When the Wealthy and Privileged Hijack All the Narratives—Including Convincing the Poor that Housing Is Bad
It’s frightening when the wealthy hijack the narratives of the good. And they did so brilliantly in 2016 and will continue to do so this year.
When I walked into a shop in East LA last year, I was utterly perturbed when I saw a poster taped to the inside of a window, showing the laughing-crying emoji with a giant set of bold words: “Luxury housing helps poor people LOL.”
The sign I had seen before. It was jeering one thing—a nonpartisan, nonprofit, academically-sound study by the California Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO) that noted a cure to the affordable housing crisis in California would be to build luxury houses in urban coastal cities—while cheering on the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative (NII, aka Measure S), a nightmarish ballot initiative facing LA voters in March that, if enacted, would put a permanent moratorium on all General Plan amendments and zoning code variances.
In other words, if passed, NII will shut down housing on practically all levels in a city that is short on housing in a county that is short on housing in a state that is short on housing.
Cuts in annual federal and state funding, including elimination of Redevelopment, have reduced our county’s investment in affordable housing production and preservation by more than $440M annually since 2008, a 62% reduction.
I approached the charming woman behind the counter, asking her where she got the mini poster. She proceeded to tell me that “wonderful people” came into her shop, asking her if she wanted to preserve the life she had in Boyle Heights. Like NIMBY missionaries, this crew of preachers warned her of apocalyptic development invading the neighborhood, the same one inflicting the rest of the city with a giant BOOM… She heard of Gentrifying with a Capital G… She was preached to about ruining the working class, heavily Latino neighborhood with its elevated donut shops, expensive art galleries, and—here was the kicker—evil, evil, evil… housing.
I mean that: housing.
I get the distaste for organic, GMO-free donut shops and seemingly elitist art galleries—one of the main reasons I mostly1 supported the guerilla tactics of some anti-gentrification badasses in Boyle Heights, including the Boyle Heights Alliance Against Artwashing and Displacement.
For all the great things gentrifiers think they bring to a neighborhood—including perceived safety and bike lanes and parks and restaurants—these things can bring about much more horrible things—including displacement, exorbitant rent increases, and a loss of culture from those that, bluntly put, invested in an undesirable neighborhood and stood by it when others wouldn’t (until now).
But housing? Activists don’t want… Housing?
Yup, housing. Of any kind, of every kind. This information is provided to the poor and working class with, of course, no context on any level. There is no discussion of how affordable housing should be fought for, that developers shouldn’t be given control of the land housing is being solely built on, that where housing goes and what type of housing is built is essential, how developers should face an affordable housing impact fee when it comes to new development….
There was just one simple equation delivered: development=bad no matter what.
It was an interesting theory put forth by these proselytizers but one that was thinly veiled by a simple truth: NII is being driven by wealthy people trying to preserve their own LA wonderland of big driveways, bigger highways, and one of the biggest shutouts of housing development in the country. Hell, one of the most disturbing quotes from NII’s most perturbing supporters—Michael Weinstein, abusing his post at the world’s largest AIDS nonprofit to further his own agendas—is this: “People moved here for the L.A. lifestyle. And that’s a lifestyle that I love. If I wanted to live in Manhattan, I would live there.”
Weinstein makes $400K a year and lives removed from the “crap” (as he describes it) that is the rest of LA up in the hills of Hollywood.
Let’s break down one inherently dishonest claim of the anti-development leaders, the claim that there is a so-called “development boom” in LA—and by breaking it down, I mean to say that there isn’t one.2
The current lack of housing is also connected to our lack of affordable housing: cuts in annual federal and state funding, including the elimination of Redevelopment, have reduced our county’s investment in affordable housing production and preservation by more than $440M annually since 2008, a 62% reduction.
The low income renters of the county also bear huge burdens.
While median income renters spend an average of 28% of their income on rent, leaving the other seventy-two percent of their income to go toward things likes food and transportation to work, lower income folks aren’t as privileged. Households earning half of the median income or less spend a staggering 71% of their income on rent alone.3 What this ultimately results in is not only less money for essentials like food but having to heavily consider issues like the cost of travel (not just for errands but for jobs and therefore the inability to accept certain jobs).
When it comes to rent burden—that is, 50% or more of one’s income being solely relegated to rent—the numbers are even more alarming: 83% of extremely low income households, 57% of very low income households, and 19% of low income households are burdened by rent.4
Meanwhile, median income or above-median income households sit at 5% and 1% respectively in terms of those who experience rent burden.
The need for more housing, particularly the affordable kind, is so urgent that newly minted Senator and former San Francisco Supervisor Scott Wiener introduced legislation in his first day on the job this past December that incentivizes (and in some cases, forces) cities to push housing development forward.
“The housing crisis is not just about it being hard for people today to find housing; that is a huge problem and the housing crisis fuels evictions, displacement and makes it hard for families to grow,” Wiener said. “But the housing crisis is also threatening our economic growth in California. If an employer believes its workers will not be able to find housing near the workplace, that employer is going to decide to locate elsewhere or to grow its workforce in another state.”
For Wiener, housing is no longer part of a city-by-city issue but a statewide issue—hence why he pushed the legislation forward within hours of being sworn in.
His proposal, broken into two parts, is first based on legislation he successfully pushed in San Francisco which exempts every single 100% affordable housing development around the state from certain local development requirements, such as the very lengthy conditional use authorization process. The second part would penalize cities that don’t meet their state-set building goals while, on the flipside, providing developers the ability to skip some local requirements if they are constructing homes in places that haven’t built aggressively enough.
The issue is so dire that Palo Alto is considering subsidized housing for those earning $250K per year. A fireman in Menlo? He openly discussed his choice to commute four hours from Reno to escape impossible-to-pay rent costs.
It is that bad.
And Los Angeles County? We’re leading the way in being behind on building houses. Per the California LAO, Los Angeles County would have had to built 1,055,310 housing units over the past thirty years in order to keep pace with housing costs nationwide—nearly triple the amount San Francisco would have had to complete.
Whether it’s Boyle Heights or Long Beach, let’s get one thing clear, folks: wealthy people will not hesitate moving into or buying buildings in a place they normally wouldn’t have if there isn’t a place for them to live otherwise. And we’ve already noted that rent spikes and a lack of housing contribute to homelessness and displacement—and that building more housing, especially luxury housing west of the 405, is the key to solving many issues.
This is a what I call a narrative of the good: increase overall housing supply, increase affordable housing, lower displacement, and have a healthy conversation about the dangers (and yes, even possible benefits) of gentrification when neighborhoods, particularly working class communities, are invaded by the wealthy and privileged.
Of course, there is a darker side to the good narrative I bring up: developers have hopped on the Build And Build More bandwagon, touting their contribution to the crisis—but failing to recognize that they evade the inclusion of onsite affordable housing through “generous donations” to affordable housing funds.
Just as bad, on the flipside, wealthy NIMBYs have courted working class folks into believing that housing is the devil when, in fact, building more houses is what helps the working class continue to afford living in California.
As horrifying as the term is in terms of its reference, “trickle down housing” is real: give wealthy people a place to live and they will live there, freeing up Class A and B units by their re-designation to Class B and C units to those that need them. Even more, places that have built more housing units have maintained lower rents, particularly for those in the lower income bracket.
The problem is that we are not focusing on where that development should go and how it should be considered: from the problematic Reef project—a project that seems like a livability win but entirely excludes onsite affordable units and caters to an affluent clientele in one of the poorest and crowded parts of the entire county—to the lack of regulations to limit rent increases to reasonable cost of living adjustments to even setting a standard that incentivizes existing housing complex owners to abandon their Section 8 voucher.
Why is that last point so important? Here’s how Section 8 vouchers work and why property owners are attracted to them: for whatever their renters pay, the State will compensate the rest to the owner with market rate returns. That’s right: property owners will have a building that is covered at market rate. But even that incentive is being abandoned because shiny developments moving in nearby mean the property value increases—and prompts property owners to let go of their apartment buildings that house many low income families in favor of
And, of course, Long Beach is not immune to the trend.
One recent listing for a property in Alamitos Beach bragged about its proposed increases, complete with promises of “[improvements for] all of the existing apartments and increased rents by 75-90% within the first six months of operation. [their emphasis]”
75% to 90% increases in rents in six months—and seemingly without question.
Even worse? The hate comes out.
This comment thread about an upcoming housing development—one that, mind you, isn’t even that dense—in a parking lot shows just how vile the Kind White Folk on the Eastside can be, including a reference that affordable housing brings in gang members:
We’ve reached a point where low income is directly associated with gang members. We’ve reached a point where planning commissioners are accused of taking free “fancy dinners” to approve housing projects. And we’ve reached a point where people honestly believe East Long Beach is overwhelmingly packed “with people and cars.” (It is the least dense part of the entire city and one of the least dense areas of the entire county.) And these people—be they wealthy heads of organizations in Hollywood or East Long Beachers—are likely to be part of one of two camps: they are uninformed or, as is the case with many, they are trying to preserve their comfortable life so the less fortunate can’t have one.
So what are we to do? We take the suggestions brought forth by the California Housing Partnership corporation:
On a state level: expand the California Low Income Housing Tax Credit while improving the value of the California LIHTC. Create an ongoing, predictable revenue source annually for the production and preservation of homes affordable to lower-income households. Approve a new housing bonds. Authorize local governments to use tax increment financing for locally approved affordable housing benefit districts and to issue bonds. Reaffirm cities’ authority to require the inclusion of a percentage of homes affordable to low- and moderate-income households in new rental housing development. Streamline local approvals including environmental review for 100% affordable housing developments consistent with local plans and zoning.
On a local level: support initiatives [like Supervisor Sheila Kuehl’s proposal] for the County to fully fund its new Affordable Housing Program. As mentioned previously, we should be igniting battles to have cities dedicate a majority of their residual tax increment from the dissolution of Redevelopment to create affordable rental homes and we should enact an affordable housing impact fee on new development. We need to strengthen laws that prohibit disproportionate rent increases. Offer up-zoning incentives only to developers who do not remove rent-controlled or other currently affordable homes from the market and those who provide one-for-one replacement prior to removing currently affordable homes from the market to avoid displacement.
It’s not just business—it’s political. And our lawmakers have the upper hand but currently refuse to use it so we have to move it for them.
- I was, however, not entirely supportive with everything they did; I had many issues with the specific protest of the Nicodim Gallery, where activists scrawled “white art” on its metal door. Unfortunately, the owner of that gallery, Mihai Nicodim, is a Romanian refugee who had to swim across the Danube River in 1983 in order to escape communist persecution and become, in his eyes, a free artist. Coming to the US, he was homeless until he saved enough money to achieve his dream: opening an art gallery. This single story is one of many that complicates the issue of gentrification and what it is and isn’t.
- There are contextual caveats to the first graphic, as fellow journalist and friend Sahra Sulaiman brilliantly pointed out, the 1950s boom in housing was largely paired with an eradication of ethnic communities.
- These statistics are per the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC)’s analysis of the 2014 US Census Bureau’s PUMS data and were also used to created the graphic discussing the county’s low income renters versus the affordable units available. Original graphic from the California Housing Partnership Corp.
- Data per NLIHCanalysis of the 2014 US Census Bureau’s PUMS data. Extremely low income is defined as someone earning 30% or less than the median income. Very low income is defined as someone earning 30% to 50% of the median income within an area. Original graphic from the California Housing Partnership Corp.