Will DTLA Make It?

Major Hurdles Confront DTLA: Attracting Affluent Angelenos Amidst The Homeless

By Steve Tobia

I moved to DTLA in June 2015, into a luxury high rise across from LA Live with sweeping views of Southern California. Ceiling to floor windows, valet parking – all the amenities of luxury living.

Demographically, I was the targeted Baby Boomer/Empty Nester business guy from La Cañada/Pasadena that was ready to leave the suburbs and explore the new “urban lifestyle” of Los Angeles. As someone who grew up in New York and traveled to other major cities for business, I was ready to live in the city.

As we have written over the past year, DTLA is under a major revitalization on every block and in every district, with global developers taking advantage of the relatively low cost of real estate in comparison to other cosmopolitan regions. But after one year of enjoying the views from the 22nd floor, I began to feel trapped within my own home. Let me tell you my story.

 

Two MAJOR Hurdles Facing DTLA

MENTALLY ILL POPULATION

Although I was aware of the historical and significant mentally ill homeless population in DTLA, my initial perception was that the city was aggressively addressing this issue with the county. Unfortunately, like so many other social issues in our inner cities, the reality is that the proposals coming from our government lack the gall to attack and fix the core causes of people living on our streets. These people are decaying in front  of our eyes and are incapable of helping themselves overcome addiction and mental issues.

Within one year, there were mentally ill homeless people sleeping in front of our luxury high rise. Walking across the street to LA Live for dinner became a defensive walk as panhandlers continuously and aggressively begged for money.

The convenience of walking to the grocery store with a small shopping cart suddenly ended after numerous reported incidents of people lurking behind trees and physically accosting customers in front of the stores.  The solution for me was to drive the three blocks, park in the security lot, and never step foot on the streets. My desire to explore and walk to all of these new eclectic and great restaurants throughout the districts suddenly vanished.

Like so many Angelenos who don’t live in DTLA but visit, going from my secured valet parking to restaurant valet parking was the norm. Yes, I understand that the “Bohemian” funky culture of a spectacular restaurant inside an old warehouse or sleazy area is considered cool and hip, but when you live it daily, it becomes depressing.

As the months went along and friends and family came to visit, it began to occur to me that Uber was the safest solution and most convenient way for transporting around DTLA, and that I didn’t actually need to live there.

 

HOUSING AFFORDABILITY

Since the days of Mayor Tom Bradley in the 1970s and my work with his office on economic development, there have been plans in place to revitalize DTLA and create a world cosmopolitan center featuring commerce, culture, entertainment and mixed-use housing, all supported by a world class public transportation system.

Through the Adaptive Reuse Ordinance, many of the older empty buildings and sections were targeted and redeveloped to meet the housing needs of the younger Millennial generation that were being priced out of other areas in Los Angeles.

Creative office spaces and live/work in a true urban center became a major appeal. Per square foot pricing for rentals was less than other major cities that attract Millennials such as San Francisco, New York and West LA. However, rental pricing has continuously increased and many young people are moving into East LA, Highland Park and other surrounding areas of DTLA where rent is cheaper.

Next, high rise condos began to be planned and built, with many developed and funded by foreign investors from Asia seeking to fill the need for two other markets: professional executives who work in DTLA and foreign business executives who visit the region. Great strategy and planning, however, DTLA developers are ignoring basic underlying hurdles specific to the three markets of Millennials, professional executives and foreign investors.

Although renting remains the preferred housing choice for most Millennials – especially with the high cost of student debt, delays in marriage and starting a family – DTLA developers have a hurdle with professional executives when it comes to purchasing luxury high rise condos.

For example, Metropolis, being built along the Harbor Freeway, will be a three-tower high rise of condos and hotel rooms along with shopping and dining. The average cost per sq. ft. for a condo is $1,190, so expect to spend $1,000,000+ for less than 1,000 sq. ft. of living space (of course HOA fees are in addition).

The selling of these units has not been explosive and the stressful demands from the China based developer, Greenland Group, has led to several management changes and delays. Some DTLA insiders speculate that the cultural differences in conducting business between China and the US has been a source of contention. Although from an international real estate perspective, $1,200 per sq. ft. for a condo is not exorbitant, for many professional executives in Los Angeles there are many other regions close to DTLA that are already built out with full amenities and offer more competitive pricing.

Compared to global real estate markets, this price range puts DTLA slightly under the cost of New York ($1,420), Paris ($1,409) and Hong Kong ($1,920). Foreign investors who are flocking to Southern California and DTLA for both business and pleasure see this investment as reasonable. However, the question for developers is whether or not the long-time residents of Southern California who work in DTLA (500,000 employees) will take the bait.

 

WILL HISTORY REPEAT ITSELF?

DTLA has all of the pieces to be a world class city. However, the issues of the overwhelming mentally ill homeless on the streets and the high condominium prices remain major obstacles.

From my perspective, there must be a cohesive balance to meet the needs of the three major residential markets, (Millennial generation; DTLA professional executives; foreign investors/travelers) as each of these groups have different needs both socially and economically.

With Los Angeles existing as a “megalopolis” with numerous hubs of business centers, social entertainment destinations and mixed housing options, the challenge of attracting Angelenos to live and work in Downtown is immense. DTLA and its developers have a choice to make: aggressively address these hurdles and pursue the three key demographics or face the prospect of DTLA, once again, being put on hold.

 

PUBLISHER’S OPINION: A NATIONAL FAILURE

Mental Illness & Addiction: Real Issues… Real Solutions

American political leaders have failed to address the underlying causes and create common sense solutions for the people decaying on our streets for more than fifty years.

The “political and psychiatric” establishments decided nearly half a century ago to defund state psychiatric hospitals and replace them with “community mental health centers” (which never transpired), and created the belief that increased use of psychiatric drugs would be modern society’s solution to mental health issues. Due to these policy decisions, we are now in a state of emergency across America.

Further fueled by court decisions that people have the “right” to live wherever they want, and with our law enforcement officials’ hands tied when it comes to enforcing offences of the most basic health codes, we are now surrounded at every corner by people who are incapable of taking care of themselves. Using the term “homeless” only exacerbates the mental health crisis and falsely leads the public to believe that building “affordable housing” will solve this crisis.

Although I applaud both the Mayor and LA County Board of Supervisors for finally addressing this issue with proposed tax increases and special bonds to be voted on in November, the reality is that these proposals are not solutions. After a year of sitting through presentations by city and county staff, and reading their proposed final strategies, I am compelled to ask that our leaders once again step back and review the true causes and create true solutions.

Acknowledge that the major “causes” of people living on our streets are due to being “abandoned” by society. Because we have no system for chronic mental health conditions and chronic addiction, people are left on the streets powerless to take care of their own well-being.

Acknowledge that government has not developed or funded local community rehabilitation facilities for these people when they break laws and violate sanitary laws, including public intoxication’s, drug use and other crimes. They don’t belong in jails; they belong in medical rehabilitation facilities for the proper care they require, including physical, mental, and spiritual care and support for the transition back to society.

Acknowledge that many of our veterans came out of the armed forces with both mental impacts and lack of skills to get a job. Determine how the VA, state, county and city departments can track these veterans to give them the support they require and deserve. Acknowledge that most people who lose their jobs and live paycheck to paycheck can get lost in the bureaucratic government maze of unemployment benefits, health insurance coverage, food and housing vouchers, training programs, and many more. These safety nets are there for the unemployed.

Acknowledge and fund the myriad of long standing non-profits throughout Los Angeles County that target and serve people who have been forced to the streets.  Make these your partners and do not create another level of bureaucracy with a few affordable apartments and think the problem will go away.

 

ENFORCE THE LAWS 

All people need to abide by the laws established and be held accountable for failure to abide by these laws. It is that simple.

To access public roads and highways, people must abide by restrictions. To open restaurants and other establishments, all health codes must be followed. Building a home, commercial space, etc. also requires strict adherence to the laws.

Public intoxication, indecent exposure, public urination, destruction of public and private property, loitering, scalping, prostitution, sale of illegal items, etc. are all established laws in every community of America.

There are specific penalties for breaking these laws. County jails, however, are not the solution for those people who suffer from mental illness and addiction. My solutions:

1) Create uniform laws throughout the county that abide by Court decisions and current legal codes of both the Federal and State governments.

2) Enforce the laws and place offenders in the specific non-profit organizations that have the expertise in mental health and addiction.

3) Require in-patient medical & psychiatric evaluations as part of the sentencing, along with case managers to direct and coordinate each offender to place them in safety net and tracking programs.

 

TALK TO FAMILIES OF MENTALLY ILL & ADDICTS

Mental illness and addiction impacts loved ones, families, children and our entire society. When we see people literally decaying in front of us on the streets, and blocks of tents containing people forced to live like animals, we need to look to our government for comprehensive solutions that go far beyond more affordable housing. It’s time to stand up and say “NO. Wrong solution. Wrong fix. Get back to the planning table.”

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