Measure S is probably the hottest, densest, most discussed and most confusing topic in this spring’s election cycle. Or, as Greg Goldin, host of a recent community forum on the issue, said when introducing that event, “one of our most contentious ballot measures…ever.”
Hyperbole both pro and con has been flying fast and furious on both sides of the issue for several months, but underneath the often over-the-top claims from both sides, there’s also a very serious discussion happening about the future of our city. There are some very important points being made – and thoughtful people – on both sides of the issue.
First, here’s what most people, on both sides of the Measure S debate, agree on:
1. Los Angeles has a huge housing shortage (a 3% overall vacancy rate, with prices rising steadily for all types of housing because of the high demand).
2. The situation is most dire for low and moderate income residents.
3. The planning process in Los Angeles is broken and increasingly ineffective.
a. Old city plans and zoning haven’t been updated in decades (even though required by law).
b. The old plans just can’t accommodate the kinds of development and housing growth that we need today.
c. The city’s currently-zoned residential areas are almost fully developed, leaving builders to look for other sites – including parking lots and vacant lots in industrial areas – for their large-scale housing projects.
d. Building housing on parking or industrial sites often requires a zone change, so many – if not most – large-scale housing developments now have to request zone changes or they can’t be built.
e. Because developers need these favors from city government, a system of “pay-to-play,” in which developers make large contributions, either directly or through networks of surrogates, to local election campaigns in exchange for support for their projects, has become very real…and this is very bad for all of us.
4. New development and increasing density is encroaching on our historic low-density neighborhoods, which have always provided the unique character and flavor of the city. So we will need to balance both growth and preservation in coming years to maintain the historic identity of Los Angeles, and to keep it a truly livable city.
What people disagree on, however, is how to deal with the issues above…and whether Measure S would be the best way to address the current problems. For example:
1. While there is a housing shortage, do we really need the number of units currently in the pipeline, or are we over-building?
a. If not, then why is the vacancy rate in new luxury buildings 12% (4x higher than the overall vacancy rate)?
b. Will the population continue to rise as fast as it has been?
2. Is the current construction boom providing the right kind of housing to meet out needs?
a. Our greatest need is for low and moderate income housing, but most new projects are aimed at the market-rate, “luxury” sector.
b. Will there be an eventual “trickle down” effect as wealthier residents move into the newer luxury buildings, leaving older ones for those of more modest means (a.k.a. the “used car” principle)?
3. How do we accommodate new development without allowing it to overshadow, overtake and erase our historic architecture, neighborhoods and character?
4. Will Measure S preserve more homes for low and moderate income residents…or will it actually exacerbate the housing shortage?
a. Are we losing too many rent-stabilized older units to new, market-rate construction…or are we replacing those lost units with even more affordable units, via affordable-unit inclusion requirements in “density bonus” projects and other incentive programs?
b. Would Measure S help, in any way, to create new affordable housing?
5. Will Measure S really stop the “pay-to-play” development cycle in Los Angeles?
6. Will the discussions resulting from Measure M, and reforms already agreed to by the Mayor and City Council (including a new push to rewrite city plans, and new rules against developers commissioning their own Environmental Impact Reports) be enough to address the issues…or will they just fade away if Measure S does not pass?
What Measure S Proposes
To help sort through the issues, here’s a breakdown of what Measure S actually calls for, what each provision means (to the best of our current understanding), major arguments for and against each those provisions, and what people have been saying about them.
1.”Impose a two-year moratorium on projects seeking General Plan amendments or zone or height-district changes resulting in more intense land use, an increase in density or height, or a loss of zoned open space, agricultural or industrial areas, with exceptions including for affordable housing projects and project for which vested rights have accrued.” Also, “The moratorium…will expire upon the City Council’s final adoption of both 1) and updated General Plan Framework and 2) an updated community plan text and zoning map for a particular community plan area or 3) within 24 months of the effective date of the Act, whichever is sooner.”
What it means: For two years after the Measure goes into effect, construction projects that would require a General Plan, zone or height district change would not be allowed. Projects that would increase floor area, density or height would also be halted. This would include a great many, possibly a majority of, large-scale developments…which, based on sheer numbers, are those that contain most of new housing now being built in the city, and which employ the most people. Also, during the moratorium, the city would be required to update its General and Community Plans, so that they could accommodate today’s need for more housing and greater density, and to provide a better, more realistic guide for development that builders could follow without having to request exceptions for almost every project. The moratorium would expire after the new plans are approved, or after 24 months…whichever comes first.
What it doesn’t mean: Not all construction, or construction employment, would stop during the two-year time-out. Proposed projects that do not require plan, zone or height district changes (also known as “by right” projects, because property owners are within their rights to build them without any special permissions) could and would continue. Also, projects in which 100% of the units have been designated “affordable” could continue, as would construction mandated to repair, remove or demolish an unsafe building…or one damaged by fire, earthquake or other disaster. However, most by-right projects these days do tend to be smaller-scale, such as single-family homes or lower-density multi-family developments (such as Small Lot Subdivisions). And the time-out is not permanent, even for large-scale construction. Normal permitting and development processes would resume after 24 months…even if new General and Community Plans are not yet in place.
Supporters say: Because the de facto planning and permitting process in L.A. has become such a piecemeal hodgepodge, our old plans have become completely ineffective and developers are ruling the roost in a “pay to play” system that is harming the overall development and livability of the city…so we need a big time out to get the city planning process back on track and working for everyone, not just developers. It’s the best way to protect and guide our long-term development, and the long-term livability of the city.
Opponents say: Measure S’s moratorium would be disastrous for the local construction industry and economy, and – because it would pause mostly big developments with the largest numbers of new housing units – it would also be disastrous for the current housing crisis, pushing costs up even further and faster for existing units. Also, developers sidelined on large-scale developments would instead turn their attention, for the next two years, to projects that are still allowed, such as replacing one-and two-unit buildings in R3 neighborhoods with 4-6 unit Small Lot Subdivisions, which could lead to faster and larger disruptions and re-development in low-density residential areas during the next two years. And, finally, if the new city plans aren’t ready yet when the 24-month moratorium expires, and things continue at that point as they have been currently, the city has gained nothing from the pause.
“City officials and urban planners claim we have a housing crisis. From my vantage point, they created it by fixating on the needs of global and national developers whose motives run contrary to sensible planning. City Hall has stood idly by while 22,000 affordable apartments have been lost since 2000, pushing out an estimated 60,000 people.” — Former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan
“Measure S wouldn’t create a single unit of affordable housing.” — Luke Klipp, President, Los Feliz Neighborhood Council, at the MCWCC Measure S Forum.
“Measure S encourages the approval of 100% affordable housing developments during the measure’s two-year moratorium…Developers of 100% affordable housing will largely be exempted from the moratorium.” — VoteYesOnMeasureS
“We need to take a look at the definition of luxury. To me, real luxury would be that we can even talk about stopping building housing.” — Luke Klipp, MCWCC Measure S Forum.
“Critics say Measure S goes too far. For tenants, it doesn’t go far enough. Measure S is a chance to stop more of the unaffordable new housing that accelerates displacement, a chance to buy time for tenants to organize and demand rent-stabilized and public housing. We need solutions to the housing crisis informed not by the neoliberal ideals of supply-and-demand, but by the everyday needs of real renters. Profit is not a human right. Housing is.” — Tracy Jeanne Rosenthal, LA Tenants Union member
2. “Prohibit geographic amendments to the General Plan unless the affected area has significant social, economic or physical identity (defined as encompassing an entire community or district plan area, specific plan area, neighborhood council area or at least 15 acres.”
What it means: After the ordinance is adopted, General Plan amendments, now often used to re-zone a single parcel of land, or several adjacent parcels, for large developments, could only be granted for much larger areas, as defined above (an entire community, specific plan area, neighborhood council area…or an area at least 15 acres in size). General plan amendments would no longer be made for individual development projects, and evidence would have to be presented that any requested change was not being requested just to facilitate a specific project. Also, this would be a permanent provision, and would remain in place after the two-year moratorium.
What it doesn’t mean: This does not mean all exceptions to local plans would be prohibited – only General Plan amendments that change the underlying zoning of individual parcels. Zoning could still be changed for neighborhoods or districts as a whole…and individual applications for variances to Community Plan guidelines would still be allowed.
Supporters say: This would help end the practice of “spot zoning,” in which developers request special permissions, inconsistent with local plans, for specific building sites…and it would help end “pay-to-play” development by taking the possibility of special amendments and privileges for individual projects off the table. It would also help guarantee that local plans are followed, communities do not suffer from endless exceptions to their underlying plans, and that new development would be reliably more consistent with existing neighborhood contexts.
Opponents say: It’s impossible to prevent “spot zoning” entirely, because development needs and land uses shift over time. And if the city doesn’t have the freedom to change the zoning of individual parcels when it would truly be a good idea (such as to build housing, with parking underneath, on what is now just a flat parking lot), it will cripple the city’s ability to grow and meet its ever-changing needs. Also, although developers wouldn’t be able to hope for plan changes and zoning variances in exchange for campaign promises, there are still plenty of other city policies that affect developers’ ability to operate, and their potential profits, so donations to city officials would continue and Measure S would have no real effect on “pay-to-play.” And, finally, savvy developers may still find ways around this provision, giving them even more control over planning of large swaths of communities, not less.
“The above provisions are potentially an open invitation to privatize the planning function in the City of Los Angeles…Pass Measure S and anticipate a line of developers and their attorneys and design teams walking into the City offering to support and fund our City planning process, specific plan by specific plan, and 15 acre by 15 acre increment. And it will potentially be a bargain compared to the current process.” — John Kaliski, John Kaliski Architects
“As a two-term mayor of Los Angeles, I speak from a place of both experience and deep concern for our city. I know how the city works. The current political environment is rife with corruption and backroom deals servicing land speculators and luxury housing developers over the needs of citizens. If passed, Measure S will hold our elected officials accountable again.” – former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan
“Donations will continue to flow because [issues related to affordable housing, transit, jobs, sidewalks, open space and many others that impact the viability, cost, and quality of Los Angeles development and life] are meaningful and important and impact development and design. If you want to regulate money in politics, regulate money in politics. Measure S does not do this.” — John Kaliski, John Kaliski Architects
3. “Require systematic, public review of the General Plan every five years.”
What it means: The process of rewriting and updating the city’s General Plan, and individual Community Plans, would begin during the two-year moratorium, with the goal of finishing by the end of that 24-month period. Reviews and rewrites would continue on a legally-mandated five-year cycle.
What it doesn’t mean: This part seems pretty straightforward, and there doesn’t seem to be too much room for alternate interpretation.
Supporters say: This will ensure that plans are kept updated, and continue to address the city’s changing needs over time.
Opponents say: While even opponents – and city officials – agree that city plans are very much overdue for an overhaul (in fact the Mayor has promised to jumpstart this process soon), the city may not really have the resources (personnel and funding) to complete the required plan reviews and updates on such an ambitious schedule. This would be particularly tricky for the first round, which is supposed to be completed during the 24-month moratorium. Also, what happens if the plans aren’t completed during the mandated period, or if – has happened with the recent Hollywood Community plan update – lawsuits contesting proposed changes slow things down even further?
“We need some plans…and under the current system, we ain’t getting no plans.” — Jack Humphreville, MCWCC Measure S Forum
“You’ve got to plan, but I think we have to do it in a way that’s realistic to the moment.” — Luke Klipp, MCWCC Measure S Forum
“If the City is unable to complete the update, we may very well find ourselves back to square one at the end of the moratorium. At that point the damage to the city’s economic development will have been done without the benefit of a re-planned city.” — William H. Fain, Jr., former president, American Institute of Architects, Los Angeles
“The Department of City Planning…will be convening citywide open houses to solicit input and develop a new city master plan for review by 2020…Furtheremore, the City Council and I have funded an ambitious and long-term Community Plan update program that will update each of the 35 Community Plans over the next 10 years.” — Mayor Eric Garcetti
“I have zero confidence” [in City Hall’s ability to fulfill this promise without Measure S]. – Jack Humphreville
4. “Prohibit project applicants from completing environmental impact reports for the city.”
What it means: Currently, developers are allowed to hire their own consultants to produce CEQA-required Environmental Impact Reports for their own projects. Almost always, those developer-funded reports conclude that there will be no negative effects (or only easily mitigated effects) from the proposed development. This provision would require that independent consultants be hired, by the city, to do these studies instead.
What it doesn’t mean: Again, this one is pretty straightforward, without any immediately apparent alternate interpretations.
Supporters say: This would result in more objective environmental impact reports, which would more accurately call out potential problems with increased density, traffic, parking, stress on infrastructure, etc. And more objective reports, would help the city do a better job of recognizing and addressing potential negative effects during the planning and construction process.
Opponents say: Measure S opponents are actually mostly in favor of this one, too…to such a degree that the Mayor and City Council (who oppose Measure S but agree some planning reforms are necessary) have already promised that they will make changes in the existing laws to do exactly this.
“Developers and their special interest lobbyists must no longer be permitted to choose the consultants who literraly write their Environmental Impact Reports for their own developments.” — Michael Weinstein, AIDS Healthcare Foundation, in a letter to Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti
“I have directed the Department of city Planning to prepare options for expanding the City’s oversight of the preparation of Environmental Impact Reports, including the option of requireing that the City select the environmental consultant instead of the developer.” — Mayor Eric Garcetti, in a September 5, 2016 letter to Michael Weinstein.
“I’m a little cynical about what goes on at City Hall…It’s going to work for their buddies, and their buddies are the ones with the cash.” — Jack Humphreville
5. “Require the City make findings of General Plan consistency for planning amendments, project approvals and permits decisions.”
What it means: New development and construction applications would have to be individually reviewed to make sure they are consistent with zoning outlined in the new General Plan…which seems to be another way of reiterating and enforcing the provision prohibiting smaller-scale zoning changes as outlined in #2, above. It would also prevent permits from being issued if conflicts with the General Plan, local zoning, or project conditions were identified.
What it doesn’t mean: Again, fairly straightforward.
Supporters say: This would also help enforce the General Plan, Community Plans and individual project conditions set by the city, which sometimes are ignored as project details evolve over the course of a construction project. It would also help create consistency among city agencies as different offices review plans and issue permits for projects (inconsistencies from office to office are often cited as another big problem with the city’s current planning and approvals processes).
Opponents say: This would create more bureaucratic review and red tape, slowing down the permitting process, straining city resources, and making it more expensive for both the city and developers (and, probably, in the long run, residents). And, as with #2, above, it could likely prevent large numbers of new housing developments from being built.
“This legal finding alone has the power to pull the rug out from underneath many types of speculative real estate leading to displacement, especially McMansions, Small Lot Subdivision, some mid-rise projects built through the demolition of older structures and the evictions of their tenants.” — Dick Platkin, Citywatch
“Our conservative estimate is that at least 9% of all units that received a Certificate of Occupancy between 2011 and 2016 necessitated use of [zoning and plan] exceptions. But the number could be as high as 27%., Nine percent may seem low, suggesting Measures S would be low impact, but the Zone Changes and General Plan Amendments are used predominantly for large-unit projects: 80% of the 70 projects built in this manner between 2011 and 2016 contained 5 units or more. So the evidence indicates that these exceptions are important tools to build higher density. We included example projects (Figures 4 & 5) that would not be built had Measure S been in effect when these projects went through the development pipeline.” — UCLA Lewis Center for Regional Policy Studies.
6. “Prohibit certain parking variances.”
What it means: Developers and property owners would face much stricter rules when applying for special permission to include less than the required amount of required parking for their buildings or projects (a common kind of request these days). This would include parking reductions in low-income developments (where tenants tend to have fewer cars), developments near transit hubs, and even for restaurants in older buildings which were not built with large amounts of on-site parking. Parking variances would be limited to reductions of no more than 1/3 the number of required spaces (including remote off-site parking), which is a much smaller percentage than currently allowed.
What it doesn’t mean: All parking variances would not be banned…just those asking for more than a 1/3 reduction in spaces.
Supporters say: This will ensure that new building projects, and new restaurant uses in older buildings, will provide enough dedicated parking, and prevent parking for their residents and customers from spilling over onto neighborhood streets.
Opponents say: Building parking is very expensive, especially when it has to go underground, so the less parking that has to be built, the more affordable construction and, eventually, housing prices will be. Also, providing less parking encourages residents and customers to walk or take public transit, which helps prevent traffic and gridlock. In general, low income residents and people living near transit lines do have lower rates of car ownership, and – if restaurant, retail and other services are located nearby, as in mixed-use developments – have less need to use cars for non-work-related trips and errands.
“…it will force developers of permanently supportive housing to build excessive parking for formerly homeless individuals, adding approximately $30,000 to $50,000 per unit to the cost of development—despite evidence from past projects that the vast majority of residents will never own a car. Requiring millions of dollars’ worth of parking that we know will never be used is not how we’ll improve affordability in Los Angeles.” — Shane Phillips, StreetsBlog
“…if you’re not in the building trades, and you’re not interested in redesigning sprawling Los Angeles to make it an urbanist utopia, and you’re not a developer, you may just be an ordinary person watching some mega-development go up in your neighborhood, increasing traffic and parking problems…In other words, you’re lunch.” — Susan Shelley, LA Daily News
For and Against
Measure S endorsements and supporters:
AIDS Healthcare Foundation
Hon. Congresswoman Diane Watson (Ret.)
Hon. Richard Riordan, Former Mayor of Los Angeles
Hon. Gloria Romero, California State Senate Majority Leader (Ret.)
Hon. Carmen Trutanich, Los Angeles City Attorney (Ret.)
Hon. Robert Farrell, Los Angeles City Council and Planning and Land Use Management Committee (Ret.)
Hon. Dennis Zine, Los Angeles City Council (Ret.)
Terrence Gomes, President, Los Angeles Neighborhood Council Coalition (LANCC)
Jack Humphreville, Greater Wilshire Neighborhood Council Ratepayer Advocate; DWP Advocacy Committee President
Los Angeles Audubon Society
San Fernando Valley Audubon Society
Citizens for Los Angeles Wildlife (CLAW)
Federation of Hillside and Canyon Associations
Progressive Democrats of the Santa Monica Mountains
Ballona Wetlands Institute
Grace Yoo, Co-Founder, Environmental Justice Collaborative, Koreatown
Rev. Alice Callaghan, Founder, Las Familias del Pueblo Skid Row
Jeff Dietrich, Co-Founder, Catholic Worker Homeless Services
Los Angeles Tenants Union
Elena Popp, Eviction Defense Network, Co-Founder and Executive Director
Southern California Americans for Democratic Action, Board of Directors
Tim Deegan, CityWatch Los Angeles columnist
Dianne Lawrence, Publisher, The Neighborhood News
Elysian Valley/Riverside Neighborhood Council Board of Directors
Westwood Neighborhood Council Board of Directors
Bel Air-Beverly Crest Neighborhood Council Board of Directors
Westlake South Neighborhood Council Board of Directors
Hollywood Hills West Neighborhood Council Board of Directors
United Neighbors for Los Angeles Board of Directors
Measure S opponents:
Los Angeles County Democratic Party
Republican Party of Los Angeles County
Los Angeles Green Party
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti
Los Angeles County Federation of Labor
Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce
Los Angeles Police Protective League
Los Angeles Times
Los Angeles Sentinel
Los Angeles Daily News
Los Angeles Mission
Youth Policy Institute
Neighborhood Housing Services of Los Angeles
Tony Cardenas, Member of Congress
California State Senator Ricardo Lara
California State Assemblymember Richard Bloom
California State Assemblymember Raul Bocanegra
California State Assemblymember Mike Gatto
California State Assemblymember Laura Friedman
Los Angeles County Supervisor Janice Hahn
Los Angeles County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl
Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas
Los Angeles County Supervisor Hilda Solis
Los Angeles City Controller Ron Galperin
Los Angeles City Council President Herb Wesson
Los Angeles City Councilmember Joe Buscaino
Los Angeles City Councilmember Bob Blumenfield
Los Angeles City Councilmember Gil Cedillo
Los Angeles City Councilmember Mitchell Englander
Los Angeles City Councilmember Marqueece Harris-Dawson
Los Angeles City Councilmember Jose Huizar
Los Angeles City Councilmember Paul Krekorian
Los Angeles City Councilmember Nury Martinez
Los Angeles City Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell
Los Angeles City Councilmember Curren Price