Associate Professor of Urban Planning and Public Policy Michael Lens published a policy brief in Health Affairs on the downstream effects of low-density residential zoning on health and health equity. Previous research on the relationship between housing and health has identified four important pathways for health equity: housing stability, housing quality and safety, neighborhood characteristics and affordability. While residential zoning ordinances are designed to address density-related concerns such as traffic and environmental harms, Lens explained that “the effect is often to artificially raise the cost of housing for everyone by limiting housing supply, as well as to exclude people who cannot afford to buy single-family homes on large lots.” As a result, low-density zoning practices have exacerbated segregation by income and race. “Safer and healthier neighborhoods tend to have the most restrictive zoning, pricing people out of those areas and increasing segregation and affordability problems,” Lens said. He acknowledged that zoning reform alone cannot fix disparities in housing or health; sufficient housing subsidy programs are crucial, as well as an increase in new housing developments that are required to set aside some units for lower-income households. “The downstream effects of exclusionary land use regulations on health should make scholars and policymakers pay more attention to reforming zoning and expanding housing subsidy programs to make housing more plentiful and affordable,” Lens wrote. Even if increasing density in more neighborhoods does not have an immediate effect on housing affordability, segregation or health, Lens argued that it is a necessary step toward a healthy and sustainable future.
Associate Professor of Urban Planning and Public Policy Michael Lens shared his insights into housing policies and priorities on “Home Rediscovered” on the National Geographic Channel. “We have for decades not produced enough housing to keep up with population growth, and we’re at a point in which the bill is really becoming due,” Lens said on the program, which focused on several individuals and families who have rethought where and how they want to live, now and in the future. “COVID is really present in the minds of all of us, of course. It’s driving 36% of recent home purchases,” Lens said, adding that the ability to work remotely has transformed the housing market. “If you don’t have to commute, then that changes not only the structures that people will demand, but it also changes the locations that they’re likely to inhabit,” he said.
An Orange County Register story on frustrations surrounding California’s rental assistance program, which made $5.2 billion available to help low-income tenants and their landlords during the COVID-19 pandemic, cited research led by the Lewis Center for Regional Policy Studies at UCLA Luskin. Surveys conducted in July 2020 and March 2021 found that, in Los Angeles County, renters’ debt rose sharply as the pandemic dragged on. Almost half of those surveyed in March turned to friends and family to help them pay rent, 58% dipped into their savings and 37% took out an emergency or payday loan, the study found. “That’s a lot of debt that people have accumulated, and they will be left out in the cold if we end up moving forward with a program that just pays your rent,” said Associate Professor of Urban Planning Michael Manville, co-author of the study. The research was also highlighted by Commercial Observer and Multi-Housing News.
Associate Professor of Urban Planning and Public Policy Michael Lens was featured in a Star Tribune article about how zoning affects housing affordability. Many advocates for racial equity and housing affordability are pushing cities across the country to remove zoning requirements that restrict areas to single-family housing only. In some cases, they have been met with opposition from those who fear that removing these requirements would result in the destruction of single-family neighborhoods. Lens pointed out that upzoning does not require the addition of duplexes and triplexes but merely removes a long-standing prohibition and gives landowners more flexibility. “Ending single-family zoning doesn’t end single-family housing, and there’s no real reason why we prioritize single-family housing in such a way,” he said. “You can’t have true integration of race and income without a variety of housing types.”
In a new survey of Los Angeles County renters, 49% of households reported that they were unable to pay all of their rent during the pandemic.
The study, by researchers from UCLA and the University of Southern California, found the median amount renters owe their landlords is $2,800. That suggests that countywide, tenants owe landlords upwards of $3 billion.
The findings are from one of a pair of surveys of 1,000 renters each — one conducted in July 2020, which focused on renters’ ability to pay rent in the short term, and another in March 2021, asking about their ability to pay over the entirety of the pandemic.
The preliminary results show that in both surveys, about 7% of renters missed a full rent payment in at least one of the three months before the study was conducted. But by the time the second survey was conducted, the share of renters paying less than the full amount to a landlord at least once during the crisis had almost doubled to 31%, up from 17% in July 2020.
The study was co-authored by Michael Manville, Paavo Monkkonen and Michael Lens, associate professors at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs; and Richard Green, director of the USC Lusk Center for Real Estate.
A slight majority of respondents reported paying their rent on time and in full, and many of those who owe rent said they were behind by less than a month. But other renters are emerging from the COVID-19 emergency in a financial hole they will struggle to climb out of on their own, the authors write in a research brief published today.
Of particular concern is evidence from the surveys that renters’ debt rose sharply as the COVID-19 crisis dragged on. Only about 6% of Los Angeles tenants reported using a credit card to pay their rent prior to the pandemic. That figure rose to 19% of respondents in the early days of the emergency, and to 44% in the latest survey. Also in the 2021 survey, 49% said they turned to friends and family to help them pay rent, 58% dipped into their savings and another 37% reported taking out an emergency or payday loan.
The overall share of renters taking on debt reached 45% in the second survey, up from 32% in the first.
Other findings include:
- Just over 15% of tenants who were behind on their rent payments in 2020 had been threatened with eviction; that figure increased to 25% in the 2021 survey. Although an eviction moratorium is still in effect in Los Angeles County, tenants can still be threatened with evictions or have evictions initiated against them; a court won’t act until the moratorium ends.
- Similarly, 6% reported in 2020 that an eviction had been initiated against them. In 2021, that percentage tripled to 18%.
- In the 2021 survey, about 68% of all respondents said they had received federal aid during the pandemic, and about 15% reported getting local aid.
The problem? The data show that many tenants owe money to people or institutions other than their landlords, and the researchers write that many may be in that position precisely because they were deeply concerned about their housing security.
The report suggests a solution often advocated by economists as the best way to help people facing financial trouble: Just give people money. Distributing cash to tenants who are financially distressed would allow them to pay back whomever is owed the money — a landlord, another creditor or a family member.
“Programs where the government pays a landlord are sometimes justified as ways to prevent fraud or misuse,” Manville said. “And we should certainly be concerned about fraud. But we need to weigh those concerns against the possibility that an overly cautious program will deny needed assistance to some people who are in real financial trouble.”
To allay concerns about fraudulent claims — which in most government redistribution programs are very rare — the authors suggest ways the state could ask for evidence of debt, lost work or income.
The 2021 survey was funded and produced by the UCLA Lewis Center for Regional Policy Studies in partnership with the USC Lusk Center for Real Estate, the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs and the Committee for Greater LA.
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.
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.