Affordable Housing - ¡Sí Se Puede!

The elderly gentleman stepped briskly out of his senior living community and grinned as the Apple UberZip single passenger vehicle pulled up to the curb. As he slid into the workstation seat configuration, he thought about his 20 minute ride from Rancho Cucamonga to downtown Los Angeles and how he would be able to review his notes about how we solved housing affordability on the heads-up display in the comfort of the ergonomic Aeron chair. “Better than being in my home office,” he mumbled.

The vehicle smoothly pulled out into the flow of traffic and sped off. He still couldn’t get over the fact that he never hit a red light on the way to the freeway. Funny how a smart signal system designed by TRW’s Ballistic Missile Division in San Bernardino (the place where they invented systems engineering) in 1990 had not been implemented until 2023—one satellite controlling all the signals throughout Southern California. Go figure. And not a single accident on the freeways for five years in a row now—get the humans out of the system and let the autonomous vehicles do the work. This was a real treat as Hasan, having recently celebrated his 80th birthday, usually spent his days visiting his chain of Jordanian fast food restaurants.

Twenty short minutes later, Hasan appreciated the lift feature on the vehicle as he was able to step straight out without pulling himself up and walk into the headquarters of SCOOP: the Southern California Office of Progress (formerly known by the unfortunate acronym SCAG). “Same old elevator,” he thought, as he rode to his meeting with the students from USCLA (a merger after the privatization of the California University System).

The room full of international students rose and bowed respectfully to Hasan as the elder statesman walked in. The agenda today:

How did Southern California solve its chronic housing crisis?

Beth Juarez, a student out of Compton, welcomed their guest and introduced the class of inter-disciplinary students. She would be serving as moderator. She indicated that not only were there 100 students in the room but another 300 were linked into the media wall system from around the world. “Finally a system that works,” Hasan thought.

Settling into the chair in the center of the room, he grinned broadly. “Let the questions begin,” he said.

“How did California get itself into such a housing shortage in 2015?” The question was fired from the back of the room.

“Selfishness and bad policies,” he responded quickly.

“So, how were those overcome?”

“Well, human nature is a force you cannot easily change—so we focused on the bad policies. In 2020, we finally cured the addiction to sales tax that had local government over-producing retail stores.”

A hand shot up: “What were retail stores?” Oh yeah ...

“Giving local government a fiscal benefit to produce jobs and housing (a percentage of income tax divided between where people work and live) as opposed to playing the game of sharing sales tax revenue with retailers made a huge difference and ended decades of corporate welfare for retailers. Now the state gets all the sales tax and cities are able to participate in the entire economy, while focusing on jobs and housing.

“Most of the old strip shopping centers were converted into housing, even in the most NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) and BANANA (Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything) communities. I guess some people wanted to live close to their children, or at least their grandchildren.

“We also were able to bring down the walls between agencies, curing the ‘wrong pocket’ problem so that the financial gains of dealing with the social determinants of health and well-being could be shared by all. This was best represented when in 2014, the LA County Department of Public Health piloted the concept of housing the homeless instead of continuing the revolving door in and out of emergency rooms.

“By 2022, other counties had followed suit and the link between housing and health was cemented. All our homeless are now appropriately housed based on their needs and, by the way, the financial savings were huge: more than $34,000 per person in 2015 dollars.

“In 2018, healthcare got into the picture. Led by Kaiser, they began to build multifamily housing into each of their hospitals. Others soon followed, discovering it was the only way they could recruit entry level personnel. These facilities also served long-term patients’ families.

“This corresponded with the end of Jerry Brown’s fourth term as governor (he is now 102 and living in a monastery in Santa Cruz), and his realization that ending redevelopment was one of the biggest mistakes of his tenure.

“Of course it took Mark Pisano’s (who still teaches at USCLA) prediction that the aging of our population would break the bank of local government resources, and the 20th city bankruptcy, to finally get the system changed.

“Corporations soon got into the game, led by The Walt Disney Company. When they began expansion on their third gate, they built housing for their employees into Downtown Disney.

“Of course, the creation of Housing Enterprise Zones in 2019 was a major breakthrough in areas like the Coachella Valley – some regulations just needed to be modified. A housing enterprise zone asks the question: ‘What needs to change so that housing can be built that the market (in this example, service workers and farm workers) can afford?’

“As the most creative region in the world, we finally convened our creative elite and asked the question: ‘How do we design for the future?’ The breakthrough ideas of shared spaces and community living were as much bringing back the old as they were creating something new.

“Food and shelter – those two basic human needs. Glad we brought them together with our urban agriculture and roof top hydroponics, allowing us to provide fresh fruit and vegetables for all school lunches across the state.”

The two hours had flown by as each of the topic areas had generated numerous follow up questions. Beth called out for the last question. A screen lit up from Rancho Camp Pendleton (when the Marines left in 2022 the area had been master-planned, with 3 million people living there now): “Will the High-Speed Train ever come south of Bakersfield?”

“That is a conversation for another day,” Hasan said, as he rose to loud applause.

Author: Steve PonTell 

Steve PonTell is president and chief executive officer of National Community Renaissance (National CORE), one of the nation’s largest nonprofit developers of affordable and senior housing. Before joining CORE, PonTell earned national recognition for his work in community development and designing innovative workplace environments. He also served as California director for the Center for the New West, a think tank founded in 1989. He also has served as CEO of the Inland Empire Economic Council, the Ontario Chamber of Commerce and the Big Bear Chamber of Commerce, and is a former assistant to the city manager for economic development for the City of Big Bear Lake. In 1996, he founded the La Jolla Institute, a California based, non‐profit think‐tank. PonTell also serves on a number of nonprofits’ boards of directors, and has presented at numerous conferences.