The affordable housing conundrum

The Mar Vista Gardens housing project is big, little changed since it was a barracks for returning GIs in the 1940s. It takes up more than a city block in Culver City, but if you weren’t looking for it, you might easily not know it was even there. That was the case with me, and I have been working in Culver City for several years now.

Mar Vista Gardens Housing Project

I toured the housing project yesterday (though I didn’t enter any of the apartments) to see the quality and condition of life there. While there were some well-kept fields surrounding the buildings, the barracks buildings themselves were astonishingly old and unmaintained. They looked untouched since they were built in the 40s.

What a contrast life was inside the housing compound, compared to the flourishing life of L.A.’s posh Westside in which it was located. It was a sobering example of the vast class differences in the city.

The reason for the tour was my current journalistic focus – affordable housing. While the projects were there to help the poorest of the poor, the lack of affordable housing in Los Angeles affects middle class families as well. And this lack, affecting up and down the region’s economic classes and spread wide throughout Southern California, impacts a great deal of civic life – from quality of life and traffic, to business investment and jobs.

Solving the affordable housing problem, however, means navigating a political, economic and cultural minefield. At the neighborhood level, people’s frequent immediate reaction is to resist the development of new housing that would bring in lower-income families. They often associate housing projects and low-income housing with crime. And they worry about property values.

At the government level, politicians face huge pressure from wealthy real estate developers, who want to continue building high-profit luxury properties and want to reduce regulation. Often, these developers have won the right to tear down or convert already existing affordable housing properties to higher end, luxury housing.

With pressures from many sides, movement on the affordable housing front has been glacial. There are many tough decisions and overarching policies that would have to be put in place to begin to address the many interconnected issues that the city must address in order to grow successfully over the next 40 years.

The city’s population growth is considered inevitable. Traffic congestion is expected to get far worse. Flooding and urban runoff is expected to get worse, as well, because of a complex problem in the lack of green space to absorb rains – most of that lack is concentrated in lower-income communities (but that’s another story).

People will have an increasingly hard time finding affordable places to live, and many more will have to live in farther suburbs. Businesses in the Los Angeles area could have a harder time attracting employees, if housing and transportation problems get bad enough. This already proved a problem in Orange County recently, just south of L.A.

I have wondered while researching this story, if fewer lower-income families would have been susceptible to predatory lenders and subprime mortgage scams, if more of them had access to quality, affordable housing available for rent – and reasonably priced homes available for purchase.

What will future Los Angeles look like? Will it remain a vibrant city, if tough decisions aren’t made and complicated problems not resolved?

Perhaps it is the pervasive pessimism of our times that leaves me wondering whether L.A. is headed towards a preventable, yet likely, decline. Or perhaps we have gotten too accustomed to mortgaging tough problems to the future, in order to avoid the pain in the present.

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