L.A. County to look at vacant commercial property for affordable and homeless housing

Los Angeles County Seal.
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Los Angeles County is expected to create a list of underutilized commercial properties left vacant during the pandemic that could be used for affordable housing or temporary homeless housing, according to a motion approved Tuesday. 

The motion, introduced by county Supervisor Kathryn Barger, whose 5th District includes the Santa Clarita Valley, and Supervisor Hilda Solis, looks at the uncertain future of the commercial real estate industry as the “pandemic has forced the closure of restaurants, gyms and retail stores, and has impacted hotels as travel patterns have nearly halted and reduced commercial office space occupancy.” 

Much like the rest of the county and across the nation, business closures during the coronavirus crisis have struck the SCV, according to Holly Schroeder, president and CEO of the SCV Economic Development Corp. 

“We certainly have seen businesses shut down here and what remains to be seen is, what is the ongoing demand for in-person services when businesses are allowed to go up to higher capacity, retail and gyms are allowed to reopen? What is the consumer readiness and willingness and desire to go back into those facilities?” said Schroeder. 

Several industries have pivoted to teleworking amid COVID-19 lockdowns, with many considering downsizing their physical footprints to reduce overhead costs and offering a more flexible working environment for employees, the county supervisors highlighted.  

Of nearly 1,600 executives, about 53% of them said they planned to reduce their office space for more work flexibility in a post-COVID era, according to a Cisco Systems Inc. survey. 

While it is yet to be seen how each company will adapt, “the way that things have been is probably not what’s going to continue,” said Schroeder, who added “we are going to see a desire for more mixed-used (properties)” like the Vista Canyon project. The development, located on the eastern side of the SCV, is a mixed-use, pedestrian- and cyclist-friendly community with townhomes, single-family residences and luxury apartments, as well as commercial space, a new transit center and more than 21 acres preserved for recreation.

A University of California, Berkeley, report, which the motion cited, highlights that residential reuse of land zoned for retail and office offers opportunities around economic growth and to address issues such as affordable housing. Los Angeles County, for example, must meet its share of new housing units with nearly 90,000 units by 2029 in its unincorporated areas, according to the state’s Regional Housing Needs Assessment.  

“Allowing new homes and mixed-use projects to be built on these sites can serve as a catalyst for new economic growth while at the same time addressing California’s ongoing housing shortage,” read the UC Berkeley report. 

Schroeder said the county’s move to create a list of properties is a step in the right direction. 

“I think it’s good that the county is taking a proactive step toward looking at its zoning and starting to think now about how the economic shutdown in response to the pandemic is going to affect commercial corridors and not waiting to see what happens,” she said, adding that the county should speak with real estate experts who are actively talking with owners and tenants of those properties. 

It is not yet known whether the move would apply only in unincorporated areas of L.A. County. If so, however, Schroeder said Castaic is one place to start within the SCV. 

“We do have some areas that are struggling, like in Castaic. We definitely have some areas that need attention and we need to be thinking about how to make our zoning code adaptive to the realities of the way business is going to work going forward.” 

County Development Authority and Regional Planning staff are expected to report back with the list of potential properties in 90 days. 

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