Growing up as the globe-trotting son of an Indian diplomat, Vinit Mukhija witnessed two invasions: the Soviet occupation of Kabul in 1979, and Iraqi troops marching into Kuwait 11 years later. The time the Mukhija family spent living under brutal military occupations helped Vinit appreciate the freedom of a city like Los Angeles, where it’s easy to move around in safety and there is a palpable sense of community.
Today Mukhija, a professor in the Department of Urban Planning at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, is known around the globe for his shrewd insights into what shantytowns and other self-built neighborhoods can teach large metropolises about smart urban planning. And he believes that Los Angeles, with its shortage of affordable housing, can benefit from the pragmatism and ingenuity emanating from these “informal” developments.
You have lived in New Delhi and Mumbai, Hong Kong and Tokyo, London and Austin, Texas. How did exposure to these very different urban environments light the flame of curiosity about how cities work?
Early on, I appreciated the differences between cities like Tokyo or London and living in Afghanistan with Russian soldiers on the streets, people getting kidnapped, taking a risk just going to school. And then Kuwait just shutting down, making it tough to move anywhere under Iraqis’ occupation. I saw how different cities could be, not just in wartime, but in peace, too. How this changes how people treat each other. I wanted to make better cities, where people are better to each other. And this means taking the best of what economically disadvantaged people build for themselves — slums or ghettos or, as in L.A., unpermitted developments within existing homes. Instead of trying to wipe them out, we should be bringing them into the mainstream.
Your early studies explored how to “upgrade” the unplanned neighborhoods of Mumbai, lessons that could also apply to the Brazilian favelas — which shelter 11 million people — and such areas in many other global cities. What can we learn from Mumbai?
Policymakers usually focus on legalizing property rights, or upgrading basic infrastructure, water and transportation, and the two approaches often come into conflict. Mumbai’s informal settlements are too dense to add infrastructure easily, so the city focused on finding areas where slum dwellers were ready to upgrade — if they could redevelop in the same site and not be relocated. Its main positive attribute was seeking residents’ consent. This did not work out in Cabrini-Green in Chicago, where largely Black communities were moved out of 1960s “superblocks” with the city’s promise of a “right to return.” Now, after more than $40 billion of public money, it’s overwhelmingly white.
Many feel betrayed in Chicago. How was trust built in Mumbai to ensure that wouldn’t happen there?
The key was not forcing out the residents, [but] ensuring they would get ownership of these new units. The opportunity to have a private toilet, not share it with others — that was convincing. And in Mumbai’s hot property market, the idea of owning a small flat that could be sold for a decent amount was very attractive. It anchored more people in the community. Affordable housing, or at least aspiring to own your home, is a basic element of successful democracies and inclusive cities.
You suggest that recent Mumbai redevelopments, however patchy, have been driven by urban planners. This is in contrast to Western celebrity architects, who tend to focus on dazzling buildings rather than wider needs.
There is a lot more emphasis on the art of architecture in the United States compared to other parts of the world. Indian architects like Charles Correa, Japanese architects like Fumihiko Maki, and the British architect Richard Rogers think about cities as well as buildings. There is no Frank Gehry book on urbanism. To be fair, American architects have contributed significantly to urban thinking. My tutor in Austin, Texas, Charles Moore [often called the “father of postmodernist architecture,” and who taught at UCLA for 10 years] shared an urban sensibility in terms of involving people. Denise Scott Brown, who launched urban design education at UCLA, writes beautifully about how people live in and design their cities. But overall, contemporary architecture is much more focused on individual properties than on the community.
When L.A. was faced with a massive housing shortage two decades ago, it set in motion the process of legalizing many of L.A.’s informal or illegal housing developments — typically garages turned into so-called granny flats, now known as Additional Dwelling Units, or ADUs. Yet many cities still “slow roll” conversion permits.
It’s about protecting classic single-family residence property values at the expense of the homeless and economically disadvantaged. There are over a half-million single-family houses in the city of Los Angeles, and my research suggests at least 50,000 of them have some kind of ADU, many unpermitted.
They are spread all over the city, in rich and poor areas. But I found enforcement happens more often in more impoverished areas.
Partially because it’s an unequal society. And maybe building conditions are a little worse in less affluent areas, and, yes, perhaps the wealthy do have better lawyers. But the rich worry less about enforcement, invest more in their unpermitted units, and accumulate wealth through this method more easily. Moreover, working-class homeowners cannot get loans and lack family resources to build permitted ADUs. They benefit less from this opportunity to add wealth.
Can you give an example?
Pacoima is a largely Latinx community in the San Fernando Valley. In the 1990s, many workers lost their jobs as manufacturing moved away. Pacoima residents added informal housing to keep their families together and generate income through rent. But unlike the wealthy, they did not have the resources to ensure the best work. Today, it’s still difficult for them to get construction loans. The housing finance industry is still excluding or effectively “redlining” poorer communities, not allowing them to economically flourish. In other countries, the informal activities are brought into the system — but not here. This is socially unjust.
You argue that L.A.’s unpermitted housing makes social and environmental sense and that it could help save the planet. How?
Unpermitted garage and backyard units and carved-out bootleg apartments show how infill development can work in Los Angeles. If you can expand occupancy in existing homes, you don’t have to sprawl so far into the desert. Bans have been lifted, slowly, but that is not enough. We require some system where the government provides property owners with grants and loans to upgrade their informal units to safe levels in return for a guarantee that they will not increase rents on any tenants for several years. Similarly, we need funding for community-based organizations to compete with market-based actors to take advantage of land-use deregulation to build social housing. We cannot expect cities to become inclusive, magically, by themselves.
One can understand the urge to abandon old cities and build again from scratch, although it often takes a calamity like fire or war to prompt that. Do new “planned” cities around the world, from ancient Egypt to modern Nigeria, make lives better? Could we solve all of our urban problems by building a new Los Angeles, maybe in Riverside?
It’s tempting to tear it all down and start again, but these planned cities have had mixed fortunes. Chandigarh in Northern India, built in the 1950s, seems to work for its middle class. But, like Brasília, it’s ringed by factories and shantytowns. Political capitals like Washington take centuries to find their energy and identity. But the more ambitious planned cities — particularly so-called smart, zero-emission developments like The Line in Saudi Arabia — will face unprecedented scrutiny over environmental issues and human rights. Many construction workers will die building them. My impression is that younger people will not accept protecting older ways of building homes and cities, putting property values and developers first. They will want to put people first.
Read more from UCLA Magazine’s Spring 2023 issue.