If you've at all looked out your window while driving around the east side of Los Angeles, you've probably noticed the giant blue billboards imploring you to help save our neighborhoods by voting "yes" on Measure S on March 7.
The hyperbolic nature of the claim--the idea that anything needs saving and that voting can save it--immediately tickled my bullshit detector. Looking at the fine print of the billboard, which I can do, as there is a double-sided gigantic plea for my vote right above my home, you'll notice that this measure is sponsored in part by the AIDS Healthcare Foundation. This organization is responsible for a number of needed health initiatives and outreaches around LA (and one of two that were not--porn star condom requirements, cough, cough). However, in the political arena, the AIDS Healthcare Foundation is known to be a money tree for their president Michael Weinstein's socioeconomic interests. I did some light investigation into the origin of Measure S (previously the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative) and discovered that its origins arose out of a fight between Weinstein and a Miami-based real estate development corporation. This developer, Crescent Heights, is developing the revamped Hollywood Palladium site, which includes two giant high-rise towers that, not coincidently, will block the view of the Hollywood Hills from the offices of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation on the 21st floor of the Sunset Medical Building on the corner of Sunset and Vine. Ah ha. Sounds like a classic case of you-can-save-the-wetlands-but-don't-take-away-my-private-beach activism. When Weinstein’s lawsuit failed to stop the development after it had been unanimously approved by the city council, Weinstein created the Coalition to Preserve LA and funded Measure S to the tune of $1.5 million, lest views everywhere be destroyed.
In all seriousness, I was quick to point out to myself that just because this ballot measure emerged out of a squabble between two wealthy corporations, doesn't mean there isn't something to Measure S. I dug deeper. Measure S, if passed, would put a 2 year moratorium on building projects in LA, unless the project is allocated for 100 percent affordable housing AND does not require a change in zoning. Sounds pretty good, no? I mean, I'll be the first to admit that these bullshit European-prison-looking things popping up in and around Silver Lake and Echo Park suck. And old school DTLA and Hollywood residents probably dislike the way developers have transformed their neighborhoods, too.
But the more I thought about it, something kept coming back to me: didn't we just vote on this issue in 2016? Turns out, yep, we did. We voted in favor of Measure JJJ, which basically requires developers dedicate 40 percent of new housing projects over a certain size to affordable housing. JJJ got a lot of support. Developers liked it because they received permission to continue to build at will, bleeding hearts like myself liked it because the lack of affordable housing is a serious problem in LA, and unions liked it because the measure requires union labor to build these new developments.
Measure S basically walks this entire thing back and does so in an insidious way. The proponents of Measure S are making their case by stoking LA residents’ fear of change and inciting their anger towards the MAN, which in this case is outside developers, or what supports of S have dubbed “BIG Real Estate.” If this sounds at all familiar, it's because these were precisely the same tactics used by Donald Trump's campaign: fear the stranger, fuck the man.
Proponents of S mask this approach by pointing out that affordable housing projects are the one thing exempt from this freeze on development, but what they’re less eager to mention is that the development has to comply with the current zoning code. And herein lies the heart of the problem here in LA. Apparently, everyone in city government and private development agrees: our zoning code is fucked. It's outdated and unwieldy. And it's gotten so bad that it's almost too expensive to fix. Therefor, saying that affordable housing projects are exempt from Measure S as long as they comply with the current zoning code is a little like saying you are free to exit the aircraft at 30,000 feet as long as you can fly.
Measure S supporters are not wrong to want to address the zoning code, but freezing all new development is problematic. LA is currently at capacity, housing-wise. Do we want San Francisco level rents? If the answer is no, then you have to support new development, as much as I hate to admit it. Fuck developers, right? I live right next to shiny new town homes constructed and owned by a Riverside real estate development corporation operated by outspoken Evangelicals. I could be wrong, but I'm betting they don't share my political and social views.
However, people need places to live. Simple economics dictates that when demand is high and supply is low, shit gets expensive. And shit is already expensive. LA currently has a wider gap between the average medium income and medium cost of rent than New York, San Francisco and Seattle. Sure, this is partly due to the fact that we have so many shitty paying jobs, something we're addressing with minimum wage hikes over the next 5 years. BUT this is also symptomatic of a lack of housing, affordable or otherwise, currently available. Fuck, my best friend moved to New Orleans because he couldn't afford to live around here anymore. This is a problem, but like the minimum wage, a problem that we are already beginning to address. Mayor Garcetti has pledged to begin overhauling the zoning code as part of his administration. The city council supports this, too, just not as publicly as we may like, for fear they appear to be in bed with developers. (UPDATE: Silver Lake/Echo Park City Council Member Mitch O'Farrell also opposed measure S. His office just got back to me.) JJJ doesn't fix the zoning problem and does give a leg up to developers, even as it simultaneously incentivizes them to create more affordable housing, but at least it doesn't shut the whole thing down altogether for the sake of someone's view.
Finally, let's not forget that affordable housing is code for poor people. And in Los Angeles, poor people are often brown. And if you're rich and white—hi Micheal Weinstein!—then brown and poor is bad. Ultimately Measure S reflects our larger socioeconomic condition, one that exacerbates systemic racism and champions income inequality. This alone should give you pause when considering whether or not to support S.
As for me, I'll be voting no, even if it means the proliferation of shitty live/work lofts and mixed retail/residential monstrosities. At least with JJJ, we poor people have a chance. Measure S freezes even that.