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Michael Lens, associate faculty director for the UCLA Lewis Center for Regional Policy Studies, at the Downtown Los Angeles Forum on Transportation, Land Use and the Environment. Photos by Stan Paul

The Rent is Too Damn High: A Forum on L.A.’s Housing Crisis Skyrocketing costs and politics of supply are focus of UCLA Lewis Center’s 11th annual Downtown Los Angeles Forum

By Stan Paul

“Too Much and Not Enough” is a recipe for a crisis when it comes to rising rents and lack of available and affordable housing in Los Angeles County.

It also was an apt title of the UCLA Lewis Center for Regional Policy Studies’ 11th annual Downtown Los Angeles Forum on Transportation, Land Use and the Environment, held May 18, 2018, at the California Endowment.

“The short story is the rent has been getting ‘too damn high’ for decades, and renter wages have not kept up,” said moderator Michael Lens, associate professor of urban planning and public policy at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs.

In the last few years, a threshold has been crossed as “more and more households cannot really bear the rising costs of rent,” Lens said, launching a day of debate and discussion on a nationwide problem that is acutely felt in the L.A. region, which is also beset by chronic homelessness.

Experts representing academia, government and nonprofit organizations, as well as community stakeholders, came together to discuss problems, barriers and solutions to the multifaceted issue of affordable housing.

“Research is pretty unequivocal that increasing housing supply is necessary to stabilize prices,” Lens said, but there is less certainty about what happens in neighborhoods that receive new housing supply or investment. “Neighborhood dynamics certainly complicate any of our policy options or choices and solutions for increasing housing affordability,” said Lens, who also serves as associate faculty director for the Lewis Center.

‘If we want to stem the pipeline of people moving onto our streets, we have to come up with solutions that keep people in place, and that’s a moral issue, it’s a humanitarian issue, and it doesn’t rest with individual owners, it rests with all of us.’

— Panelist Jacqueline Waggoner

Paavo Monkkonen, associate professor of public policy and urban planning at UCLA, led the first panel of speakers, who looked at the causes and effects of the crisis from a variety of perspectives.

Panelists included Isela Gracian, president of the East LA Community Corporation; Robin Hughes, president and CEO of Abode Communities; Shane Phillips, director of public policy at the Central City Association; and Carolina Reid, assistant professor of city and regional planning at UC Berkeley.

“We can’t build affordable housing fast enough to meet the need,” said Reid, adding that “we don’t have a system where we can hold cities accountable for how much housing they’re producing to meet growing housing demand.”

Since 2000, half of L.A. neighborhoods built no housing at all, according to Reid. Citing gentrification pressures at the urban core, she said neighborhoods with the best transit access are building the fewest affordable housing units.

“Planning isn’t helping,” she added, noting that California cities continue to include minimum lot sizes and restrictive zoning. Compounding the problem are lengthy permitting and regulatory requirements along with strong public opposition to some affordable housing projects.

A second panel, led by Lens, addressed the politics of supply and evaluated possible solutions. Panelists were Becky Dennison, executive director of Venice Community Housing; Jackelyn Hwang, assistant professor of sociology at Stanford University; Jacqueline Waggoner, vice president and Southern California market leader for Enterprise Community Foundation; and Ben Winter, housing policy specialist with the Office of Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti.

Hwang weighed the pros and cons of rent control. She cited research showing that landlords do take advantage of “perverse incentives,” such as converting units to condos to become exempt from rent control — and consequently decreasing rental housing supply. But rent control also protects tenants, she said, noting that it encourages longer-term and elderly residents to stay in place, protecting them from displacement.

“I think the takeaway from the study is it puts too much power in the hands of landlords,” she said.  “I think there are ways to have rent control and maybe we can think of more creative ways on how it’s implemented.”

Waggoner is a proponent of rent control but said the strategy should be regional and not just within the city. “If we want to stem the pipeline of people moving onto our streets, we have to come up with solutions that keep people in place, and that’s a moral issue, it’s a humanitarian issue, and it doesn’t rest with individual owners, it rests with all of us,” she said.

Keynote speaker Kathy Nyland made her point succinctly: “Put people first, share the power, and let people be part of the solution.”

As director of Seattle’s Department of Neighborhoods, Nyland oversaw the overhaul of the neighborhood council system to emphasize inclusive outreach, equity and community engagement. She said she has looked at affordable housing from several vantage points, having also served as chief of staff to a Seattle City Council member and as a senior policy advisor to the city’s mayor.

Audience members had the opportunity to join the discussion, during the panels and at a reception that followed the conference.One of them was Tham Nguyen, a 2005 alumna of the Luskin Urban Planning master’s program, who is now a senior manager in transportation planning for LA Metro’s Office of Extraordinary Innovation.

“It’s certainly a very important component of transportation, looking at the housing and land use aspect,” Nguyen said. “This is a really great learning experience to see the conversations that are happening and unfolding around affordable housing.”

Brian Taylor, professor of urban planning and outgoing director of the Lewis Center, closed the conference with this observation: “I thought transportation planning was complicated, but you’ve got me humbled here.”

Taylor, who also serves as director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at UCLA Luskin, said he often hears comments that emphasize both connections and contradictions in transportation: “Traffic is terrible. We have to stop development. Let’s build a lot of rail and have transit-oriented development, but we’re really worried about gentrification.”

While the “enormously complex” affordable housing crisis has been manifested over years and solutions may be slow in coming, “that doesn’t mean they’re not worth pursuing,” he said. “But what it does mean is that the person that has been displaced today is not going to benefit from that immediately. …

“These problems are visceral and they’re current, and the needs to address them are immediate and pressing,” he said, adding that bridging the gap between slow market changes and urgent needs on the streets of L.A. “is really going to be the challenge as we move forward.”

View additional photos from the conference on Flickr:

DTLA 2018

Home Sweet Home During a Lewis Center Book Talk, visiting lecturer Brian McCabe explores the efficiency of U.S. government support for homeownership

By Zev Hurwitz

Brian J. McCabe is a sociologist whose research focuses on the importance, impact and problems associated with homeownership in the U.S. — not exactly common issues for a sociologist.

“Sociologists have largely ceded the study of housing to economists,” McCabe said. “We should be thinking about housing as not only an economic problem but as a social problem, too.”

McCabe, an assistant professor of sociology at Georgetown University, delivered a seminar at the Luskin School of Public Affairs on Feb. 22, 2017, based on his recent book, “No Place Like Home: Wealth, Community & the Politics of Homeownership.” The book explores the American passion for home ownership and its effect on local communities.

At the Book Talk hosted by the UCLA Lewis Center, McCabe walked attendees through the central themes of his book, focusing particularly on methods for evaluating the impact of homeownership on communities.

Michael Lens, assistant professor in UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs Department of Urban Planning, noted that McCabe’s diverse background yielded a unique approach to his work.

“[McCabe’s] research offers an interdisciplinary approach to the study of cities combining his training in sociology, geography and public policy, primarily on housing issues,” Lens said.

Homeownership did not become the status quo for most Americans until the middle of the 20th century as marketing campaigns and the news media helped establish the notion that owning a home is an American ideal, McCabe said.

“We generally agree that buying a home is a good thing,” he said. “Ninety percent of Americans believe they prefer to live in a home rather than rent one. Most people who own a home are happy with their housing decision, and most renters expect that one day they’re going to be homeowners.”

In addition to being a vehicle for building wealth, home ownership can also be a tool for building citizenship and community. Government programs that create incentives for Americans to purchase a home strive to strengthen citizenry, but McCabe’s book challenges whether owning a home is actually responsible for community and civic engagement.

“This is what I want to challenge in my talk: Does the evidence actually confirm that homeowners are more engaged citizens?” McCabe said. “And, if so, what kinds of civic activities are homeowners engaged in?”

McCabe’s book explores whether the true effects of homeownership have justified government programs designed to promote it, and whether funding for those programs might be better allocated elsewhere.

McCabe cited several pieces of legislation in the 20th century that made it easier for Americans to buy homes, including the National Housing Act of 1934, which established a nationalized mortgage market, and the GI Bill, which made it easier for veterans to pursue homeownership through VA-brokered loans.

“Building a nation where almost 70 percent of Americans own their own home was not natural, nor was it inevitable,” he said. “It’s built on the back of federal interventions and mortgage markets that make the cost of borrowing cheaper. The federal government is deeply involved with all of this.”

In the course of McCabe’s research, he found that homeownership does correspond to higher rates of civic involvement. Homeowners are more likely to vote or sign a petition, McCabe learned.

However, when accounting for “residential stability”— which McCabe defines as living in the same place for five or more years — the data suggest that homeownership has less of an effect on the likeliness to engage in civic ways than does the length of residence.

“The nuance that I want to add to the story that ‘homeowners are better citizens’ is that there are some places where it is not home ownership that causes people to be more engaged, but actually residential stability,” he said.

Putting the roots of civic engagement in the context of modern government programs that make it easier to buy homes, namely the mortgage interest rate deduction, McCabe said that such programs are inefficient and that the payoffs are not substantial.

“Even if the deduction was a way to increase home ownership, the public benefits of promoting homeownership are insufficient to justify those costs,” he said.

McCabe laid out several policy alternatives to current deductions that might be healthier for the country, including capping the size of loans eligible for deduction, eliminating the deduction for a one-time first-home credit or prioritizing programs that promote residential stability, such as home-choice vouchers.