Inside Herb Wesson’s radical affordable housing plan

Council prez wants citywide affordable housing guarantees in new resi developments. But it may not pass the legal test.

TRD LOS ANGELES /
Nov.November 18, 2019 07:30 AM
Herb Wesson is proposing drastic measures to regulate market-rate residential development. (Credit: Getty Images)
Herb Wesson is proposing drastic measures to regulate market-rate residential development. (Credit: Getty Images)

There have been many efforts to regulate Los Angeles development in order to create affordable housing units. And then there’s Herb Wesson’s vastly ambitious proposal that passed L.A. City Council last Wednesday.

Council members voted unanimously to direct the city attorney’s office, city Planning Department, and Housing and Community Investment Department to draft an “anti-displacement zone” ordinance.

The plan, authored by City Council President Wesson and adopted in a Planning Land Use Management committee report, recommends that nearly all L.A. residential projects have an affordable housing component, a policy known as inclusionary zoning. It’s been used in other California cities but never tried throughout L.A.

More controversially, Wesson’s plan also recommends capping rent increases at every single residential unit within a one-mile radius of a new market rate development.

Developers and their lawyers are not sure what to make of the proposal, and how it will change after city officials draft an ordinance (a process that could take months).

“This seems like an opening salvo to go ahead and start a discussion on these issues,” said Ryan Leaderman, a land use and environmental attorney at Holland & Knight.

Even affordable housing advocates wonder if Wesson is for real.

“I’m not sure if it’s legal,” said Casey Maddren, executive director at United Neighborhood Los Angeles. “Whatever ordinance is drafted will be controversial and real estate interests will push back against it.”

Other observers, who requested anonymity, wondered if the proposal is misdirection by Wesson, who is wrestling with a Planning Commission appeal on a 577-unit market rate building in Arlington Heights by developer Arman Gabay, who faces federal bribery charges. Wesson has recently voiced concerns about the project lacking an affordable housing set aside.

Wesson has also been fielding tough questions on his relationship with Rosewood Corp.’s Michael Hakim. The Los Angeles Times reported last month that Wesson may have traded favors with Rosewood, shepherding a 27-story Koreatown development through City Hall while his son received a rent freeze on his apartment.

Wesson’s office said the council president is serious about enacting this new plan into law.

“This is what needs to happen in order to protect renters in Los Angeles today and protect communities from displacement due to gentrification,” said Wesson spokesperson Michael Tonetti.

Wesson’s original motion drafted in September referred to luxury residential units in gentrifying neighborhoods – such as West Adams and Arlington Heights in Wesson’s 10th district – that could effectively price out long-time community residents.

However, Tonetti confirmed that what Wesson currently seeks is grander in scope. “The recommendations from the planning committee are to apply these laws throughout the entire city,” Tonetti said.

Wesson wants two key things.

The first is a required affordable housing component for all forthcoming residential development.

All new developments must either utilize the city’s transit-oriented communities projects (in which developers apply for zoning breaks on projects within a half-mile radius of a major transit stop, and have a subsidized housing component for low-and-moderate income renters); use a program that eases density caps if there is a subsidized housing component; or set aside 30 percent of all units for renters with federally subsidized Section 8 vouchers.

The Section 8 component could be a poison pill for landlords who do not make use of city affordable housing programs.

“Anecdotally, most landlords will not take people with Section 8 vouchers,” Maddren said. “It is real tough for those people to find housing.”

As of 2017, the Los Angeles County Housing Authority reported about 17,000 people were on the Section 8 voucher waiting list in L.A. County.

While contentious, the affordable housing component could pass legal muster, said Doug Smith, a lawyer at legal nonprofit Public Counsel.

Smith said that after 2017 passage of Assembly Bill 1505 – which was in response to a lawsuit by L.A. megadeveloper Geoffrey Palmer – California municipalities can pass a law requiring all developments to have an affordable housing component.

Northern California cities including San Jose have such ordinances, and L.A. adjacent municipalities Long Beach and Glendale are weighing similar measures.

“Inclusionary zoning hasn’t gained much traction in L.A.,” Smith said. “But it is a tool the city can use.”

The second big change Wesson is seeking may be on a bit shakier legal footing: a provision to cap rents on all buildings within a one-mile radius of a new development, which is intended to prevent displacement of long-time residents.

State laws, including a recently passed rent control ordinance, forbid rent caps on buildings constructed after 2004.

“I think we need a little more clarity on what’s proposed with rent controls,” Smith said.

Tonetti said that during the ordinance-drafting process, “All the potential legal hurdles are worked out.”


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