The median price of a house in Los Angeles today is about $920,000. In San Francisco, the price, on average, is $1.5 million. Tonight, some 160,000 people in California will sleep outside or in cars or shelters. Home prices testify to this state’s extraordinary appeal as demand fuels ever-increasing costs of living; homelessness bears witness to grinding desperation at the other end of that same continuum. This is a state of staggering wealth and crying poverty, often within just a few miles of each other.
California sits on a budget surplus of more than $45 billion and leads the nation in job growth, while also grappling with more than a million people looking for work. Why, many ask, can a state of such means not provide for those who so desperately need help? Or, as Stephanie Pincetl Ph.D. ’85, professor in the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, puts it: “It just seems like a fundamental contradiction that a place that strives for equity and claims to be sustainable has people who cannot afford to live anywhere.”
In part, the numbers are testament to California’s size. Simply because it is so much larger than most states, California has more unhoused people and more unemployed workers than smaller states. For example, there are more than twice as many unemployed workers in California as there are people in Wyoming. Given those disparities, California is bound to put up extraordinary numbers.
But the housing situation is critical, and it’s of grave concern in the state’s largest cities as well as in its capitol, where legislators and Gov. Gavin Newsom have spent much of the past year attempting to dissect and respond to the situation. In that effort, UCLA researchers have played an essential role — offering nonpartisan ideas and analysis as they contribute to a debate that is at the center of the state’s politics and, more fundamentally, its sense of history and duty to those who live here.
From the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs to the political science department, from the Labor Center to the UCLA Anderson School of Management, people across this diverse university are engaged in the search for solutions. Professors have offered thoughts on zoning and local control, on the role of government in providing services and supporting affordable housing, and on the role and history of racial discrimination. Professors have studied the rise in rental costs and the growing number of renters who are falling behind; the effects of COVID-related moratoria on evictions; the implications of legalizing so-called granny flats; and the impact of housing policy on broader questions of inequality. Moreover, UCLA professors approach these questions from varied backgrounds and perspectives, viewing them through the prisms of architecture, urban planning, business and public policy, among others.
“Our old solution in California — and especially in Los Angeles — of just moving farther out is no longer viable.” — Dana Cuff, professor of architecture and urban design and planning at the UCLA School of the Arts and Architecture
Paavo Monkkonen M.P.P. ’05, an associate professor of urban planning and public policy at UCLA Luskin, has identified the housing crisis as combining elements of “unaffordability, instability and inability to house.” Dana Cuff, a professor of architecture and urban design and planning at the UCLA School of the Arts and Architecture, searches for ways to overcome local opposition to housing construction. Stuart Gabriel, a distinguished professor of finance who holds the Arden Realty Chair at UCLA Anderson, emphasizes government investment in infrastructure as a key to affordability. Zev Yaroslavsky ’71, M.A. ’72, one of the region’s most successful and recognizable elected officials and the director of UCLA’s Los Angeles Initiative, has cautioned against changes that fundamentally undermine the character of neighborhoods. While these individuals and others do not always agree, their debates both reflect and shape California’s ongoing and urgent search for ways to adequately house every resident of the state.
If the government has a surplus, which it does, and housing costs are alarmingly high, which they are, wouldn’t the most natural solution be for the government to use the surplus to subsidize the cost of housing? There are some who advocate versions of doing just that — but it is more complicated than just spending state money to help more people afford places to live. For one thing, the cost of housing is only in part related to construction. For another, housing prices are so high in some areas today that even substantial subsidies would not bring housing within the reach of middle-class families.
But, says Gabriel, who is director of the Ziman Center for Real Estate at UCLA Anderson, government can alter the contours of growth and development — and therefore price — in other ways.
Investment in freeways and mass transportation, for instance, helps make areas outside major cities accessible and — since land is cheaper in those areas — allows for the construction of more affordable and practical housing. In the Bay Area, early 20th-century investments in the Bay Bridge and the San Mateo Bridge made San Francisco accessible to the East Bay, so homebuyers can live in Oakland or Hayward or Walnut Creek and work in the city or Silicon Valley. The same idea is at work in Southern California in the relationships to downtown Los Angeles of communities such as Palmdale and places like the Inland Empire.
“Coastal California is an area with extraordinarily high land values,” Gabriel says. And since land makes up the largest chunk of the cost of a house, it’s not possible to construct a cheap home on a very valuable piece of land.
That reality subverts many attempts to supply affordable housing in California’s urban, coastal centers, he says. Local governments may succeed in creating a few units here and there, but they barely dent the overall problem in a state that some analysts say needs 2 million more units. Instead, Gabriel says, “low land-cost areas that are adjacent” to those centers may provide better, larger-scale opportunities.
But that, too, has its downsides: Creating housing far away from jobs creates traffic congestion and pollution — a reminder that the problem of housing, while significant, is but one among many.
“Our old solution in California — and especially in Los Angeles — of just moving farther out is no longer viable,” Cuff says. “It’s too far to drive; we have more super-commutes than any other region in the country, meaning people who drive more than 90 minutes each way to work. People have already moved out as far as they’re going to get.”
Density and Zoning
At the core of any conversation about housing in California is the question of what that housing should look like. This is a land long defined by the single-family home. Los Angeles, in particular, was built around the suburb. On television shows — and in real life — single-story residences, often on lots with swimming pools, were emblems of mid-century America.
But that model has been tested as prices for homes like these have soared out of the reach of most working people. Confronted with skyrocketing prices and the realization that growth, in the form of sprawl, contributes to traffic, pollution and climate change, planners increasingly emphasize density. Since land is valuable, the argument goes, packing more housing onto a parcel is an obvious way to reduce the cost of each unit.
In the Los Angeles area, this opportunity is especially appealing. Many homes already include separate structures used as offices or guesthouses. In most cases, those structures are not permitted for full-time occupancy. Seeing that situation, Cuff worked with Assemblyman Richard Bloom (D-Santa Monica) to write a bill making it easier for homeowners to build and permit those structures, turning offices into granny flats. After 10 years of trying, they finally won passage of the bill in 2017.
“You don’t need to destroy communities.” — Zev Yaroslavsky, director of UCLA’s Los Angeles Initiative
That legislation was intended not only to clear the way for additional units — as many as 50,000 in the Los Angeles area — but also to circumvent some of the local opposition to development. By shifting authority from local governments to Sacramento, Bloom’s bill helped override the common occurrence of local interests — often a single homeowner or small group of homeowners — prevailing upon city councils or planning commissions to block new development. That’s helpful in terms of building more housing, but it’s worrisome to some in terms of local communities being able to protect the character of neighborhoods.
Yaroslavsky notes that state efforts to increase density often operate without much regard to local conditions. Why, he asks, should a neighborhood such as Los Angeles’ Angelino Heights community, with historic Victorian homes, have the same density as North Hollywood, already built with apartments and with land to spare? Moreover, while density may bring down housing costs over time, in some areas, it may simply increase the number of high-priced units. The solution, Yaroslavsky suggests, is for the state to set broad goals and enforce them without dictating local land use.
“They ought to require [local governments] to increase the zoning capacity, but let the city decide where that would take place,” he says. “You don’t need to destroy communities.”
As those arguments make clear, the debate over density is also one about control, and Sacramento’s influence is growing at the expense of local authorities. Monkkonen, for instance, has been outspoken in identifying obstacles to overcoming California’s housing shortage. Testifying before the state’s Senate Transportation and Housing Committee in 2017, he highlighted the “role of local opposition” and urged the state to “use many levers to push cities to allow more new housing.”
Last year, the governor signed legislation that does just that. On Sept. 16, 2021, Newsom signed three bills to streamline the permitting of new housing and to give the state authority to insist on greater density. In signing the bills, Newsom called for “political courage from our leaders and communities to do the right thing and build housing for all.”
Perhaps the most dispiriting dimension of California’s housing crisis is its effects on those who are most in need. In a state of unrivaled affluence, tens of thousands of Californians are without a place to sleep each night. Tent encampments have become so commonplace in Los Angeles that they are virtually permanent, and families live in cars for weeks and months on end.
Housing policy is only part of this issue. People who are unhoused are so far from being able to afford even a moderately priced home in a big city that subsidies alone are unlikely to change their situation.
Still, Los Angeles has attempted to address the issue. In 2016, Los Angeles voters approved Proposition HHH, a bond measure intended to raise $1.2 billion to invest in the construction of 10,000 units of supportive housing for the unhoused. In the years since, the measure has produced some results, but the going has been slower and more expensive than proponents had hoped.
As of late 2021, Los Angeles could point to only about 1,000 new units created through the measure. And while advocates had hoped to build new apartments at a cost of about $350,000 per unit, they have cost more than $500,000, according to the mayor’s office. In the meantime, the ranks of the unhoused have grown, and the problem, as anyone can see, has only deepened.
Michael Lens, an associate professor of urban planning and public policy at UCLA Luskin who has helped guide the HHH implementation effort, recognizes that the politics of asking for more are challenging. But the demand, he and others note, remains: “We need more money for permanent supportive housing.”
It’s important, he adds, not to be under any illusions about what that requires: “If we think new housing is important and that housing is only going to people who can pay quite a lot,” he says, “let’s make sure we mandate some of these new units to be set aside for other people.”
The debate over housing in California will not end any time soon. Nor is it likely to resolve into a single solution that all sides agree upon. Instead, it is multifaceted, with local and state interests sometimes at odds or, at the very least, in tension. UCLA’s contributions reflect those tensions, but the university is yielding proposals that help lawmakers see beyond politics and toward ideas that serve the broadest goal: affordable housing for all Californians. The results may not only reshape the lives of many people, but they may also guide California to a clearer sense of its duty to its most disadvantaged residents.
Jim Newton, a senior consultant to UCLA Magazine, is a veteran journalist, teacher and author. He edits Blueprint magazine at UCLA, and his latest book is Man of Tomorrow: The Relentless Life of Jerry Brown.
Read more from UCLA Magazine's April 2022 issue.