November 26, 2002 - From the November, 2002 issue

Councilwoman Wendy Greuel's Assessment Of L.A.'s Housing Crisis

Earlier this month, the advisory committee on the city's $100 million housing trust fund released its report with recommendations on how the fund should expend its money. TPR is pleased to present this interview with Councilmember Wendy Greuel, who is the Chair of the City Council's Housing and Community Development Committee and a former aide to Henry Cisneros at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Greuel also touches on the Novemebr 5th election results and the need to further examine municipal governance reform in Los Angeles.

Wendy Greuel

Wendy, for almost ten years, the city hasn't had much of a housing policy. We're doing this interview on the day of the release of the HousingTrust Fund Advisory Commission's report on how to disperse this money for Los Angeles. What's the significance of this report? Where to do we go from here with respect to this city housing trust fund?

This is the first time we've had a housing trust fund. That's the first and most important step. Secondly, the drafting of the report has been a collaborative effort, drawing upon the experience of many individuals of disparate backgrounds. I believe homeownership is critical because it increases the quality of life in our neighborhoods. When you're a homeowner, you have a stake in the development of the surrounding neighborhood.

When the trust fund advisory committee was established, I said that we needed to initiate a broader housing policy. This housing trust fund should make some initial recommendations on how to expend the funds, but also look at the bigger picture. We haven't had a review of the city's funding responsibility or how we're competing on a state and national level for funds. That is an important context within which we have to look at the housing trust fund. To that end, we are holding two public hearings within the next month to get input on this report and its recommendations.

The readers of The Planning Report have followed housing issues for a number of years. How do you overcome the skepticism that the housing trust fund is just a headline announcing a housing policy with little substance behind it?

As you know I recently took office as a Council member. The good news for me was that nothing had changed relative to housing since I was in the mayor's office ten years ago. Of course, the bad news for me was that nothing had changed relative to housing since I was in the mayor's office ten years ago. We need to take a top-to-bottom look at our housing department and our competitiveness for funds on the state level to ensure that we're getting the best bang for our buck.

When you see the report, you'll see that there are some substantive recommendations. I also believe now that there is an expectation that we will have a housing trust fund for perpetuity-this is not just a one-time only deal. But, we can't rest on our laurels and say, "We did the housing trust fund report and there is nothing else we need to do." We need to continue to push the Council and the mayor to ensure that changes are made, not only in the housing department, but with regard to other resources as well. The critical issue will be whether or not we are ever going to have a dedicated source of revenue for housing in the city of Los Angeles. There are some good points on both sides of that debate. Those who do not want a source dedicated funding to be a disincentive for development in the city of Los Angeles and those that feel housing is so critical and that we have to be creative and dedicate the funds.

Quality neighborhoods are a composition of housing, jobs, open space, schools, libraries, cultural amenities, and streets where traffic flows and people walk to and from destinations: where place matters. Are we falling into the trap of having funds for schools, housing, transportation, open space, and libraries, but having no place or community context in which to build these resources?

When you talk about the delivery of services, we have different service areas for LAPD, libraries, and recreation and parks. Often times, different entities are bidding against each other, which is causing a financial drain on the public sector. We need better coordination among those entities. I support the mayor's plan to convene neighborhood cabinets of department representatives responsible for coordinating services for neighborhoods. The mayor's plan is an important step toward improving the city's ability to plan and develop complete neighborhoods with a properly balanced offering of public services responsive to the needs of each community.

You're on the Planning and Land Use Management (PLUM) Committee and planning has held a pretty low profile in the city of Los Angeles. In the face of the voter approved bond measures for housing, schools, and open space, what's the future role of planning in the city of Los Angeles?

We do need to have a citywide plan that not only looks at planning and development issues, but also takes into consideration open space, transportation issues, and our schools. We haven't seen that yet. I think Ed Reyes, Hal Bernson, and I have an interest in reforming the Planning Department and looking at ways to justify having greater densities in those areas around transportation centers. We're able to have mixed use, and we're able to go a little bit higher. That will solve a couple of problems. If people live near public transportation, they are less likely to drive their car, which reduces the number of vehicles on the road and helps our environment. There are some creative minds on the City Council who are looking at real urban planning.

Let's refer to the governance of urban planning. Part of the way the city and the state get away with talking about housing or transportation or schools is that they don't face powerful and political neighborhoods that force them to think holistically. Do we have, after the defeat of secession, a governance structure that keeps the top-down discussions from dominating the concerns of neighborhoods about place and livability?

San Fernando Valley voters sent a loud and clear message that they believe the system is broken and the status quo is unacceptable. We have to change the way the city operates. If 50 percent of the Valley said that they want to separate from the city of Los Angeles, there is some credence to that. Clearly, they have difficulty getting answers to their questions, they have difficulty finding out when their street is going to be repaved or their trash is going to be picked up or their sidewalk repaired. As I mentioned earlier, it's about not only the service delivery, but governance.


Of the 116 people who ran for City Council in the Valley, most of them were unknown. There is an excitement in that group of people about making change-about being part of the problem solving-that we haven't seen before in the San Fernando Valley. They are really serious about changing the city of Los Angeles.

How is this energy going to be channeled? What's the framing issue going forward out of November 5th given the pronouncements by some after the election that this issue ought to end and we need to go on with being a great city?

The secession issue may have ended, but not the importance of changing our governance structure. The mayor's 10-point plan is a good step toward better service delivery, but we need to do more. We need to review the progress of the neighborhood councils. How do we beef them up? Should we revisit the adoption of a borough system? I want to work with Economic Alliance and VICA and other groups and individuals in the San Fernando Valley that have a real interest in reform. We should work with them and have a real public dialogue about how to make things better and not just stick our heads in the sand and say, "Secession failed. Hallelujah! On to the next issue."

Let's talk a little bit about inter-government relations. A part of the fast recovery Los Angeles experienced after the earthquake was the Clinton Administration's significant investment of personnel and resources in Los Angeles. Clearly, federal and state funding and attention makes a real difference in how you're able, as the City Council and the mayor, to govern the city. What's the status of inter-governmental relationships between Los Angeles' governmental bodies and federal and state authorities? How does it complement the agenda you would like to pursue?

On the state level, we have a delegation that's very supportive. The problem is we don't have a budget that's going to allow us to have the kind of flexibility or resources that we need here in Los Angeles. The Rose Institute recently came out with a report showing that we had problems with our delegations coordinating with one another. We need seriously to look at that Rose Institute report and find out where the problems are and take a greater leadership role. The city hasn't historically been the best lobbyist for state and federal dollars. Los Angeles has this attitude, "we're L.A., we should get these funds."

Right after the riots, we talked about empowerment zones. Los Angeles thought we should get that empowerment zone and they didn't have to do much work to get it. It's the same issue with respect to the entertainment world. People think just because this is Hollywood, people are going to stay here and have their jobs. That's not the case. So I think we have a lot of work to do there. I think we could get a lot more. As the Rose Institute pinpointed, compared to some of the other major cities, we were not getting as much funding.

The school district, with the passage of the $3.3 billion local bond and the matching funds from the state's $13 billion school bond, is going to be, by far, the biggest developer in Southern California. However, it's reporting authority is not the city, it's the state. How do we effectively collaborate on these investments to address the priorities and concerns identified by your constituents?

First and foremost, we understand that we need more schools. Our classes are overcrowded. But we must use a balanced approach and be careful not to create other problems by just building schools in neighborhoods where you take away housing or economic development. It is incumbent upon us as a city to work with the school district to develop relationships or agreements that ensure that there is some balance. We understand they have an enormous task in trying to build schools, yet we have the same challenges relative to housing and economic development

What do you expect in the relationship between the school district and the city that's different than what it has been?

For a project in my district, I personally contacted the school district and said that we need to work together to balance the need for a school at the expense of housing and commercial. Are there items that you need that we can provide and vice-versa? If we're going to stimulate economic development next to your schools, how can we ensure that there's not going to be problems with that relationship? All levels of government need to understand that these school projects need to yield a net benefit for the neighborhood.


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