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Los Angeles’ Sustainable City “pLAn,” a four-part series (part III)

The third installment in a four-part series on Mayor Eric Garcetti’s Sustainable City pLAn.

You can read the Part I overview here, and Part II on the Environment section here.

The second of three sections in the pLAn is titled “Economy,” and is broken into the following categories: Housing & Development, Mobility & Transit, Prosperity & Green Jobs, and Preparedness & Resiliency.

First a few baseline facts. The median household income in Los Angeles county is $54,510, and a family with this income could afford a $275,000 home. The median home price, however, is $550,000. With ownership thus out of reach, the vast majority of Angelenos rent, but you will need an annual household income just shy of $110,000 to rent an average two-bedroom apartment in LA. That’s right, you need to be officially rich — in the top 20% of income earners nationally — to rent a two-bedroom in Los Angeles, assuming you spend the recommended 30% or less of your income on housing. Many of us spend more, and LA Weekly reported that a 2015 Harvard study “found that one-third of renters in L.A. and Orange counties pay half or more of their income for housing” (italics in original).

In terms of mobility, you’ll be shocked to learn that Los Angeles has the worst traffic congestion in literally the whole world. In 2016, our traffic cost us — us, motorists, not corporations or the government — $300 billion in wasted time and fuel, and we spend over 100 hours a year stuck in traffic despite having one of the top ten public transit systems in the country in terms of accessibility. Accessibility is not the same as usefulness, though, so clearly something is amiss.

And on the subject of Los Angeles’ public transit failings, it is worth mentioning in passing that the conspiracy theories you may have heard about the automotive and oil industries sabotaging LA’s transit infrastructure in the early decades of the 20th century are true. Firestone Tire, Standard Oil of California, Phillips Petroleum, General Motors and Mack Trucks were convicted on conspiracy charges in 1949, convictions which were upheld on appeal. We had an electric streetcar, and while there certainly were shortcomings — including long wait- and ride-times as the trollies were stuck in automobile traffic — the presence of a functioning streetcar system may well have shaped LA’s transportation infrastructure and bent it toward public transit over the last 80 years.

Needless to say, we are desperate for affordable “Housing & Development,” and have a lot of catch up to do when it comes to transportation planning. So, without further ado.


1921 N. Highland Ave, where William Faulkner briefly lived in the penthouse apartment

As we transition from environmental policies to development policies, let’s point out some of the overlap. According to pLAn: “The priorities for California’s cap-and-trade revenues include funding for affordable housing near mass transit.” And indeed, the disastrous SB 398 does include allocation mandates for revenue generated by GHG credits.

This is a classic conflict of interest. We want revenue for affordable housing near mass transit, we do not want carbon emissions. Yet any policy that creates a market for and generates revenue from carbon emissions or pollution is going to run into problems, including a carbon tax. Think about it in terms of cigarettes.

High cigarette taxes generate a lot of money for state and local governments. At a certain point, the price of cigarettes (including taxes) becomes so high that people can’t afford to smoke as much as they want or at all. I personally am experiencing this right now. So we achieve the desired outcome, which is a cigarette-free world, but the revenue disappears.

Compare that to cap-and-trade: the state allocates 10 cigarettes a day to every citizen. You don’t want to smoke at all, and your two friends only smoke when they drink. I, however, am a fiend and will kill everyone in this room if it means I can smoke a pack and a half a day. So now we trade: I buy your 10 cigarettes, and 5 cigarettes each from your two friends, and added to the 10 I already have now I’m a happily wheezing camper. You get some extra money, your friends get some extra money and still have enough left over for Saturday night, the government gets its cut, and life is grand for all involved. And the Wall St. geniuses who created a speculative market to bet on the future value of cigarettes on the exchange are very happy. Except that we still have the same number of cigarettes being smoked in the world.

What we really need is for ALL cigarette tax money to be spent on smoking cessation programs. Therefore, I humbly submit that any revenue generated by either cap-and-trade or a carbon tax that is not directed toward renewable technology development, environmental cleanup, or otherwise spent in the pursuit of eliminating the carbon emissions themselves is an inherent conflict of interest.

Now back to housing. The pLAn seeks to solve LA’s housing crisis through development, specifically through increased urban density around public transit. The goal is 275k new housing units with 65% of them within 1,500 feet of a transit stop by 2035. Sounds like a lot of new apartments, but pLAn itself expects 500k more residents by 2035. If they’re all roommates, the net increase will be only 25k housing units.

This is a typically market-driven approach that will enrich developers while leaving Angelenos to fend for themselves. Increased housing supply will, in theory, lower prices as the supply catches up with demand. That’s what we’re told, anyway. But with residents being evicted under false pretenses to convert entire apartment complexes to Airbnb hotels, and Ellis Act evictions rampant throughout the city, the new supply will remain as unaffordable as ever.

You will hear a lot about Recode:LA, a complete overhaul of the city’s zoning laws. There’s no question that these badly need an update, but the project is being touted as part of a larger progressive focus on affordability and housing equity. This is not the case.

According to the LA Times:

“The city should tread carefully if it plans to use zoning as a tool for policy change, said veteran developer Mott Smith. If Los Angeles wants to build more affordable housing, he said, the best approach is to increase funding for affordable housing. Zoning’s good for encouraging better design and preventing ‘gross incompatibilities’ in a neighborhood, Smith said. But that should be the extent of it.

‘The most important thing is to set our expectations appropriately,’ Smith said. ‘If your goal in rewriting the zoning code is to correct market failures or create a more fair society, then you should hang it up and go home, because you cannot do that.’”

Instead, the new zoning laws and building codes will be developer-friendly. We will no doubt see more development along the lines of the monumental-asshat Geoff Palmer’s hideous faux-Italian urban fortresses. And even more of the vaguely industrial-modern “luxury” complexes that are currently making all of our neighborhoods look like Scottsdale, Arizona. You know the ones I’m talking about.

With only a small fraction of these required to be designated as “affordable” units, the sky’s the limit for developers to rake us over the coals with the vast majority of the new buildings. And have you ever tried to access the affordable housing program? Ever tried to rent one of those units? I have, and good fucking luck my friend.

And with all this talk about demand outpacing supply, thus driving the crisis of housing unaffordability in Los Angeles, we would do well to remember that empty homes outnumber homeless people 6 to 1 nationally. In a capitalist economy, markets create artificial scarcity, not abundance.

The second goal, as we mentioned, is that 65% of the increase in housing stock should be within roughly a quarter mile of public transit. But as we have already seen, LA’s public transportation system is already one of the most accessible in the country: 99.1 percent of no-car households in the Los Angeles-Long Beach-Santa Ana area have access to public transit. According to the same study, however, only 36 percent of zero-vehicle households can get to their place of employment in 90 minutes or less.

So really these new housing developments could go up anywhere in the city and be within the suggested 1,500 feet of a bus stop, and not help one bit.


Like “Local Water” discussed in Part II, this section lays out ambitious targets with zero explanation of how they will be accomplished. By 2025 “we will reduce vehicle miles traveled per capita by 5%” pLAn states, and by 2035 “at least 50% of all journeys will be on foot, by bike, or by using public transit.” But why, though? How?

In terms of transit improvements, pLAn prioritizes bike share — adding bike stations and shared bikes to existing transit infrastructure as well as building multi-modal hubs to facilitate bike/car/ride sharing.

Shared transportation is tricky, though, as public and private bike share and Zipcar style shared cars are one thing, but “ride share” is also included in this category. And we all know what ride share means: Uber and Lyft, which drastically increase congestion and divert people away from truly public transportation.

Another transportation and housing issue, not mentioned in the pLAn, is Garcetti’s most visible plan for LA: the 2024 or 2028 Olympics. And here the mayor has the opportunity to truly fuck the city for generations.

Problems with the Olympics and development have been well-documented elsewhere, and the NOlympicsLA coalition is growing daily. Still, in terms of public transit infrastructure specifically, the stakes are incredibly high.

Los Angeles county residents approved Measure M this past November, in an overwhelming vote to tax ourselves to pay for Metro improvements over the next decades. But what direction will those improvements take? Pause for a moment to consider the logistics of hosting the Olympics, and what those transportation needs will look like.

That’s right, routes to and from the stadiums, Olympic Village, and other venues will cannibalize Measure M funds, leaving us with infrastructure tailor-made for the 2 week event and all but useless after. How many Angelenos will live or work in the former Olympic Village? Sure, you’ll be able to hop a train from anywhere to the insanely expensive Inglewood stadium that up to 100 million of your tax dollars are already paying for, and maybe you’ll finally be able to get in and out of LAX by rail, but the Eastside? The Southland? Anywhere public rail is actually needed?


It’s tempting to give Garcetti a pass on pLAn’s bold vision of a $13.25/hr minimum wage given that 1) during the 2016 election cycle our fearless neoliberal hero H. Rodham Clinton thought $12/hr was enough; 2) pLAn was published back in 2015 before the Fight For $15 movement had gained traction nationally; 3) the minimum wage in LA is heading for $15/hr anyway.

But part of pLAn’s plan to lure tech and energy-sector green jobs to Los Angeles includes “Remov[ing] barriers to entrepreneurship and growing business by cutting red tape and reducing the gross-receipts tax.” This language is problematic, as “barriers to entrepreneurship” and “red tape” are so often code for vital consumer protections and environmental regulations. The gross-receipts tax is a tax on sales that a business, unlike value-added and sales taxes, cannot pass on to consumers, and has long been a target of business interests. My background knowledge doesn’t include much detail on tax policy, but my gut feeling is that if you insist on taxing everything a company sells, then that company will stop selling things. Sounds about right, yes?

We will also “Develop infrastructure to grow green startups into mature businesses (e.g., office space and low-cost warehousing for short- to medium-term use).” This worked out swimmingly for Tesla, and here I can’t resist a quick dig at Elon Musk. Sam Kriss, in the brilliantly-titled “A Repellant Musk,” writes:

“Tesla makes a significant chunk of its income from the sale of green credits to other, more pollution-producing industrial concerns. A solar panel factory in Buffalo, NY was built by the state at the cost of $750m; Musk leases it for a dollar a year. All in all, he’s received nearly $5 billion in subsidies and support from the government” (link in original).

So we should be wary when it comes to publicly funding single-use or otherwise bespoke infrastructure. Like with NFL stadiums, the “if you build it they will come” mentality often screws over the taxpayers and enriches the already privileged few.


Flossmoor, IL Fire Department, your humble author on the left

When the Big One hits we’re going to be ready. The big one in this case meaning both unpredictable natural events like earthquakes or (more predictable) wildfires and the inevitable effects of climate change.

Natural disaster preparedness in the pLAn focuses on the “return to normal” phase of disaster response, the importance of which should not be downplayed. Re-establishing basic city services like electricity and running water is just as crucial as the more glamorous firefighting and urban search-and-rescue component (shout out to the folks in the DWP).

A major part of disaster preparation, of course, is on us: “The First 72 Are On You” isn’t just for hurricanes. Emergency services will be overwhelmed during any major disaster, and the first three days post-event should be spent trying to find and reach people whose lives are in immediate danger. Your lack of clean drinking water is not the city’s emergency, so stock up.

To aid in education and outreach, pLAn hopes to “Leverage libraries and other city facilities to distribute information on preparedness and action plans,” “help individuals understand and implement residential backup power systems,” and “conduct regular drills and emergency response exercises.”

These are all to the good, but information goes only so far. Eventually people need actual supplies: water, food, blankets, battery-powered lights. A 72 hour preparedness kit will set you back $100 at a minimum. I recently saw an ad for one of these on Twitter, and my first reaction was to imagine a world in which these are provided free to all residents as part of a tax-funded program. After all, the firefighters who are going to dig your ass out of earthquake rubble are being paid through your tax dollars, and the whole point of the 72 hour kit is to relieve pressure on the city’s emergency services — those who are able take care of themselves while Fire and EMS search for the lost and care for the trapped and injured. So why shouldn’t individual preparedness also be part of that socialized system?

Anyway, that’s not part of the pLAn. As for climate, the resiliency section contains some good ideas that could easily have gone into the environment section as well. These aim to reduce the “heat island” effect of urban environments, where just about everything is either concrete or asphalt. Cool pavements are one way to potentially offset heat, though the cost/benefit of their lifetime carbon impact are not certain.

A Cool Roof is another potential heat offset, and the Title 24 Building Energy Efficiency Standards require cool roofs on new construction and major renovation projects as of 2015. Don’t expect to see trees dotting the DTLA skyline, though, as a cool roof is not the same as a green roof. But since a true green roof downtown would just provide shade and lovely, relaxing greenery around swimming pools for the fucking penthouses, cool roofs ought to suit the city’s purposes just fine.

Hopefully the goal of a cooler, less heat-islandish built environment will also lead eventually to more public green space overall. Parks, tree-lined streets, less concrete overall. More like CD13’s very own Mitch O’Farrell is overseeing here in Echo Park, and less like the same O’Farrell is overseeing here in the same Echo Park. And for god’s sake, can we stop calling these overpriced monstrosities green space?

With that, we have concluded the Economy section of the pLAn for LA’s sustainable future. The next, and final installment will cover our overwhelming need for Equity.