A rendering of the project proposed for 1112-1122 Pico Boulevard. (Rendering from the staff report)
A rendering of the project proposed for 1112-1122 Pico Boulevard. This project, with 32 units, is the only housing the City Council has approved since January 1, 2014. (Rendering from the staff report)

Santa Monica Next sat down with Dr. Frederick Zimmerman, an economist and a professor of Public Health at UCLA to talk about the impact our local and regional housing crisis has on our day-to-day lives and what can be done to fix it. Zimmerman, a Santa Monica resident, also has a particular interest in how economic structure—including poverty and inequality—influence population health. Below is the first part of a two-part interview. You can read part two here.

Santa Monica Next: You recently wrote an op-ed for Santa Monica Next called “Housing is a Social Justice Issue.” Why is housing is a social justice issue?

Dr. Frederick Zimmerman: When there isn’t enough housing being supplied to the market, then given a constant demand or an increasing demand, then the cost of housing goes up. We see that in Los Angeles [County]. Both homeowners and renters are paying a much higher percentage of their income than people in other parts of the country are.

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Throughout the whole state there is a significant shortage of housing and it’s estimated that it’s especially high in coastal areas. Santa Monica is at the epicenter of this shortage.
[/pullquote]This is an entirely artificial situation. In other words, if we had supplied more housing on the market, rents would not have to be so high. [Housing] is something that is a major budget item — 40 percent or so of people’s budgets in the county — that we have tremendous control over.

The price that people pay for housing is really only part of the equation. That’s money that takes away from things they could be spending it on to improve the quality of life in other ways. For example, it’s money that could be spent on fresh fruits and vegetables… It’s money that could be alternatively on education, which is something that improves life chances. We aren’t just talking about money, but that is an important starting point.

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The other thing that happens is that as housing prices become less affordable, people tend to drive longer. There’s the “drive til you qualify” phenomenon that happens in L.A. That causes urban sprawl, which is of course bad for the environment, but it also makes it so people have much less time for their families. That is also an important component of quality of life. If people don’t have time to spend with their kids, those kids don’t have the same chances they otherwise would.

It all boils down to money and the supply and demand for housing, but it has ripple effects that go far beyond the financial considerations alone.

SMN: When did the housing issue first catch your attention?

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That’s my concern about Santa Monica. Yes, it’s a small piece of the puzzle, but if it doesn’t do its own small piece, then that’s just a piece that will never get done and it will drive up the cost of housing.
[/pullquote]FZ: I teach a class on the determinants of health at UCLA with Dr. Jonathan Fielding, who is the former head of L.A. County Department of Public Health. In the course of teaching that class, what we talk about are what are the main drivers of health in the county.

Two of the things that leapt out at me that I hadn’t anticipated were violent crime, which is one of the main drivers of years of lost life in L.A. County, and the cost of housing, which is one of the main drivers of poverty in L.A. County and other places.

Roughly 40 percent of child poverty is due to the high cost of housing. That’s a lot of poverty… Anything that drives up poverty is going to reduce population health. When I started teaching this class five or six years ago, that’s when it really came home to me that this was a major issue.

SMN: You live in Santa Monica, which is in the midst of updating its zoning ordinance and could revise its general plan to limit housing possibilities on its boulevards. Have you been following this? How does Santa Monica tie into this equation?

FZ: Yes, it definitely ties in. I think you are probably aware of the [Legislative Analyst Office’s] report that came out recently about the shortage of housing in California in general. Throughout the whole state there is a significant shortage of housing and it’s estimated that it’s especially high in coastal areas.

Santa Monica is at the epicenter of this shortage. That isn’t to say that Santa Monica has to solve the problem on it’s own, but on the other hand, if Santa Monica isn’t doing its part, then that’s a part that’s just not going to get done. We can’t expect other areas of the county or the state to fill in the gap.

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We need to really explain to people that if we just stand still, we are going to lose what we love. But if we plan forward intelligently, then we can really retain what was best about the Santa Monica of the past or the L.A. of the past.
[/pullquote]When we refuse to build more housing in Santa Monica, we can’t really expect that additional new housing in Riverside or Lancaster will fill in that gap. That’s just housing that’s not going to happen and that’s going to drive up prices even higher.

If you reduce the housing supply by a relatively small percent, like one or two percent, then the price is going to go up very, very high because that’s one or two percent of people who are looking for housing and willing to pay extremely high prices to have it.

So, even a relatively small decrease in the supply of housing can have a disproportionately large effect on the cost of housing. That’s my concern about Santa Monica. Yes, it’s a small piece of the puzzle, but if it doesn’t do its own small piece, then that’s just a piece that will never get done and it will drive up the cost of housing.

SMN: One of the major obstacles to building new housing is political. Is that an obstacle we can overcome it?

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Refusing to build housing is often a huge cause of traffic. I think we need to understand that more people does not necessarily equal more traffic. More vehicles equal more traffic. More vehicle trips per person equal more traffic. We need to find ways to cut down on those things.
[/pullquote]FZ: I think we have to overcome the political obstacles. I understand people’s reluctance to endorse development if they think it’s going to lead to more traffic. I think we need to get the equation right. I think we need to find ways of building housing that retain the livability of our cities. But, I’m optimistic that we can do that. There is a whole movement of complete streets and livable cities that has very interesting and attractive templates for adding housing in ways that don’t add the traffic and in fact make our cities and urban spaces more friendly and more comfortable and easier to get around.

I do think that’s possible. I think we need to make that message clear. I think we need to articulate the vision in a way that people are going to find attractive.

We need to really explain to people that if we just stand still, we are going to lose what we love. But if we plan forward intelligently, then we can really retain what was best about the Santa Monica of the past or the L.A. of the past.

SMN: You mentioned the “drive till you qualify” phenomenon where people who are priced out will go farther and farther afield to find housing and accept longer commutes. It sounds like not building housing is a major contributor to traffic.

FZ: Refusing to build housing is often a huge cause of traffic. I think we need to understand that more people does not necessarily equal more traffic. More vehicles equal more traffic. More vehicle trips per person equal more traffic. We need to find ways to cut down on those things.

So, in Santa Monica, one of the problems is the imbalance between jobs and housing. When you have somewhere in the neighborhood between 70,000 and 100,000 people leaving the city at the end of the day at the same time, there are tremendous bottlenecks.

The way to solve that problem is to add more housing in Santa Monica. I think that would actually cut down on the traffic, I believe. If there is some other solution, I’d be happy to hear it, but I think just to say we aren’t going to build more housing is just going to exacerbate the problem.

The jobs are there. They’re not going away. If anything, jobs are being added and so, to refuse all new housing only adds to the traffic problem.