August 1, 2001 - From the August, 2001 issue

LAUSD Director Of Housing & Relocation Knows; To Build Schools, Neighborhood Collaboration Is Essential

New development impacts neighborhoods. And despite LAUSD's attempts to minimize it, sometimes there are no alternative sites. However, if you must impact someone, why not relocate them into a better situation and improve their quality of life? TPR was pleased to talk with Mott Smith, newly installed Director of Housing and Relocation and former Editor of TPR re: how the District is dealing with that issue, how he is helping that process evolve and how joint-use may be a product of this new paradigm.


Mott Smith

Mott, TPR has continuously covered the challenges L.A. Unified faces in building new facilities in this dense basin. Please update our readers on where the district stands in meeting the well-discussed challenge of building more than 100 new schools.

We went through a revolution about a year-and-a-half ago where we adopted much more of a "can-do" philosophy, hired new senior staffers and implemented some new approaches to our mission of satisfying the enormous and growing need for new school facilities.

The fruits of that restructuring are evident in the 137 projects-85 new schools-currently underway throughout the District. Nearly all have preferred sites. Many are only months away from completing the state toxic review and the CEQA processes. That translates into an acquisition schedule beginning later this year moving through next summer. Our target is to have most of our new school funding applications into the State by June of next year.

What this restructuring has clarified is that the development process is no longer the biggest challenge. Identifying adequate funding streams today and into the future probably is.

A court decision last year guaranteed state matching grants for all projects meeting the June 2002 deadline. What happens to those that don't make the deadline? Where might possible sources of funding come from?

This is something our high-level administrators are working on right now.

I can't say what strategic courses we will pursue. But I can say that, in general, our money comes from three different sources:

First, there's general fund money. Sometimes it is appropriate to spend GF money on facilities, but when we do, it means diverting it away from programs, teacher salaries and other things that are vital but are not capital assets.

Next there's local bond money. To access more of this, we will have to successfully float a school bond measure on a future ballot.

Finally, there is a hybrid option-certificates of participation-where we incur debt and pay off the interest with general fund money. To pay down the principal would require either more general fund money or some other source of revenue, like a future bond issue.

In talking about school facilities and funding you mentioned Sacramento and the facilities funding allocation system. A recent report from the Legislative Analyst's Office suggests that the school facilities funding process is dysfunctional not merely in relation to L.A., but statewide. It suggested that the Legislature create an ongoing revenue stream for school capital outlay in an attempt to give predictability and control to the districts so that they might be better positioned to deal with the challenges faced by suburban and urban districts re: finding sites and building schools. The Legislature seems uninterested in the LAO's findings. Is state funding a problem?

The biggest problem with the financing issue is that we have to concentrate perhaps more than we should on Sacramento, where the big money decisions are made, than on our own backyard, where we're actually building schools.

The Facilities Division at LAUSD has a specific mission to fulfill L.A.'s growing need for school seats. That's our job. And we measure our success or failure by the number of seats we build. Some have observed, however, that we have been forced by the State's current allocation structure to meet sometimes arbitrary rules which divert our attention from that mission. The more time we have to spend in a process that was not designed for the urban realities of places like L.A., Santa Ana, Oakland or San Francisco, the less time we have to focus on our core mission of constructing additional seats.

That said, there's a real opportunity for retooling the system as the next State school bond takes shape over the coming months.

The LAO Report went on to say that "instead of placing more school bonds on the state ballot and allocating funds on a project-specific basis, we recommend the Legislature develop a new blueprint that offers all school districts the practical capacity to build and modernize school facilities on an ongoing basis." Will such as reform meet with LAUSD's approval?

Los Angeles is adding a population the size of two Chicagos, while other parts of the state are losing residents. Why limit school funding options to a one-size-doesn't-fit-all statewide system when each locality has different needs?

We in California have created a process that can only be likened to someone hitting a piñata-a school bond is passed and all the school districts in the State dive on the pile to scramble for whatever money they can grab before it's gone. This causes the most impacted school districts to focus on fighting for every dollar when all of their attention should be on children and schools.

We're in the business of providing facilities and educational opportunities. Our focus should therefore be the rhythm of the demographics and facility needs in the District. A system that allocates funds on an ongoing, as-needed basis would help alleviate some of this in-fighting and finally direct resources to the schools districts that need it most.

Mott, you obviously have a firm grasp of the challenges that face an urban school district like LAUSD. Because of that knowledge, you've recently been made Director of LAUSD's new Office of Housing and Relocation. Why don't you give our readers a bit of an orientation of what the mission of that office is, and what you see as your priorities going forward?

Building schools isn't a simple real estate endeavor. At the heart of it, school construction is really community building. And the more we've learned about housing, particularly affordable housing, the more important a concern it has become for us at the District. Because of that we have made it a priority to choose school sites that attempt to avoid the demolition of housing. In fact, of those 137 projects, only 35 involve displacement of residential tenants.

To break that figure down into specifics, over the next two years LAUSD expects acquire and displace multifamily buildings with about 950 tenant households as well as 225 single-family homes.

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To meet our dual objective of doing right by the impacted families and doing right by the region with respect to its broad housing needs, we are looking at some very exciting ideas.

Most agencies, when they do relocation, do the minimum required under the law. The District, however, wants to leverage partnerships with housing agencies, developers, finance organizations and tenant groups to help us spend our relocation dollars more wisely, enhancing the benefits to our displacees and freeing up resources, if possible, for replenishment housing development. We've been working very closely with the Housing Authority of the City of L.A., Fannie Mae, the L.A. Housing Dept., the Southern California Association of Nonprofit Housing and other organizations and individuals to explore the opportunities.

Simply put, we're exploring how partnerships can help as many of our displacees as possible-even those with very low incomes-into homeownership or into long-term affordable rental situations. We also intend to provide displacees with tools for financial empowerment to make this difficult experience a potential springboard into advancement.

We hope that crafting successful creative arrangements with our housing partners will free up moneys they can apply towards new affordable housing development.

Another innovative tool in the construction of schools and revitalization of neighborhoods was a project you worked on prior to your new responsibilities with the Office of Housing and Relocation: the Land Bank. Tell us what that was about, what need it fills and what value added it brings to building new facilities.

The number one problem we've had in our school construction program is siting. Available sites are simply hard to come by in urbanized areas like L.A. And, as you know, we have a tremendous near-term need for new schools.

Under the standard District model, it takes about one to two years from the date we identify a preferred site to the date we buy it. During the intervening years-even with a willing seller-any number of things can happen to vastly increase the District's acquisition costs. It could be sold on spec, new development could be entitled, or something could even be built. The practical result is that the public suffers when we can't move nimbly enough.

Out of that need has come the Land Bank-a private corporation owned by LAUSD that can move quickly to make prudent land buys from willing sellers after investment-level due diligence and hold the property until it is appropriate for the District itself to buy it.

So far the land bank has been able to purchase several sites to hold until the District has the ability to go ahead, purchase the land from the land bank and build new facilities.

You spent a lot of time working with New Schools • Better Neighborhoods and have frequently expressed your desire to see more joint-use projects. Are innovations like the Land Bank and the Office of Housing and Relocation going to help forward a joint-use agenda at LAUSD? Are we going to see more projects take advantage of the opportunities joint use projects presents in a dense metropolis?

The number one predictor of whether or not we're going to be able to do joint-use is our prospective partners' ability to know for themselves when a potential partnership would advance their interests. When we've had partners who know their priorities and know what it's worth to see them advanced, we've made some exciting progress.

One example is a deal we're working on a deal with New Economics for Women (NEW) and EXED. NEW is working on developing 120 units of affordable housing as well as an elementary school-which we hope to purchase and lease back as a charter school when it's complete-on a single property NEW owns in Canoga Park. It's a fantastic union of schools and housing. It makes their housing project stronger, it makes our school component stronger and it means that we will have a new school that is completely integrated with its surroundings.

That's one of our few success stories within the City of Los Angeles. But outside the City we're seeing even more hopeful progress on joint-use. The most exciting example is Belvedere Park, in unincorporated East L.A. This project offers us the possibility to build a high school in one of the most densely populated areas of the region, on a three-acre parcel that the County currently owns, and then use our remaining funds to turn a somewhat downtrodden 40-acre County park into a true showpiece for the wider community. We'll impact no housing units at all, and a vital resource will be revitalized. This is the kind of creative partnership we positively must see more of. And it's only possible because the County, led by Supervisor Molina's office, and the District are prepared to do the hard work it takes to break down the barriers to this kind of creative arrangement.

The interesting question is, if you have such positive examples, why is joint-use the exception, not the rule?

We've had a lot of difficulty marrying the programmatic requirements of a school with the legal requirements of parks and open space. Our worst-case scenario is where a school believes that to satisfy programmatic and security requirements it must have exclusive access to a park. At the same time, the parks department believes that any shared use in a public park-exclusive or not-means that park has been lost to the community, in violation of the Parks Preservation Act and the City Charter.

We have to find a middle ground. The District must realize that it can share facilities without controlling every detail and the Parks Dept. must realize that to allow school access actually enhances the quality of the facility and creates a more vibrant neighborhood center.

You've talked about changing paradigms throughout the School District, City governance and the private sector. Tie those ideas together and give us a set of benchmarks we can use to judge your success at LAUSD.

We've convened two working groups of housing leaders in the region: one to look into the business aspects our relocation program keyed into the region's affordable housing development objectives, and the other to identify opportunities available for our displacees to leverage the resources we will make available to them into financial empowerment, homeownership and long-term affordable housing for themselves and their families.

We have an enormous opportunity to help our displacees achieve these and other forms of advancement. And the working groups will help us make sure we have the best program possible. We absolutely owe it to our displacees to respect the disruption they are about to experience to their lives-however badly we know need the new schools.

We're very excited to continue our efforts with these expert working groups how we can best achieve our commitments to provide our displacees with opportunities for home ownership and long-term affordable rental housing, and our commitment to explore partnerships for new housing development in the region. Our success needs to measured by those commitments.

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