‘All of This Is Going to Change Us’: Two Deans on the State of COVID-19 Leaders of UCLA's Public Affairs and Public Health schools launch Luskin Summit 2020

By Mary Braswell

The opening session of the 2020 UCLA Luskin Summit drew a far-flung virtual audience seeking authoritative, research-based information about the questions on everyone’s mind: What are the prospects of containing COVID-19? When and how should social distancing restrictions be relaxed? What have we learned from this shared global ordeal?

Two UCLA deans, Gary Segura of the Luskin School of Public Affairs and Ron Brookmeyer of the Fielding School of Public Health, drew on their expertise about the pandemic’s health and policy implications at the April 22 event, the first of at least a dozen online sessions that will be offered by the Luskin School in April, May and June.

“COVID has done us one favor,” Segura said. “It’s allowed us to see things more clearly than we did before the crisis,” including the searing depths of inequality in the United States, the importance of a competent government and the discovery that a simpler life can be rewarding.

In terms of slowing the spread of coronavirus, Brookmeyer said, “The current lockdown has bought ourselves some time. The question is, are we making the best use of this time?”

The insights shared by Segura and Brookmeyer came as UCLA Luskin launched the Summit’s second year, wrapping up the School’s 25th anniversary celebration.

Moving from an on-campus location to an online platform in response to the coronavirus’ spread widened the audience for the opening session. More than 400 people watched via Zoom and Facebook Live, from Southern California to New York, Washington, Philadelphia, Houston and Myanmar.

Viewers were invited to pose questions to the deans, whose conversation was moderated by Adrienne Alpert, host of ABC7’s public affairs program Eyewitness Newsmakers. Some asked about prospects for lifting orders to limit social contact.

Brookmeyer called for caution. “If we don’t have the necessary public health infrastructure in place, this thing will just explode again,” said the dean, who has conducted extensive research into the arc of illness and epidemic around the world.

He explained that different models make starkly different predictions about the virus’ march and described the protracted process of testing, manufacturing and administering an effective vaccine — a process he said is bound to take longer than the 12 to 18 months some are estimating.

“Without a vaccine, we may need intermittent periods of physical distancing to avoid overloading the health care facilities,” he said. “If we suppress this first wave, do we have the public health infrastructure in place to contain future waves?”

The eventual relaxation of social distancing restrictions should be gradual, strategic and nuanced, he said, predicting that wearing masks, sanitizing surfaces and closely monitoring the most vulnerable populations will be necessary for some time.

“All of this is going to change us, and it’s not completely clear how,” Brookmeyer said.

“The challenges, and particularly the inequities, are going to be profound,” Segura concurred.

Latino households are particularly hard hit by the coronavirus’ economic impact, he said, citing a nationwide survey. While proposals to institute relief for those unable to pay their rent or mortgage are promising, the number of homeless is bound to rise by the end of the crisis. And the need for computers and broadband access in homes — where K-12 students are now learning remotely — has turned public education into a “luxury good,” Segura said.

Still, both deans found cause for optimism.

Brookmeyer cited the public’s new appreciation for the people and institutions that guard the nation’s health. “The public health infrastructure had been really underfunded, and I think calling attention to this will help us in preparing for future public health emergencies,” he said.

Segura pointed out that “COVID is changing our lives in a million ways,” and not all of them are bad.

One example: “Has anyone noticed the air in Los Angeles? It’s crystal clear,” he said. “Do we want to go back to sitting on the 405 [freeway] for an hour?”

By necessity, telecommuting has been tested across sectors in the past few months, Segura noted. Some employers have found new ways to measure productivity, and some workers have found valuable uses for time once spent commuting.

“These are things that we’ve become used to and that we’ve internalized into our COVID quarantine lives. And I’m not so sure we’re going to be all that happy to give them up,” he said.

“COVID has actually revealed some things that we can do better to improve our quality of life.”

Visit the UCLA Luskin Summit page for a lineup of upcoming sessions, as well as recordings of past sessions as they become available.

Perseverance Amid the Pandemic UCLA Luskin alumni social workers reveal some fear and frustration and a whole lot of dedication

By Les Dunseith

Social workers. They are still out there.

They still walk Skid Row despite the COVID-19 pandemic. They still go to homes where children are in need. They still report to work at hospitals where patients die alone and families need to be located and told. It’s their job — their essential job — and they’re still doing it despite extraordinary circumstances that are making already difficult roles even more challenging.

“On a personal level, these social workers are making sacrifices of their own health, and potentially the health of their families, in order to continue to serve,” said Laura Abrams, professor of social welfare. “They know that they’re taking that risk, but they feel like it’s important to them. It’s their responsibility.”

Founded in 1947, the UCLA program is widely known and highly respected, particularly in California, where most of the 90 to 100 graduates each year go to work for city, county or state social services agencies.

Abrams, who is chair of social welfare at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, knows this because she’s been talking to some of them, connecting with alumni of her program for Zoom calls to find out how they are doing.

What is it like for social workers right now?

Lavit Maas in her personal protective gear.

Lavit Maas, who graduated in 2010 with her master’s in social welfare, works for the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health’s Homeless Outreach and Mobility Engagement team, which provides care on Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles for homeless people with severe mental illness. Maas works with people who are among the most vulnerable to COVID-19.

“There’s a lot of elderly on Skid Row,” she told Abrams. “There’s a lot of people with medical conditions. It’s terrifying because we don’t know what to do [for them]. It makes me sad.”

Gabby Peraza, a 2019 master’s in social welfare graduate, works with foster youth as part of her job with the county department of children and family services. Soon after the safer at home order was issued, she encountered a young girl who needed to be transferred to a new placement but was frightened by Peraza’s protective gear. The child cowered in fear, hiding behind a foster parent.

“I had to make the decision. I’m either going to have a kid crying with me — and forcing that kid into a car with me,” Peraza recalled. “I said, ‘All right, I’m going to take this mask off, take these gloves off, and just engage with this kid.’ ”

Abrams has been recording her video interviews, and they are being edited for privacy and clarity before being posted for educational purposes on a showcase page maintained by the Luskin School. [Or scroll to the bottom to view.] So far, eight interviews have been completed and three have been posted publicly. In all, Abrams expects to do at least eight, with interviewees who reflect the broad swath of roles in which social workers are employed.

The idea came to Abrams soon after she and her family moved inside to comply with the social distancing order that was issued March 19 in Los Angeles County.

“I felt very disconnected from what was happening out in the real world,” Abrams said.

A conversation about the impact that the coronavirus pandemic was having on a close friend in a medical career led Abrams to realize that few people were thinking about her former and current students in UCLA’s social welfare program. She knew they were being affected too, but how? So she reached out on Facebook to see if anyone wanted to talk.

“Social workers, they’re playing a vital role in this pandemic,” said Abrams, noting that they interact with people at the margins of society who are often overlooked by the general public and in media reports. “What’s happening out in the community, especially with really vulnerable populations like homeless folks or people in the jails or children in foster care?”

Abrams said she has learned a lot from the Zoom calls. For one thing, the feeling of personal safety varies from person to person and job to job. A social worker in a hospital, for example, said she had access to personal protective equipment and felt safe. But those who work for government agencies, however, said they were fearful about their level of protection from the novel coronavirus.

Many social workers said they are facing unexpected dilemmas, and “working in spaces in which their clients are not getting what they need,” Abrams said. For example, an alumna who works in a correctional facility observed that people being imprisoned there were not given proper access to soap and water so they could comply with orders to frequently wash their hands.

A surprise from her interviews was discovering that some facilities and social services are actually being underutilized at the moment. The number of cases being handled is less than usual for Peraza and for Madison Hayes, another 2019 master’s in social welfare graduate, who works in Sacramento at a shelter for foster youth. For both, the decline in cases mirrors a steep drop-off in calls to crisis hotlines and a lack of referrals from the mandatory reporters at public schools.

“We know that things like abuse and other family problems are probably increasing, but calls … are decreasing so dramatically,” Abrams said. “Child protection is basically falling apart because there’s no window to the outside world.”

Gabby Peraza was a student commencement speaker in 2019.

Talking to social workers in the field has also reminded Abrams of the inequities that always exist in society.

“Access to health care: What does that mean?” Abrams asked. “Access to even having a home, to being sheltered? I am seeing the racial disparities and seeing the ways that the haves and the have-nots have different levels of access at this time.”

The interviews have also reminded Abrams of one other important — and more hopeful — aspect of society. People keep doing their jobs despite the risks involved.

“We all knew coming into this career that there’s always going to be a risk,” Peraza told Abrams about what it’s like to be a social worker during this crisis. “We just didn’t think it was going to be this type of risk.”

Peraza said it’s not about herself, it’s about the children and the families she serves.

Maas acknowledged the risks to her own health and the fear of getting infected and passing the virus along to a colleague or loved one. But there is work to be done.

“I love being a social worker and, to me, service is the only thing that matters,” Maas said. “Of course, you can’t be of service if you can’t protect yourself. I know that. But, especially in a time like this, I have to be of service.

 

 

 

Residents in L.A.’s Latino Neighborhoods Less Likely to Receive Relief Funds Researchers from UCLA Luskin combine forces to recommend that local leaders fill gaps in COVID-19 stimulus funding

By Eliza Moreno

Fifty-six percent of Latino-majority neighborhoods in Los Angeles County have a high proportion of residents at high risk for not receiving individual relief funds from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, known as the CARES Act, according to a UCLA report.

The paper was written by researchers from the UCLA Latino Policy and Politics Initiative and the UCLA Center for Neighborhood Knowledge.

Its findings provide information that local and state officials can use to target resources and communications efforts in neighborhoods that are experiencing widespread economic distress. The CARES Act was passed by Congress in response to the economic disruptions associated with COVID-19; the measure includes payments to cover citizens’ basic needs.

“The global pandemic has put a spotlight on the cracks in our social safety net that often fail to catch those living in poverty, which disproportionately are people of color and immigrants,” said Sonja Diaz, founding director of the UCLA Latino Policy and Politics Initiative and a co-author of the report. “Entire neighborhoods will face economic uncertainty, and a public health crisis is not the time to ignore their needs. We are only as healthy as our most vulnerable, and many communities in Los Angeles County will need targeted assistance.”

The Los Angeles neighborhoods where residents are least likely to receive a stimulus check are concentrated in downtown Los Angeles, including Westlake/MacArthur Park, Koreatown, Chinatown, Skid Row and Pico Union.

Those most at risk for not receiving relief funding tend to be lower income, people of color, and live primarily in renter neighborhoods. Immigrants also have an elevated risk, according to the report.

“The lack of support puts entire communities at risk here in Los Angeles County and requires immediate attention,” said Paul Ong, the study’s lead author and director of the Center for Neighborhood Knowledge, which is housed in the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs. Ong also is the founder of Ong & Associates, an economic and policy analysis consulting firm specializing in public interest issues, which provided services pro bono for the study.

The report recommends that state and local governments in the affected neighborhoods provide targeted support, including cash assistance and other social benefits, regardless of recipients’ citizenship status.

The report is the second analysis by the Latino Policy and Politics Initiative and the Center for Neighborhood Knowledge on the economic effects of the COVID-19 crisis on underserved neighborhoods. A report published on April 1 examined economic vulnerability due to retail and service sector closures across Los Angeles County neighborhoods.

Anxiety About Coronavirus Is Widespread in L.A. County Roughly 4 in 5 residents in new UCLA Luskin survey express deep concern about the health and economic impacts of COVID-19

By Les Dunseith

An overwhelming percentage (78%) of Los Angeles County residents say they are concerned that they or a member of their family will contract the novel coronavirus, according to a survey conducted between March 18 and 26 and released today by the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs.

A solid majority (61%) of respondents expressed confidence in the response by local officials to the pandemic, but only 39% had similar confidence in the federal response.

“There are two clear takeaways,” said Zev Yaroslavsky, director of the Los Angeles Initiative at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, which conducted the survey as part of an annual project known as the Quality of Life Index, or QLI. “The anxiety levels over contracting the virus and its economic impacts are overwhelming. And it’s a vote of confidence in the local public health agencies, while a vote of no confidence in the federal response.”

The results are based on interviews conducted with about 1,500  county residents during a period that happened to coincide with the implementation of stay-at-home orders in Los Angeles.

The QLI, which is a joint project of the UCLA Luskin Los Angeles Initiative and The California Endowment, is in its fifth year. Researchers poll a cross-section of Los Angeles County residents each year to understand the public’s perception of the quality of their own lives. Full results will be released April 23 as part of a UCLA event known as the Luskin Summit, which will be held virtually this year because of the ongoing health crisis. The survey has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.6%.

Respondents indicated that they were very concerned (49%), somewhat concerned (29%), not too concerned (13%) or not concerned at all (7%) that they or a member of their family would contract the novel coronavirus. Women over the age of 50 expressed the greatest concern (62% were very concerned).

When asked whether the health crisis had or will have a negative economic impact on themselves personally, more than four out of five respondents (83%) said they were concerned, with 56% saying very concerned and 27% saying somewhat concerned. Again, women expressed the most concern, although in this case it was slightly higher among women aged 18 to 49 (61%) than among women aged 50 to 64 (60%).

Two questions were asked about the response of public health and government officials to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the results were almost mirror opposites. When asked if they were confident in the response of officials in Los Angeles County, 61% of respondents said yes and 31% said no, but just 39% said yes and 55% said no when asked if they were confident in the response of officials in the federal government. These results were generally consistent among demographic and geographic groups.

“In virtually no major demographic group did we find less than a majority expressing confidence in local officials,” Yaroslavsky said.

Some of the highest marks for local officials came from those aged 50 to 74 (69%), men aged 50 to 64 (72%) and women 65 and older (70%), as well as Latinos over age 50 (70%). Residents in every L.A. County supervisorial district expressed at least 59% confidence as a whole.

Hardly any major demographic group expressed majority confidence in the federal response. The lowest confidence levels came from 18-to-39-year-olds (33%), African Americans (32%), women aged 18 to 49 (31%), those with annual incomes above $120,000 (30%), whites aged 18 to 49 (23%) and residents of the 3rd Supervisorial District (28%), which encompasses Westside communities such as Santa Monica and Malibu, plus the north and western sections of the San Fernando Valley.

The QLI was prepared in partnership with the public opinion research firm Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin, Metz & Associates.

UCLA Researchers Lead Coronavirus Transportation Response Research projects related to the health crisis will be fast-tracked for funding by the UCLA Institute of Transportation Studies and partners

By Claudia Bustamante

Amid the coronavirus outbreak, the UCLA Institute of Transportation Studies will fast-track funding for research projects related to COVID-19 and its effects on public health, the economy and transportation, with those submissions due by April 19 and funding to be dispersed by June.

As part of its research goals for the next fiscal year, UCLA ITS and sister institutes at UC Berkeley, UC Davis and UC Irvine pivoted priorities to investigate the effect of the novel coronavirus and COVID-19 on transportation in the United States. This quick adjustment will allow researchers across the University of California system to collaborate and harness their collective expertise in transportation engineering, planning and policy.

Transportation and transit use have rapidly shifted in the country due to social distancing recommendations, shelter-in-place restrictions, quarantines and other mitigation efforts meant to slow the spread of the virus.

The collective UC Institute of Transportation Studies will prioritize research projects:

  • looking into the response to the public health emergency, including the mobility needs of essential workers and vital goods;
  • the capacity of both the private and public sectors to meet transportation needs during the crisis;
  • the substitution of technology-enabled access for mobility in response to movement limitations.

It will also fund projects focused on the recovery of transportation services and systems when this public health emergency ebbs, including coping with the backlog of goods and people movement.

Brian Taylor, chair of UC ITS, said the California Legislature and executive branches, as well as regional and local governments and agencies, have come to rely on the statewide institute’s expertise and assistance in times of need.

“We aim to produce research that meaningfully informs public officials in making critical, and sometimes difficult, decisions about California’s transportation systems,” he said. “Now more than ever, UC ITS is committed to supporting the state with data and research to help it respond to and recover from the effects of this terrible pandemic in the weeks, months and years ahead.”

Taylor also serves as director of the UCLA branch and a professor of urban planning and public policy at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs.

Established by the California Legislature in 1947, UC ITS funds about 50 research projects a year that cover a wide variety of topics, including congestion management, performance evaluation for state transportation programs and policies, climate change mitigation strategies, micromobility like scooters and bike share, among others. Over the past 25 years, the four ITS branches collectively have formed one of the world’s preeminent university transportation research centers.

The institute’s annual research program will divvy up about $800,000 among projects tied to state-established priorities, including the COVID-19 response and other topics related to transportation and housing, transportation equity, innovative mobility, travel behavior, aviation, safety, and active transportation.

More information about the COVID-19 response and recovery solicitation is available here.

UCLA Supports Launch of California’s Transformative Climate Communities Program New Luskin Center for Innovation resource page tracks state's innovative effort to fight climate change

By Colleen Callahan

The UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation (LCI) has supported the launch of California’s innovative Transformative Climate Communities Program (TCC), one of the world’s most comprehensive sets of investments in local climate action. This includes developing the evaluation plan to track progress and evaluate outcomes from investments that could serve as a global model for community-scale climate action.

Now, inaugural progress reports for the first communities awarded TCC grants — Fresno, Ontario and Watts in Los Angeles — are authored by LCI researchers. These reports, and other resources related to LCI’s tracking of the groundbreaking efforts in local climate action, are centralized on a new TCC resource page. Policymakers, community stakeholders, researchers and others interested in local strategies to combat climate change can use this page to monitor progress, best practices and lessons learned over the five-year TCC grant implementation period that began in the spring of 2019.

The program to fund the development and implementation of neighborhood-level transformative plans that include multiple projects to reduce greenhouse gas emissions was authorized by Assembly Bill 2722 in 2016. In addition to fighting climate change, the program empowers disadvantaged communities impacted by poverty and pollution to support projects that advance their local economic, environmental and health goals.

“TCC may be the most holistic investment in neighborhood-scale and community-driven climate action anywhere on the planet,” said Jason Karpman MURP ’16, project manager of UCLA’s TCC evaluation. “Lessons learned from this new program could have potentially broad implications for climate action elsewhere.”

The California Strategic Growth Council serves as the lead administrator of TCC and awarded the first round of grants to Fresno ($66.5 million), Ontario ($33.25 million) and the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles ($33.25 million).

Communities are empowered to customize their projects and plans based on their priorities and partnerships. The program includes mechanisms for accountability, including oversight from community members as well as third-party evaluation from academic researchers.

The team at the Luskin Center for Innovation and a similar group from the UC Berkeley Center for Resource Efficient Communities comprised the evaluation team for round 1 of TCC grants. UCLA researchers will take on a fourth TCC site for evaluation, Northeast Valley Los Angeles, during round 2 of TCC implementation.

The evaluation team worked with Fresno, Ontario and Watts stakeholders to create the Transformative Climate Communities Evaluation Plan, which UCLA published in late 2018. This research roadmap is being used to track and assess progress and results over a five-year period in those communities.

Now, UCLA has released the first annual report spanning the initial months of grant implementation.These reports highlight a wealth of data, including community conditions that could change during the five years of TCC implementation. Baseline trends relate to demographic, economic, energy, environmental, health, housing and transportation conditions.

“This first set of reports also documents progress on TCC implementation to date, including project milestones and personal stories of how TCC investments are affecting the lives of people who live and work in the pilot communities,” Karpman said. “This includes the voices of resident leaders in Ontario working to implement the site’s community engagement plan, a job trainee in Fresno learning how to install solar panels, and a high school student in Watts helping to expand a community garden.”

The first set of annual reports focuses on the period following the initial announcement of the TCC awards in 2018 through June 2019, which includes the first few months of project implementation. Common milestones across the three sites include laying the foundation for grant success, establishing partnerships and a governance structure, and launching new local initiatives around health, economic development and the environment.

UCLA’s page includes a number of other resources. Photos of residents and project staff show them working to bring their communities’ vision to reality. Supplemental methodological documentation such as open source code is available for those seeking to replicate findings. And staff bios show the evaluators involved with the project.

TCC is part of a suite of efforts, known as California Climate Investments, funded by the state’s cap-and-trade program. It unifies many of the California Climate Investments project types into a single, place-based initiative. Specifically, TCC funds the following project types:

  • construction of affordable housing near transit;
  • installation of rooftop solar and energy efficiency improvements for homes;
  • purchase of electric vehicles, including buses, that can run on clean energy instead of fossil fuels;
  • expansion of bus service coverage or frequency;
  • improvement and expansion of bike lanes and sidewalks;
  • planting of trees along bike and pedestrian routes and near buildings;
  • implementation of waste diversion programs, such as the collection and reuse of food waste and neighborhood-scale composting.

To maximize the benefits of these types of projects, grantees also must develop and implement the following transformative plans:

  • a community engagement plan to ensure TCC investments reflect the vision and goals of community members;
  • a workforce development plan to bring economic opportunities to disadvantaged and low-income communities;
  • a displacement avoidance plan to minimize the risk of gentrification and displacement of residents and businesses following neighborhood improvements.

 

 

What the Ebola Outbreak Could Teach Us About How to Contain the Novel Coronavirus New study underscores the importance of public engagement and trust during health crises

A new research paper examining the 2014-15 Ebola outbreak in Africa could hold crucial insights for policymakers grappling with the novel coronavirus pandemic — namely, the importance of public engagement and trust during health crises.

The study, co-authored by Assistant Professor of Public Policy Darin Christensen of the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, shows that where people lack confidence in their health providers, they are less likely to seek testing and treatment when they feel sick. This stymies efforts to identify, treat and isolate infected patients to limit further contagion.

By the end of the Ebola outbreak in early 2016, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated there were more than 28,000 cases of the disease in West Africa — with roughly half coming from Sierra Leone. Simple interventions that encouraged people to seek treatment increased reporting of Ebola cases by 60%, which the authors estimate reduced the virus’ reproduction rate by 19%.

‘Strengthening ties between health providers and the communities they serve could bolster containment efforts as the current pandemic spreads to poorer countries,’ researcher Darin Christensen says.

“The epidemic generated tremendous fear, and families faced tough choices about whether to care for loved ones at home or report to clinics for testing and, if needed, isolation,” said Christensen, a political economist who holds a joint appointment with UCLA’s department of political science. “That choice may seem obvious in a rich country. But in poorer countries, like Sierra Leone, citizens often have little confidence that health providers will treat them with compassion or deliver effective care. Interventions that build that trust encourage timely testing — exactly what was needed to contain Ebola and, now, COVID-19.”

Conducted across 254 government-run health clinics covering approximately 1 million people — more than 15% of Sierra Leone’s population — the research tested the effects of two interventions aimed at increasing public involvement with, and trust in, the country’s health system.

Under the first intervention, community members participated in meetings with local health clinics, and articulated complaints and suggestions designed to improve health services.

The clinic staff also shared public health advice with community members, like encouraging women to come into the clinic to give birth. This experiment turned patients into “accountability agents who hold health system actors to account,” according to the paper.

The other intervention was an incentive program that gave out awards to health care workers at clinics that were doing a good job of providing services. The intent was to motivate providers to encourage their clinics to provide a higher quality of care.

The study found that these accountability interventions prior to the Ebola outbreak spurred a vast increase in testing and the reporting of Ebola cases — including those who tested both positive and negative for the virus. The reporting did not reflect higher rates of disease in the areas that benefited from the interventions. The higher rates of testing resulted in more effective containment, and ultimately, there were 30% fewer deaths among Ebola patients in the areas that benefited from the interventions.

As governments, particularly in less-developed countries, seek to contain the spread of COVID-19, “there has rightfully been a lot of focus on the test kits and other equipment needed to fight this virus,” Christensen said. “But it’s also important to think about how we encourage people to change their behavior — to get tested, to self-quarantine. Our research suggests that strengthening ties between health providers and the communities they serve could bolster containment efforts as the current pandemic spreads to poorer countries.

“Many governments don’t have the capacity or mandate to enforce strict restrictions on travel or gatherings,” Christensen concluded. “They must appeal to their citizens to voluntarily change behavior. The Ebola epidemic demonstrates that public engagement and confidence help determine whether people heed those calls.”

The study was co-authored by Christensen and Oeindrila Dube of the University of Chicago, Johannes Haushofer of Princeton University, Bilal Siddiqi of UC Berkeley and the Center for Effective Global Action, and Maarten Voors of Wageningen University. The research team also has a forthcoming companion piece that underscores the effectiveness of crisis-response measures that emphasize community engagement.

 

For 30 Years, Lewis Center Has Responded to L.A. Issues With Ideas All six current and former directors gather to recall the challenges and successes they experienced while leading regional policy research at UCLA

By Lauren Hiller

During a gathering March 5 at its first home on the UCLA campus, the Lewis Center for Regional Policy Studies commemorated 30 years of scholarship, public advocacy and leadership on campus and in the community.

All five former Lewis Center directors — a who’s who of distinguished scholars — joined the current director, Urban Planning Professor Evelyn Blumenberg, at DeCafe Perloff Hall to discuss the milestones and issues facing the region during each person’s tenure. As each director spoke, it was evident that the center’s longevity is rooted in interdisciplinary scholarship and fostering the next generation of scholars.

In 1989, Ralph and Goldy Lewis donated $5 million to endow a research program at UCLA that studied regional policy issues. The following year, the Lewis Center opened its doors in Perloff Hall, the location of what was then known as the School of Architecture and Urban Planning, with founding director Allen J. Scott, distinguished research professor of geography and public policy. Scott was succeeded by Roger Waldinger, distinguished professor of sociology; followed in chronological order by Paul Ong, research professor at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs; J.R. DeShazo, professor of public policy, urban planning and civil and environmental engineering; and Brian D. Taylor, professor of urban planning and public policy.

“My parents both went to UCLA and they believed in the power of public education and need to support the public system,” said Randall Lewis, whose parents were homebuilders and interested in issues of growth, transportation, housing and air quality. “They felt as they were building houses, building communities, that they didn’t want to create problems. They wanted to find solutions.”

Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris, who joined the UCLA community the same year that Lewis Center was established and received one of its first grants, kicked off the event.

“The Lewis Center best exemplifies the role that we’re asking our research centers to play: push research forward, support the educational mission of the school and its students, and serve as a public forum that disseminates important research-based information and data to a larger public,” said Loukaitou-Sideris, professor of urban planning and associate provost for academic planning.

Launched Amid Regional Turmoil
The early 1990s were a tumultuous time in Los Angeles. The aerospace industry, which was a backbone of the region’s economy, was collapsing. The 1994 Northridge earthquake killed 61 people and caused $6.7 million in damage, crippling major infrastructure like freeways. And civil disturbances fueled by racial injustices, police brutality, and poverty and social marginalization rocked the city.

“Los Angeles looked like, from some points of view, a basket case and getting worse,” Scott recalled. “And so we were, at a very early stage, involved in attempting to build responses to these problems and others.”

Scott and the Lewis Center published a series of working papers focusing on new industry (such as electric vehicles) to replace aerospace and an examination of the nature and causes of the crises in South Los Angeles.

By the time Waldinger took over in 1996, the immigrant population in the Los Angeles region had quadrupled within two decades. Yet, research on the impact of immigration on the Los Angeles region lagged behind frequently studied cities like Chicago and New York. The Lewis Center played an integral role in bringing Los Angeles to the forefront of regional studies with efforts such as Waldinger’s book “Ethnic Los Angeles.” Today, it’s hard to imagine a discussion of immigration and foreign-born individuals without considering L.A.

Waldinger said the center’s early research has transformed California policy. Although immigration policy is a federal issue, immigrant policy can be local, he noted, pointing to state measures that have aided California’s immigrant population.

Ong, the center’s third director, continued the multidisciplinary tradition of the Lewis Center and collaborated with scholars in UCLA Luskin Social Welfare and the natural sciences. As director, he published a seminal report on the undercounting of low-income people and communities of color in the 2000 Census.

Ong’s work also highlighted a core strength of the Lewis Center — its focus on addressing social justice issues for marginalized communities. He said the center also partnered with the County of Los Angeles and L.A. Metro to understand the transit needs of underserved communities.

DeShazo oversaw the Lewis Center during a time when its focus turned to environmental issues. In 2006, California passed the Global Warming Solutions Act (AB 32), promoting ambitious climate solutions that even some legislators doubted could be achieved.

“Those were the days we didn’t even know where greenhouse gases were coming from,” DeShazo remembered. The first step was to identify sources and then to identify solutions to reduce emissions, including electric vehicles, rooftop solar energy and energy-efficient technology.

“Everything that we have today is what people thought was impossible to accomplish. The groundwork for that was laid in the 2006-2012 period,” DeShazo said.

The Lewis Center has also contributed to environmental justice scholarship, especially the designations of disadvantaged communities as a result of identifying where emissions were coming from and where populations vulnerable to those emissions are living.

Taylor next put the focus on housing affordability and transportation in light of large investments in public transit like Measure R, a sales tax that is expected to raise $40 billion over 30 years.

He said the center’s regional lens has a built-in advantage when it comes to studying housing affordability, transportation and access, which play out across a diverse geography.

Taylor’s tenure also overlapped with his role as chair of UCLA Luskin Urban Planning. It was a position that helped him to advocate for the addition of faculty members and scholars who could tackle these regional priorities.

“Housing affordability was not my area of research,” Taylor said. “All I did was try to support and catalyze the intellectual leaders that are helping shape the important debates on this.”

A Legacy of Leadership
Acting as a consistent bridge to marginalized voices, the Lewis Center’s former directors see scholarship and professional development as their enduring legacy. Many onetime students have gone on to become academic leaders in their own right.

“I’m honored to follow in those footsteps,” said Blumenberg MA UP ’90, Ph.D. ’95. She became director in 2018 and has focused on how Angelenos live, move and work in L.A., with a particular interest in pathways out of poverty. The center recently launched the Randall Lewis Housing Initiative.

Has Los Angeles made progress over the last 30 years?

The answer is mixed, Ong said. A commitment to climate change initiatives and equity are highlights, but income inequality and social justice remain daunting issues.

“I’m proud of the fact that the Lewis Center continues to look at issues of inequality,” Ong said. “We’re dedicated to doing the research to find solutions, but it’s like swimming upstream.”

Still, Ong remains hopeful: “I know enough about [Blumenberg’s] history that there will continue to be a commitment from the Lewis Center to accomplish things that will bend us towards justice.”

Paving a Path to Homeownership Lewis Center hosts panel to contemplate ways that homeownership can be an attainable goal for more low-income families

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:

Promise and Peril: Homeownership in Southern California

Study Identifies Underperforming Water Systems in L.A. County Report and policy guide provide full picture of more than 200 water systems, plus a look at regionwide trends and disparities

By Colleen Callahan

A new study by the UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation (LCI) found significant disparities in the quality, affordability and accessibility of water across Los Angeles County. However, the number of health-related water-quality violations in the county is quite low compared to other parts of Southern California, the researchers concluded.

The study evaluated the county’s more than 200 water systems and compared current data to findings published in LCI’s 2015 water atlas. The progress report flags interventions that may be necessary to continue improvements and address persistent problems. Los Angeles County is working with state and federal agencies to respond to several systems that incurred repeated water-quality violations.

A 2012 state law (Assembly Bill 685) establishes that all Californians have the right to safe, affordable and accessible water – referred to as the “human right to water.” Yet this right is not a reality for everyone in L.A. County, due primarily to differences in community water systems that directly provide water to residents and businesses.

“The goal is to give systems operators, regulators and residents the most current and comprehensive picture of water system performance in order to identify what systems are in need of interventions,” said Gregory Pierce, associate director of LCI and lead author on the report. “Despite momentum, urgent attention is needed to address water system problems.” Pierce also teaches urban planning at UCLA Luskin.

System performance overview 
While most systems in L.A. County provide sufficient levels of safe and affordable water to their customers, many small systems – particularly mobile home parks, RV parks and mutual water systems – are most at risk for having technical, managerial and financial challenges that lead to poor outcomes related to quality, affordability and accessibility.

Governance trends
There are fewer active community water systems today than five years ago. The reduction of apparently 10% of systems in L.A. County suggests that some have consolidated, which reflects progress in reducing water system sprawl that results in many small, low-capacity systems at higher risk of un­derperformance.

Quality trends
Compared to other counties in Southern California, the number of health-related water-quality violations in L.A. County is low, particularly on a per capita basis.

Affordability trends
The report found great disparity in how much residents pay for water across systems. For an amount of water sufficient for a family of four, rates today range from $26 to $134 per month.

Accessibility trends
Few systems report producing less than the standard set in the “human right to water” legislation — 55 gallons per person per day. However, systems in San­ta Clarita and Antelope Valley were most likely to face declining groundwater levels. Increasing population, changing precipitation patterns under climate change and other factors pose challenges.

“In addition to the state’s efforts, more regional, local and system-level work will be necessary to ensure the human right to water for all,” said Kyra Gmoser-Daskalakis, a researcher at LCI and co-author of the report.