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Monkkonen Guides Discussion of L.A.’s Housing Needs Key players who represent state, regional and municipal interests discuss how state law impacts the process of housing allocation in each jurisdiction

By Naveen Agrawal

“Let’s get ready to … RHNA!” That was the rallying cry from UCLA Luskin Associate Professor Paavo Monkkonen during a recent panel discussion on Los Angeles’ housing needs with policy experts familiar with the state’s Regional Housing Needs Assessment (RHNA) process.

California’s 1967 housing element law — and the RHNA process — is an underemphasized aspect of state policy that matters just as much today as it did half a century ago, the panelists said.

Held May 15, 2019, “Planning for the Housing That Greater L.A. Needs” was the third and final installment for the year in the Housing, Equity and Community Series, a partnership between the Lewis Center for Regional Policy Studies at UCLA Luskin and the UCLA Ziman Center for Real Estate.

The event was moderated by Monkkonen, associate professor of urban planning and public policy. Providing the state’s perspective was Melinda Coy, senior policy specialist with the California Department of Housing and Community Development. Providing the regional view was Ma’Ayn Johnson MA UP ’05, who is a senior housing and land use planner at the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG). Representing municipalities was Diana Varat JD/MA UP ’08, who works at Richards, Watson & Gershon, a firm that specializes in public law services.

California’s housing law seeks to ensure that cities zone for enough housing to accommodate population growth. In the RHNA process, state agencies project the population growth of each region. Then, metropolitan planning organizations like SCAG allocate a number of housing units to individual cities based on the projected growth. Cities are then required to demonstrate that they have enough capacity to accommodate these additional housing units, but RHNA does not force cities to build those units. Enforcement is spotty and construction often lags, resulting in housing shortages in many areas.

Recent state legislative actions have sought to reform the RHNA process, with a particular eye on equity. These and other issues related to the RHNA process are detailed in a newly released Lewis Center brief.

Gov. Gavin Newsom recently vowed to enforce RHNA targets more strictly, and his office has gone as far as initiating lawsuits against cities that are not meeting their targets, including Huntington Beach.

Coy described the state’s expanding role in promoting and enforcing RHNA targets, including providing technical assistance to help local governments comply. Coy also mentioned that her department’s staff has increased, reflecting the governor’s emphasis that housing planning be taken seriously.

The complexity of regional governance over the 191 cities and six counties represented by SCAG was emphasized by Johnson. She also cited the importance of having a social justice and equity perspective when RHNA targets are allocated to individual cities so that racial and low-income housing segregation is avoided. She also mentioned that RHNA targets will likely increase to reflect unmet need, not just projected growth.

As a contract attorney working on housing compliance with various California cities, Varat characterized the law as requiring cities to “collect research and ignore it.”

Varat pointed out that identifying sites for affordable housing is a burdensome task for cities. And because it is not coupled with a requirement that those sites actually be developed as affordable housing units, the effort is often moot.

Coy described the housing element law as an effort to create a public safety net for what is otherwise an unprotected essential need. Varat, however, countered that the state’s effort to dictate city policy is based on a presumption that cities hold the power to develop new housing — in most cases, developers actually hold that power.

Another tension between local autonomy and regional/state authority involves existing affordable housing units. Varat criticized the housing element’s emphasis on new units, rather than preservation of existing affordable units. Coy acknowledged this shortcoming, saying that individual RHNA targets are supposed to include existing units, but they seldom do.

One lesson was clear — participation matters. Johnson informed the audience that meetings of SCAG are held monthly and are available by webcast. Both Coy and Varat underscored the importance of planning education and community engagement, and they see promise that the upcoming round of RHNA targets will better address previous gaps.

View a Flickr album of photos from the event.

 

Planning for Housing

image of Mayor of Danville and handing the Town Manager a hammer at the ceremony of the construction site of new housing development

Monkkonen on Affordable Housing in the Bay Area

Paavo Monkkonen, associate professor of urban planning and public policy, spoke to the San Francisco Chronicle about a new housing development in a wealthy Bay Area suburb. A multi-family housing development will be built in the city of Danville, creating 144 new units, 11 of which are to be set aside for affordable housing. The apartment building will accommodate lower-income people in the local workforce as well as middle-class residents priced out of most Bay Area real estate. Some cities say this type of multi-unit development is not feasible because they are built-out, with no more land available to develop. Monkkonen argued that suburbs use that as an excuse to not create more housing. “What they don’t tell you is that up to 90% of their land is zoned for single-family homes,” he said. If changing that “is not on the table, things aren’t going to change.”


 

Yaroslavsky Calls SB 50 an Overreach

Director of the Los Angeles Initiative at UCLA and former LA County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky spoke to NBC 4 about the implications presented by Senate Bill 50. The bill would allow cities to rezone along transit lines in order to increase the amount of high-density housing in California. Yaroslavsky said this would be an overreach without a middle ground. Many single-family neighborhoods would be rezoned to develop multifamily housing because SB 50 extends to virtually every bus line in L.A. County, he said. As the bill currently stands, it exempts small, affluent cities. “Don’t exempt the affluent cities. Treat everybody the same,” Yaroslavsky said.


 

Blueprint editor Jim Newton, left, with panelists Vinit Mukhija, Christina Miller and Phil Ansell. Photo by Les Dunseith

A Moral Imperative to Combat Homelessness A dialogue on 'the most pressing problem in this region' draws in civic leaders, scholars and citizens

By Mary Braswell

Ending homelessness is a stated priority for legislators and policymakers up and down the state.

But it’s also a moral imperative for every citizen, one that will “define our civic legacy in the eyes of future generations,” said Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas.

“Homelessness is the most pressing problem in this region,” he said to open a wide-ranging dialogue hosted April 30 by UCLA’s Blueprint magazine. “Mere steps away from the dozens of cranes looming above the gleaming towers of downtown, we find Angelenos — our brothers and our sisters — in utter squalor.”

Blueprint is a civic affairs publication of the UCLA chancellor’s office and the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs. The event drew about 100 people to Cross Campus, a co-working venue in downtown Los Angeles.

Joining the conversation were public officials and scholars on the front lines of the region’s fight against housing insecurity: Phil Ansell, director of L.A. County’s homeless initiative; Christina Miller, deputy mayor for the city of Los Angeles’ homeless programs; and Vinit Mukhija, chair of UCLA Luskin Urban Planning. Mukhija’s research focuses on substandard housing in the United States and abroad, and it was featured in the latest issue of Blueprint. Editor-in-chief Jim Newton, a UCLA Luskin lecturer in public policy, moderated the panel.

Stark numbers framed the conversation: “We have 52,000 people on any given night experiencing homelessness in the county,” Miller said.

To ensure housing security for all who need it, 560,000 affordable units must be built, Ansell added.

The discussion made clear that homelessness takes many forms. The chronically homeless may spend years on the street. Others find shelter in their cars or dwell in makeshift or substandard living conditions. Many drift in and out of homelessness due to precarious incomes and high rents.

Each of these populations requires a different response. And all of the proposed solutions require not just money, but time.

Miller said 10,000 “permanent supportive housing” units will be built over 10 years thanks to Proposition HHH, the $1.2-billion city bond measure passed by voters in 2016. These units are designed for people suffering chronic disabilities — a small subset of those in need.

For short-term assistance such as temporary rent subsidies and job training, both the city and county offer rapid rehousing programs.

“People haven’t always connected the fact that the homelessness crisis is a housing crisis,” Miller said. “We see our system get better at lifting people up once they become homeless and getting them back into housing as quickly as we can, but we’re not seeing progress because the tide is too strong.”

Mukhija advocated for interim steps to provide safe living conditions while more permanent solutions make their way through the system.

“I love hearing all the numbers about 10,000 permanent supportive houses, and I think that’s the kind of thing that gets people galvanized to vote for a proposition and that’s wonderful,” he said. “But I would like to see storage for the homeless. I’d like to see more toilets. … I would like to see money targeted for improving existing accessory dwelling units,” such as garages that can be converted into shelter.

Ansell spoke about the county’s expanding Safe Parking L.A. program, which will soon be the largest of its kind in the nation.

“Safe parking means a parking lot where a person who lives in their car, van or RV can sleep safely at night, where there is security and they won’t be bothered, and there’s [an outdoor toilet] or other restroom facility, and hand washing,” Ansell said. “I think that’s a very important and promising strategy, particularly in a community where over half of our unsheltered homeless population is living in vehicles.”

Another county resource is la-hop.org, the county’s homeless outreach portal. “Anyone in Los Angeles County — a resident, a first responder, a city employee, a business, a faith organization — can use it 24 hours a day” to reach one of nearly 800 full-time outreach workers, Ansell said. A homeless person who needs immediate assistance should find a phone and dial 211.

The county’s homeless initiative was bolstered by the 2017 passage of Measure H, a sales tax expected to raise more than $350 million a year to combat homelessness. However, Ansell said, “This is not a crisis that the county can effectively address on its own.”

Citing support from government, philanthropy, the nonprofit sector and faith organizations, Ansell said, “We have hundreds of organizations and thousands of people who are involved on a full-time basis as part of this movement, and hundreds of thousands of other Los Angeles County residents who care very deeply about bringing their homeless neighbors home.”

“Housing and the Homeless: A Crisis of Policy and Conscience” is the theme of Blueprint’s latest issue, funded by a grant from Wells Fargo Bank.

More on the Event

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Blueprint Panel: Homelessness

Man standing in unfinished garage

Garage Conversions Could Ease California Housing Crisis

Three UCLA Luskin-affiliated urban planning scholars co-authored a CityLab piece on single-car garage conversions as a way to ease the California housing crisis. The authors — Urban Planning Chair and Professor Vinit Mukhija, Distinguished Research Professor Donald Shoup and Anne Brown MURP ’14 Ph.D. ’18, an assistant professor of planning and policy at the University of Oregon — argued that homeowners should convert their garages into an apartment or accessory dwelling unit (ADU) to create more affordable housing in California. “Garage apartments create horizontal, distributed and almost invisible density, instead of vertical, concentrated and obvious density,” they argued. These units not only create more affordable housing but provide new avenues of income for homeowners and more secure neighborhoods, they wrote. “America can reduce the homelessness problem with a simple acknowledgment: Garages would be much more valuable for people than for cars,” the authors concluded.


 

‘Affordable Housing Development Isn’t Rocket Science,’ Ling Declares

Urban Planning lecturer Joan Ling shared her expertise in housing development with the first class of the Howard and Irene Levine Affordable Housing Development Program, featured in the Blau Journal and the Architect’s Newspaper. The UCLA Ziman Center for Real Estate hosted the training program for entry-level professionals to illuminate the constraints and opportunities of housing development in Los Angeles. The training was led by Ling, co-director of the Levine program, and other UCLA faculty and housing experts. On the first day of training, Ling declared, “Affordable housing development isn’t rocket science. It needs two things, land and money. Since there isn’t enough land, it’s land-use policy that needs expanding.” The success of the program in its first year has led the Ziman Center to increase the class size for 2019 and make it an annual program, the first of its kind among top U.S. universities.


Lens on Housing Reform in Minneapolis

Michael Lens, associate professor of urban planning and public policy, spoke to the New York Times about Minneapolis’ decision to end single-family zoning. The city acknowledged its role in perpetuating housing inequity, he said, adding, “I think that’s great. ‘Minnesota nice’ in action.” Lens, associate faculty director of the UCLA Lewis Center for Regional Policy Studies, said the step was necessary but unusual. It could take a while to know if changes to single-family neighborhoods are successful, he said, but added that the best measure of change may be no noticeable change at all. Lens predicted that residents will look around their neighborhood and think, “This has been a good thing. This is still a great place to live.”


 

Ling Speaks Out on California Housing Policies

Lecturer in Urban Planning Joan Ling was cited in Capital & Main on California state policies regarding housing. At a state Senate hearing in mid-November, Ling said that local governments have had years to address the housing crisis but have squandered their chances under current rules. Local governments do not always know what is best, she said, pointing to 40 years of “not zoning enough to provide housing for our population at the local level.” Ling said she believes that a new bill that provides housing near transit hubs while also protecting vulnerable communities is possible. “We need to craft policies that do no harm, particularly to low-income and minority communities who have borne the side effects of well-intentioned policies,” she said.


 

Mukhija Comments on Program to House Homeless in Backyards

UCLA Luskin Urban Planning Chair Vinit Mukhija commented in a New York Times story about a program to offer homeowners incentives to house the homeless in their backyards. Pilot programs in the city and county of Los Angeles offer subsidies for the construction of so-called granny flats that would be rented for a set number of years to those in need of shelter. The programs are seen as a creative, if limited, way to address the affordable housing crisis, which Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti called “the biggest humanitarian crisis in this city.” “In the total picture of homelessness, we know this will not necessarily change that much,” Mukhija said. “The value goes beyond that, though, because it is finally somewhat of a departure of the purity of single-family housing in the region. It’s a good step to change what people here really consider a dogma of private housing.”


Yaroslavsky Weighs In on the Ballot Battle Over Rent Control

Zev Yaroslavsky, director of the Los Angeles Initiative at UCLA Luskin, shared his expertise on housing policy with several media outlets covering the November 2018 ballot measure that would give California cities more power to curb rising rents. “The state doesn’t do anything for renters. It does everything for property owners and developers,” Yaroslavsky told the Christian Science Monitor. “If we keep this up for another generation, we’re going to have far more homelessness than we do now.” The Monitor’s article on the fight over Proposition 10 cited the Los Angeles Initiative’s 2018 Quality of Life Index, which found that more than a quarter of L.A. County’s 10.1 million residents had worried about losing their home in the previous year. “These are the people who are a lost job or eviction notice away from winding up on the streets,” Yaroslavsky said.  The Monitor also cited a UCLA Luskin Center for History and Policy working paper on the historical roots of the affordable housing crisis in Los Angeles. Yaroslavsky has also been quoted in Proposition 10 coverage from Bloomberg News, the Guardian and Curbed LA.


 

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