Our City Council Could Easily Build Public Housing In Los Angeles — Instead Of Giving Away Public Property To Private Developers For Putatively Affordable Housing — But Instead They Say Public Housing Is Illegal — They Say They Can’t Do It — This Is A Lie — Here Are Concrete Steps We Can Take To Force Them To At Least Try To Build Some

The Los Angeles City Council is very fond of giving away publicly owned property to real estate developers to build what passes for affordable housing.1 Judging by the fact that they never do it, they’re decidedly unfond of building public housing.2 At least some Councilmembers, though, are also fond of lying about their ability to build public housing at all — ask one about it and maybe they’ll tell you that new public housing projects are illegal in California.3

This is a lie, by the way. An utterly shameless lie. In fact they could easily use City land for City-owned housing. Here are some steps we might take to force them to do it. But first let’s talk about the origin of this illegal public housing lie. It’s based on Article 34 of the California Constitution.4 The key part says:

No low rent housing project shall hereafter be developed, constructed, or acquired in any manner by any state public body until, a majority of the qualified electors of the city, town or county, as the case may be, in which it is proposed to develop, construct, or acquire the same, voting upon such issue, approve such project by voting in favor thereof at an election to be held for that purpose, or at any general or special election.

That’s it. When someone tells you that public housing is illegal in California they mean that it can’t be built without an election to approve it. It’s not illegal, it just has to be approved directly by voters, which is a very different thing. So when a CM proposes to give City property to private developers for putatively affordable housing, they could just as easily put a proposition on the ballot asking Angelenos to approve public housing there instead.5

City Council has the power to put measures on the ballot, so that’s not an obstacle. And they will in fact initiate ballot measures for their friends and donors. Notably, for instance, in 2017 City Council put Charter Amendment C on the ballot at the behest of the LA Police Protective League, which essentially destroyed the already ineffective LAPD disciplinary process. The fact that the Council hasn’t put public housing on the ballot is their conscious choice. So what can we do as activists to force Council to use this power? Here are some ideas:

  1. Let’s find one sympathetic CM and pressure them to pick one suitable city-owned property in their district to try this out on.6
  2. That CM should make a motion to place the question on the next ballot. It’s hard to see how such a motion could lose given the extent to which Council relies on deference to keep the wheels turning, but if it does we’ll have forced the other CMs to commit publicly to their position on public housing. We could have any number of these on every ballot if it works out.
  3. Neighborhood councils could play an essential role in this part. If enough of them pass resolutions asking their CM to do this, and enough pass CISes supporting such a motion, its success becomes much more likely.
  4. If the ballot measure fails we’ll have a great deal of information for future elections, but it’s very likely to succeed given the mood of the electorate.
  5. If this works we can next find a CM to move an ordinance requiring that before City property is given to private developers for affordable housing a measure asking for a public housing project there be placed on the next ballot. If it fails we can give it to the developer and if it passes we build public housing.
  6. If we get this far we can work to get Council to initiate a Charter amendment requiring that all City property go through this process.
  7. It would also be very good to include the City’s eminent domain power as well. Maybe an ordinance or a Charter amendment requiring the City to seek out suitable properties and initiate ballot measures asking to acquire them by ED and develop them as public housing?

The point is that while Article 34 may make it more difficult to build public housing, it is by no means impossible. When Los Angeles City Councilmembers tell you it’s illegal they mean they don’t want to do it. Which of course is what they always mean. Let’s do this!

  1. An explanation of this process is far out of the scope of this post. They do this all the time, though. Just for instance earlier this week Nithya Raman made two separate such motions.
  2. I’m not interested in convincing anyone that publicly owned housing rather than this public/private BS is the only plausible way to solve our City’s housing crisis. If you don’t already see this I can’t help you.
  3. None of them have ever said this to me, probably because they’re too busy screaming at me in lieu of complying with the Public Records Act, but that’s a whole different story.
  4. I’m not going into the history of this Article. That’s a long, fascinating, and appalling subject which is far too much for this post.
  5. Would it win? I think it would. Just look at how overwhelmingly Measure J passed in 2020. But even if it didn’t pass we’d learn something important. There’s no downside to trying it.
  6. Suitable in the sense that it’s legal to build housing on it without a variance and that it’s not in a location that will in itself cause controversy. I’m not interested in giving in to greedhead NIMBYs, but we only have finite resources and for this proof of concept it seems worthwhile to minimize the number of battles.
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