California undoubtedly has a housing problem.
Rents are soaring, populations of people who are homeless are spiking, and the working class is gasping for air as a lack of affordable housing chokes them out of major cities.
Under the status quo, housing is a commodity – something that can be bought and sold and is subject to market forces. With more people looking to live in Los Angeles, landlords can charge more in rent as long as the amount of housing stays constant. In keeping with this, more units would be built as more people seek to capitalize on the high rents.
Unfortunately, this theory doesn’t always hold water in the face of increased profit.
Affordable housing is a common refrain in the LA area. But the way to solve the lack thereof is not to build more housing that is affordable – it’s to stop thinking of housing in terms of affordability in the first place.
Enter social housing.
Social housing replaces the private landlord, whose main priority is to make a profit, with the city or state, whose only goal would be to provide tenants with homes.
Especially in a town like Westwood, removing the profit motive is crucial. Without landlords seeking to keep rents high or dissuade construction to keep their piece of the pie, the system will work toward putting human beings in homes instead of generating profits. In doing so, the city could provide students and other residents stable housing for their time in a neighborhood with a median rent of $2,530.
Peter Gowan and Ryan Cooper proposed a social housing plan with the People’s Policy Project, in which tenants are charged a rate they are capable of paying for the construction and maintenance of the units, which they called a “solidarity rent.”
A plan like this could change everything for college students who dread the yearly battle royale looking for an apartment – especially for those who can’t afford to live in the area regardless of a good deal.
Cassandra Shand, a second-year political science student and a resident of a University Cooperative Housing Association community, said she doesn’t think social housing would be a desirable option for her.
“Realistically, I think I would be more interested if it was a co-op system, where people were more accountable and everyone has a stake in the community,” Shand said.
But in order to support the larger student community, it might be the only option.
Thirty-six percent of students at colleges in America are housing insecure and 9% of four-year students reported being homeless. These numbers go up to 46% and 12%, respectively, for community college students. At the UC, 5% of the student population is experiencing homelessness.
For these students, social housing would be a game-changer.
As private developers and landlords build more units, they want to get the most money out of their investment as possible. This means they are incentivized to build more high-end and luxury homes as opposed to more affordable units or to even restrict development altogether to keep the price of their units high – something UCLA students often feel the brunt of.
And it seems like politicians are starting to take notice. Herb Wesson, the president of the Los Angeles City Council, introduced a motion to give the city the right of first refusal on Ellis Act evictions. This means the city would have the first crack at buying units if the landlord tries to evict their tenants – increasing the number of units it owns.
“By developing more City-owned housing, we have the ability to keep rent Below-Market-Rate units for much longer than your typical landlord would,” Wesson said in an email statement. “I think the City needs to have a more hands-on approach to our affordable housing crisis and if the City needs to own the buildings to ensure they stay below market-rate, that is what we will have to do.”
It’s true that large construction projects would be rather expensive for the city – but so is the current approach to homelessness.
According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, a chronically homeless person costs taxpayers about $35,578 per year as they may use hospitals, jails and other emergency care facilities. These costs can be greatly reduced when the city simply works to provide these people with homes and the care they need.
As for the issue of political viability, it’s true that it won’t come easy.
Michael Lens, an associate professor of urban planning and public policy at UCLA, believes while public housing would probably work, it would be very difficult to raise the money and the will necessary to get it done.
“It’s just not really likely in this country, politically raising large amounts of subsidy,” Lens said. “As far as would public housing work, I do believe that the answer is yes but we’ve gone in the opposite direction.”
Granted, there are other solutions – but they only address the symptoms of this problem. Rent control can put limits on how much landlords can raise rent, and subsidies can make private development more attractive. Ultimately, though, moving away from a traditional market system would be the best way to end the housing crisis. And though it would surely be a change, public opinion and political viability shift constantly – and students can help that happen by pushing the city to usher in a new era of housing in the greater LA area.
A greatly expanded social housing network will bring about the change that needs to be made – but only if we’re willing to fight for it.
And to support the most vulnerable populations in the current housing crisis, we must.