Think Regionally / Statewide / Globally, Act Locally

It’s strange to think about how much one can learn and grow, but how comparatively little one can achieve independently, over the course of several months. As my project drew to a close, I reflected on the massive amount of knowledge and experience I had attained. With this knowledge and experience comes visionary ideas. However, my project also taught me first-hand that real change requires a momentous amount of collective effort to even incrementally move the needle. So, with the time remaining before returning to my old job, I sought to lend my talent and effort to LA-based groups whose priorities align with the conclusions from my project.

California YIMBY is one such group. They are a statewide advocacy organization whose mission is to promote policies that encourage infill housing development. The organization is relatively new, and its first couple years have been largely focused on statewide efforts with the legislature in Sacramento. However, the effort is now growing to include local chapters across California. I am now a member of the LA/Koreatown chapter, and will be taking on responsibility for the group’s social media and communications. The diversity of the YIMBY community is remarkable, as well as the vision that so many bring to the table. They share a commitment to a dense urban future. Densification strategies can help to right past wrongs associated with sprawling, car-centric growth, the legacy of racist Federal Housing Administration red-lining policies, and underutilized transit investment.

Dense infill development as a policy theory, and CA YIMBY as a political organization, certainly have their opponents. However, my project has allowed me to listen to opponents numerous times and fully weigh the merits of their case. In my view, the arguments that YIMBY policies can lead to gentrification have the most merit. This relates to what Jane Jacobs, the pioneering urbanist, called the problem of “cataclysmic money versus gradual money.” Capitalism as an economic system tends to pour cataclysmic amounts of money into certain areas. Just ask anyone in Inglewood about the construction of the most expensive stadium in American history, and all the associated nearby development. This problem has motivated me to study policies designed for investment without displacement, which I will continue to pursue long after the Chang Prize project has ended.

Another group I joined during the final days of my project is the civic volunteer group Hack for LA. Their mission is to collaboratively develop technology products that solve social problems. I was delighted to find out that there is already a group designing an app called “Engage,” which automates the process of civic engagement with local government. I independently devised a similar idea during my project after hearing numerous complaints that the public hearing process for local government meetings was outdated, inefficient, and favors people who have nothing else to do besides complain about change. The Engage app parses city council agendas for the pilot city (Santa Monica) and distributes them to interested users in an easily digestible format. The users can then reply whether they approve, disapprove, or are neutral on agenda items, exactly as they would during public comment at a city council meeting. The hassle of sitting through the meeting, waiting for your item to come up, is eliminated. The app still has several user experience problems left to solve, and I look forward to continuing to contribute to this group after the Chang Prize project ends as well.

Besides engaging with LA-based groups, I traveled to China and the Philippines in August in an attempt to conduct some survey research on immigrant housing preferences. I learned the hard way that being a freelance researcher is nearly impossible. I was demoralized by over fifty unreturned emails and a few well-intentioned but useless responses. The responses I did receive, from authors of former studies looking at immigrant health outcomes, indicated that personal connections with government officials were the key to making their research come to fruition. With the China trade war and no response from Filipino officials, I reached quite a few dead ends.

However, I still managed some positive takeaways from talking to people on the streets of the cities. For example, my taxi driver in Manila had a similar story to the archetypal Central Valley or Inland Empire super-commuter. His family still lived in the provinces of northern Luzon. Some days he made the 2.5 hour drive in and out of Manila, while other days he couch-surfed with a cousin in the city. Conversations like these impressed upon me that California is not alone. We may be the most expensive housing market in the country, but we are far from the worst in the world in terms of sprawl, congestion, and general urban unaffordability. The 21st century will be the urban century. A majority of the world’s population lives in cities for the first time. From Manila to Modesto and Lagos to Los Angeles, it will be imperative for us to share experiences and lessons learned in order to achieve a more affordable, cleaner, faster future for the world’s residents.

My time in China reminded me that our proposed solutions are never panaceas. Many American urbanists would love to see us imitate China’s full-hearted embrace of subway systems as the preferred form of infrastructure investment. However, my experience with the Beijing and its Metro left some things to be desired. Beijing grew through sprawl in much the same way as Los Angeles. Thus, its new metro lines are very far-reaching, which is great for people living in outer ring suburbs whose workplace is on the same transit line that serves their area. However, this means that the lines are also relatively far apart from one another, and the space between stations is large. From a user’s point of view, this can mean that the subways themselves are both a long walk away and incredibly crowded once you get there, which leads to an objectively undesirable user experience. Los Angeles is likely to build a similarly sprawling transit line network over the coming decades. The guiding principle of building housing near transit will thus need to become even more nuanced. Again, learning from other cities around America and the globe will be critical to advancing our future.

Thank you for taking the time to read through my project updates! I’d like to once again thank Caltech and Milton and Rosalind Chang for the opportunity to experience California’s housing crisis first hand. Over the last 9 months, I’ve been able to interact with the people who are suffering from it and the people who are trying to advance remedies for it. It has confirmed for me that housing is the issue where my passions and skillset can intersect. The experiences and connections I’ve gained will be immensely valuable to my career moving forward. Please stay tuned for my full report and my presentation to be given at Caltech in November.

In solidarity,

--Sean McKenna

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