How Proposition JJJ Could Change South LA’s Housing Crisis, for Better or Worse

By Aziza Kasumov

South LA resident Glenford Felix moved in with his sister when he was unable to cover his rent.

When Caribbean-born South Los Angeles resident Glenford Felix injured his foot several years ago, he could no longer work at the construction site that employed him. Without the monthly paycheck, Felix was unable to cover rent where he had lived for more than two decades.

After years of searching for a way to make it on his own, Felix moved in with sister, where he has lived “at the mercy of his family” ever since.

“I really need my own place,” said Felix, whose daughter, currently living in Washington with her mother, is graduating high school and might move to LA for college.

“I need to look out for her, too. But it’s so hard if I don’t get this housing.”

Glenford Felix rests on the porch of his sister’s home.

Felix is not the only one in his neighborhood struggling to find affordable housing. Gentrification in South LA and the neighboring University of Southern California’s ever-growing demand for student housing have pushed real estate prices and rent through the roof. According to real estate data site Zumper, the median rent for a one-bedroom apartment in South LA jumped from $1,000 in September 2015 to $1,200 in September 2016. Prices are rising faster in South LA than in the city overall, where in 2015, rent for a one-bedroom apartment increased by 9.24 percent.

But in Felix’ eyes, there’s hope on the horizon, and it comes in the form of a measure on the Nov. 8 ballot. Proposition JJJ would require developers in Los Angeles to pay construction workers a salary similar to prevailing wages (those union workers get paid), recruit a workforce composed of 30 percent local hires for developments and, depending on the size of the development, set aside between 11 to 25 percent of their units for low-income tenants.

The requirements would apply only to construction projects in need of exemptions from the city’s zoning restrictions. If developers want such plans to be considered, they would need to either comply with Proposition JJJ’s requirements or pay a fee to the city’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund.

Supporters of the proposition justify their twofold approach by saying well-paying jobs and affordable housing go hand in hand.

“You can’t have one without the other,” said Sandra McNeill, CEO of TRUST South LA. The pro-affordable housing group is part of the Build Better LA coalition, which fought to put Prop. JJJ on the ballot by collecting more than 90,000 signatures in support of the measure.

READ MORE: Nonprofit Spotlight: TRUST South LA

According to McNeill, over 75 percent of South LA residents are renters who feel they’re not in a position to advocate for themselves because they fear voicing their concerns may provoke landlords to evict them.

“[Renters] are most vulnerable when it comes to rising housing prices,” McNeill said. “What that means is overcrowding. People are living in unhealthy conditions.”

McNeill believes the proposition will be what she called a logical puzzle piece in solving the affordable housing crisis. Developers, on the other hand, warn that Measure JJJ could worsen the city’s crisis by increasing construction costs through the mandate of higher wages.

“It will drive up cost, increase construction costs and make housing less affordable,” said Tim Piasky, CEO of the Building Industry Association. “You’re going to be in a situation where you’re either going to build luxury housing or subsidized housing and eliminate the middle.”

Another critic of the proposition, LA Chamber of Commerce President Gary Toebben, said some builders will opt out of building in the city and move their projects to other areas of Los Angeles County.

“It’s safe to say that the construction of affordable housing has not been as high a priority for the city in recent years as it is today,” said Toebben. “I understand the concern. But the additional cost will not force builders to build more affordable housing.”

Between now and 2021, the city is expected to need an additional 82,000 new housing units; 57 percent of them for very low- and low-income households, according to a 2013 report by the Los Angeles Department of City Planning.

But according to Raphael Bostic, a USC professor and expert on housing and urban development, the number of new units currently being built just isn’t keeping up with the number of people coming into the city.

“The city is 70,000 to 100,000 units short of affordable housing units,” Bostic said. That’s not including the approximately 82,000 units LA will need to meet the growing demand. In South LA, this shortfall hits especially hard.

An economic analysis released this month by Los Angeles consulting firm Beacon Economics found that the proposition, if passed, might actually achieve the opposite of its goals. Because the proposition has the potential to raise development costs, Adam Fowler, Manager of Public Policy Research at the LA-based consulting firm, said the measure might end up pricing more people out of LA’s housing market.

Build Better LA, the initiative supporting the proposition, on the other hand, quotes its own study. Based on City Council’s approved projects, and conducted with the help of a University of California, Irvine, Ph.D. student, the study presents that if the measure had passed three years ago, there would be 11,565 new local jobs and 5,522 more affordable homes in the city today. The research, however, does not take into account different choices developers may have made under the new measure.

While projects not currently supported by city funds, such as luxury developments, might have to adjust wage rates for their construction workers, a majority of developers building affordable housing in LA use city funds for construction, which requires them to pay their workers prevailing wages. Groups supporting the proposition maintain that because most low-income developers already pay their workers the wages the proposition aims for, project costs will increase only minimally.

“The changes asked for in zoning requirements create wealth, so [the developers] can pay,” said Matt Schwartz, CEO of the California Housing Partnership Cooperation. He feels the measure is a fair bargain. “Without it we’re seeing massive displacements of low-income households.”

Schwartz said changes like those proposed by Measure JJJ would typically be better implicated by legislative bodies than through a ballot action. But progress, he said, is hampered. His organization has seen a 62 percent decrease in federal and state funds allocated for low-income developments in Los Angeles County between the years 2009 and 2015,.

“The mayor and City Council have shown that they care about [affordable housing], but at least one of their hands is tied,” Schwartz said. “[Those cuts are] a huge hit on local governments’ ability to respond to affordable housing crises.”

Many residents interpret this as their representatives not caring about low-income housing, Schwartz said.

One of them is Felix, who says his vote of confidence will go to Prop JJJ.

“I’d give the City Council a ‘T for trying,” he said. “[But] if we just leave [affordable housing] the way it is, people are going to be homeless.”