Copyright 1991 The Times Mirror Company
Los Angeles Times
November 10, 1991, Sunday, Home Edition
SECTION: Part A; Page 1; Column 1; Metro Desk
LENGTH: 1929 words
HEADLINE: BRADLEY RETREATS FROM AFFORDABLE HOUSING PLAN;
PLANNING: MISCALCULATIONS BY THE MAYOR'S OFFICE TRIGGERED A BACKLASH AMONG
BYLINE: By FRANK CLIFFORD, TIMES URBAN AFFAIRS WRITER
Three months after Mayor Tom Bradley made homeowner groups the villain in
a high-profile drive to build more affordable housing in the city, the
mayor's campaign is in retreat.
The affordable housing strategy, in essence, became a victim of the
Bradley Administration's faulty statistics and overheated rhetoric, which
triggered a potent backlash among homeowner groups citywide. As a result,
what began as a debate over housing policy is threatening to turn into a
bitter dispute over the rights of haves and have-nots.
The debate asks whether Los Angeles can make room for a population that is
expanding by more than 25,000 households a year, many of them poor, while
preserving the single-family neighborhoods and low-density apartment
districts that have been oases for the urban middle-class for generations.
The mayor's original housing strategy would have made it easier to build
apartments in many neighborhoods by relaxing environmental reviews of
proposed buildings, by permitting low-rise apartment complexes in
single-family neighborhoods, and by legalizing the construction of "granny
flats" or extra units next to single-family homes.
However, none of those provisions remain in the revised version of the
plan. After months of controversy, the strategy now is to focus on
building housing near commuter rail lines and other transportation
corridors and on preserving existing affordable housing.
As the latest plan heads for City Council consideration this week, neither
side in the housing debate has much good to say about the way the issue
has been handled. First, city officials exaggerated the shortage of
residentially zoned land and then Bradley picked a fight with homeowners
who make up one of the most formidable interest groups in the city.
"Suddenly, the mayor was attacking the bedrock of the city, the people who
vote and who pay for most of the improvements," said Barbara Fein, a
Westside homeowner activist.
"The approach they (the Bradley Administration) took on this thing was
wrong," said Ted Stein, a developer and member of the city Planning
Commission who is in favor of an aggressive policy on affordable housing.
Bradley blamed the housing shortage on the so-called "NIMBY" (not in my
back yard) phenomenon. Homeowners, he said, contributed to the problems of
homelessness and overcrowding by pushing through zoning laws that put
thousands of acres of residential land off limits for low-income
In reaction to the mayor's comments, more than 150 homeowner groups
representing rich and poor neighborhoods joined in a federation to oppose
the mayor's plan.
The mayor's affordable housing campaign culminated years of work by a new
housing bureaucracy. An affordable housing commission, a housing
department and the job of housing coordinator in the mayor's office all
were created. Partly, it was a response to criticism that Bradley had not
done nearly enough about housing during the 1980s.
City officials estimate that only one in five families is able to afford
to buy a home, that nearly 200,000 families are doubled up and tripled up
in cramped quarters, that more than 40,000 families live in garages or
other "bootleg" units and that up to 150,000 families are homeless at some
point during the year.
No one disputes those figures. But when the Bradley Administration
unveiled its affordable housing strategy last summer, it chose to use
another statistic as the linchpin of its publicity campaign -- and that
proved to be a mistake.
Gary Squier, who heads the city's housing department, announced that under
existing zoning, the city had room for barely 100,000 more housing units.
In other words, the city was four years away from running out of
residentially zoned land. Clearly, the city was going to have to take
drastic action to avoid homelessness and overcrowding at record levels,
not to mention seeing its employment base disappear into the hinterlands
in search of affordable homes.
But Squier's figures did not hold up. Taken from a preliminary draft of a
city planning department study, the numbers were quite different in the
department's final draft. In the revised study, the inventory of building
space became 10 times greater. The city's residential building capacity
grew from a scant 100,000 units to over 1 million. According to the new
numbers, the city had enough potential residential capacity to house
25,000 new families every year for 40 years.
Before the second draft was released, the mayor's office embarked on the
second phase of its strategy -- blaming the housing shortage on homeowner
City officials contend that the shortage is a direct result of massive
court-ordered rezoning in 1985, which restricted or prohibited building on
200,000 parcels of land and reduced the city's residential capacity by 2
million people. The rezoning was the result of a lawsuit brought by a
federation of neighborhood associations arguing that the city was
permitting new development in excess of limits allowed under various
In August, the mayor delivered two controversial speeches that emphasized
the theme of homeowner responsibility.
Bradley said a major impediment to affordable housing is that "those who
are already in place, those who have their neighborhoods very nicely built
up somehow seem to believe that they don't have a responsibility to those
who follow them. And so the NIMBY attitude takes over."
Homeowner representatives were furious. They felt that they were being
depicted as racists and elitists.
Aides to Bradley who draft his speeches insist that the mayor was not
trying to be provocative.
"We were trying to make the point that in some instances neighborhood
groups have opposed new residential development no matter how benign the
development is," said Michael Bodaken, the mayor's housing coordinator.
"There are people around the mayor who felt they needed a stick to hold
over the homeowners. They felt they needed to create a crisis to get their
program through," said a highly placed city official who is involved in
the housing debate but who asked to remain anonymous.
Bradley's invective was accompanied by an eight-point strategy on
affordable housing, much of it aimed at the teeth of the homeowner
Especially galling to homeowner groups was a proposal to eliminate
environmental reviews for small- and medium-sized apartment buildings.
Such a waiver would cut developers' time and costs but would deprive
neighborhood groups of a hard-won right to make sure that new buildings
match the character and quality of their environs. It would have affected
an estimated 50% of all new apartment buildings.
Homeowner representative Fein called the mayor's plan "a developer's wish
list come true."
She and others noted that more than 85% of all apartment construction in
the past five years has been market rate projects in affluent
neighborhoods where there has been little population growth. Many of those
projects were fought by homeowner groups, and Fein argued that the mayor's
proposals would do little to redirect development toward overcrowded,
Neighborhood groups had another bone to pick with the mayor. Accused of
keeping affordable housing out of their neighborhoods, groups pointed to
their efforts to preserve moderately priced apartments in several parts of
the city -- only to meet resistance from City Hall.
An especially bitter battle has been fought in the Fairfax and
Mid-Wilshire area, once home to the city's largest concentration of
elderly renters. The area has been changing, according to neighborhood
activists, because developers supported by the Bradley Administration and
City Council have succeeded in tearing down 50 apartment buildings and
replacing them with complexes that rent for an average of $500 more per
"It's been a case of real estate rape and pillage in our neighborhood, and
we have yet to hear a peep of protest from the mayor's office," said
activist Denise Robb.
The mayor's housing strategy began to come unraveled in late August with
the release of the planning department's second set of figures on housing
Housing chief Squier said he was blindsided by the new numbers. Not so,
say planning department officials who insist that they told Squier that
the first set of statistics were "preliminary" and subject to change.
Some of the strongest advocates of the housing strategy argue that the
first set of numbers paints a more realistic picture of housing space than
does the later version. For example, planning commissioner Stein still
insists that there are only about 100,000 vacant residential plots where
housing could be built any time soon.
Any larger figure, Stein said, counts property that is developed, though
not to its fullest potential. Reaching that potential is unlikely, he
said, because it would necessitate tearing down thousands of older
apartment buildings to make way for larger complexes.
However, Stein and Squier conceded that the confusion over the figures has
made the housing plan seem less urgent and made it an easy target for the
newly formed homeowners federation.
"Instead of looking for more housing opportunities, we had to shift into a
defensive mode where we focus on trying to preserve what we have," Stein
Much of what the homeowner groups objected to in the housing strategy was
"They went through and edited out a big chunk of our concerns," said
architect William Christopher, one of the organizers of the new homeowners
Squier talked about the lessons he has learned from the episode.
"I learned that there exists a number of neighborhood groups that have
fought hard against unplanned, wanton development, and I learned that we
can't succeed unless we have those groups on our side, knowing that they
aren't going to be victimized in the process.
"It's also clear to me that we don't need any more NIMBY rhetoric," Squier
Squier said that when the remains of the housing strategy come before the
City Council, he hopes to win approval for several important provisions,
including proposals to pay for the rehabilitation of homes and apartments
in low-income neighborhoods, to establish a slumlord task force to target
slum properties for criminal prosecution, and to identify city-owned land
that could be used for housing.
Despite Squier's conciliatory tone, he maintains that the slow-growth
tactics of homeowner groups -- curbing development through lawsuits,
downzoning and building delays -- are the main obstacles to new affordable
housing in the city.
Some homeowner representatives agree that their efforts to protect their
neighborhoods have limited the number of renters.
Jerry Bonar, who heads a Silver Lake residents association, talks about
the balance a neighborhood must achieve between homeowners and tenants to
preserve safe streets and good schools.
He estimates that his association has reduced multifamily zoning in Silver
Lake by 30% to 40%, at the same time ensuring that most apartment
buildings are comparatively small, with 12 to 24 units.
"Where a massing of units is allowed, and we've had some of that, we
predict there will be slums," he said.
Bonar is an architect and much of his work is with nonprofit groups
building apartment buildings for poor people in downtown Los Angeles. Yet,
away from work he shares the apprehension of many homeowners about any
program that would inundate his neighborhood with apartments.
"It scares the hell out of us."