Bass seeks to hasten construction of affordable housing

Concluding her first week in office, Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass issued a sweeping policy on Friday, urging city governments to free their processes from the bottlenecks that are slowing the development of affordable housing and shelters.

Bass’ first executive policy directs the departments responsible for processing applications for affordable housing and housing to complete all reviews within 60 days. Such reviews typically take six to nine months, city officials said.

Another key element is dispensing with discretionary reviews on projects that do not require zoning changes. Currently these reviews, which may include public hearings and additional environmental reports, are required for all projects with 50 units or more. To avoid these checks, developers have often planned projects with 49 units when zoning would have allowed more.

City officials said 31 projects currently in the review process would receive relief under the orders.

Bass’ announcement signals her efforts to deliver on her campaign promise and bring urgency to the homelessness crisis. The directive comes days after she declared a state of emergency for homelessness.

“With this executive policy, we are accelerating and lowering the cost of affordable and temporary housing to bring people in and keep people in their homes,” Bass said. “Now is the time to get to work.”

The orders, which apply only to 100% affordable housing projects, address complaints from developers who say their projects languish for weeks or months while plans are reviewed and then face delays in construction that await inspections.

Bass signed the order on a dirt lot in Boyle Heights, where an affordable housing development is under construction.

Bass said she hopes the relaxed rules will encourage developers to build larger projects, noting that some are building to bypass the city’s review process.

“I’ve got a big smile on my face right now,” said Deborah La Franchi, founder and chief executive officer of SDS Capital Group, an investment management firm that raises private capital to fund assisted housing. “It’s going to make a huge difference building these units and pulling tenants into them.”

The policy also instructs departments to conduct their assessments concurrently, eliminating the need for applicants to submit their plans for multiple assessments in a row.

“It will make a huge difference to have this early coordination between the different departments when they review the projects,” said La Franchi.

More than 40,000 people are homeless in LA, and Bass is under intense pressure to get people indoors and into shelters.

Miguel Santana, president and chief executive officer of the Weingart Foundation, said streamlining the city’s process will be critical as hundreds of millions of dollars for affordable housing from the ULA measure, the voter-approved tax on high-value real estate transactions, begin to flow in November.

“With ULA around the corner, it makes it clear that there will be a special door, special treatment for affordable housing,” Santana said.

Santana acknowledged that issuing a policy is only the first step.

“Just saying don’t make it like that,” he said. “There has to be an organizational structure around it. There is clear direction and mandate from the city’s CEO – the mayor – to every general manager that touches affordable housing that this is the top priority and must be treated with urgency.”

“These types of actions are required to make a significant impact on the development of affordable housing in Los Angeles,” said Gray Lusk, chief operating officer of SoLa Impact, a private affordable housing developer. “But she’s got her hands full trying to get this through the bureaucracy of several city governments, and I think she needs to ‘crack some eggs’ over there to make that omelet.”

Bass’ focus on accelerating the review of affordable housing will come up against the reality of the city’s staffing shortages. At the height of the pandemic, the city offered a retirement stimulus package to reduce costs, and many departments remain understaffed. For example, the planning department has a 27 percent vacancy rate.

Bass could also be criticized for not going further in waiving permits. Developers who want to build larger projects than the city allows, for example, still have to go through a lengthy verification process.

Mercedes Márquez, LA chief of housing and homeless solutions, said there’s a difference between “bureaucracy and bureaucracy” and “legitimate planning concerns and land use.”

“Our master plan is a law. And that’s why we’re not going to do this without verification,” Márquez said. “The important part is that we have flattened the discretion. Agencies have to go through this process.”

Friday’s news event took place at the construction site of the long-delayed Lorena Plaza housing project. Dora Gallo, executive director of A Community of Friends, which is developing the project, said the new policy would not affect Lorena Plaza because it is already under construction.

But she called the executive directive a “meaningful occasion” that will transform the way the city manages its affordable and assisted living development process. Bass seeks to hasten construction of affordable housing

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