LA Quality of Life at a Record Low


Why Political Leaders Shouldn’t Ignore Those Survey Results


Some local officials may simply ignore the results of UCLA’s annual quality-of-life survey of Los Angeles, which reported the lowest score in its nine years. The better response would be to dig deeper into the results because there is policy guidance within the data.

By JIM NEWTON
CALMATTERS

The findings of this year’s Los Angeles Quality of Life Index, an annual survey conducted by UCLA’s Luskin School of Public Affairs, pose a riddle for city and county leaders — and underscore the challenges of local officials everywhere: How should officeholders react when their constituents are angry at them for problems that they didn’t create and can’t solve?
That’s the natural question suggested by the top-line numbers in the survey, or at least the ones that got the attention when it was released in late April. The overall quality-of-life score that respondents produced this year was the lowest in the nine years of the survey. Ratings for elected leaders, including Mayor Karen Bass, dipped as well.
But the factors influencing those numbers are enough to drive a mayor to drink. For the most part, residents are satisfied with their neighborhoods, with race relations, with public safety and with healthcare — the services that local governments offer or supplement.
What residents are unhappy with is their rent and the cost of goods and services (and the quality of their schools, too, but that’s a matter for another day).
Imagine, then, that you’re Mayor Bass. Your approval rating has seemingly dropped, and your constituents are unhappy because their rent is too high and groceries are overly expensive.
The problem for Bass and her colleagues, said Zev Yaroslavsky, a former Los Angeles councilmember and county supervisor who now oversees the survey, is “you can’t do anything about that.”
And while the survey focuses on Los Angeles, the same conundrum faces elected leaders of pretty much every city in California — perhaps even America. Constituents are worried and they want help, but they’re not sure who to hold accountable. So they flinch at price hikes and point the finger at the first official who comes to mind, whether it’s President Joe Biden or the local councilmember.
Some local officials simply ignore it. They focus on the work of local government and trust that voters will come around. But that feels unresponsive and precarious. It’s rarely a good thing for an elected official to brush off the feelings of their constituents, even if those constituents are potentially misplacing responsibility.
The better response to this survey would be to dig deeper into the results because there is guidance suggested by this data — ways that local governments can, in fact, respond to some of the anxieties it captures.
Take the cost of living. Bass can’t do much about the price of groceries, but the second-most cited area for concern about the cost of living comes from the 58% of respondents who said rising housing costs are having a “major impact” on their lives. There, elected officials can make a difference.
Indeed, one of the survey’s most shocking — and under-reported – findings is that 26% of those who responded said they were worried about losing their place to live. Fully 37% of renters reported that they fear eviction and becoming homeless. Los Angeles County has nearly 10 million residents so that number suggests that more than 3 million people are going about their lives with the fear that they may lose their home someday soon.
That is a staggering and dismaying number, evidence of gnawing instability that undermines all aspects of a secure life. And unlike grocery costs, that’s something local government can affect.
Start with rental assistance. Those who fear eviction might fear it less if they knew the city would help them in a pinch — with rental assistance, for instance. For those actually facing eviction, the mayor has organized legal resources to help keep people in their homes. Knowing that such a program exists and taking advantage of it may alleviate their anxiety and also prevent a surge in homelessness.
Looking forward, this survey and others also have guidance for elected leaders committed to addressing housing. Residents consistently favor construction of new apartment housing, particularly along commercial corridors. And state law allows developers to override local zoning restrictions if they build in those areas and price the apartments for low-income residents.
To those constituents who are burdened by the high cost of housing and the fear of losing their homes, these surveys suggest a program: Help renters who are struggling, fight attempts to evict them and authorize the construction of affordable housing along commercial streets.
Residents approve of all those measures. Taken together, they suggest a path toward a healthier city and happier electorate.
Of course, there will be objections. Each of those steps involves government action or intervention, so they do not represent a “free market” approach. Fine. Yaroslavsky, for his part, said that it’s time for local officials to recognize that the market alone will not solve these problems.
He pointed to a project underway in the city’s Eagle Rock neighborhood where a developer is eliminating rent-controlled units in order to create more apartments, but mostly at market-rate prices. The net result, Yaroslavsky noted, will not be more affordable units, just more expensive ones.
“The free market has no conscience,” he said. “Just building more market-rate housing will not bring down the cost of housing. That’s a fraud.”
But guiding the market, protecting those who are tossed aside by it and creating incentives for developers to build more units that the working people of LA can afford could alleviate some of the fear that this survey uncovered. It might even make some politicians more popular.

Jim Newton is a veteran journalist, best-selling author and teacher. He worked at the Los Angeles Times for 25 years as a reporter, editor, bureau chief and columnist, covering government and politics. He teaches at UCLA and founded Blueprint magazine. He could be reached at jnewton100@ucla.edu

CalMatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics. Published with permission of CalMatters.

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