July 20, 2006 - From the July, 2006 issue

HACLA Reinvents HUD Housing Projects as True Communities

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development relies on local agencies to disburse federal housing funds to aid low-income residents and develop and manage federal housing projects. While ‘the projects' have received their share of scorn in the past, Rudy Montiel, Executive Director of the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles, intends to change that perception. As demand for affordable housing grows in the city of L.A., Montiel and HACLA are determined not merely to house people but instead to build healthy communities, as he describes in this TPR interview.

Rudy Montiel

Mayor Villaraigosa has expressed his desire for elegant density in L.A. in response to projections that Los Angeles will add the equivalent of two Chicagos in the next 20 years. What is the demand for affordable housing and where will it be built given L.A.'s finite supply of developable land for housing?

Given that very little land is available in Los Angeles, it's not difficult to understand that the city will be going more vertical as population increases. With the mayor's leadership, programs will come forth that will attempt to provide more affordable housing options.

Los Angeles is one of the least affordable cities in the nation, yet the population is actually growing, as opposed to, for example, Chicago, where the population is stable or declining. It's a very challenging situation, but we believe that with the mayor's leadership and the participation of many stakeholders that we can begin to make a difference together in this affordable housing crisis.

Elaborate on the scope of HACLA responsibilities? How many housing units, exactly, are you now managing?

HACLA is a housing authority chartered in 1938 under the federal Public Housing Act, and it is tasked with administering HUD housing programs in the city of Los Angeles. That includes public housing-we own and manage over 7,000 units in public housing developments-and we own and manage another 1,000 units in a mixed portfolio, including everything from bond-financed units to some market-rate units. Then we also administer 45,000 vouchers for families. All told, we're serving upwards of 52,000 families.

What approach has HACLA taken to maximize the production of units given present development costs? Is joint and mixed use an option?

HACLA is beginning to evaluate what opportunities are available, and we will explore mixed use and joint use. For example, we're beginning to develop a strategic plan on how to redevelop our public housing citywide.

Given that schools are located very close to some of our communities, we certainly will be looking at opportunities for maximizing the joint use the HACLA land and perhaps devising some creative ways of partnering with LAUSD.

HACLA has been collaborating with city agencies, the mayor's office, Councilmember Huizar, Plaza Community Center, and New Schools Better Neighborhoods regarding joint use development in Boyle Heights, where you've developed new housing units. Is Boyle Heights a priority? What other communities are priorities?

Public housing is located historically on the east and south sides of the city. Although we have developments in Mar Vista, the San Fernando Valley, and Rose Hills, it's primarily focused in Boyle Heights and Watts. This is where we have some opportunities to redevelop our public housing doing one-to-one replacement of public housing units but increasing density to add a lot of affordable housing units and even some market-rate.

In some areas, such as Nickerson Gardens or Imperial Court, which are on the I-105 corridor, we could very efficiently provide workforce housing for people who work at the airport or the ports.

What sort of relationships does HACLA have with private and community-based housing developers?

We administer the largest shelter-plus-care program in the nation. Shelter-plus-care is a program that has helped house approximately 6,000 families over the last ten years, and we provide rental subsidies to nonprofits throughout the city that have developed units. That is targeted specifically at homeless families that these nonprofits have been able to assist. We provide the rental subsidy, which bridges the gap and allows the nonprofit to offer a whole range of services, in addition to the housing.

HACLA gets the majority of its funding from the federal government, and the Bush administration has not emphasized housing. What are HACLA's financing needs as it tries to meet the region's demand for affordable housing?

The demands on our funding create the imperative to make the best use of the taxpayer's dollar. With that, I'm happy to report that over the last year-and-a-half, we've begun a major financial turnaround at HACLA. We've gone from a rather significant loss in 2004 to generating income last year that helped offset some federal budget cuts.


Although this administration's funding priorities are not necessarily on public housing, we have been able to stay ahead of the curve and not have to reduce services or housing opportunities, as some other cities have had to do. We haven't had to close any units or shut down any operations.

I think it is imperative to maximize bond financing and tax credits as we develop more units. We cannot depend on HUD to provide that capital money, because it's simply not in the current appropriations.

The mayor has advocated a $1 billion affordable housing bond to be placed on the November city ballot. What's your assessment of the need for that bond, and how will the bond help HACLA meet it's agenda?

The need is indisputable. This city cannot compete for industries and jobs if we don't have a way to house people. People commuting two hours a day is not a good model for growing the city's industrial base. This bond issue will be a good first step for dramatically increasing housing in the city.

We hope that as the bond is rolled out there will be opportunities to finance some of HACLA's redevelopment deals, or at least provide some bridge financing so we can get our deals done. As I mentioned earlier, our ability to redevelop some of our large housing sites and increase density both at the affordable and market rate levels allows us to add many more units than currently exist in the city.

Ever since the demolition of the Pruitt-Igoe project in St. Louis, the reputation of public housing projects has been rather low in the public's mind. What does a public housing project look like in the 21st century? Is it anything like Pruitt-Igoe?

No. We have some very successful redeveloped public housing sites in our city. Pueblo del Sol is a jewel in Boyle Heights. In the shadow of Downtown's skyscrapers, it has town homes that are on par with anything you'd find in Irvine or Pasadena. And I think the public housing community of the future looks a lot less like public housing and is more of a mixed-income community with families at market rate and low-income families.

And when those low-income families are surrounded by neighbors of this type they will take up work and other opportunities to move up and out and use public housing as a stepping stone and not a destination. I think you'll also see families-not just in public and affordable housing, but in general-realize the American dream of owning their own home. I think the public housing communities of the future have a built-in home ownership component.

Pueblo del Sol, which involved McCormack Baron Salazar, Related, and the Community Design Center, suggests that HACLA is now building healthy communities as well as housing. How complex is it to finance and design place-making projects given the limitations of your funding?

It's very challenging from a financial standpoint, but I believe that, in light of political will and leadership in the city, financial constraints will not prevent us from accomplishing some of these great redevelopment initiatives.

I think you're right-on in saying that we're building communities and places and not just replacing housing. When the redevelopment efforts are completed, you see a dramatic transformation in the families that live there because their surroundings have changed so much for the better that we're encouraging and enabling them to be as successful as possible.

As baby boomers age, the demand for more senior housing grows. And at the other end of the spectrum, there's a huge public initiative for universal preschool that involves many of the communities in which HACLA is working. How do you integrate both of these demographic trends into your housing plans?

Our stock of units to serve the elderly needs to increase. So part of our acquisition philosophy is that we've begun to acquire one-bedroom multifamily units, for example. Regarding universal preschool, we need to partner wherever possible with entities like LAUSD to provide our children with the opportunity to get a leg up, because, of course, education is a key to reducing the need for public assistance.


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