The housing crisis in Los Angeles is complex and multi-layered. Exploring the housing development terrain takes patience and effort. A group of students at USC spent close to 40 hours during the 2020 spring semester learning and producing a podcast on policy housing in Los Angeles. Working with the Writing Program under direction of Professors Stephanie Lore Bower and John R. Murray at the USC David and Dana Dornsife College of Letters, Arts, and Sciences, the students interviewed several experts in the field, among them Leonora Camner, Executive Director of Abundant Housing LA and Sean Angst, a PhD candidate researching inclusive housing strategies.
Their podcast highlights some of the alarming numbers behind LA’s housing crisis. For example, Leonora Camner points out that the region would need to produce 2.7 million additional housing units in order to get to 0% overcrowding and 0% rent burden. In addition, the students contextualized the current crisis by addressing pertinent historical trends. Twenty years ago, zoning in Los Angeles would have allowed housing for ten million people. Today, the population of LA County is, ironically, ten million people. Yet the whittling away of density requirements over time has reduced the allowable number of units to only four million. No accommodation was made for the other six million, so it is no wonder that our streets have become filled with unsheltered neighbors.
As part of their study, the students explored power dynamics and politics about who gets access to land and housing. They found that the voices heard at planning hearings (where critical decisions get made) are overwhelmingly white, older homeowners. “They represent a privileged group of private land-owners whose viewpoints get overrepresented,” says Leonora Camner, “even as 60% of the city’s residents are actually renters”.
For the podcast, students identified key groups whose voices are not represented in the halls of power, including people of color, low-income communities, renters, students, and people who have been displaced. Angst explained to the students how the status quo favors those who are well- informed, with time and resources to attend meetings. “It really comes down to outreach, so that other groups become aware of the process and make their voices heard also,” he says.
The podcast describes the complexities found in our housing crisis, given the millions of new units we need for a suitably housed LA, which cannot be built soon enough to meet our immediate needs. However, the students also highlight promising developments, such as the rise of organized YIMBY voices (Yes in My Backyard). And more importantly, as Angst points out, underrepresented people who have historically borne the brunt of displacement are making their voices heard, sharing their experiences and their fears. In support, YIMBY groups are committing to centering the voices of marginalized communities.
This podcast highlights an opportunity to redefine the fight for housing as more than simply putting roofs over our heads. How can we build a community that serves our values? “Home is really a spiritual place where one can go to recharge, reflect on your day, and think about what you want to do tomorrow,” says one interviewee. The students illustrate how this notion of home is not available for many Angelinos. Their podcast on the local housing challenges frame the potential to create a more livable Los Angeles. Listen here.