Michael Lens, associate professor of urban planning and public policy, spoke to Dear Pandemic about housing market factors that are affecting how the pandemic is unfolding. Lens said he worries about the “short- and immediate-term losses of income of people who were already very tenuously housed.” For many families already spending huge amounts of their income on rent, the loss of one or two paychecks can mean being foreclosed on or evicted. While short-term policy interventions in the form of income and unemployment support and eviction moratoria have been implemented, they generally do not cancel or lower rent. Lens asked, “What happens when the eviction moratoria are lifted and people are still not able to pay?” In the short term, people must be sheltered without sinking into debt or losing their savings. In the long term, Lens said, the systemic problems of the housing crisis must be fixed.
Michael Lens, associate professor of urban planning and public policy, was featured in a CalMatters article discussing how crowded housing exacerbates the spread of COVID-19. Neighborhoods with large numbers of people per household have about 3.7 times the rate of confirmed COVID-19 cases per 1,000 residents as neighborhoods where few residents live in tight quarters. “The problem has increased in the past decade as neighborhoods have gentrified, pushing rents to rise astronomically,” Lens explained. In some neighborhoods in Los Angeles, two in every five households are overcrowded. A report from the UCLA Luskin Institute on Inequality and Democracy estimated that 365,000 households in Los Angeles County are at high risk of being forced out of their homes when the statewide freeze on evictions is lifted, which will push them into even more crowded conditions. “Absent some unexpected interventions and generosity … of course people are just going to be way less able to afford housing,” Lens said.
Michael Lens, associate professor of urban planning and public policy, spoke to the Atlantic about the real meaning of “defunding the police.” In addition to dealing with violent crime, many officers are responsible for handling traffic accidents and low-level arrests. Modern policing often involves interacting with people showing signs of mental illness or alcoholism, but the article noted that officers are under-trained to intervene in these cases. Police also serve as “front-line workers for urban homelessness,” Lens explained. “A person who is unhoused interacts constantly with the police, but officers aren’t adequately trained to deal with the issues that those people are dealing with.” The article recommended that cities spend money on homelessness directly, instead of making police responsible for homelessness intervention in addition to other services. Programs in Eugene, Oregon, and Austin, Texas, have “unbundled” police services, instead dispatching medics and mental health counselors to homeless people or others in distress.
An American Planning Association blog post broke down the main arguments made by Associate Professors Michael Manville, Paavo Monkkonen and Michael Lens in their collaborative piece “It’s Time to End Single-Family Zoning.” The article was one of several commentaries by academics and practicing planners included in the January issue of the Journal of the American Planning Association, which focused on the debate over single-family zoning. Manville, Monkkonen and Lens traced single-family zoning’s “racist and classist history” through Supreme Court decisions including Buchanan v. Warley (1917) and Village of Euclid v. Ambler Realty Co. (1926). The impact of these century-old decisions can still be seen in the racial and class makeup of cities in the United States, they said. Arguing that socioeconomic and racial inequality and transportation inefficiency are exacerbated by the single-family classification, they called on planners to lead the charge to change the zoning laws.
By Lauren Hiller
Despite the promise of homeownership enshrined in the American Dream, many people in low-income communities of color remain far from owning their own homes, and this challenge served as a focal point for a recent discussion at UCLA Luskin.
During the Housing, Equity and Community Series event held on Feb. 26, the UCLA Lewis Center for Regional Policy Studies and the UCLA Ziman Center brought together scholars and housing experts to discuss what it would take to ensure access to homeownership for communities historically locked out of it, particularly low-income families. The conversation was moderated by Michael Lens, associate faculty director of the Lewis Center and an associate professor of urban planning and public policy at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs.
Rocio Sanchez-Moyano, a doctoral student at UC Berkeley’s Department of City and Regional Planning, opened the panel by providing context about homeownership in the United States.
According to U.S. Census statistics, homeownership rates have fallen below 50% in Los Angeles County, which is below the current 60% nationwide average and far below rates observed before the Great Recession. These rates are even lower for black and Latino households, and Sanchez-Moyano said this situation is compounded by predatory lending practices by banks that contribute to foreclosure rates in those communities that are among the highest.
Barriers to homeownership are particularly concerning given the benefits that homeownership can confer, Sanchez-Moyano said. These include greater household wealth, better neighborhood safety and quality, lower rates of perceived stress, and increased civic participation.
Discriminatory mortgage terms and higher income volatility among black and Latino households are among the reasons that these families are disproportionately shut out of homeownership opportunities, she said.
Ashraf Ibrahim, office director at the Neighborhood Assistance Corporation of America (NACA), spoke about his experience helping families apply for mortgages. He explained that housing affordability is the largest hurdle faced by families seeking to secure financing to buy homes. A household needs an annual income of at least $125,000 to be able to afford a home in Los Angeles County, Ibrahim noted.
Housing costs are also not rising linearly, said Dorian Young, a mortgage counselor at NACA. As of January 2020, the median sales price of a home in Los Angeles was $744,000, according to Zillow — up from $474,000 as recently as 2015. Housing costs are quickly outpacing income growth in cities such as L.A.
Sanchez-Moyano said this problem is exacerbated by high rents, meaning that lower-income households have less spare income to save up for a down payment.
John Perfitt is executive director at Restore Neighborhoods Los Angeles, a nonprofit that builds and improves homes for low-income families. He said that land values are the largest determinant of housing costs. High land values produce high housing costs, which reductions in construction costs are unable to offset.
Despite these challenges, options exist to increase homeownership rates. Counselors can educate families on practical steps needed to save up for a home, Young said. As a mortgage counselor, he and others in his field also can inform households of other approaches to securing home financing, including leveraging future rent to be collected from multi-family properties as part of the loan process.
Perfitt said that Los Angeles offers a low-income and moderate-income homeownership program that provides down payment assistance. More people sign up every year than there is help to give, however.
Sanchez-Moyano reminded the audience that homeownership has never been attainable for all families. Still, she hopes people will support efforts to make owning a home more accessible, particularly to communities of color, and ensure that “being a renter doesn’t mean being left behind.”
View additional photos from the event in an album on Flickr:
Michael Lens, associate professor of urban planning and public policy, was awarded a Russell Sage Foundation (RSF) Pipeline Grant to support his research on the evolution of black neighborhoods and the spatial and economic mobility of the black community. The grant recognizes “outstanding work on black urbanism by an amazing scholar,” UCLA Luskin Dean Gary Segura said. In partnership with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, RSF awarded 18 grants to early- and mid-career tenure-track scholars from underrepresented backgrounds in the social sciences to promote diversity. With his award, Lens will further explore under what conditions black neighborhoods flourish or fail. Lens will summarize the trajectories of black neighborhoods in the U.S. since the 1970s to address current policy debates surrounding housing, segregation, neighborhood effects and race. The RSF grants were awarded to scholars conducting innovative research on economic mobility and access to opportunity. Research projects by Lens and the 17 other scholars who received Pipeline Grants explore gentrification, segregation, housing policy, education and social capital, among many other topics.
Michael Lens and Shane Phillips of the Lewis Center for Regional Policy Studies spoke to Curbed LA about the housing vacancy rate in Los Angeles amid talk of levying a tax on homes that stand empty. Phillips, the center’s housing initiative project manager, noted that Los Angeles “consistently ranks among the places with the lowest vacancy rates.” This creates a landlord’s market, with more competition for available homes and, therefore, higher rents, the article noted. Condo owners may leave property vacant to wait for a higher sales price, but renting out the unit would be a wiser investment, Phillips said. Lens, associate professor of urban planning and public policy, said it is difficult to determine whether owners are deliberately leaving units vacant. He added that focusing on the vacancy rate can distract from proven solutions to the affordable housing crisis, such as building more units and providing subsidies and tenant protections.
A new Sidewalk Talk article on Medium highlighted the main points of a paper written by Associate Professors of Urban Planning Michael Manville, Paavo Monkkonen and Michael Lens arguing for the elimination of single-family housing regulations. The three associate professors wrote the essay for the January issue of the Journal of the American Planning Association, which presented nine different arguments about the future of single-family zoning. The debate over single-family zoning has been fueled by new bills in Maryland, Oregon, Minneapolis and California that have proposed loosening single-family regulations, with limited success. In their paper, Manville, Monkkonen and Lens argue that removing single-family zoning doesn’t prevent single-family homes from being built; this means that developers can continue to build them in response to household preference and market demands. However, “in the 21st century, no city should have any land where nothing can be built except a detached single-family home,” they conclude.
Michael Lens, associate professor of urban planning and public policy, spoke to LAist about a Los Angeles City Council member’s proposal to create more affordable housing by using eminent domain to take over an apartment building. The council may consider whether to seize a 124-unit affordable housing complex in Chinatown that was built under a covenant that guaranteed affordable housing for 30 years. The covenant, set to expire this year, allowed the owner to then legally raise rents to the market price. Lens said that using eminent domain could potentially have a “chilling effect” on future affordable housing developments. “The developer entered into a 30-year covenant with the expectation that whomever owned the property at the end of that 30-year period would be free to do whatever made sense to that owner,” he said. “All financial decisions over that 30-year period have been made with that assumption.”
Michael Lens, associate professor of urban planning and public policy, joined WBUR Here & Now to discuss the growing housing affordability and homelessness crisis across the country. Some cities have addressed the issue with the implementation of a vacancy tax. However, Lens pointed out that “there is little active data collected on the number of vacant units — and why no one is residing in them.” He stressed the importance of “collecting good and timely data to know exactly what is vacant for how long and why.” Lens also said a vacancy tax is a colorblind solution that fails to get at the core of race and class inequality. “If you think about eviction, if you think about homelessness, if you think about the negative impacts of segregation, this is a problem that is often very concentrated in particular communities amongst households of color,” he said. “And so a vacancy tax is not getting at those root problems.”