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.”
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.
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
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.
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.
View a video of the session on YouTube:
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.
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.
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.’”
Michael Lens, associate professor of urban planning and public policy, spoke to the Los Angeles Times about the benefits of affordable housing following the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s announcement that it would repeal the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing regulation. Implemented by the Obama administration, the provision required cities receiving federal housing aid to develop plans to address patterns of segregation or risk losing money. The new regulation under the Trump administration would allow local governments more latitude in deciding if their policies were racially discriminatory. Recent studies have found that affordable housing developments led to crime reductions in low-income areas and had no effect in higher-income neighborhoods. “The infinitesimal risk of increased crime as a result of increased ‘affordable’ or multifamily housing in U.S. suburbs is massively outweighed by the benefits to those actually housed, and other benefits of reducing concentrated poverty,” Lens said.