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Why isn’t LA building apartments for residents with moderate incomes?

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Residents who earn between $56,760 and $85,140 don’t have a lot of options, says City Councilmember David Ryu

An estimated 60 percent of Angelenos are paying more than 30 percent of their income on rent, meaning they are considered “rent-burdened.”

City officials are looking to help the scores of Angelenos who make too much money to qualify for affordable housing but are still paying too much for their living quarters.

The Los Angeles City Council voted unanimously Tuesday to have city staffers figure out what percentage of Angelenos fall into this category, and use that number to find out how much existing housing is within their financial reach.

“Right now, the largest share of Angelenos are getting the smallest share of new housing,” says Councilmember David Ryu, who introduced the motion asking the city to look into this housing gap. “We need to flip that math.”

Those making about $56,000 a year exceed the threshold to qualify for income-restricted affordable housing. (There are not any income-restricted moderate-income units in Los Angeles.)

The city has prioritized building much-needed affordable and supportive housing, Ryu says, but much of the other new housing that’s built is only within reach of the wealthiest residents. An estimated 60 percent of Angelenos are paying more than 30 percent of their income on rent, meaning they are considered “rent-burdened.”

The city will also report back on the reasons why housing production for this large section of the city’s population has been sluggish, and identify successful programs in other cities that have helped to grow housing stock for moderate-income households.

“Far too many middle-class Angelenos are being pushed to the margins of our city, competing for a smaller and smaller share of moderately-priced housing,” Ryu said in a statement.

Ryu’s motion is aimed at Angelenos who earn between $56,760 and $85,140; he wants that group to spend 30 percent of their income or less on rent.

Citing numbers from the city’s planning department, Ryu says that in the last four years, 80,670 new housing units opened in Los Angeles—91 percent of which were only within financial reach for people making above moderate incomes.

In contrast, one half of 1 percent of new housing units—just 430 units—were priced at levels that residents with moderate incomes could afford, Ryu says. And while Los Angeles is set to bring 82,002 new units online by 2021, “the vast majority” will be priced for high-income earners, he says.

Studying the constraints on the production of housing for moderate-income Angelenos could be beneficial, if it leads to city policies that make it easier to build housing, says Paavo Monkkonen, associate professor of urban planning and public policy at UCLA.

Policymakers and the public increasingly have this idea that only certain types of housing are needed, he says, but LA needs more housing in general. The overall shortage of housing has put what should be lower-cost housing—rental units in older buildings, for example—out of reach for most people, Monkkonen says.

“All multifamily housing getting built quicker would help everyone, including middle-income residents,” he says.