As California continues to grapple with its spiraling homelessness crisis, developers are rushing to attempt to secure zoning changes that privilege housing over light manufacturing. In theory, that could be all well and good. In practice, however, there’s a risk that cities will greenlight zoning changes that hurt low-income residents, by driving away their places of employment while at the same time promoting market-rate, high-end housing over the affordable housing the state so desperately needs.
Two years ago, the Los Angeles City Council commissioned a report on how to update zoning requirements around the Downtown area. The Downtown LA 2040 plan, as it is known, focuses on rezoning and rethinking the Downtown region, from the Fashion District to Chinatown, in a way that would bring more housing to the center of the city. The final recommendations haven’t yet been signed off on by the relevant city departments, including the Planning and Land Use Management Committee (known as PLUM). But staff at the Garment Worker Center (GWC)—an organization that represents low-wage, often undocumented, workers in LA’s many small garment factories, which have been congregated along the streets of the Fashion District for more than a century—have seen its recommendations, and are worried that their members could suffer economically.
The plan, which envisions that 20 percent of the city’s housing growth will occur within the Downtown districts over the coming two decades, proposes completely barring light manufacturing from some parts of Downtown, and significantly curtailing its presence in other parts. Late last summer, in the face of growing concern from immigrant communities in the Downtown area, many of whose residents rely on garment work for their income, the city’s planning department released amendments. These would create an “incentive area” in one section of the Fashion District that would allow for one story in each newly constructed building to be set aside for light manufacturing. It was, the GWC argued, better than nothing, but not nearly enough to preserve the Fashion District’s unique garment-making ecosystem.
For garment workers, this could spell catastrophe. The GWC estimates that 20,000 workers are directly employed by these factories, and that tens of thousands more are working in spinoff industries nearby, ranging from zipper makers to fabrics stores. “Garment workers have not been taken into account in this planning process,” GWC campaign director Daisy Gonzalez explained to me. “The voices of low-income immigrant workers were left out. The developers are just unfortunately not taking a major industry into consideration, and the city also hasn’t done a good job of taking the industry into account.”
Affordable housing advocates and unions such as Unite Here Local 11 have expressed similar concerns about the plan. If the city has its way, existing buildings in the Fashion District and elsewhere in Downtown will be renovated, their light manufacturing hubs replaced with apartments.
That might make sense, given that Los Angeles County has roughly 70,000 homeless people, and tens of thousands more teetering on the edge of eviction—except for the fact that the original plan doesn’t include strict requirements that a percentage of the apartments built be set aside for affordable housing. As it stands, far from improving the availability of housing for the city’s poorer residents, this could result in a double whammy for low-income immigrants: a loss of employment as garment factories either move elsewhere or close down, and at the same time a loss of affordable housing as luxury developments take over large buildings, pushing up rent in the area across the board.
Three weeks ago, the GWC, as a part of the Coalition to Protect DTLA Garment Jobs, sent the city a long letter protesting the proposals and calling on city officials to modify its plans. “The infiltration of market rate housing through the DTLA 2040 Plan is of particular concern,” the authors wrote, “as it will significantly raise land values within the area,” leading to the creation of “unaffordable, market-rate housing.”
The letter went on to say, “The primary objects of the city for the Fashion District should be to protect garment manufacturing jobs and businesses from displacement and the risk of eviction for the sake of new market-rate and luxury developments.”
All of this ought to be common sense. Tackling the housing crisis in a way that puts at risk the jobs, and the housing security, of tens of thousands of low-wage, mainly immigrant, workers is neither fair nor sensible.
There’s still time for Los Angeles to heed the warnings of the Garment Worker Center and their affordable housing allies. The Downtown LA 2040 Plan hasn’t yet been approved. Hopefully, before it is it will have been modified in ways that address the concerns of vulnerable Angelenos.