Zev Yaroslavsky, the former L.A. City Councilmember (CD-5) and former L.A. County Board Representative (District 3), was first elected to office nearly 50 years ago at the age of just 26 years. He would serve as an elected official for nearly 40 years, retiring in 2014; in 2016, he became the director of the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, where he has remained since.
Yarloslavsky’s memoir is a story replete with his commentary on various ongoing political issues in L.A., including the city’s notorious lack of affordable housing, Proposition 13, rent control (RSO), the 1984 Olympics and L.A.P.D., and even L.A.’s slow-growth movement.
At a talk at Kohn Chapel recently, Yaroslavsky noted that, “There are people who weren’t even born…halfway through my career who are now writing revisionist histories about the things that I was involved in. And I’m not gonna get into an argument with them, but I want to make sure that my side of the story is in print, and people can take it or leave it.”
Below are 10 excerpts from his book for your consideration. You can also hear more from his side of the story in his recent appearance on former L.A. City Councilmember Mike Bonin’s What’s Next, Los Angeles Podcast.
On L.A.’s political climate at the time of his election (1975)
“To be sure, there were problems galore. The city was grappling with rising crime, property tax rates, and rents. Neighborhood groups were angrily pushing back against unwanted development and traffic congestion that was eroding their quality of life. Black people, Gays and other marginalized groups were bitterly protesting their treatment by the Los Angeles Police Department, and a long-simmering dispute over busing and school integration was boiling over.”
On Property Taxes in California before 1978
“At the conclusion of the town hall meeting, one elderly widow approached me, and the ensuing conversation has been etched into my memory ever since. She showed me copies of her 1976 and 1977 property tax bills. The ‘76 bill was for $1,500, an amount she could barely afford, but the ‘77 bill rose to $7,500, a five-fold increase. “I’m going to have to sell my house. I’m going to have to leave the home in which my late husband and I raised our family,” she said. “I don’t want to leave. Where will I go?” She didn’t want to leave her church, her doctors, and her social network. It was a crushing blow. This story was playing out in hundreds of thousands of households across our region.”
On the impact of Proposition 13
“Until 1978, property taxes were the principal source of funding for schools, counties and cities. After Proposition 13, however, there weren’t enough tax revenues to pay for all three. Amid lengthy wrangling in Sacramento, the state took over much of the funding for education, averting a breakdown of the California public school system. This was a seismic change. At the same time, the chastened legislature returned a portion of the $7 billion State surplus to local governments, to help them adjust to the new reality.”
On implementing Proposition 13 locally
“Remaking the budget was hard, the pressure was intense, and the stakes were high. But we made it work. The experience, you’ll excuse the expression, was taxing. It was seared into my psyche for the rest of my career. But there were glaring inequities built into the new law that bedevil California to this day. Longtime homeowners would enjoy a much lower property tax than a neighbor who purchased an identical home next door years or decades later. And thanks to a legal loophole, many new commercial property owners were not taxed based on the purchase price, avoiding a substantially higher tax. Over the years, calls to correct that inequity have proven politically too hot to handle. In November 2020, a State constitutional amendment that would have ended this exemption was narrowly defeated by California voters.”
On Prop. 13’s negative impact on communities of color and future families seeking to become homeowners
“Despite the approval of alternative fees and taxes, local government never fully recouped the financial losses caused by Proposition 13. Adopting budgets became an annual struggle to make ends meet, and vital social, capital, and operational investments were deferred or never made. The consequences fell more heavily on economically and racially marginalized communities, further exacerbating the structural inequities that plague our society.”
On opposition to Rent Control in L.A., including within his own district
“I told them that I understood their concerns. But more than 23,000 voters, many of them renters, elected me and I knew first-hand the financial hardships they faced because of never-ending rent increases. I had knocked on their doors and felt their pain. I was not going to sell them out.”
“Although I was an outspoken advocate for rent relief, the main credit goes to Councilman Joel Wachs for his leadership on this issue. He took on rent control as one of his core causes. His intellect, political acumen and perseverance made him the leading political force behind what ultimately emerged as the city’s landmark Rent Stabilization Ordinance (RSO). Pressure grew for a solution when it became clear that most landlords had no intention of passing on rent savings to tenants. Mayor Bradley, who had not previously spoken out on the matter, finally called for “dramatic action” to halt what he termed “outrageous” rent increases. As a result, the council passed a rollback and moratorium on rents in August 1978. The following year, after a furious battle, the City Council renewed the RSO. It did so each year until it approved a permanent law in 1982.”
“The new [Rent Control] law also exempted all apartment buildings built after June 1978, addressing the argument that rent control would discourage new construction. At the time, it seemed like an easy concession to make in order to get a permanent law on the books. Because of this exemption, however, the tens of thousands of new rental units built in Los Angeles over the next four decades were not subject to rent control. So, what were once “new” units, are today largely unaffordable to middle and low-income renters.”
On L.A. apartment buildings being converted into condominiums in the late 1970s and early 1980s
“I authored legislation putting conditions on conversions, allowing them only in planning areas where the rental vacancy rate was greater than 3 percent. In those days this was considered the equilibrium point between a rental housing shortage and a surplus. We also required owners to provide relocation assistance to renters who could not avert displacement. Still, the conversions continued. They contributed to a higher rent burden and increased poverty in segments of Los Angeles’ elderly population. Some of the most vulnerable tenants had to choose between rent and food, between rent and medicine. It was a dreadful predicament that continues to plague Los Angeles to this day.”
“Los Angeles faced a rent crisis not over the supply of housing, but over the supply of affordable housing, according to a 1981 report by the Rand Corporation. ‘What Los Angeles has, along with most of the rest of the United States, is a double-digit price inflation that increases the cost of producing housing services, and therefore increases rents,’ the report said.”