Opinion | Mayor Terry Tornek: A Tale of Two Cities Revisited

Published : Wednesday, January 30, 2019 | 3:22 PM

Mayor Terry Tornek

Two academics have written and now twice rewritten a study, A TALE OF TWO CITIES III, describing Pasadena as “one of California’s most unequal cities”… “now characterized by a widening income gulf, low wages for many, and high rents.” While this description is partly true, I feel compelled to comment on its distortions by their further statement that:

“This harsh reality is not simply the result of inevitable market forces. Decisions made in City Hall – particularly about jobs and housing – contribute to Pasadena’s widening income gap and the hardships encountered by a significant number of families.”

I am not an academic. I am a part-time elected official who has formerly served the City as Planning Director, Planning Commissioner and City Council member, as well as a long-time volunteer with an agency devoted to providing affordable housing, so I have some experience in these matters.

Pasadena’s “wide economic divide” is a fact. However, I would describe it as economic diversity, offering opportunity for mobility and social cohesion, not an embarrassment. Another academic who did a study of our minimum wage policy explains:

“As is the case for many affluent cities, a local low-wage labor force provides services that mainly cater to the more affluent residents”.

Indeed, A TALE documents that low wage earners are concentrated in food services, hotels, health care, job sectors that are growing in Pasadena which was never a high wage manufacturing center.

Continuing, A TALE notes that during the period 2013-2017:

“The percentage of low-income households remains the same, while the percentage of households with incomes over $200,000 increased. This trend results in a hollowed out middle class.”

In fact, their study shows that the percentage of households with incomes over $200,000 increased by only 1.5% and the percentage of those earning between$25,000 and $200,000 decreased from 69.8% to 68%. So it is inaccurate to say that that the middle class is “hollowed out.” Besides, why are gains in income that move middle class households up the income ladder characterized as a bad thing for them, or for the City?

But the most outlandish conclusions of “A TALE” are related to housing.

Housing prices, both homes and rentals are certainly increasing at a rapid rate. This is a regional phenomenon.

A TALE posits that “The housing developments approved by the City have exacerbated the situation” because they are market rate/ expensive. How? Their postulate is that “As the city adds more high-end housing, landlords in the existing rental units raise rents to get closer to the rents in the pricy new apartments”. Really? There is less support for this trickle-up theory than there is for the counter theory that adding more supply will exert downward pressure on rents (“filtering”) which the authors dismiss.

Worse, A TALE discounts Pasadena’s 17-year-old inclusionary ordinance which requires that 15% of new units be allocated to low or moderate income households. This ordinance has in fact produced 577 new affordable units. They describe a “huge Loophole” which allow developers to pay a small in-lieu fee rather than providing the units on site. This “small fee” is actually hundreds of thousands of dollars per project and it has yielded up to $5 million in a single year which has been invested in producing other affordable units throughout the City.

Pasadena is an affluent city with a diverse population. This diversity is a strength and demonstrates that a non-homogeneous community can succeed. We must overcome very real problems that confront many mid-sized American cities, including rising rents, homelessness, violence and under-resourced public schools. However, the representation that Pasadena is Dickensian community with an uncaring government is intellectually dishonest and simply not true.

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