September 16, 2019 - From the September, 2019 issue

No NIMBY, Former Councilmember Jan Perry Prioritizes Affordable Housing Solutions

Jan Perry, former LA City Councilmember, now a candidate for LA County Board of Supervisors District 2, promises to prioritize economic development and local infrastructure investment, calls for emergency housing solutions to immediately address the County's homelessness cisis, and supports targeted investment in affordable housing to unlock the region's inaccessible housing market. Perry also rejects the thrust of state legislative housing solutions, like SB 50, that would override local zoning authority, allow upzoning of residential neighborhoods by right, and restrict citizen input (SB330) into development proceedings. 


Jan Perry

”If you tear up the very fabric and very basis of a community—single family homes where people have built up equity and created a path to intergenerational wealth—you begin to destroy the community.” —Jan Perry

You’ve announced that you’re intending—after a distinguished career in public life and public office—to run next year for the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. Share with our readers the essential elements of your policy agenda and what you most want to accomplish.

Jan Perry: This is a very interesting district that has enormous economic development potential, and I bring a strong portfolio of economic development achievements. It’s an area that includes Compton, Carson, Culver City, Hawthorne, Inglewood, parts of the Westside, the Mid City area, Koreatown, and even through the southern part of Downtown. It’s an enormous opportunity to bring in net new jobs and build housing that is much more affordable. We’re way behind on production of housing for people starting out with their lives; for millennials who are facing the prospect of not doing as well as their parents; or for a population that is living longer and might need more housing with support services on site. As a supervisor, what is what I intend to focus on. 

You spent a great deal of your attention while on the LA City Council on, among other issues, homelessness. With that issue presently dominating public policy conversations in the county, speak to what you would hope to accomplish on homelessness if elected to the LA County Board of Supervisors.

I had a very different approach. Since I represented Skid Row, I always believed I was at ground zero of homelessness. I was very hands-on and worked for several years with teams of people—not only from the county, but from the city and with public safety—to talk directly to people in the tents and convince them to come out and get services.

There are two ways to address the issue. One way is to keep people out of homelessness through an anti-poverty commitment that makes sure we lift people out of poverty and keeps them from slipping into homelessness. Doing that includes making sure we have enough affordable housing and that people are given the opportunities to improve their financial literacy, work, and avail themselves to the services that community colleges have to offer. They can continue to move in an upwards trajectory with support, so that we can create more pathways into the middle class.

The other side of the equation is the emergency at hand: people who are without any system in place, completely disenfranchised and out on the sidewalks. It’s very important to understand when you see people out in a tent on a sidewalk in an area where they are subjected to violence or contagious diseases, it only adds fuel to their unhealthy mental health situation. I want to focus on that in a very proactive way by setting up emergency housing with medical and psychological services on site. I want to get as many people as possible off the street, out of a tent, and into a safer situation to prepare them to move forward into long-term transitional or permanent supportive housing or back into the mainstream, when possible.

The citizens of both the City and County of Los Angeles have, in the last 18 months, approved ballot measures to finance and address both homelessness and affordability. Is the public funding enough and properly focused? 

You’re talking about HHH from the city side and H from the county side. The city builds the housing, and the county provides the support services. These are long-term solutions, but when you’re in the middle of a crisis, the horizon for a long-term solution becomes much shorter and much more compact. There’s an emergency approach to the issue that is in front of us every single day. The longer you leave people out there living exposed to the elements, the more difficult and complex it becomes to get them to come in for housing and recovery services. I’m proposing a middle ground, if you will—in which we deal with the emergency while housing projects eventually come online. Providing long-term transitional or permanent housing will not happen fast enough to get people off of the street with a great sense of urgency. I’m proposing an interim step between coming off the street and the projects that are being funded by HHH.

With current LA housing prices out of the reach of most working families, and with income inequality burdening many in the supervisory district that you wish to represent, what is/was your position on state housing supply legislation introduced this year to address the housing shortag”?   Are  Sen. Wiener’s SB 50 & Sen Skinner’s SB 330 — which proposed to wrest from local government control over planning and zoning and limit local public input — well-crafted to spur the building of more, and denser, private housing—affordable or not?

People in Sacramento fail to understand that, with a deep well of outreach and engagement, you can create the support to build affordable housing. But I do think there are sensitivities that have to be included in that decision-making process. 

I went through that as a councilperson many times, and yet I was able to complete almost every single project that I started. I spent a lot of time on the front end talking to people in the community, having meetings, and even going door-to-door. I made sure that I had a good operator and that the architecture and design of whatever housing to be built would be a net-sum gain—not a detraction—to the community.

These are some of the things that one has to consider as an elected official here at the local level. Folks coming from Sacramento don’t necessarily have to do that, so they can engage in a more theoretical approach to these things. But in its practical application, if you raise the ire of an entire community, your project is never going to get built. 

As we conduct this interview with you, the California legislature is considering SB 330, a proposal by Sen. Skinner of Berkeley to override local housing approval processes in the name of streamlining housing production.  Do you accept the proposition that the state by limiting the number of local community meetings addressing plans for housing will spur affordable housing supply?

It’s unfortunate that one would legislate by limiting community input when there are so many incredible tools available that would stimulate the production of housing on a statewide basis. From my perspective as an executive director for a small nonprofit that engages in infrastructure and economic development projects, we should be bundling economic development incentives to streamline everything from a state perspective. That way, you not only reform their process for incentivizing people to come in and build housing, but you also do it in a way that mobilizes a very effective economic development strategy that doesn’t take away local control. It’s not about needing to be the alpha dog in the situation, but to get housing built. 

The governor has already set about $750 million for housing in his first budget and allocated about $250 million to regions and local governments to work on these housing solutions. As a supervisor, I would embrace that state money, look at what the county has offered, and then look at the cities within my supervisorial district to see where the bottleneck is. Is it an under-resourced staffing situation in the planning department or is it just a community response because no one has ever dug down deep enough to understand what the community’s wants and needs are? 

As a former councilmember who both worked with LA’s redevelopment agency and was familiar with other resources for building affordable housing, how do you explain the dearth of affordable units built in Downtown LA — the most vibrant housing market in Los Angeles — since you termed out of the City Council?

Actually, there is no logical explanation for that. When we did have the redevelopment agency, we were able to use tax increment financing to subsidize the construction of affordable units. That was a great tool, but, as you know Governor Brown terminated the agency statewide. We also had another tool that was created from the bottom up; the city had its own affordable housing trust fund that developers could go to and compete for money to supplement the cost per unit on their project. When you have public policy that demands more affordable units, you have to close that gap in the financing so that you’ll actually be able to bring your policy to life by creating the financial support for it. There’s no reason in the world why there’s not an affordable housing trust fund post-2013. 

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In addition, subsequent legislation from the state created the enhanced infrastructure financing district (EIFD) mechanism. Even as the former general manager of the Economic Workforce Development Department, I spent an enormous amount of time working to get several EIFDs established in the City of Los Angeles, but it was very difficult. An EIFD is, in some ways, a device to capture net new property tax in an area on a much smaller scale, and it’s certainly an excellent tool. 

I can’t give you an explanation as to why there hasn’t been creation of housing, I termed-out in 2013 and getting housing done was the top priority for me.

In May of this year, South LA community leaders hosted an anti-SB 50 Town Hall at Holman United Methodist Church at which community members and elected officials spoke out in favor of single-family neighborhoods and opposed SB 50 as a statewide, one-size-fits-all upzoning of residential zones near transportation corridors. Do you subscribe to the outrage expressed against SB 50 at that meeting?

I can speak to it as a councilwoman who represented a district that had been tied to Downtown since World War II. South Los Angeles has many single-family residential homes, but in the 60s and 70s, politicians had engaged in spot-zoning. So, there would be a lovely block with California Bungalow-style homes and then all of the sudden, it’s disrupted by a higher density apartment building. When you do that in the middle of the block and not the outer edges or on a transportation corridor, it tends to diminish the character of the community. 

Yes, I was there that night at Holman United Methodist Church, and I too opposed SB 50 and not only because it took away local control. It showed a complete lack of recognition, understanding, and sensitivity to the history, legacy, and reason why communities like South Los Angeles exist. Especially after World War II, the ability to buy a single family home with a yard and maybe more than one bathroom was the achievement that members of my parents’ generation sought, and they wanted to pass it on to their children.

That night you heard a very impassioned speaker talk about people coming back from the war living in boarding houses or in an extra house in the back, which now you might refer to as an accessory dwelling unit (ADU). The community expanded and contracted as people were able to establish themselves and move forward with their families. If you tear up the very fabric and very basis of a community—single family homes where people have built up equity and created a path to intergenerational wealth—you begin to destroy the community. Then, land speculators come in, acquire property, and flip it. I think about Leimert Park Village and all of the lovely, historic single-family homes in that area surrounded by several streets that are devoted to multi-family homes. There’s mature landscaping, lots of history, neighborhood-serving retail, and it’s about to change. So, I think everybody is watching it very cautiously as the Crenshaw Line comes in. 

Research shows that the underlying ownership of residential property in the five largest metropolises of California—Sacramento, San Francisco, San Jose, Los Angeles, and San Diego—is now held by hedge funds like Blackstone rather than families and neighborhood residents. Speak to that underlying change in the ownership of the supervisory district (District 2) you seek to represent? 

It means that the corporations that own the paper to these properties and neighborhoods view them as a portfolio rather than a community. That’s a very significant risk to the future of our communities, particularly in an area like District 2 that is geographically highly desirable because it’s basically a stone’s throw away from Silicon Beach. It’s poised in such a way that these communities are not overbuilt yet, and they’re far enough South that you can get ocean breezes. There are a lot of good opportunities here—but that can be both the upside and the downside—because when a corporation has leverage on the ultimate ownership of the mortgages, it can take the neighborhood up or down.

That’s why it’s so important to support families, community organizations, and providers so that you can keep people in their homes, enable them to pass the house onto the next generation, and teach the next generation what it means to build equity. Particularly, this generation that is facing this challenge of not being able to afford housing now, possibly not ever experiencing the dream of owning a home, and questioning if that dream is even possible anymore. To be able to take your parent’s property and move it forward, while trying to not overleverage it— so you don’t lose it to a bank or hedge fund—would be a goal that I would pursue with great vigor. 

 You’ve been a longtime advocate of supporting and investing in community development and infrastructure—whether it’s transportation, sanitation, water, or parks. Speak to the importance of city and neighborhood infrastructure and what you’d like to accomplish if you were to be elected to the Board of Supervisors. 

I always looked at infrastructure issues, whether it was sidewalks, curbs, gutters, streets, potholes, or street resurfacing. These are the top issues all over South Los Angeles and have been for years. In giving people back their communities—because they work hard to pay their taxes—there has to be a recognition that when you fix infrastructure, not only does it make a community healthier and more sustainable because you have stormwater capture, but when you fix a street, curb, sidewalk, gutter, or tree it helps increase peoples’ property values. It quiets down a community. 

When you repave a street versus patching a street with asphalt—which will eventually come back up—you quiet the street down. When you fix the sidewalk properly as opposed to patching with asphalt—which makes your block look very unattractive—it affects people’s property value. These are the simple ways that your local elected officials can help improve the character and face of a community to the benefit of the people who actually live there. As a supervisor, that’s something that I would be extremely focused on, on top of the regional issues like dealing with water quality. As a councilmember, I was co-author of the Clean Water Bond; Proposition O that passed because it was so specific. What I did was immediately go about the business of putting in a 3-acre wetland, the Augustus F. Hawkins Nature Park at Slauson and Compton, because I was very aware of the standing water issue in that neighborhood and the concern about the industrial activity, the water table, and protecting the aquifers. 

It was so good that I did a second, 10-acre wetland that remediated the soil over on 54thand Avalon. I was very touched as I termed out of office in 2013 that my colleagues at that time chose to name the wetlands portion after me, so it’s called the Jan Perry Wetlands. It is a living, breathing space, not only for nature, but it also remediates the soil. It deals with the ageing infrastructure in the area in a much more immediate way, faster than a new sewer pipeline through the community, to catch runoff while providing recreational space. It’s a space for wildlife to come and for people to enjoy it in the name of a healthier environment. 

Lastly, too few in LA County have spoken on the record lately about impact of growing income inequality on housing affordability; on the changing nature of work; and, on the importance of economic development as the metropolis transitions into the 21st century.  If elected to the LA County Board of Supervisors, how high on your priority list would the latter, most especially, be ranked?

It sits very high on my priority list, because in parts of District 2 people have not been able to keep up with the pace of technology as it is now. Each day that passes, it becomes much more compounded because people are facing other challenges: health care, caring for aging parents, student debt, to name a few. One of those bridges may be technology that can bring education closer to people who need to upskill to compete for jobs while gaining additional knowledge. I see that continuing education as part of an economic development agenda for people to prepare them as our generations shift. 

People are living longer and will need more support. We’re dealing with greater numbers of memory-related challenges for our aging population. A commensurate concern is that that we need to have younger people who are well trained and skilled to be able to serve that population and afford to take care of themselves. Wherever technology fits into that without displacement is the key. We can’t allow technology to displace people; we have to allow technology to help people. That will require continuous attention in many different industries. Whether its goods movement, healthcare, education, or mental health to make sure that people are getting the resources that they need in order to remain competitive and able to move forward. That would be very high on my agenda and incorporated into almost everything that I do.

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© 2019 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.