John Antczak/AP

L.A. rejected Measure S, a moratorium on new housing construction, by big margins. But it should never have been put to voters in the first place.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti won his bid for re-election on Tuesday. And how: With 202,278 votes, Garcetti earned 10 times as many nods as his nearest competitor in the 11-person race. The incumbent took 81 percent of the vote, a dominant showing.

Yet Garcetti’s landslide represented only a fraction of L.A. voters. The Los Angeles Times reported late on Tuesday that just 11.4 percent of the electorate participated in the election, despite the fact that the mayor, half the city council, and several heavyweight ballot measures were all up for debate. In Tuesday’s election, apathy won.

L.A. is a city of nearly 4 million people, and Measure S—the most controversial measure on Tuesday’s ballot—would have hurt a lot of them. Formerly known as the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative, the ballot measure would have triggered a two-year moratorium on virtually all building across Los Angeles, where the population has grown by 180,000 residents since 2000.

If the measure’s framers wanted as few citizens as possible to decide this question, they couldn’t have picked a better format. L.A.’s election, which falls between the presidential election and congressional midterms, slips through the electoral cracks. Nearly 70 percent of Los Angeles County voters turned out in November. The framers of Measure S sought to exploit that turnout cliff by ballot shopping—that is, moving the measure from the November 2016 ballot to the March 2017 ballot—a strategy driven by the presumption that the older voters whom the measure would benefit most could be relied upon to make it out to the polls.

To put this measure on a ballot that was guaranteed to draw low turnout betrays a fundamentally undemocratic impulse. But Measure S had no business being a referendum, even in the context of a robust election. Voters should not make sweeping, categorical changes to the complex economic machinery of housing with a tool as blunt as an up-or-down vote. The campaign to educate voters on the consequences of a construction moratorium was costly, drawing resources that could have been better dedicated to inclusionary zoning and affordable housing or the campaign for a sales tax to support people experiencing homelessness.

“S will exacerbate much of what it claims to solve—increasing homelessness and evictions, driving rents higher, shifting development pressures into lower-density communities and destroying jobs along the way,” reads a January editorial from the Los Angeles Times.

There’s no point in re-litigating Measure S now: Angelenos rejected it in decisive fashion, with nearly 70 percent of the (tiny) electorate voting no. But L.A. still faces two pressing problems. One is its lack of construction. While longtime homeowners—the incumbents favored by Measure S—might argue that there’s too much building going on in the city already, the numbers prove otherwise. According to the state Legislative Analyst’s Office, new construction in L.A. is falling short of housing-production targets mandated by the state’s Regional Housing Needs Allocation process.

(Legislative Analyst’s Office)

At the city level (versus the county level), the gap is even greater. And as the analysis explains, the housing shortage is more severe for some kinds of tenants than others. In L.A. and other coastal California cities, the burden falls on renters, who face a persistent shortfall in available opportunities. Luckily, Measure S isn’t going to make matters worse. But a widespread misunderstanding (or willful ignorance) about the state of housing is still able to mobilize tens of thousands of Angelenos who voted for it.

Measure S isn’t the first call for a construction moratorium in California, and it won’t be the last. That’s the second problem for L.A. (and for the state writ large): Governing by ballot measure is no way to govern. San Francisco voters last November faced a ballot stuffed with 25 measures. California’s dysfunctional state politics adds to the heap: 17 of the 154 state ballot measures in last November’s election belonged to California. Appeals to direct democracy (or worse, the subversion of democracy) on issues as technical and complicated as zoning and housing targets represent dangerous tinkering with the mechanics of cities that already face an affordability crisis. At best, moratoriums are a massive distraction; at worst, one of them is going to pass.

And when one does, it may do so by a slice of voters that represents only a tiny margin of a city’s residents. One day, a moratorium will come along when the incumbent mayor isn’t extraordinarily popular, and voters will pull for change. But they should never have been asked to do so in a March election on an electoral off-year. (Fortunately, the city is ditching unaligned elections: Garcetti’s term will run to 2020.) L.A. doesn’t need a moratorium on construction; it needs a moratorium on moratoriums put to the people in elections that the people don’t attend.

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