Professor of Urban Planning Vinit Mukhija spoke to the Los Angeles Times about the launch of the Backyard Homes Project, a new initiative that aims to address the affordable housing crisis in Los Angeles. Accessory dwelling units, or ADUs, are becoming more popular since state regulations have eased. The Backyard Homes Project, led by the nonprofit LA Más, aims to provide homeowners with affordable design and construction of ADUs if they agree to rent the units to Section 8 voucher holders for at least five years. The goal of the program is to confront high housing prices by making ADU rentals affordable and helping low- and moderate-income homeowners become landlords. “We are nowhere near running out of space for housing in most American cities, including L.A.,” said Mukhija, who also serves as a board member at LA Más. He welcomed the incubation of new ideas in a city that’s long been known for advances in residential design.
By Mary Braswell
A new partnership between UCLA and a top European research university offers urban planning students an opportunity to earn two distinct master’s degrees in two years while studying in the global cities of Los Angeles and Paris.
Beginning in the fall of 2021, the highly regarded urban planning programs at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs and France’s Sciences Po will join forces to offer a double master’s focusing on global and comparative planning and governance.
Students accepted into the program will be immersed in two thriving urban laboratories where perspectives on managing cities are quite distinct.
“The approach to urban governance in France and across Europe is very different from the American approach,” said Professor Chris Tilly, chair of UCLA Luskin Urban Planning. “This double master’s is a unique opportunity to learn how things are done in different cultures and to bring that knowledge to a range of global urban environments.”
‘There could not be a better two-city laboratory for learning how to become an urbanist today.’ — Professor Michael Storper
Students will spend the first year in Los Angeles, where UCLA Luskin offers rigorous training in urban planning, development and design with a strong emphasis on social, environmental and racial justice.
Year 2 will be spent at the Paris campus of Sciences Po’s Urban School, which takes a deep comparative and critical approach to public administration and the social transformation of cities. English is the language of instruction at the Urban School, which attracts students from across the globe.
“By creating this dual degree, we get the best of both worlds,” said Professor Michael Storper, who holds appointments at both UCLA Luskin and Sciences Po. “Paris and Los Angeles are both world cities, but they couldn’t be more different in lifestyle and layout.
“Paris is historical, dense, public-transit oriented. And yet, the cities share many of the same challenges for planners, such as economic development, infrastructure, gentrification and housing, diversity and segregation, public space and climate change,” said Storper, a French-American citizen and resident of both cities.
The double master’s program is geared toward students seeking to work internationally or to bring a global perspective to urban planning in their home countries. And the opportunity to study abroad and build a network of friends and colleagues from around the world will be particularly welcome after travel restrictions brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic are lifted.
What sets this program apart from other international exchange programs is that it grants two degrees in urban planning, accredited in the United States and Europe, in the time normally needed to earn just one.
Across the University of California system, only one other similar international partnership exists: a double executive MBA program offered by the UCLA Anderson School of Management and the National University of Singapore.
The alliance between UCLA Luskin Urban Planning and the Urban School dates back to 2016, with the launch of a quarter-long student exchange program. To build on that relationship, a team from UCLA Luskin, including Storper, Associate Dean Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris and past Urban Planning Chair Vinit Mukhija, advocated for the double master’s program, which required approval from UCLA and the UC Office of the President.
By design, the program will be small and selective. The roughly 15 students accepted into each year’s cohort will complete coursework and internships integrating theory and scholarship with real professional experiences, preparing them for work in the public, private and nonprofit sectors in any region of the world.
Applications to join the program in fall of 2021 are due on January 31. More information is available on the UCLA Luskin website.
“This program is a natural fit of two great universities and two great cities that are complementary in their differences,” Storper said. “There could not be a better two-city laboratory for learning how to become an urbanist today.”
By Les Dunseith
It was a UCLA Luskin commencement ceremony unlike any other — delivered remotely by keynote speaker John A. Pérez to honor 281 graduates scattered across the nation and around the world amid a pandemic.
“Clearly, these are not ordinary times,” Pérez said in his remarks, which remain available online and had been seen by a total of 1,265 new graduates and their loved ones as of midday Monday after the ceremony. The impact of the COVID-19 health crisis was obvious in the virtual setting, but Pérez, chair of the University of California Board of Regents and former speaker of the California Assembly, also took note of the political upheaval that has led hundreds of thousands of protesters worldwide to march for racial justice in recent weeks.
“My message to you today is also going to be somewhat different than usual. It has to be,” Pérez said. “It has to be different for George Floyd, for Breonna Taylor, for Stephon Clark and Sandra Bland and Eric Garner. For Sean Monterrosa and Manuel Ellis. And for Emmett Till and James Chaney and countless others — known and unknown — whose lives have been taken by the systemic racism that is the original sin and ongoing shame of our great nation.”
The new social welfare, planning and policy graduates earned their graduate degrees in extraordinary circumstances at a time that UCLA Luskin Dean Gary Segura views as a pivotal moment in the country’s history. He congratulated the Class of 2020 and also noted the high expectations they carry into their futures.
“This celebration is partly about what you have accomplished, but it is also about what you have yet to do,” said Segura, thanking the new graduates “for all that we expect you to do with all that you’ve learned.”
The virtual platform incorporated several wrinkles that set the 2020 celebration apart from previous UCLA Luskin graduations. In addition to the recorded remarks by Segura and Pérez, video presentations from California Gov. Gavin Newsom and his wife, Jennifer Siebel Newsom, UC President Janet Napolitano and UCLA Chancellor Gene Block were woven into the online presentation that was made available to all graduates.
Other aspects of the ceremony were able to be customized for each of the three departments that awarded degrees. So, Chair Laura S. Abrams spoke to the Social Welfare graduates, Chair Vinit Mukhija addressed the Urban Planning Class of 2020, and Chair Martin Gilens offered advice and congratulations to the new Public Policy alumni.
Instead of the past tradition in which names of individual graduates were read as they walked across the stage at Royce Hall to be handed a diploma, this year’s graduating students got a few moments of dedicated screen time to themselves. Each graduate’s name appeared on screen as part of the departmental ceremony, often accompanied by a photo and a personal message of thanks or inspiration provided by the graduating student as a text message or a video clip — or both. And an online “Kudobard” allowed family and friends to offer messages of congratulations to the Class of 2020.
The presentations by the student speakers were also unique to each department this year. All three spoke of the memorable circumstances that they and their classmates experienced while wrapping up their graduate degrees during such an extraordinary time in history.
“No one wanted this. No one wants to live in this type of world,” said Social Welfare speaker Akinyi Shapiro, who views her graduation as a time for both celebration and reflection. “Listen to those who are being attacked for nothing other than the color of their skin. Decide who we want to be as social workers, how we’re going to change our communities and commit to anti-oppressive practices that will make this country better.”
Amy Zhou noted that the stay-at-home order in Los Angeles took place just as the winter quarter was winding up at UCLA. “We had no idea that the last time my classmates and I would see each other at the end of the winter quarter would be the last time that we would see each other in person as a graduating class.”
Zhou took advantage of the virtual platform to include a series of video clips that showed her and her classmates pledging solidarity in their dedication to practice planning in a manner that will uplift their communities. “When one falls, we all fall,” they conclude, their voices in unison. “When one rises, we all rise.”
As with any commencement, the virtual ceremony was also an opportunity for the graduating students to acknowledge their mentors — the faculty, friends and, especially, family members who have helped them along their journeys.
“Muchisimas gracias,” said Kassandra Hernandez of Public Policy during her commencement remarks. “Thank you, mom and dad, for all that you’ve given me — all the sacrifices you have made for me.”
Hernandez then addressed her peers. “You are ready to take on the world and cause some change because we all know that that’s why we came to Luskin — to cause change.”
In his keynote address, Pérez also spoke of change. He talked about his time as a leader in California’s government, pointing to accomplishments such as health care reform and the creation of the state’s Rainy Day Fund. That financial reserve had grown to about $16 billion by the time of the pandemic, he noted, helping the current Legislature and governor lessen the economic damage from the COVID-19 downturn.
In Pérez’s view, making a meaningful difference to society requires not only a vision, but perseverance.
“As graduates of one of the nation’s premier schools for progressive planning and policy, you need to be among the leaders. Make ripples. Make waves,” he said. “Push yourself. Push the system. And when you think you’ve pushed enough, take a step, take a pause, and then push some more.”
Mickey Wapner, former development officer for the UCLA School of Architecture and Urban Planning, died Jan. 22. She was 95. During her tenure at UCLA in the 1970s and ’80s, the Texas native — who moved to Los Angeles in 1946 — helped founding Dean Harvey S. Perloff “build a financial support community for the new school,” said Martin Wachs, distinguished professor emeritus of urban planning. Urban Planning became its own department in 1969 and merged with what is now the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs in the 1990s. Its half-century will be celebrated this year. “She was a major figure in our history,” Wachs said, noting that Wapner left UCLA after her husband, the late Joseph Wapner, became an international celebrity because of his popular and long-running television program, “The People’s Court.” “She wanted to travel the world with him for interviews and guest appearances,” said Wachs, who kept in touch with Wapner over the years. “Mickey Wapner was very special to our department, and she was going to be an important guest for our 50th anniversary,” commented Vinit Mukhija, chair of UCLA Luskin Urban Planning. “We were looking forward to having her there. She will be missed.”
By Les Dunseith
Fifty years ago, moon landings made headlines, flower children flocked to Woodstock, and college campuses across the nation experienced sometimes-violent protest over issues such as the Vietnam War. As the turbulent ’60s gave way to the 1970s, it was a time of change. Unrest. New ideas.
And amid that backdrop of societal upheaval, the study of urban planning got its start at UCLA.
Donald Shoup, the longtime UCLA professor, was there to see it. Shoup had arrived at UCLA in 1968 as a postdoctoral scholar at the same time as Harvey S. Perloff, the founding dean of the new School of Architecture and Urban Planning, “who was a great figure in urban planning, of course.”
From the beginning, the UCLA planning program under Perloff reflected an activist ethos and a strong interest in equity. “I think that we look very carefully at income distribution and the effects of how any policy would affect lower-income people. We look at how to reverse that pattern,” Shoup said.
Jeffry Carpenter was also studying at UCLA in 1969, and he was among the first group of students to attain a degree in urban planning. “We were supposed to graduate in the summer of ’71. And some of us did,” Carpenter said with a laugh. “And some of us didn’t.”
Carpenter, who would go on to leadership roles as a planner for what was then known as the Southern California Rapid Transit District, the Los Angeles Community Redevelopment Agency and elsewhere, said graduate programs in planning were rare at the time — almost unprecedented.
“The challenge was that in the field, there was a profession. People were selling planning services, and there were planner positions and there were planning consultants, but there weren’t planning degrees,” Carpenter recalled.
When people like him got those first degrees, “the thought was that it would be something really useful. But the challenge was nobody knew exactly what that was,” Carpenter said. “We were — both the faculty and the students — still feeling our way.”
Nowadays, Shoup is a distinguished research professor whose landmark work on parking reform has had broad impact. He left Westwood in the early 1970s to work at the University of Michigan but returned to UCLA to stay in 1974. A year later, Allan Heskin joined him on the urban planning faculty and continued until he retired as a professor in 2001.
Urban planning with a social conscience is important to Heskin.
“I have a history of being an activist,” said Heskin, who oversaw student admissions for some time. “And I always looked for activist students — people who had done things in the world.”
During his two-and-a-half decades at UCLA, faculty and student planners were active in changing the approach of Los Angeles and other local cities to issues related to land use and housing affordability. UCLA scholars were highly influential in Santa Monica political reform, for example, and Heskin remembers that an early graduate, Gary Squier, “almost single-handedly created the housing department” for the city of Los Angeles. Squier, who died in 2012, became the city’s first housing director in 1990.
“Getting the city of L.A. to take responsibility for housing people in Los Angeles was just a major change,” Heskin recalled. “The city’s policy before the UCLA faculty and students did their thing was to say that housing is a federal responsibility, and the city doesn’t do it, and is not concerned!”
Marsha Brown B.A. ’70, who was a manager in the urban planning program at UCLA from 1980 to 2014, said, “There has always been a history of activism.”
The planning faculty and students “are very passionate about what they believe in — whether it’s housing or traffic or diversity or women’s issues. There’s always been a political bent to it,” Brown said. “The goal was always trying to make cities better for the people who live in them.”
Vinit Mukhija, professor and current chair of Urban Planning at UCLA, has been on the faculty since 2001.
He thinks a willingness to defy expectations has been central to the program’s enduring success.
“We never accepted narrow limits of planning or narrow definitions,” he said. “It’s not just land use and transportation and housing. It is much broader than that.”
Somewhat infamously, the program was abruptly split away from architecture in the 1990s and placed into what became the current Luskin School of Public Affairs. But many aspects of today’s UCLA planning program were allowed to blossom naturally over time.
Shoup sees the willingness of faculty to conduct research with students as colleagues as a key to success.
“I think that’s one of the greatest strengths of our program — the collegial relationships between the faculty and the students, and the cooperative learning.”
As faculty have come and gone, the planning program has changed. For instance, transportation planning became more prominent over time. That importance stands to reason in a city known for gridlock, Brown said. “In Los Angeles, transportation is important, you know.”
Another big change has been the gender balance. Shoup gave a recent example — each year he meets with incoming students and tells them why they might want to focus on transportation planning. In his most-recent meeting, “there were 17 women and one man. The complaint at one time was that there were very few women in transportation. So society has changed.”
And the program itself continues to evolve. In time for the 50th anniversary celebration in May 2020, Mukhija said an expanded partnership with Sciences Po in Paris will have been approved. It will offer dual degrees from both universities in a two-year course of study.
Carpenter, who was there in the beginning, thinks future success in urban planning and society as a whole will hinge on continuing to foster the intellectual curiosity of young people.
“The faculty of the school have a very keen appreciation of the powers of perception and understanding, and more particularly also realizing they need to prepare the students to be effective and assume a role and to grow in that role,” he said. “That’s a very encouraging development.”
By Les Dunseith
The social justice ethos and commitment to diversity that form the backbone of UCLA Luskin’s graduate degree programs were front and center during the fourth annual Diversity Fair.
Dozens of graduate student recruits came to campus in November for a full day of discussions and workshops. Key speakers included Dean Gary Segura and the chairs of each graduate department: JR DeShazo of Public Policy, Laura Abrams of Social Welfare and Vinit Mukhija of Urban Planning, all of whom are professors in their respective fields.
A highlight of the day was a panel discussion during which six alumni talked about why they chose UCLA Luskin and offered insightful advice about how the graduate school experience can help people with a passion for change figure out ways to turn their ideals into action.
“How do governments create safe spaces for immigrants? How do we improve the basic services that government provides so that it actually fits the needs of the people who are using them? All of those things were in my mind as I started the program,” said Estafanía Zavala MPP ’18, who is now project lead, digital engagement, for the city of Long Beach. “I feel like the program really helped me gain a good understanding of what was actually going on in the world and how to process it.”
Taylor Holland MURP ’19, assistant project manager at PATH Ventures, a nonprofit agency that works with the homeless population in Los Angeles, said that she chose UCLA in part because of its vast alumni network in Southern California. She said she met “great alumni by coming to events like this. We have super-active alumni who you can really tell are pushing for change in different systems throughout urban planning.”
Several panelists said that UCLA Luskin helped them to further develop a social justice perspective, and they talked about their own efforts to foster inclusiveness.
Ulises Ramirez MSW ’96 is a clinical social worker and therapist in the Adult Outpatient Psychiatric Clinic at Harbor UCLA Medical Center, and he said that mental health service protocols are too often developed only with English-speaking clients in mind.
“The community that we serve at Harbor UCLA is very diverse. We see a lot of Spanish-speaking clients, and my goal there has been to provide top treatment to monolingual, Spanish-speaking clients,” Ramirez said. “It’s an underserved population, and they have nowhere else to go.”
Christina Hernández MSW ’17, community accompaniment coordinator for Freedom for Immigrants in Santa Monica, said her clients come from immigration detention centers.
“They are asylum-seekers; they’re refugees; they’re immigrants. These are people coming from all over the world,” she said. “Our goal is that the documents that we have for English speakers, we also make available for other languages as well.”
The speakers noted that racial minorities and women have traditionally been underrepresented in some of their fields.
“I think our perspectives as folks of color are so important in transportation planning,” said Carolyn “Caro” Vera MURP ’17, who was born and raised in South Los Angeles and now works as a planning consultant. She makes an extra effort to encourage minorities to pursue planning careers.
“If you ever need anything, hit me up,” Vera told the prospective students of color in attendance at the Diversity Fair. “It’s hard to get into the field. It’s daunting. But we need you in that field.”
Wajenda Chambeshi MPP ’16, a program manager for the city of Los Angeles, noted that a lack of diversity in some professions starts with decisions by young people from minority communities about which courses of study to pursue.
“Some of these professions that we overlook make really, really important decisions about where funds are going to be allocated, how they are going to be allocated and, ultimately, who receives what. That’s why we need diversity,” Chambeshi said, “so when we graduate, we will be able to filter into those positions that are able to divert resources — or even just rethink how we think about planning and public policy.”
As “the housing person on this panel,” Holland talked about the ethnic component of the homelessness crisis in Los Angeles.
“We have 60,000 people on the streets in L.A. on any given night, and it’s largely a black crisis. We have 9 percent of the city that is black; 40 percent of our homeless population is black,” she said.
Holland said her focus is on chronically homeless people, many of whom are people of color.
“They are … people who have been forgotten about in every aspect of their lives and cannot be pulled up by their bootstraps. Looking at social justice and housing — it’s particularly in a crisis in L.A. right now,” she said, directing her attention to the prospective students of color in the audience. “And we need all of you guys to help out as you can.”
The alumni panelists spoke passionately about the advantages of being actively involved as students, and they urged attendees to build expansive personal and professional networks.
Vera said she battled depression during her time as a UCLA student and suffered a panic attack during an exam that threatened her opportunity to graduate. But friends helped her through.
“Always advocate for yourself. Create peer networks and check in on each other,” she said.
Noting that the pressures of academic life can be especially difficult for first-generation college students from disadvantaged populations such as herself, she continued: “You are more prone to having depression and anxiety when you come into a program that just doesn’t look like what you are accustomed to.”
Building a network as a student was important to Ramirez as well. He cited his involvement in the Latinx Caucus as a particularly beneficial connection, “and 23 years later, we still get together.”
Hernandez echoed those experiences.
“I am a first-generation daughter of immigrants, and navigating these spaces was very difficult for me,” she said. “So networks were a lifesaver.”
Hernandez ticked off the names of UCLA faculty and staff members who helped her as a student and remain close. “It was amazing to have people who look like me, Latinos, as advisors and as supervisors, who I could go to and say, ‘Hey, I’m stuck with this issue.’”
She continued: “That is the beauty of joining this school. Even after you graduate, you still have folks who are going to be there to support you regardless of the situation.”
View more images from the event on Flickr:
Urban Planning Professor Vinit Mukhija argued for loosening restrictions on “granny flats” and other accessory dwelling units in a Sacramento Bee opinion piece co-authored with state Sen. Bob Wieckowski (D-Fremont). As a result of legislative reforms that went into effect in 2017, applications from homeowners who want to build basement apartments, backyard cottages, garage conversions or upstairs additions are up across the state. These units, just one element of a broader strategy needed to ease the state’s housing crunch, are “the low-hanging fruit for cities seeking a quick and inexpensive way to increase housing,” the authors wrote. They urged Californians to support Senate Bill 13, which would reduce fees levied on homeowners, loosen owner occupancy requirements and strengthen state oversight of local ordinances. In addition to relieving the housing crisis, the authors wrote, “homeowners can generate rental income that provides much-needed financial security, especially for seniors who may be house rich but cash poor.”
Urban Planning Chair Vinit Mukhija held a wide-ranging dialogue about affordable housing with state Sen. Bob Wieckowski (D-Fremont) on the podcast Then There’s California. Mukhija’s research focuses on informal, makeshift housing in the United States and abroad. He has studied slums, border areas and farmworker dwellings but noted that unregulated and unpermitted shelter is becoming more commonplace in cities and suburbs. Wieckowski has sponsored legislation to remove barriers to the creation of granny flats, garage conversions and other so-called accessory dwelling units. “This can be a very reasonable way of adding housing supply from our existing physical resources,” Mukhija said. In addition to addressing the growing demand for affordable housing, regulated accessory dwelling units can bring in significant property tax revenues, he added.
By Stan Paul
Newly graduated Social Welfare master’s degree recipient Deshika Perera’s research project extended across the United States and as far north as Alaska.
Evan Kreuger helped create a nationwide database as a basis for his research into LGBT health and health outcomes to culminate his Master of Social Welfare (MSW) studies at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs.
Perera and Kreuger are members of the first graduating class of Social Welfare students to complete a capstone research project as a graduation requirement for their MSW degrees. Like their UCLA Luskin counterparts in Urban Planning and Public Policy who must also complete capstones, working individually and in groups to complete research and analysis projects that hone their skills while studying important social issues on behalf of government agencies, nonprofit groups and other clients with a public service focus.
“It’s been fun; it’s been interesting,” said Perera, who worked with Associate Professor Ian Holloway. Her qualitative study examined the relationship between the Violence Against Women Act and nonprofits, focusing on programs that provide services to indigenous survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence on reservations and in remote areas of the U.S.
As a member of the pioneering class for the MSW capstone, Perera said that although the new requirement was rigorous, she enjoyed the flexibility of the program.
“I feel we got to express our own creativity and had more freedom because it was loosely structured,” Perera said, explaining that she and her fellow students got to provide input on their projects and the capstone process. The development of the requirement went both ways. “Because it was new, [faculty] were asking us a lot of questions,” Perera said.
“We strongly believe that this capstone experience combines a lot of the pieces of learning that they’ve been doing, so it really integrates their knowledge of theory, their knowledge of research methods and their knowledge of practice,” said Laura Wray-Lake, associate professor and MSW capstone coordinator. “I think it’s really fun to see research come alive and be infused with real world practice.”
Krueger, who also was completing a Ph.D. in public health at UCLA while concluding his MSW studies, previously worked as a research coordinator for a national survey on LGBT adults through the UCLA School of Law’s Williams Institute. He said he had a substantial amount of data to work with and that he enjoyed the opportunity to combine his research interests.
“I’m really interested in how the social environment influences these public health questions I’m looking at,” said Kreuger who has studied HIV and HIV prevention. “I kind of knew what I wanted to do, but it was a matter of pulling it all together.”
For years, MSW students have completed rigorous coursework and challenging educational field placements during their two-year program of study, and some previous MSW graduates had conducted research in connection with sponsoring agencies. This year’s class included the first MSW recipients to complete a new two-year research sequence, Wray-Lake said.
Applied Policy Projects
In UCLA Luskin Public Policy, 14 teams presented a year’s worth of exacting research during this year’s Applied Policy Project presentations, the capstone for those seeking a Master of Public Policy (MPP) degree.
Public Policy students master the tools to conduct policy analysis during their first year of study. In the second year, they use those tools to create sophisticated policy analyses to benefit government entities and other clients.
The APP research is presented to faculty, peers and curious first-year students over the course of two days. This May’s presentations reflected a broad spectrum of interests.
Like some peers in Social Welfare, a few MPP teams tackled faraway issues, including a study of environmental protection and sustainable tourism in the South Pacific. Closer to home, student researchers counted people experiencing homelessness, looked at ways to reform the juvenile justice system, sought solutions to food insecurity and outlined ideas to protect reproductive health, among other topics.
“Our students are providing solutions to some of the most important local and global problems out there,” said Professor JR DeShazo, chair of UCLA Luskin Public Policy.
After each presentation, faculty members and others in the audience followed up with questions about data sources, methodologies and explanations for the policy recommendations.
Careers, Capstones and Conversations
Recently graduated UCLA Luskin urban planners displayed their culminating projects in April at the annual Careers, Capstones and Conversations networking event, following up with final written reports for sponsoring clients.
Many planning students work individually, but a cohort of 16 Master of Urban and Regional Planning (MURP) students worked together to complete a comprehensive research project related to a $23 million grant recently received by the San Fernando Valley community of Pacoima. The project was the culmination of almost six months of analysis in which the MURP students helped the nonprofit Pacoima Beautiful, other community partners and government agencies prepare a plan seeking to avoid displacement of residents as a result of a pending major redevelopment effort.
“I think our project creates a really amazing starting point for further research, and it provided concrete recommendations for the organizations to think about,” said Jessica Bremner, a doctoral student in urban planning who served as a teaching assistant for the class that conducted the research. Professor Vinit Mukhija, chair of UCLA Luskin Urban Planning, was the course instructor.
MSWs Test Research Methods
In Social Welfare, the projects represented a variety of interests and subject matter, said Wray-Lake, pointing out that each student’s approach — quantitative and/or qualitative — helps distinguish individual areas of inquiry. Some students used existing data sets to analyze social problems, she said, whereas others gathered their own data through personal interviews and focus groups. Instructors provided mentoring and training during the research process.
“They each have their own challenges,” said Wray-Lake, noting that several capstones were completed in partnership with a community agency, which often lack the staff or funding for research.
“Agencies are very hungry for research,” she said. “They collect lot of data and they have a lot of research needs, so this is a place where our students can be really useful and have real community impact with the capstones.”
Professor of Social Welfare Todd Franke, who serves as a lead instructor for the capstone projects, said his students worked on issues that impact child welfare. Others studied the relationship between child neglect and involvement with the juvenile justice system. Another capstone focused on predictors of educational aspirations among black and Native American students. The well-being of caregivers and social workers served as another study topic.
Assistant Professor Amy Ritterbusch, who also served as a capstone instructor, said her students focused on topics that included education beyond incarceration, the needs of Central American migrant youth in schools, and the unmet needs of homeless individuals in MacArthur Park. One project was cleverly titled as “I’m Still Here and I Can Go On: Coping Practices of Immigrant Domestic Workers.”
“They all did exceptional work,” Ritterbusch said.
By Les Dunseith
For Silvia González studying for a doctorate in urban planning at UCLA is about more than learning how cities and communities can be better designed. It’s about promoting economic and environmental justice and housing equity, causes she is personally connected to.
González and her family grew up 20 miles north of UCLA in the working-class communities of Pacoima and San Fernando, spending several years in a garage converted to a living space without permits on a property owned by her aunt. Her family eventually moved out, and “later it was torn down, after inspectors found out.”
That result is “exactly what we don’t want to happen” in Pacoima, González said. “If it’s affordable housing, then how do we keep it?”
Fast forward to the past academic year, when González served as a graduate instructor for a comprehensive research project in which 16 urban planning master’s degree candidates in the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs spent nearly six months studying ways to make sure a pending major redevelopment effort in the community does not lead to displacement of the people already living there.
The research and final report were produced for a nonprofit organization known as Pacoima Beautiful, other community partners and government agencies. The research effort was a byproduct of $23 million received by Pacoima as part of a statewide grant process that is providing funding for development and infrastructure projects to achieve significant environmental, health and economic benefits in the state’s most disadvantaged communities.
“I think our project creates a really amazing starting point for further research, and it provided concrete recommendations for the organizations to think about,” said Jessica Bremner, a doctoral student in urban planning who also served as a teaching assistant for the class that conducted the research. Professor Vinit Mukhija, chair of UCLA Luskin Urban Planning, was the course instructor.
Pacoima is one of many places in Southern California in which many lower-income residents scrape by amid a housing affordability crisis by taking up residence in converted garages and other outbuildings, or in portions of homes that have been added or converted as places to be rented. One subgroup of the UCLA Luskin class utilized aerial images and walked the streets of Pacoima to catalog the presence of these types of living spaces, which are known as accessory dwelling units, or ADUs.
In the geographic area they studied, the team found that almost half of all properties included a secondary dwelling — often without the permits and inspector approvals to be considered legal. According to the project report, about three-quarters of the tenants pay less than $1,000 per month in rent. Almost half live in an ADU on a property in which the main unit is occupied by a relative.
On May 28, the team went to Pacoima City Hall to present its findings, which also detail the personal impact of housing instability on Pacoima’s residents. In their summary report, the researchers wrote that their research questions had presumed that the condition of individual housing units would be the defining characteristic of the tenant experience.
“We were wrong,” they wrote. “Tenants face a variety of good and bad conditions, but the most important factor influencing their quality of life was the relationship between the landlord and tenant.”
González said that Pacoima Beautiful and its partner organizations are committed to finding solutions to address possible gentrification and housing displacement before it happens in Pacoima. As grant awardees, the organizations are required to prepare and implement a displacement avoidance plan. González also works for UCLA’s Center for Neighborhood Knowledge, which had assisted Pacoima with the grant application and is now taking the lead in developing that plan. Pacoima Beautiful is responsible for managing it.
“I really love the way that it came about,” González said. “The decision to address displacement before it happens came from the community. The community is interested in taking advantage of the housing options that are already there and building on that.”
The research effort included one-on-one interviews, focus groups and site observations, with volunteers from the new UCLA Luskin undergraduate public affairs program helping with some tasks.
Some of the findings were surprising.
“I think everyone has these assumptions around accessory dwelling units … that they are only for the short term or for temporary housing, which we found actually wasn’t true,” Bremner said. The majority of residents living in ADUs in Pacoima do so for many years, the study found.
When they looked at how space is used, Bremner said researchers expected that the shared communal spaces common to ADUs would promote bonding among residents, but that was not the case. For example, a youth from a family of five reported sleeping on a sofa in the living room of one dwelling and rarely interacting with the 10 people in other families living in two other ADUs on the property.
This interviewee was among a number of high school youths who spoke to the researchers, and those survey participants provided detailed descriptions of their living arrangements.
“I think the stories of the youth were very impactful,” said González, who noted that most cope with the burden of schoolwork and the pressures of teenage life while living in stressful, overcrowded conditions.
The urban planning team also analyzed the willingness of property owners to sell or lease all, or part, of their land for the purpose of creating community land trusts, which acquire and hold land in the interest of promoting affordable housing by removing properties from the speculative real estate market.
As urban planners concerned about housing equity, the UCLA team tended to view the idea of community land trusts as a good approach. But, González said, the homeowners were “apprehensive about being a part of a community land trust in the way that we were pitching it, which was a community land trust that owns accessory dwelling units.”
Property owners were not interested in the idea if it meant the homeowner would be responsible for dealing with the tenants.
“But if there’s an organization that will deal with the tenants— that will be responsible for them — then [property owners] wanted to participate,” González said.
The comprehensive project was just one step in a long process for Pacoima, but both Bremner and González believe the results will prove valuable.
“From Pacoima Beautiful’s perspective, I think it changed their approach to organizing,” González said. “They are an environmental justice organization. And now seeing how important that housing is to their community, I think it’s going to change the way that they approach the project. And it is going to change the way they do future projects.”