L.A. Urbanists and Planners are Hurtling Towards a Humiliating Defeat, and They Don’t Seem to Know Why

As someone who is broadly sympathetic towards the goal of a denser, more urban Los Angeles, watching the campaign surrounding Measure S has been a dismal experience. Not because of any of the consequences that would arise if Measure S passes, and not because of any so-called NIMBY supporting it, but because every attempt to fight this initiative seems to have fallen flat on its face.

Watching the campaign against Measure S has been eerily akin to watching the slow-motion trainwreck that was the Hillary Clinton campaign and the fight against Brexit. And the way things are going, it looks like a lot of mistakes that were made in those campaigns are being repeated in Los Angeles.

First, a little background: Measure S—formerly known as the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative—is a ballot measure that will go up for a vote as part of a citywide election in March 2017. If it passes, it will impose a two-year moratorium on development that requires any exception to standard zoning rules. This is particularly significant in Los Angeles because the General Plan and most of the neighborhood-level Community Plans are outdated (and apparently the process to update the plans is notoriously difficult), so for years developers have been using a process called “spot zoning”, where exceptions to the General Plan are allowed on a case-by-case basis by the city council. Measure S would effectively end this practice, as well as make some changes to the city’s planning laws, like requiring more frequent reviews of the General Plan and mandating that city staff—rather than developers—conduct environmental reviews of proposed developments.

Developers, the business community, construction unions, and urbanists have all lined up against Measure S, for pretty obvious reasons. City planners are almost universally against it for a number of reasons, but perhaps the most pressing one is that the conditions of Measure S will put a lot of strain on the already limited resources of the planning department. And affordable housing advocates are against it since it will make building more housing a difficult endeavor in the near future. In fact, pretty much all the powers that be in City Hall—the establishment, if you will—have stated their opposition to Measure S, not unlike what we saw with Hillary Clinton’s campaign or the anti-Brexit campaign.

So with all these people coming out against Measure S, representing such a diverse coalition of organizations and interests, they must have this thing licked, right?

Yeah, funny that.

See, everyone acknowledges that there are serious problems with the current planning process in Los Angeles. Even the official website for the No on Measure S coalition says, “Does our city planning need to be fixed? Yes, but this initiative goes too far!” There’s seemingly universal agreement that the city’s planning documents need to be updated. A lot of people agree that spot zoning should not be a routine practice. And there are plenty of legitimate concerns over the role of developer money in local politics, which has led to city councilors proposing a ban on campaign contributions from developers while their projects are being reviewed by city officials.

It’s never a good sign when you’re starting from a defensive position. And that’s the terrible irony of the fight over Measure S: the coalition of people and organizations fighting this initiative, which includes many principled and visionary people with great ideas for the future of Los Angeles—urbanists, planners, public transit and affordable housing advocates, union reps, people fighting homelessness and wealth inequality—have all been backed into the corner of defending an immiserating status quo against the possibility of something even worse.

Measure S has a strong, compelling narrative driving its campaign. (I should probably add that by “compelling”, I don’t mean “something that I personally agree with” or “something that I find to be accurate”. What I mean is “something that I think will drive a lot of people to the polls”.) That narrative goes something like this: For too long, fat cat developers have run roughshod over L.A. They’ve been allowed to build giant developments for the wealthy because they’ve bought City Hall. We’re going to stop them. It’s a clear, simple message that has obvious appeal. Winning political campaigns are built on winning messages, and these guys have a hell of a message.

And what do the good defenders of urbanism have to offer in response? A confusing set of statistics and a vague warning that housing will get pricier if the other guys win.

Actually, that’s not fair. They also have one of the worst political slogans I’ve ever heard in my entire life: “Goes Too Far”.

Goes too far? Are you serious? That’s your selling point? That’s not damning condemnation, that’s someone lightly nagging you. “Goes Too Far” isn’t a call to political action; it’s what you say about your friend who has had one too many drinks on a Friday night.

The backers of Measure S have the upbeat and catchy “Yes on S”. Urbanists get the completely uninspiring “Goes Too Far”. What’s even worse about “goes too far” as a political slogan is that it suggests that your opponents are at least going somewhere. When you’re trying to mount a defense of a status quo that voters are generally unenthusiastic about, implying that the other guys have momentum or some general direction in mind probably isn’t the wisest move.

But the slogan is just the most apparent example of tone-deafness from the No on Measure S forces. In recent weeks, a chart showing the age of Los Angeles’ housing stock has been making the rounds on urbanist forums. What it shows is that L.A. is three decades into a major slump of new housing construction.

la_housing_by_yearbuilt

There’s a couple of minor issues I have with this chart (namely that the most recent data point covers only five years even though it’s being presented in direct comparison to a set of ten-year data points), but the main point it’s making is a perfectly valid one and an important one to make. But since Abundant Housing L.A. first presented it, Measure S opponents have been pointing to this chart and saying, “See? The backers of Measure S claim that we are overdeveloping, when in fact the data shows the opposite! Therefore the premise for their ballot initiative is flawed! Ha-hah!

When I look at this chart, I see something very different. I see a sad state of affairs. I look at that dinky little bar labeled ‘Boom’ and think, “This is the status quo that you’re asking voters to defend? These are the conditions under which you’re counting on people to get enthusiastic enough that they will come out to the polls?”

If there was an actual housing boom going on, you guys might actually have something to get voters excited about. If you had some massive program of affordable housing construction going on, you could point to it and say, “Look at all the good we’re doing! And it’s only going to get better! Let’s not stop now!” But no. You’re saying way more housing should be built, but you’re not actually promising it. You’re not offering voters anything more than what’s already being built. And all of that amounts to that tiny little bar.

In short, you’re counting on voters to defend practically nothing.

There’s a similar tone-deafness when it comes to addressing the uncomfortable truth that most new housing is built for the rich. A good example of this comes from Shane Phillips, who has referred to Measure S as “the Donald Trump of initiatives” (which makes me feel even more comfortable comparing the No on Measure S coalition with the Hillary Clinton campaign). Phillips writes:

The pro-initiative folks will tell you that this is all irrelevant, since the new housing is all targeted at rich people anyway. Putting aside the fact that those luxury units are often accompanied by on-site affordable housing, they’re still wrong. Going back all the way to the bungalow era, new housing has almost always been targeted at higher-income residents. Over time these new units age, better options become available, and the older ones “filter” down to moderate and lower income households.

This is all perfectly reasonable. But you would have to be remarkably out of touch with the world not to understand why this argument is going to have little political appeal. What this essentially boils down to is, “Yeah, sure, most new housing is built for the rich. But you have to let us keep building housing for the rich! And someday—eventually—it will trickle down to you!” Although if that chart is anything to go by, there isn’t going to be a lot of housing trickling down to us plebeians anytime soon.

I mean, hell, if you have to defend the meager amount of housing being built, at least try some sort of populist spin. You know all those fancy new developments going up in Downtown L.A.? That’s not “luxury housing for the wealthy”, it’s rich people containment. Downtown isn’t experiencing a “housing boom”, but a tactical strategy where we’re keeping the rich preoccupied over there so that they don’t come and ruin our neighborhoods over here. It’s basically a rehashing of the old “we’re fighting them over there so we don’t have to fight them here” justification for the War on Terror. You know, tap into that NIMBY sentiment you guys keep complaining about.

Now, you might scoff at that suggestion and regard that as silly. And yeah, it is silly. But at this point, I would rather take my chances with that as a political strategy than any of the banal shit the “Goes Too Far” set have come up with so far.

Some urbanists have been trying to get a lot of mileage over the fact that the main backer behind Measure S is Michael Weinstein, the head of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, who apparently was driven to action because a new Hollywood tower will block the view from his 22nd floor office. Sure, the guy sounds like a petty asshole. But counting on voters to respond to accusations of hypocrisy on the part of some random rich dude seems odd. I don’t think Measure S supporters are all that concerned about where the money to bankroll their campaign is coming from. And when the fight against Measure S is being backed by a bunch of other wealthy people (namely developers and L.A.’s political establishment), I don’t think ordinary voters will see anything in it for themselves by sticking it to Weinstein, no matter how hypocritical he may have been. Pat yourself on the back for claiming the moral high ground all you want, but I wouldn’t count on that winning you more votes.

Even the argument that housing in L.A. will get more expensive, which has become the driving message behind the No on Measure S campaign, strikes me as a little tone-deaf. Granted, Measure S opponents haven’t really left themselves with any other compelling argument to make to voters. But every time I hear it, I can’t help but picture an Angeleno barely making ends meet hearing that and scoffing, “Oh no, my rent will get expensive? Gee, now they tell me.” Without connecting the fight against Measure S with a plan to bring the cost of housing down, the apathy enforced by a status quo that is actively disenfranchising middle- and lower-income Angelenos is going to sink both.

Much like the Hillary Clinton and anti-Brexit campaigns, the No on Measure S campaign is relying heavily on warning voters about what will happen if the other side wins. But if there’s one thing we all should have learned from the failure of those campaigns, it’s that it’s not enough to count on people to vote against something. If you want to really bring a lot of people out to the polls, you have to give them something substantive to vote for.

The closest I’ve seen anyone come to doing this is the aforementioned Shane Phillips, who has repeatedly argued that Measure S reflects a fundamentally pessimistic view of the future of Los Angeles. This is a great message and I give Phillips a lot of credit for spreading it around, but so far no one has really managed to capitalize on it or convincingly explain why the fight against Measure S reflects a fundamentally optimistic view of the future of Los Angeles. As urbanists, it’s easy to pat ourselves on the back over how smart and forward-thinking we all are, but we tend to forget that the average citizen doesn’t follow local planning issues and probably doesn’t have a good sense of what our vision of the future looks like. We have to loudly convey that vision and explicitly link it to our political struggles if we want to win.

Obviously, I hope Measure S fails. And I do find it encouraging that there are some officials in the city government who are proposing internal reforms, the aforementioned ban on developer contributions being a case in point. But I worry that it will come across as too little, too late, and my gut feeling is that Measure S is going to pass. If that happens, my hope is that planners and urbanists will take away some valuable lessons from this fight so they can be better prepared for the next one.

What I fear is that nothing will be learned from this, that people will wake up on March 8th and go, “Oh well, I guess NIMBY sentiment in Los Angeles is just too strong.” Already we’re seeing some triangulation to explain away a loss on extraneous factors: that people just love their cars and suburbs too dang much, that the March city elections get a lower turnout and it’s the fault of people not turning out (and not, you know, that you’re not giving them anything they would want to turn out for), that voters are being misled, etc. At least one columnist seems to be laying the groundwork to place the blame squarely at the feet of millennials.

I have an alternative explanation. And I know a lot of you don’t want to hear it, but it needs to be said. Measure S is on the verge of winning because the people fighting it are running a terrible, lackluster campaign that offers voters nothing. And unless they step up their game right away, we’re all going to pay a heavy price for it.

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