L.A. Road Trip Reveals Enormous Wealth, Astounding Poverty

In the premier episode of “On the Road to Change,” Ananya Roy, director of the UCLA Luskin Institute on Inequality and Democracy (II&D), takes viewers on a drive through Los Angeles’ wealthiest and most impoverished areas to illustrate the region’s entrenched housing injustices. In the video produced by the Goethe-Institut and Thomas Mann House Los Angeles, Roy and German philosopher Rainer Forst visit a mega-mansion on the market for hundreds of millions of dollars at a time when hundreds of thousands of Angelenos face eviction as pandemic-era renter protections expire, according to II&D research. In a conversation blending policy strategies with linguistics and economic philosophy, Roy and Forst explore the complexities of providing housing relief in a place of enormous wealth and beauty but also astounding poverty and misery. Their journey ends in Skid Row, where Pete White, founder of the Los Angeles Community Action Network (LACAN), shares the grassroots group’s strategies for bringing about housing justice.

file photo of Sen. Sinema speaking.

Diaz Calls on Sen. Sinema to Protect Democracy

Sonja Diaz, director of the UCLA Latino Policy and Politics Initiative, published an opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times about the urgent need to protect voter rights. The 2020 Census found that the country’s white population is declining, while the number of Latinos and Asian Americans is increasing. However, voter suppression tactics, including closing polling places, purging voter rolls and passing restrictive voter ID laws, are threatening democracy, especially affecting voters of color, Diaz wrote. She directed her comments at Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, who has helped block congressional action even as lawmakers in her own state have put forward audacious attempts to curb access to the ballot. “We are facing an all-out assault on free and fair elections that coincides with the growth and consequence of voters of color,” Diaz wrote. “[Sinema’s] inaction allows the will of a minority of the population to have an outsized influence on who can participate in our democracy.”

file photo of a broken sidewalk under repair

Shoup on How to Improve Sidewalk Accessibility

Donald Shoup, distinguished research professor of urban planning, authored a Bloomberg CityLab article about the slow progress to repair broken sidewalks in Los Angeles. Roughly 40% of L.A. sidewalks are broken, a violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act, according to a 2016 class-action lawsuit won by disability rights advocates. Los Angeles is required to spend $1.4 billion over 30 years to fix its sidewalks, but in the first five years of the program, less than 1% have been repaired. “Fortunately, there’s a simple way to ensure that sidewalks will be accessible,” Shoup wrote. “Cities can require that the sidewalk abutting any property must comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act when the property is sold.” Property owners would not have to pay or do anything until they sell their property, and the city can subsidize sidewalk repairs for low-income owners. “A pay-on-exit program may be the fairest and most politically painless way to keep sidewalks accessible,” Shoup concluded.

file shot of a tent on a city street

Activist-in-Residence on Goals at UCLA

Theo Henderson, host of the podcast “We the Unhoused,” spoke to KCRW’s “Greater L.A.” about his goals as the newly named UCLA Activist-in-Residence. Hosted by the UCLA Luskin Institute on Inequality and Democracy, Henderson hopes to help educate “our future generation of leaders to make the right calls on dealing with the unhoused crisis.” Henderson offers a personal perspective on policies aimed at addressing Los Angeles’ growing housing crisis. “Too often, the people who are leading the conversation have little to no experience in being unhoused,” he said. “They have repeated the same disastrous solutions and the same harmful narratives.” Henderson’s podcast has given him a platform to reach a homeless population in search of information about how to find shelter and stay safe, as well as prominent L.A. officials who tune in regularly. “I wanted people to learn that the world is not the same for housed people as for unhoused people,” he said.

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Wasserman Imagines Possibilities for Fareless Transit

Jacob Wasserman, research project manager at the Institute of Transportation Studies at UCLA Luskin, joined KCRW’s “Greater L.A.” to discuss the possibility of a fareless Metro. After nearly two years of free bus rides during the pandemic, LA Metro has resumed fare collection, stating that they cannot afford to continue the policy. According to Wasserman, bus and train fares make up 15-20% of Metro’s annual operating funds. “[That] is not nothing, but is also a sum that they could make up through other sources of revenue,” he said. Ridership trends in Los Angeles had declined for years, but ridership during the pandemic was actually much higher than in other cities. Wasserman explained that essential workers, low-income riders and riders of color rely on the bus system to get around. He believes that there is a path to fareless transit “if Metro thinks outside of the box and looks at ways to make transit more accessible for all.”

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Center for Innovation on Expanding Electric Cars to Low-Income Communities

The UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation was cited in a Los Angeles Times story about innovative electric car ride-sharing initiatives in parts of California. The Central Valley city of Huron attracts thousands of seasonal laborers to harvest crops every year; but the area is also a transportation desert. To address this issue, Mayor Rey León created the Green Raiteros program, a growing fleet of electric cars that shuttle residents all over Fresno County free of charge. Most of the electric vehicle infrastructure is concentrated in the wealthiest ZIP codes, but the Green Raiteros program is challenging that trend. In addition, residents of Rancho San Pedro, near the Port of Los Angeles, are taking advantage of an innovative program to share electric cars at low cost. According to a Center for Innovation study, getting these cars into lower-income communities is “the greatest challenge we now face in meeting our climate goals.”

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Reber on Link Between High COVID Risk and Vaccine Hesitancy

Quartz spoke with Associate Professor of Public Policy Sarah Reber about her study finding that the political environment outside a skilled nursing facility did not strongly predict the likelihood that its residents were vaccinated against COVID-19. Politics might be expected to seep into nursing home environments, Reber said, especially because many of the residents suffer from cognitive decline and have substitute decision-makers — often adult children and other family members who live nearby — who must give consent before a resident can be inoculated. Reber said the extreme threat COVID-19 poses to older adults could be one factor at play. “It does seem like the higher the risk, the less politicized vaccination is,” she said. In an article for Brookings, Reber and co-author Cyrus Kosar of Brown University also found wide disparities in states’ effectiveness in delivering life-saving vaccines, including flu shots, to nursing home residents, but the reason for this gap is unclear.

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Matute on the Resurgence of E-Scooters

Juan Matute, deputy director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at UCLA Luskin, spoke to Spectrum News about the changing landscape of e-scooter technology. During the COVID-19 pandemic, fears of sharing space with strangers on mass transit appears to have resulted in increased reliance on e-scooters. For example, the company Bird reported that the average e-scooter ride length is 58% longer compared to pre-pandemic levels. “Maybe what would have been a three-mile Uber ride pre-pandemic is now a three-mile scooter ride,” Matute said. At the beginning of the pandemic, many scooter companies suspended operations, but technology and safety improvements are contributing to a resurgence in e-scooter popularity. “Customer expectations are changing,” Matute said. “Getting on one of these more advanced scooters is a safer experience than some of these early-generation scooters that are still out in the wild.” He noted that the newer vehicles are sturdier, have a longer range and feel more comfortable over a longer ride.

image shows professor Jorja Leap hugging a police officer

Leap Weighs In on COVID, Crime in Watts

Adjunct Professor of Social Welfare Jorja Leap spoke to the Los Angeles Times about the rise in homicides during the pandemic and the way that it has affected neighborhoods like Watts in South Los Angeles. Of the 22 men and women killed in Watts in the first 11 months of 2021, 64% of the victims were Black. “Young Black men and families are the hardest hit by the pandemic,” Leap said. “If you’re starving and you feel out of control, you’re more likely to be the victim or the perpetrator of violence.” She pointed out that the COVID case rate in Watts is nearly 30% higher than the overall rate for Los Angeles, and 117 residents have died. After spending over 40 years working in Watts, Leap hopes to see more economic investment to support the community. “We have plenty of investment in social programs in Watts,” Leap said. “Where is the economic structure to give people jobs?”

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Shah Outlines Consequences of Prohibiting Sex Work

Public Policy Professor Manisha Shah joined the Then & Now podcast to discuss the long history of policy approaches to sex work, including prohibition and regulation. “For many years, prostitution was a part of normal life, which is why we call it the oldest profession,” she said on the podcast, which is hosted by the UCLA Luskin Center for History and Policy. With the appearance of syphilis in the 1500s in Europe, prostitution became associated with sexually transmitted diseases. “Today, prohibition is the norm,” said Shah, who directs the Global Lab for Research in Action. Sex work is prohibited in all U.S. states, with the exception of a few counties in Nevada that allow regulated sex work. Shah explained that a growing body of research highlights the negative impacts of prohibition, including increased spread of sexually transmitted infections, increased violence against women, less trust of police and less empowerment of female sex workers.

stock art shows older person receiving a vaccine shot

Reber on Nursing Homes, Booster Shots and Politics

Associate Professor of Public Policy Sarah Reber co-authored a Brookings article that used a political lens to view COVID-19 vaccination rates at nursing homes. “Vaccination for nursing home residents has not been politicized as much as for younger populations,” Reber found. Nursing home staff and residents have been slow to get COVID booster shots since the CDC first recommended them for high-risk populations in September. However, Reber found that booster uptake among nursing home residents has not been strongly politicized the way it has in the general population. Instead, she noted that “pre-pandemic flu vaccination rates for nursing home residents, which was highly correlated with initial vaccination rates, continues to be a strong predictor of the share receiving boosters for COVID-19.” Reber highlighted the importance of boosting nursing home residents and staff in order to reduce the impact of the Omicron variant.

Matute on Democratizing Parking Data and Access

Juan Matute, deputy director of the UCLA Institute of Transportation Studies, was featured in a Dot.LA article about taking advantage of Los Angeles’ hidden parking spaces. According to Matute, the most straightforward way to cut down on congestion is by ensuring fewer cars are on the road in the first place. Still, new apps such as Metropolis can play an important role in “eliminating some of the most obvious and wasteful impracticalities associated with parking.” Even in dense areas like downtown Los Angeles, where a parking spot seems impossible to locate, there is abundant parking concealed in parking garages. The Metropolis app allows drivers to access parking facilities that are registered in the database without obtaining a ticket or paying at a booth; instead, the owner’s credit card is charged automatically. “These apps are addressing the issue where you only know about parking you can see,” Matute said.

Turner on Framing the Heat Narrative to Find Solutions

Assistant Professor of Urban Planning V. Kelly Turner explored the question “How do we change?” as a guest speaker on an episode of the UCLA lecture series “10 Questions: If not now, when?” Turner discussed her own work on cool pavement, climate change, and the way that different narratives surrounding heat can point to different solutions. “I never thought that cool pavement would be the most political thing that I would study,” Turner said. She highlighted the importance of incorporating equity into the conversation about heat and climate change, noting that only about 25% of city plans use an equity narrative. “We know that heat is one of the most inequitable consequences of climate change,” she said. Turner also explained that “changing the problem framing can unlock new legal doors.” For example, she pointed out that there is no government entity that regulates heat the way that air and water pollution are regulated.

New Transit Doesn’t Alleviate Traffic, Manville Says

Associate Professor of Urban Planning Michael Manville spoke to the San Diego Union-Tribune about the anticipated effects of a new trolley line in San Diego. The 11-mile trolley runs from Old Town to UTC mall in La Jolla and is expected to carry 20,000 daily riders in the coming years. While the trolley line may seem like an ideal solution to reduce traffic congestion in the area, Manville explained that all the cars the trolley removes from the freeway “will almost certainly get replaced by backfilling prompted by reduced congestion” as open space on the freeway is filled by new commuters. “It’s a very established empirical fact that new transit doesn’t alleviate traffic,” Manville said. “It’s self-undermining, because congestion is the No. 1 thing that blunts demand.” He agreed that the new transit line is good for the economy and the region but noted that “you need to be realistic about what transit can and can’t do.”

Ong Highlights Disproportionate Suffering of Asian American Businesses

Paul Ong, director of the Center for Neighborhood Knowledge at UCLA Luskin, was featured in an NBC News article about challenges facing Asian American communities during the pandemic. One study co-authored by Ong found that Asian-owned businesses were hit the hardest during the pandemic due to halts in customer-facing operations as well as increased racism. To better support lower-income and underrepresented Asian American and Pacific Islander communities, the White House announced an initiative to disaggregate data under the “Asian” umbrella and expand language options for federal programs. Ong noted that some Asian American entrepreneurs are immigrants with a rudimentary command of English that is not sufficient to navigate federal program applications, especially when the information is provided only in English. He said some older business owners were not aware programs like the Paycheck Protection Program existed and could not quickly move their services online. “There seems to be a double whammy,” Ong said.

Mukhija, González on Legalizing Informal Housing Units

Urban Planning Professor Vinit Mukhija and Latino Policy and Politics Initiative research director Silvia González were featured in a New York Times article about the prevalence of informal housing units nationwide. The affordable housing crisis has prompted people of every income level to decide to build themselves, creating a vast informal housing market that accounts for millions of units. “This is one of the most significant sources of affordable housing in the country,” Mukhija said. Priced out of many housing options, many renters choose unpermitted living situations that are unsafe or overcrowded, González said. Legalizing informal housing would make units safer, add value to homes and give tenants the security of a sanctioned unit, she said. González participated in research for the nonprofit Pacoima Beautiful that found that informal units can help combat gentrification by creating low-cost housing and allowing families to pool resources.