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New Beginnings – Columbia

The past month has been a whirlwind, from my departure from the City of Los Angeles, my cross-country roadtrip, to my first week at Columbia University. A lot has changed. I am no longer engaged in building public policy or writing feasibility studies.

Everything has become a blessing after the hardships I endured the last eight months.

There is much truth in the idea that new beginnings allow you to do something new and be someone new or even to feel something new.

I have never worked so hard or felt as assured in my life, from handling grad school coursework to really trying to organize and bond our cohort together. This change really came from the lesson during my time at DCP, especially the last months. The importance of knowing the people you see and work with everyday cannot be understated. Babak, Cally, Nina, Jason, Iris, and Angela you taught me so much during the last few months we spent together. I cannot thank you enough.

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What a ride it was – City of Los Angeles, DCP 2017

Though everyday has been pretty much a 9 AM to 9 PM affair, by personal choice, it has been such an eye-opening experience. First, of course, are the amazing classes. I really forgot how much I loved the sciences. Our professors are also amazing lecturers and teachers. They are all incredibly approachable and engaging, both inside and outside the classroom.

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COLUMBIA SIPA MPA-ESP BABY!

However, the most important thing is my cohort. My classmates are such inspiring people. Everyone comes with such strong experiences in so many different backgrounds and disciplines. Though it has only been a week, it has been a blessing to meet and know every single one of them, not only by name but also to have had at least one conversation with each. I am so thankful that they have responded positively and helped organize the many social events we have had in the last week to bond.

I will keep it short for now cause it’s getting late.

Much love to everyone. Don’t stop striving for greatness.

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Flowers for Algernon – Knowledge and Distrust

Where do I even begin to discuss this book? With everything that has happened over the course of my life, the impact now is more profound than if I read the book any earlier than I did. To put it simply, it is about the journey of a man who undergoes an operation that lifts him from ignorance to knowledge.

The book contains a multitude of themes I have yet to ruminate over, but here I want to discuss the issue of knowledge breeding distrust. As Charlie becomes smarter, he wants to learn more to know more about himself. Through that process he realizes that the people around him all have something to hide; they all have imperfections. He becomes ashamed of himself as well, because of his own past and imperfections. His coworkers at the bakery, though they take care of him, laugh at him because of his lack of mental acuity. The professors who performed his intelligence enhancing operation are not motivated by his well-being but rather their own professional advancement. His mother tries her hardest to make him smarter, yet it is because of her own fears of producing an abnormal child. The moment his sister demonstrates normal intelligence, his mother sends him away.

Yet, that is not to say these people in Charlie’s life are bad and deserve punishment. We all have that capacity for evil, we all have that darkness within each of us. Furthermore, we are all constrained by our own personalities, circumstances, and pressures. This point is worth repeating, as it is representative of the people in our own lives, and it is something I have struggled with.

I struggle with the balance between the need to know, to trust, and to forgive/forget that arises from knowing humanity’s darkness. Perhaps, my own pursuit of knowledge (in the general sense) is much like Charlie Gordon’s: impartial, manipulative, and selfish. Like him, I need to know and I need to know why. Do I really need to? Even when the why is given to me, I question its truth, unable to trust myself and to let go of what I know.

Some things are best left alone, some things are best forgotten, and some things are best forgiven. Yet, I have struggled. I empathize with Charlie’s insecurities driving his need to know and to prove himself, leading to destructive personal relationships after his ascension to intelligence. He ends up being fired from the bakery where he worked for seventeen years. He destroys the relationship with Professor Nemur who developed the technique that led to his intelligence enhancement. He fights with his own selves, past and present, until he realizes his own imperfections.

In a way, knowledge is suffering. How true that statement can ring. The moment you find out about something, you will never unknow it and it often leads to distrust of those around you. The more you know about the dark side of the world, the easier it is to fall into a dark spiral of distrust, especially once your realize your own darkness. The moment Charlie finds out about his coworkers behaviors towards him, he finds himself unable to be friends with them. When he finds out that Nemur is not as smart as he claims to be, Charlie no longer respects him. Thus, this destructive cycle goes on until Charlie finds the emotional maturity and intelligence to empathize, as shown by his love and relationship with Alice Kinnian, who treats him equally from the beginning to the end.

Charlie grows up emotionally and finally tries to balance knowing, trusting, and forgiving because he is no different from any one. He sets out to mend his relationships, to find some semblance of peace before the end.

Charlie Gordon says, “[I]ntelligence and education that hasn’t been tampered by human affection isn’t worth a damn…Intelligence is one of the greatest human gifts. But all too often a search for knowledge drives out the search for love. Intelligence without the ability to give and receive affection leads to mental and moral breakdown, to neurosis, and possibly even psychosis.”

So where are you on your journey?

There is more to be said, but I need to compose my thoughts.

Transit Oriented Communities Affordable Housing Incentive Program

On Friday, September 22, the Transit Oriented Communities Affordable Housing Incentive Program (TOC) – implemented by Measure JJJ last November – became effective.

This has been a project I have worked on for most of this year and it has been very exciting to see it become a reality. With the rising housing costs in Los Angeles, it has been crucial to develop initiatives that spur more residential housing development.

This program can be viewed as a super Density Bonus, which is an ordinance that allows for increased density in exchange for the provision of affordable housing. Affordability is defined as 30% (very low), 50% (low), and 80% (moderate) of the area median income. Though the program is limited to a half-mile radius around Major Transit Stops, as defined by the California State Public Resources Code Section 21064.3, many developers are excited because this new program allows for the possibility of a density increase up to 80% off the base zoning, along with a variety of incentives such as reduction in parking and increase in floor area.

There are four Tiers of TOC areas, based on distance from and type of Major Transit Stop: regular bus, rapid bus, and rail. In addition to drafting the program, I developed the prototype maps earlier this year before leading our department’s GIS Division’s efforts to create the official reference map with the data uploaded to our public zoning information portal, ZIMAS.

Based on my analysis and the program’s provisions, only around 13% of the City’s total land is eligible for this program and only 42% of that land has access to the full range of incentives. This small number is partly the result of the still developing public transit network in the city and partly due to restrictive zoning (a majority of the city’s land is zoned for single-family residences). Hopefully, with a greater population being housed near quality transit through this program, the city can accelerate its efforts in creating more transit options.

In this view, TOC not only will affect the housing market, it will hopefully allow Los Angeles to become more sustainable by increasing demand for better and higher quality public transit.

*The following are my views and mine only. I do not claim to represent the views of the City of Los Angeles Department of City Planning.

As an aside, since TOC is based on Density Bonus, the same supply-side arguments apply. The basic idea is that by increasing the housing supply, the market will adjust accordingly and result in lower housing costs. The required affordable housing is an added bonus to the city’s housing affordability. Though in reality, these initiatives typically increase the property values of the lots affected and there are strong arguments that precisely due to the increased value, supply–side solutions actually lead to higher housing costs. This is a philosophical debate for another time. For now, let’s rejoice in the passing of a policy initiative that is sorely needed in a city with some of the most illogical and restrictive zoning.

Public Policy 101: Understanding Policy

It is important for the public to understand how to understand policy, especially when it is in the process of being deliberated and adopted. As a policymaker, I want to share some of the finer points of policy making, especially into today political climate.
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My views do not represent the City of Los Angeles or the Department of City Planning.

Every year, a large number of policies are deliberated at all levels of government. Some are passed, some are postponed, some are dead upon arrival.

In a democratic government, almost all of these policies are heard in some form or another by the public. However, there are a lot of nuances to understanding them and because the public are not generally versed in understanding policy, there are ways to get policies passed by influencing public sentiment or despite public sentiment.

To make it easier for you to understand policies, especially those you care about, the following are three important things to look for to avoid supporting a policy on misguided assumptions. They are listed in order of complexity:

1. Intent

Policies come with a statement of intent, usually stated in its project description, its summary, or its text. Often, they are accompanied by a report that further explicates the need, the background, and the proposed solutions of the policy. Some policies come with extensive marketing and public communications as well; this is particularly true in ballot initiatives.

Like any good marketing campaigns and public communications, however, what I just described can be misleading if not completely untrue. You see this often in the media or marketing campaigns, where they latch onto the stated intents or singular parts of the policy and promote them without actually explaining how the policy sets out to achieve its stated goals. The true intent of the policy is usually not found the aforementioned documents but rather in the whole of the text – how does the policy propose to achieve what it set out to do?

What you, the public, need to do is to understand how each component work with one another and how the components correlate with the state goals.

For example, if a policy is proposing to encourage development by removing development standards and restrictions, you need to ask what the exceptions are, or in other words what kind of projects do not get the proposed relief from standards and restrictions, and if there is a corresponding tightening of standards in other parts of the policy. If the exceptions affect the majority of the city (or the particular geographic distinction) or there is tightening of standards, then what you have on your hands is not a policy that promotes development, but rather one that restricts it.

2. Definitions

Definitions can be used to shape public perception. Within a policy, there are typically a number of terms and words that need definition. Most of the time, the definitions are details at the beginning or end of the policy. Sometimes, the definitions are within the text linking to existing laws. These definitions are usually key to understanding what the policy is proposing, especially ones linking to existing laws. What you think a term might mean might actually be defined very differently within the policy.

Sometimes, a term is important but not defined. In those instances, it can become problematic and usually you need to rely on a memorandum or a report by the responsible agency.

Other times, a term is defined elsewhere but redefined specifically within the proposed policy. The differences between the definitions then becomes critical.

For example, California has clear definitions of Affordable Housing and the rent to be associated with different income levels. However, the City of Los Angeles has its own rent definitions. This has implications on the types of affordable housing that is being built in the city.

3. Assumptions

This might be stating the obvious, especially if you already read the text to parse out the intent and the definitions of a policy, but it cannot be overstated.

For many, figuring out the intent and the definitions will probably be enough to convince them to support or oppose a policy. For others, it is the understanding of the assumptions of the policy that is important. This usually requires background understanding of the current conditions.

Similar to any decision you make in your life, a policy is created based certain assumptions. One of the biggest problems I see with people’s support or opposition of policies is the lack of understanding of their assumptions. People can hold assumptions that do not align with a policy’s, which can lead to a misunderstanding or a certain perception of a policy. Marketing campaigns for policies tend to take advantage of these assumptions, perceived or otherwise. What you need to understand is what the proposed policy takes into account and what the proposed policy disregards.

For example, a policy may make assumptions that requiring affordable housing necessitates a certain amount of incentives to developers, otherwise it is not economically feasible. Yet, the public might assume that the government is catering to the interests of the developers without understanding that because of certain existing laws, this is the one of the only ways to impose affordability requirements. So instead of picking a battle with the existing law, the public picks a battle with the proposed policy.

 

In today’s climate, it becomes ever more important to be engaged with the public process. There’s a wealth of information out there; some are credible, some are not. It becomes important to learn how to cut through the noise. I hope with this quick guide you will find it easier to engaged in the public discourse and with public policies.

Los Angeles – No to Measure S

Dear Friends in the City of Los Angeles,

For those of you who are residents and are able to vote, there is a ballot measure to take an important stand against in next week’s local elections: Measure S. L.A. Times, Governor Brown, Mayor Garcetti, and many others have came out against this measure, (here, herehere, here, here, herehere, and here) which will basically prohibit development in the City for the next two years and make it extremely difficult in the years after (to be explained below).

For those of you that don’t know, the City of Los Angeles like the rest of California, is in the midst of a housing crisis. With a vacancy rate hovering around 2%, the supply of housing is extremely tight and housing costs are skyrocketing. What most people don’t realize is that at around $56,000, the median wage in Los Angeles is actually not that high, yet average home sale prices have now soared above half a million. That is lunacy. Renters are also suffering, with many paying more than 30% of their paycheck on rent – this is unsustainable for many and detrimental to long-term wealth outcomes of households. Just as policies are starting to come online to provide more housing for the City, Measure S is proposing to shut it down.

I am sure MANY of you feel that housing crunch.

Though numbers do vary, around 54% of the City is zoned residential, of which 40% of the City is zoned single-family residential and another 10 to 15% low-density. Measure S is aiming to protect this majority of sprawl-like, low-density neighborhoods.

In the City of Los Angeles, some of the biggest reasons for that are myriad zoning regulations, inadequate land use zoning (the dominance of single-family and low density zoning), outdated Community Plans, and anti-development movements. Most of our Community Plans are more than 10 years old, hence two of the ways to deal with outdated land use is general plan amendments and zone changes. Measure S will eliminate these tools permanently, essentially killing all development in the City, as a majority of the development will require some kind of zoning relief.

Despite what the absurd amount of mailers supporters of the measure have sent out, most of them are blatant lies. I have seen one that says Measure S will provide housing for homeless veterans. Let me ask you this, how are you going to house the homeless when you stop development?

Friends, I urge you to do the right thing. For you and the future, vote NO against Measure S.

Lastly, in today’s political climate, it is more important than ever to be active political participants. Next week’s election will allow you to choose the next Mayor and Council members. This is your CIVIC DUTY! This is a chance to keep Los Angeles an attractive city and make it more affordable for not just us, who live here now, but future immigrants.

A city is only great because of its diversity and diversity comes from affordability and immigration.

(Image via L.A. Times)