clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Why aren’t some housing advocates supporting Measure JJJ?

New, 7 comments

The ballot measure aims to bring more affordable housing to Los Angeles, but some experts oppose it

An affordable housing complex built in Hollywood by LAUSD, which endorsed JJJ Courtesy of Abode Communities

As you find yourself scanning the dozens of measures on tomorrow’s ballot, a quick read of Measure JJJ seems like a sure winner. In the midst of the worst housing crisis the city has ever faced, JJJ promises homes for the city’s poorest residents. Yet in the last few weeks, many affordable housing groups have been speaking out against it.

Proposition JJJ began its life as Build Better LA, a direct response to the anti-growth Neighborhood Integrity Initiative, whose proposed two-year building moratorium would also obliterate the local construction business. So it’s not surprising that the trade groups and unions that joined together to get JJJ on the ballot are offering to bring more affordable housing to the city in a way that’s guaranteed to stimulate their own industries. (The Neighborhood Integrity Initiative has since been moved to the March ballot.)

JJJ would require a certain percentage of units in new residential buildings—up to 40 percent in condo projects and 20 percent for rentals—to be priced for low- to moderate-income residents. It would also incentivize development along transit lines and stations.

But JJJ is only partially about housing—it also has very specific requirements for who can build that housing. Workers would have to be licensed, live within five miles of the project, and be paid the “prevailing wage” for the area. At least one-third of the workers would have to be Los Angeles residents, and 10 percent of the workers would have to be “transitional": veterans, single parents, unemployed. These requirements are reason enough for Angelenos to vote in favor of JJJ, but the requirements could be counterproductive by dissuading developers from building at all.

A diverse coalition of groups have endorsed JJJ, including the ACLU of Southern California, Los Angeles County Democratic Party, NRDC, and TRUST South LA. But the most outspoken critics against the measure are, surprisingly, people who are working on affordable housing projects. Abundant Housing did not include it in its voter guide. Mayor Garcetti has not come out in support of JJJ—compare that to his exhaustive campaigning for Measure M—likely because he has his own plan to fund affordable housing by charging developers new fees for their projects. The Los Angeles Times opposes it, saying it could make the housing crisis worse, namely by increasing construction costs, which is what housing experts say, too.

“If city fees rise and additional costs are added, rents will increase. If investors and lenders lack confidence that consumers will pay these higher prices, then the housing will not get built,” argues Simon Ha, an architect who is the planning committee chair for the Downtown Los Angeles Neighborhood Council, in an op-ed for the LA Downtown News.

Better Institutions’ Shane Phillips offers a good explanation about why the “prevailing wage” clause is one of the biggest problems with the measure: JJJ is not really about income equality, he argues, it’s simply guaranteeing that a certain group of Angelenos (in this case, licensed workers) get paid more. Plus, the higher wage costs are baked in, even if a sluggish market might cause less housing to be built. “I think the supporters of the initiative have their hearts in the right place,” says Phillips. “But none of this changes the fact that I think JJJ is bad policy.”

Critics are also uncomfortable with the fact that JJJ specifically targets height and density exceptions to the existing community plans, rather than focusing on “by right” projects, which don’t require special approval from the City Council or one of its committees because they’re bigger than zoning codes permit. The city is already working on overhauling its zoning code, and in fact, Los Angeles City Councilman Mitch O’Farrell has been working on a very similar plan for requiring affordable housing units on new developments—without JJJ’s more explicit ties to the construction industry.

That two plans to accelerate affordable housing in LA are already in the works is a good enough reason for many to vote no for a third plan—but they’re not sure things yet.

Still, there’s an argument to be made that so-called “ballot box planning” in general is short-sighted. Putting land-use decisions in the hands of the voters often over-simplifies urban planning issues that are best considered by representatives, who can hear from all stakeholders and deliver a more nuanced, flexible policy.

Critics also say that JJJ’s plan might not be sweeping enough for such a huge citywide problem.

“If affordable housing is a societal priority, like I think it should be, then all of society should step up pay for it—like HHH does,” says housing policy analyst Mark Vallianatos, noting the other housing ballot measure which would fund supportive housing projects for the homeless with a property tax bond. “We shouldn't foist off the obligation to pay for affordable units onto a small amount of new development.”