by Kristine Breese
While she certainly didn’t expect streets paved with gold, Bohnett Fellow and Urban Planning student Priya Zachariah admits she had a pretty idealized vision of Los Angeles while growing up in India. “All my visions of LA came from movies and TV. I never thought it would be anything but shiny and glamorous,” she says. “It wasn’t so much that I consciously believed the Hollywood version of Los Angeles, it’s just that I had no reason to think it would be otherwise.” When she arrived in 2007, however, she found the city to be as full of problems and contradictions as any metropolis. So she did something that would surprise no one who knows anything about UCLA’s School of Public Affairs – she decided to become part of the solution.
“I guess I was used to seeing dichotomy in the big cities of India, vast wealth contrasted with people who have nothing, literally kids begging in the streets. But I did not expect to see it here, in America, in Los Angeles and it broke my heart.” One indelible marker was reading an LA Times article about people lining up to secure an application to apply for a voucher for subsidized housing. “They weren’t standing in line for the voucher, mind you, they were queuing up for hours just for a chance to apply for one.” With a young daughter of her own, Zachariah felt a strong connection with the women pictured in the photo that accompanied the piece. “I could imagine how desperate that would be, to wonder if you could put a roof over your child’s head.”
Having studied architecture as an undergrad and worked as an architect in South and Southeast Asia and the Middle East, Zachariah began to feel that to affect real change, she might want to insert herself earlier along in the process. “Don’t get me wrong, I love building, architecture and design, but I began to see that there was less of a chance to bring change to people’s lives in these roles. And real change is what’s needed.”
Zachariah chose the Urban Planning program within the School of Public Affairs because it’s an “upstream” profession. “By the time you get to building something, the policies are in place and the ground rules are set. Urban planning allows you to reach down and help people to transform their lives.”
As a Bohnett Fellow working in the Mayor’s Office and reporting directly to the Deputy Mayor for Housing and Economnmic Opportunity, Zachariah says her assignment is nothing less than “transforming public housing in the City of Los Angeles.” If that sounds daunting, remember Zachariah knows a thing or two about building things that will stand the test of time.
“We’re breaking this big issue into small, smart steps,” she says. “First we’re studying existing public housing stock in the city. Then we’re surveying what resources exist within the city and its partners to make the changes we think are needed, and then we’re examining what other cities have done that’s working.”
Zachariah calls the prestigious Bohnett Fellowship and the opportunities associated with it “an unparalleled perch from where to see public policy at work putting a roof over people’s heads” and you can almost hear the hammers pounding and nail-guns firing as she speaks.