Apartments like this building near the future Expo light rail station at 26th and Olympic are owned and managed by a housing nonprofit, guaranteeing
Subsidized low-cost apartment complexes like this one near the future Expo light rail station at 26th and Olympic are increasingly the only options for low- and middle-income workers who want to live in Santa Monica.

My friend Cindy is thinking of quitting her job. It pays well and has good benefits.

It is challenging, but she’s done very well at it, and has moved up the ranks. She likes her coworkers and the work environment is great. So what’s the problem? The job lives in Santa Monica and she can’t afford to. Each day tens of thousands of people flood into Santa Monica, which has about twice as many jobs as residents, and at the end of the day, as many trickle out in an hours-long agony of inching traffic. Cindy’s a victim of the severe housing shortage in California and on the West Side of LA in particular. But as bad as it is for Cindy, it is much worse for those without her high salary.

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The need to work two jobs or to live with two families or to commute for two hours has one cause: zoning. By limiting where people can live, we limit how they live. Housing is a social justice issue.
[/pullquote]Several recent research reports have shown that no matter how you calculate it—the cost of rent relative to income, the housing price per square foot, the vacancy rate, the increase in housing costs—Los Angeles is among the worst in the nation, if not the worst. Cue anguished hand-wringing for those with comfortable homes. But for those without comfortable homes, or with long commutes, or with multiple jobs to pay the rent, or with multiple families to contribute to the rent, it isn’t about hand-wringing; it’s about soul-wrenching.

A recent report from the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) finds that high housing cost in California cities pushes up the poverty rate by 7 percentage points. In fact, nearly one-third of poverty in California cities is caused by the high cost of housing.

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The high cost of housing is not inevitable. Another report from PPIC puts it plainly: while natural limits on housing in the area do exist, the housing crisis in California “is also a result of policy choices and regulations.”
[/pullquote]And of course, for those whose income would put them in poverty anyway, the high cost of housing only makes their lives more miserable. They are forced to double- and triple-up, live in cramped quarters, suffer long commutes, and work long hours just to make ends meet.

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Perhaps these costs would be easier to bear if they were just the inevitable cost of living in one of the world’s most beautiful and exciting cities. But the high cost of housing is not inevitable. Another report from PPIC puts it plainly: while natural limits on housing in the area do exist, the housing crisis in California “is also a result of policy choices and regulations.” The website Curbed LA reports the stunning information that the zoned capacity of the City of Los Angeles dropped by 60% from 1960 to 1990. The result is that today, Los Angeles has largely closed its doors. Put this way, the need to work two jobs or to live with two families or to commute for two hours has one cause: zoning. By limiting where people can live, we limit how they live. Housing is a social justice issue.

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Santa Monica will choose to move forward as part of the solution—albeit at the agonizingly slow speed of the city’s afternoon east-bound traffic—or to stop moving altogether, exacerbating the problem. It will be a pivotal time for Santa Monica, just as it’s a pivotal time for the whole of LA.
[/pullquote]In 2010 Santa Monica adopted a landmark planning document called the Land Use and Circulation Element (LUCE). This award-winning approach emphasized creating a livable city by better transportation planning and redressing the imbalance between employment and housing in Santa Monica. It calls for only 5,000 new homes by 2030, a tiny fraction of the imbalance. Yet even this exceptionally modest start is under threat by some who oppose all development. In the next two weeks the Santa Monica City Council will decide whether to move forward with the LUCE recommendations, or to scale them back.

Santa Monica will choose to move forward as part of the solution—albeit at the agonizingly slow speed of the city’s afternoon east-bound traffic—or to stop moving altogether, exacerbating the problem. It will be a pivotal time for Santa Monica, just as it’s a pivotal time for the whole of LA.

Social justice in LA is not just for the poor any longer. Yes, housing matters catastrophically to the poor. But it also matters increasingly to the middle class, and even to people like Cindy, in the upper-middle-class. And when public policy doesn’t care about social justice—when the cries of the poor and the middle class can’t be heard through the rolled-up car windows on the 405—then what does it care about?

Frederick Zimmerman

Dr. Frederick Zimmerman is an economist and a professor of Public Health at UCLA. Since 2008, he has lived in Santa Monica, and he bikes to and from UCLA, sometimes on Wilshire. Zimmerman also has a particular interest in how economic structure—including poverty and inequality—influence population health.

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