhoods and address informal construction, the City passed an ordinance in 2016 legalizing the construction of permitted accessory dwelling units (ADUs). The City also passed a recent measure to legalize "bootleg" rental units. Instead of taking these units off the market and evicting tenants, this measure requires landlords to bring their units up to code and keep these units affordable for 55 years.
Measure JJJ, passed in 2017, creates incentives for developers to build affordable units near transit, and includes local hiring requirements. The measure creates incentives for developers to build affordable units near transit. As gentrification is occurring in neighborhoods along Metro lines, Measure JJJ could help to ensure stability and reduce dependence on cars.
South Central is a historically African American neighborhood south of Downtown L.A. Because it was one of the only areas of the city not covered in historic restrictive covenants, it became a point of convergence for black families in the 1930s and 1940s. The Santa Monica Freeway was constructed in 1962 despite resident protest, bisecting the neighborhood. South Central was also at the heart of the Civil Rights movement during the 1960s, and the site of the 1992 Rodney King riots.
The neighborhood has been predominantly Latino since 2000. It is facing pressures from Downtown real estate moving south, student housing and development pressures from neighboring University of Southern California, the construction of the L.A. Rams stadium in nearby Inglewood, and increased property values along the forthcoming Metro Expo line. As one of the last remaining affordable neighborhoods for immigrants and low-income renters, South Central has become the most overcrowded neighborhood in the United States, with nearly 45 percent of households doubling up. 7
South Central faces many constraints. The neighborhood median household income and educational attainment levels are far below the rest of the county. Historic preference for single-family detached dwellings, covered garages and on-street parking have contributed to a low density and a lack of housing supply. South Central is bordered by the City of Inglewood, the City of Gardena, the City of Compton, and unincorporated areas served by L.A. County. The fragmentation of government jurisdictions surrounding the L.A. neighborhood makes it difficult to implement a unified housing policy.
More than 80% of South Central residents are renters, and 87% are Latino—many of these are undocumented immigrants.This combination of factors puts the vast majority of South Central residents at high risk of eviction; many are already living in overcrowded units as rents rise, and have little knowledge of their rights as tenants. In need of additional space for growing households and lacking funds, many property owners expand their dwellings without obtaining permits.8 Unregulated construction can put residents at risk, especially in the event of an earthquake. Distrust leads to lack of communication between undocumented residents and government, exacerbating housing insecurity and informal construction issues.
However, South Central has many strengths from which to build. Activist groups, such as the Dreamers of South Central L.A. (DOSCLA) led by younger residents, are actively pushing back against gentrification and advocating for better representation in City Council. New immigrants and long-term residents are running thriving informal businesses, and in February 2017, L.A. City Council voted unanimously to decriminalize street vending. The neighborhood also has opportunities for increasing density and overall housing supply. As South Central is located near post-industrial sites, there is available vacant land—some owned by the City and County—and former industrial buildings with potential for affordable development. As of 2015, South LA had more than 3,000 vacant lots.9
Possible Policy Responses
Several items from the toolkit could be used to promote equitable development in South Central. For instance, increasing code inspections would protect property owners and tenants from unsafe informal construction. Rather than penalizing landlords and evicting tenants when buildings aren’t up to code, this policy would provide financial assistance for repairs and modest expansions, helping to build trust between government and residents. Making room for local businesses in new commercial and mixed-use developments would help to formalize immigrant businesses and create stability for small business operators. Taxing privately owned vacant, impervious land, such as the post-industrial lots found in and around South Central, with breaks for affordable development, can incentivize developers to build now instead of waiting for higher value down the line. Finally, regional affordable housing coordination is needed to ensure that L.A. City and County, as well as neighboring cities, are coordinating with State officials to absorb growth.
1. California Housing Partnership Corporation, "Los Angeles County Renters in Crisis: A Call for Action", May 2017 2. Bell, Jonathan, interview with Zoe Axelrod and Ali San Roman, October 2, 2017 3. Bell, Jonathan, interview with Zoe Axelrod and Ali San Roman, October 2, 2017 4. LA Times "L.A. is Losing Rent-Controlled Apartments at an Alarming Rate", October 26, 2017 5. Bell, Jonathan, interview with Zoe Axelrod and Ali San Roman, October 2, 2017 6. LA Curbed "Incentives to building affordable housing aren't working, city controller says" January 24, 2017 7. LA Curbed "Historic South-Central Has the Most Crowded Housing in the US" March 10, 2014 8. Bell, Jonathan, interview with Zoe Axelrod and Ali San Roman, October 2, 2017 9. KPCC, "Group works to turn South LA lots into children's playgrounds." April 3, 2014