Lens on How to Strengthen Fair Housing Policies

Associate Professor of Urban Planning and Public Policy Michael Lens was featured in a Washington Monthly article about the complexities and limitations of the Fair Housing Act. The Obama-era Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH) rule, which sought to promote residential desegregation, was repealed during the Trump administration. The rule went further than the 1968 Fair Housing Act, which outlawed racial discrimination in the sale and rental of housing but did not take any affirmative steps to dismantle segregation. Now, President Joe Biden has announced his plans to revive the AFFH rule, prompting discussion about how to make it more effective and equitable. According to Lens, “a new AFFH rule should go further and include measures of access to safe neighborhoods.” He pointed to extensive data suggesting that access to low-crime neighborhoods is a primary motivator for low-income families who move and that escaping high-crime neighborhoods increases educational outcomes for students.


Lens on Expanding Middle-Income Housing

Associate Professor of Urban Planning and Public Policy Michael Lens spoke to the Long Beach Post about increasing the availability of middle-income housing. While many tax breaks and credits are available to developers building low-income housing, there aren’t many incentives to build homes for middle-income earners. A new state program will issue bonds to investors who buy existing market-rate buildings and transform them into units that are affordable for middle-income households. Lens said creating new housing for any tier is a good thing. The need for lower-income housing remains great, but the housing market has become so unaffordable that a program like this may have been necessary, he said. “It only happens when you’re so worried about the affordability of housing driving those kinds of people out of the state,” Lens said. “I think we’re there, but whether or not we’ll find a bunch of money to do something about it, it remains to be seen.”

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Lewis Center Reviews Perspectives on Housing Development

An article in Planetizen highlighted the findings of a recent publication from the Lewis Center for Regional Policy Studies on the effects of market-rate housing development on surrounding neighborhoods. The report, co-authored by Lewis Center project manager Shane Phillips and UCLA Luskin faculty Michael Manville and Michael Lens, reviews the findings of six papers published since 2019, highlighting different perspectives on the zoning debate. “On one side are those who think new market-rate units — unsubsidized homes whose price often places them beyond the reach of lower- and middle-income households — make nearby housing more affordable by increasing availability and relieving pressure on the existing housing stock,” they explained. “An opposing view, however, is that new housing only attracts more wealthy households, brings new amenities to the neighborhood (including the housing itself), and sends a signal to existing landlords that they should raise their rents.” The report helps to guide the ongoing conversation about the effects of market-rate development.

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Luskin Summit Breaks Down Housing Injustice

A UCLA Luskin Summit webinar on the exacerbation of housing injustice and mass evictions during the COVID-19 pandemic drew a virtual crowd of more than 400 participants. Moderated by Michael Lens, associate professor of urban planning and public policy, “The Threat of Mass Evictions and an Opportunity to Rethink Housing” was the third segment of this year’s virtual Luskin Summit series. The COVID-19 pandemic has shed light on housing injustice in Los Angeles, with hundreds of thousands of renters facing joblessness, debt and the looming threat of eviction. “When the pandemic is laid upon the current housing crisis, it becomes clear that going back to normal is not enough,” Lens said. “We need a renewed commitment to the subsidization of housing, and we need to allow more homes of all types to be built.” Ananya Roy, professor of urban planning and social welfare, noted that working-class communities of color bear the brunt of evictions. “As billionaires have accumulated massive wealth during the pandemic, renters have accumulated debt,” she said. Housing and community development consultant Sandra McNeill discussed the growth of the Community Land Trust movement, which uses a model of collective land ownership to combat systemic racism and gentrification. “We share a fundamental belief that land and housing should not be treated as a commodity but as a common good,” she said. Marques Vestal, incoming assistant professor of urban planning, argued that this is an opportunity to completely rethink housing policy governance. “If we’re going to talk about housing redevelopment, let’s get creative about it,” Vestal said. — Zoe Day

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Lens on Advantages of Community Land Trusts

Associate Professor of Urban Planning and Public Policy Michael Lens spoke to LAist about the prospect of community land trusts (CLTs) as a solution to the affordable housing crisis in California. CLTs are nonprofit organizations that raise money through donations, fundraising and grants to buy affordable housing stock on behalf of a community, protecting the land from speculators and keeping prices low. “It’s a more mission-driven way to acquire land and make it available to be lived on,” Lens explained. Since the CLT retains ownership of the land, residents are protected from sharp increases in rent, Lens noted. Although CLTs are not very common in Los Angeles, many affordable housing advocates have pointed to the model as a solution for preventing displacement and gentrification. “If there’s a significant growth in the number of units that are under CLT frameworks, we’re going to have a larger number of units that are affordable to people,” Lens said.

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Former HUD Secretary Julián Castro on Future of Federal Housing Webinar with the former Democratic presidential candidate includes UCLA Luskin housing experts in a discussion of urgent policy priorities

By Bret Weinberger

Former U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro characterized the seriousness with which American society ought to address the nationwide housing crisis by saying during a recent UCLA virtual event, “All of us have a responsibility to solve this challenge.”

Castro said there is no time to waste in facing this issue, with an eviction crisis looming because of economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic. The Nov. 5 webinar focused on the future of federal housing policy as part of the Housing, Equity and Community Series, a joint endeavor of the UCLA Lewis Center for Regional Policy Studies and the UCLA Ziman Center for Real Estate.

Castro and Michael Lens, associate faculty director of the Lewis Center, spoke amid uncertainty regarding the nation’s political landscape just days before major news outlets called the race for President-elect Joe Biden. They delved into the interconnectedness of multiple ongoing crises and came ready with policy solutions.

Regarding protections for those who struggle to remain housed, Castro said that local governments should be empowered to enact rent control measures, even if it isn’t a one-size-fits-all remedy. And the federal government should robustly enforce the Fair Housing Act by working with local governments to put together implementation plans, as was the practice when he served in the Obama administration.

Castro, who unsuccessfully ran for president in 2020, also suggested changing the tax code to favor non-homeowners by offering a renters’ tax credit.

When Lens brought up the infusion of racial politics into housing policy, Castro castigated the Trump administration for assuming that racism exists among suburbanites and ignoring the realities of diversifying suburbs. He said their rhetoric translated into policy changes, such as removing protections against housing discrimination and underfunding key programs, that have exacerbated the housing crisis.

Castro raised cause for hope on the topic of homelessness when he said that both parties could agree on tackling veteran homelessness. He shared an experience of visiting Los Angeles’ Skid Row while HUD secretary.

“You can’t tell, just by looking at someone, why they’re there. You can’t stereotype them,” he said.

Lens also joined a second portion of the event that featured a roundtable discussion about topics covered by Castro, joining Cecilia Estolano MA UP ’91, founder and CEO of the urban planning firm Estolano Advisors, and José Loya, assistant professor of urban planning at UCLA Luskin.

“We need to be strategic, and we need to work fast,” Estolano said. She argued that incomes need to rise for people to afford high housing costs. Policies helping minority-owned businesses could have a major impact, she said.

Like Castro, Loya focused on how the tax code could be rewritten to help renters and low-income homeowners. This centered on granting tax credits to these groups rather than to wealthier homeowners.

One theme resonated with all the speakers: The new government, whatever its composition, must face housing head on. Americans — whether rural, suburban or city-dwelling — can’t afford otherwise.

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Few Trying to Skip Out on Rent During Pandemic, Study Finds

A new UCLA-USC study that took a deep dive into how Los Angeles County tenants are handling rent and finances during the COVID-19 health crisis was covered by media outlets including the Orange County Register. Since the start of the pandemic, landlords have argued that tenants who were shielded from possible eviction would refuse to pay rent, the article noted. In fact, while the study showed that many have struggled to make rent, most tenants have not used the pandemic as an excuse to take a rent holiday, according to the study conducted by scholars from UCLA Luskin’s Lewis Center for Regional Studies and USC’s Lusk Center for Real Estate. One factor measured in the study was the impact of direct assistance to renters who need it. The findings showed that tenants collecting unemployment insurance were 39% less likely to miss rent payments. The report’s findings were also highlighted in Courthouse News, Commercial Observer and Pasadena Now

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1 in 5 Tenants in L.A. Has Struggled to Pay Rent During Pandemic, Study Finds Thousands of renters are at risk of eviction with moratorium set to expire; tens of thousands more are in a deep financial hole

By Claudia Bustamante

Twenty-two percent of Los Angeles County tenants paid rent late at least once from April to July, while between May and July, about 7% did not pay any rent at least once, according to a joint UCLA–USC report released today as a statewide eviction moratorium is set to expire.

The report documents the hardships faced by tenants during the COVID-19 pandemic, and it traces those hardships overwhelmingly to lost work and wages as a result of the economic shutdown.

Among households in the county that did not pay rent, either in full or partially, about 98,000 tenants have been threatened with an eviction, while an additional 40,000 report that their landlord has already begun eviction proceedings against them. California’s moratorium on evictions was scheduled to end Sept. 1, but at the last minute, lawmakers extended protections through Jan. 31, 2021. Federal action to protect renters from eviction at the national level through December 2020 has also been enacted.

The report by researchers at the UCLA Lewis Center for Regional Policy Studies and the USC Lusk Center for Real Estate analyzed data from the U.S. Census, as well as data from an original survey conducted in July 2020 of 1,000 Los Angeles County renter households. The survey, in particular, gave the researchers new insights into the circumstances facing renters. The study was authored by Michael ManvillePaavo Monkkonen and Michael Lens, all with the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, and Richard Green, director of the USC Lusk Center.

“I think everyone understood, early on, that renters might be in trouble as a result of COVID-19 and its economic fallout, but conventional sources of data don’t give us a good window into whether renters are paying or not, and into how they are paying if they do pay,” said lead author Manville, an associate professor of urban planning. “We were able, by using data from a special census survey, and especially our own original survey of renters, to get a direct sense of these questions.”

The researchers first analyzed the U.S. Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey, a weekly survey that asked if renters have paid rent on time and if they think they will be able to pay the next month’s rent on time. This data was augmented by the UCLA Luskin–USC Lusk survey, which asked not only if renters paid on time but if they paid in full and if they were threatened with an eviction or had eviction proceedings initiated against them.

The study found that tenants have been facing unprecedented hardships during the COVID-19 crisis, substantially more so than homeowners. Overall, the study also found that most tenants are still paying their rent during the pandemic but are often doing so by relying on unconventional funding sources. The majority who pay late or not at all have either lost their work, gotten sick with COVID-19 or both.

Among the findings:

  •  About 16% of tenants report paying rent late each month from April through July.
  •  About 10% did not pay rent in full for at least one month between May and July.
  •  About 2% of renters are three full months behind on rent. This translates to almost 40,000 households in a deep financial hole.
  •  Late payment and nonpayment are strongly associated with very low incomes (households earning less than $25,000 annually) and being Black or Hispanic.
  •  Nonpayment is more common among tenants who rent from friends and family.

This crisis is particularly acute in the Los Angeles region and other high-cost cities, where an existing affordable housing crisis and an economic slowdown resulting from mitigation efforts to curb the pandemic intersect to threaten the stability of many households.

“Even before the pandemic, L.A. renters, especially low-income renters, were struggling,” said Lens, associate faculty director of the UCLA Lewis Center. And while most renters who miss rent have entered into some type of repayment plan, they’re not out of the woods yet.

“Nonpayment occurs disproportionately among the lowest-income renter households, so repaying back rent could be a tremendous burden for them,” Lens said.

The study also found that renters were suffering disproportionately from anxiety, depression and food scarcity, and they are relying much more than in the past on credit cards, family and friends, and payday loans to cover their expenses. One-third of households with problems paying rent relied on credit card debt and about 40% used emergency payday loans.

The prevalence of these nonconventional forms of payment, along with the incidence of job loss among tenants, suggests the importance of direct income assistance to renter households.

Tenants collecting unemployment insurance were 39% less likely to miss rent payments. Just 5% of households that hadn’t lost a job or fallen sick reported not paying the rent.

Co-author Green, director of the USC Lusk Center for Real Estate, said that although data show that most renters have been paying their rent, government policies can help strengthen the ability to do so.

“One of the main concerns among landlords at the beginning of the pandemic was that tenants weren’t going to pay their rent if they knew they weren’t going to be evicted,” Green said. “Not only have we not seen any evidence of this, but getting money in renters’ hands through unemployment insurance or rental assistance helps a lot.”

Co-author Monkkonen, an associate professor of urban planning and public policy, agreed.

Helping renters now will not only stave off looming evictions next month but “also prevent cumulative money problems that are no less serious, such as renters struggling to pay back credit card debt, struggling to manage a repayment plan or emerging from the pandemic with little savings left,” he said.

Across the state, most evictions were halted in April by the California Judicial Council, the state’s court policymaking body. The eviction moratorium was set to expire in June, but it had been postponed to Sept. 1 to allow local and state lawmakers more time to develop further protections, including the bill currently under consideration. Given the unconventional means renters reported using to pay rent, the new study says that policies that provide funds to renters could help mitigate a raft of evictions and homelessness that had been predicted by previous reports by researchers at UCLA and elsewhere.

The study was funded by the Luskin School, the UCLA Luskin Institute on Inequality and Democracy, the UCLA Ziman Center for Real Estate, the USC Lusk Center for Real Estate, and the California Community Foundation.

Lens on Increasing Demand for Rent Control Measures

Michael Lens, associate professor of urban planning and public policy, was featured in an LAist article discussing a Burbank rent control measure headed for the ballot in November. Supporters collected 7,749 signatures to put the measure on the ballot, but it has been met with resistance by Burbank’s elected officials. “Calls for rent control in more places have probably gotten louder and more consistent,” Lens said. “Policymakers are paying more serious attention to [rent control] as kind of an emergency response to these various rental affordability crises.” He explained that politicians often look less favorably on rent control measures than their constituents because landlords have more political power than their tenants. According to Lens, rent control is considered a break-glass-in-case-of-emergency type of solution.

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Lens Weighs In on Suit Against L.A. Development

Michael Lens, associate professor of urban planning and public policy, spoke to the Los Angeles Times about the AIDS Healthcare Foundation’s decision to sue the city of Los Angeles over real estate developments related to Councilman Jose Huizar, who has been charged with bribery, money laundering and racketeering. The lawsuit aims to block at least four city projects tied to Huizar and former Councilman Mitchell Englander that have allegedly violated California’s Political Reform Act. The AIDS nonprofit has been vocal on housing and development issues in the state. Some critics questioned whether the new lawsuit was an attempt by the foundation to slow or stop local development, regardless of its merits. Lens, who opposed a 2017 ballot measure championed by the foundation to crack down on “mega projects,” told the Los Angeles Times that “this seems to be a convenient excuse for them to say, once again, ‘We need to stop development.’”

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