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SoCal Storylines: Housing LA’s future

Wednesday, November 16, 2016, 6:30pm - 8:00pm
Milken Institute 1250 Fourth Street Santa Monica, CA 90401 Map and directions

On Wednesday, November 16, KPCC correspondent Rina Palta moderated a discussion at the Milken Institute with housing experts and policy makers on L.A.’s affordable housing challenges and opportunities. Santa Monica City Manager Rick Cole, L.A. Department of Health Services Director Mitch Katz and Abode Communities CEO Robin Hughes discussed the harsh reality and budding hope of the region’s affordable housing landscape. The event was the third installment of the “SoCal Storylines: Conversations with movers and shakers” series.

‘A very large ocean and a very small spoon’

Santa Monica City Manager and L.A. public policy veteran Rick Cole discussed the planning problems that have fed Los Angeles’s housing crisis and the steps Santa Monica is taking to improve the housing situation within its city borders.

Though the city lost its redevelopment funding a few years ago, Cole said, on November 8, Santa Monica voters passed the half-cent sales tax in Measure GSH and another measure to split the proceeds raised between local schools and affordable housing. Cole said the $7 million the measures will bring in plus the remainder of the redevelopment funding will allow Santa Monica to commit about $15 million per year toward affordable housing.

Cole said Santa Monica is committed to protecting the affordable housing it already has and to finding more. Forty percent of new housing built in multifamily homes is “deed restricted,” he said, meaning it is capped at below-market rates for about 30 years. “There’s no other community in Southern California that can match that record,” Cole said, adding Santa Monica’s action on affordable housing was the result of years of civic leadership in the community.

Cole also said these efforts are not enough to solve the regional crisis. “We cannot house in our 8.3 [square] miles enough [people] to deal with the regional housing crisis and the particularly acute housing crisis on the west side of Los Angeles,” he said. “Sometimes it feels like we have a very large ocean and a very small spoon.”

Cole discussed many of the challenges he sees to citywide and regional housing initiatives: scale, voter opposition to development, development’s attraction to the most popular locations and a lack of “real planning," or holistic planning that considers housing, transport, parks and schools together. Cole pointed to Los Angeles’s Neighborhood Integrity Initiative as a consequence of Los Angeles’s failure to engage with “real planning.” Cole called the initiative, which seeks to put a two-year pause on most large-scale development a “draconian antidevelopment initiative” fueled by public frustration. He said leaders like Mayor Eric Garcetti should now show vision and convince residents of the need for more housing, real planning and sustainable growth.

Milken Institute Housing LA's Future

Lasagna layers of funding

Robin Hughes is president and CEO of Abode Communities, a leading affordable housing provider in Los Angeles and nationally, talked about the process of building affordable housing as well as its biggest roadblocks.

“There may be an affordable housing development right next door to you, and you may not known that it’s affordable housing,” said Hughes. “It is well designed; it is well maintained.” Hughes said people’s views of affordable housing have shifted recently; fewer associate affordable housing with public housing.

Hughes said that it can take three years or more to start construction after finding a site and additional 18 to 20 months to build the development. Since most appropriate sites are not zoned properly, it can take 18 months or longer to go through an entitlement process to rezone. Developers must then apply to gather funding from a number of different sources: local government, state government, private investors, and bank loans. This process can take an additional 12 to 18 months, said Hughes: “It’s like…layering lasagna.”

What could be done to speed things up? If suitable land along transit corridors was already properly zoned and ready for developers, that could easily cut 12 to 18 months out of the development process, Hughes said. Streamlining the financing process to one or two instead of multiple sources would also help, she said. Hughes said that Abode also hopes that the current tax credits that allow them to build, funding for the Housing and Urban Development department (HUD) and other federal grants and resources continue under the new Trump administration. They hope that a president coming from a real estate background would understand and support that, she said.

Housing first

Hughes and Mitch Katz, the director of the L.A. County Department of Health Services, discussed the importance of housing first: the idea that housing people who are struggling with substance abuse or mental health is the necessary first step to helping them. “All problems are made worse by being under the freeway,” Katz said. “When you house people, things get better.” Instead of spending time and money evaluating those struggling, it makes sense to house them first and then surround them with the services they need, he said, echoing the model Hughes discussed earlier.

That’s the idea behind Katz’s Housing for Health program, which moved homeless patients effectively living in LAC + USC Medical Center to housing units downtown by channeling the money saved on hospital expenses towards housing, Katz said.        

Katz also talked about the health effects of homelessness and of “doubling up.” There is a group of people in Los Angeles, Katz said, who are not necessarily homeless on the streets, but struggling – couch-surfing, living in small spaces and often working in the informal economy. The health effects of overcrowding are not as dire as exposed homelessness, Katz said, but he does worry about children living in the chaos of being “doubled up.”

‘Glass half full and half empty’

“We have created a society very much based on winners and losers,” Cole said, reflecting on the ultimate causes and solutions to homelessness. “We are in another of the Darwinian cycles in American history,” he added. When asked whether the housing crisis is really a symptom of an income crisis, Cole, Hughes and Katz agreed the two are connected.

Cole pointed to the increasing collaboration between cities and agencies through data collection as a source of hope. Hughes said that she sees a solution in building more affordable units with supportive services. Katz said that with an added sense of urgency, the crisis is not insurmountable. “The glass is half full and half empty,” Cole said.

Photo Credit: Quincy Surasmith / KPCC