Podcast: People Behind the Plans
Planner and City Official Nithya Raman’s Vision to End Homelessness in Los Angeles
One of L.A. City Council’s newest members, Nithya Raman, ran on a platform of addressing homelessness and advancing inclusivity in city government. As a former urban planner and founder of a homelessness nonprofit, she’s working to show her fellow Angelenos how issues like homelessness, traffic, and gentrification all stem from a lack of housing inventory.
“I think we have to be much better at articulating why we need more housing overall, why we need housing at all different levels, but also at the same time advocating for more affordable housing and making it way easier to build affordable housing in the city.” – Nithya Raman, Los Angeles Council Member, Fourth District
After a year and a half in office, Raman shares her vision for reducing homelessness, offers tips for working more effectively with city government, and explains how planners can use their expertise to educate and galvanize communities for positive change.
Courtney Kashima: Learning is a lifelong voyage, and with APA as your tour guide, you'll never get lost at sea. Set sail today with a passport subscription and travel through a world built for planners at planning.org/passport22.
Nithya Raman: I think we have to be much better at articulating why we need more housing overall, why we need housing at all different levels, but also at the same time advocating for more affordable housing and making it way easier to build affordable housing in the city.
CK: Welcome to People Behind the Plans, an American Planning Association podcast. This episode continues our series that takes a look at the work, life, and stories of planners from across the profession.
I'm your host, Courtney Kashima, founder and principal of Muse Community Design. Today we’re diving into the issue of housing with Los Angeles City Council member Nithya Raman, who began her first term in city government in the thick of the pandemic. Raman’s election win has been described as a political earthquake. Her focus on building a city that's inclusive, affordable and sustainable turned out nearly five times more voters than the last general election. She’s also the first Asian woman and first South Asian person to ever sit on the council. Before all that, Raman was an urban planner who started her own nonprofit to help unhoused people in her community. We’ll talk about where her passion for this work comes from, how her experience as a planner influences her work in city government, and how she’s working to solve one of LA’s most pressing challenges. Nithya, welcome to the podcast.
NR: Thank you so much for having me.
CK: So as mentioned, you made waves in 2020 by unseating an incumbent council member. And even though you were a newcomer to city government, you told Curbed that you’ve dealt with the machinery of urban government for so long you have a deep understanding of its restrictions. Can you tell us a little bit about how you gained that experience?
NR: Yeah, I actually started my career in working in urban issues in India. I had been working with people who lived in slums and informal settlements there in two different cities—in Chennai and in Delhi. And in both of those places I was really trying to work with communities that were very vulnerable, very poor, and that were facing eviction in large-scale government projects and helping them to try and build a case that their homes—many of which had been there for a very, very long time—had a right to stay where they were. And not only did they have a right to stay, they also had a right to basic services like running water, toilets and other things that could really improve public health in those areas. And that was really the first time I’d engaged with city government in any substantive way. And it was what led me to study urban planning. I went back to India after I studied urban planning, but it was that engagement with urban government to see that, for me, at the local level, having those conversations with your local elected officials, with the local machinery of planning, to me, that was where a lot of our progress on improving people’s lives materially could happen. And I was really inspired by it, and I think that’s what has driven a lot of the work that I’ve done since then. I worked in India for a few more years. I came back to the U.S., and I worked in L.A. on homelessness both as a volunteer and at city government. But it was that initial impulse to really engage with the city there that led me down that path.
CK: You know, for those of us who have studied and practiced urban planning, we know its roots in public health. And there have been times in the history of the profession where it sort of gets away from that. It seems like it’s come back, I think, in really meaningful and important ways. There's an aspect of homelessness that I think can be directly tied to slashing of funding of mental health services and the literal closing of facilities. Is that another aspect you’re seeing in Los Angeles?
NR: Absolutely. I would say that I think the closing of mental health care facilities, to me, aggravates the impacts of homelessness, because I think, to me, the root cause of homelessness is that we haven’t built enough housing. And so, when I’m looking at the city of Los Angeles and when I’m talking to people who are vulnerable in whatever way, I think 15 years ago, if you experienced an instance of domestic violence, if you fell sick, if you were experiencing a mental illness, 15 years ago, there were enough apartments and the rent was low enough that maybe your landlord would let you get by for a month. Now we’re in this moment in Los Angeles where landlords have a real incentive, if you don’t pay rent for even one month, to kick you out and bring in someone who can bring in a market rate rent, which is often much higher than what most people in Los Angeles are paying because many, many homes are under what’s called the Rent Stabilization Ordinance. And I think when you have such a huge discrepancy between what the market is willing to bear in terms of rents and what a lot of people are paying who are very, very vulnerable, I think you have a very, very dangerous situation. And so, to me, that’s really been the driving factor in homelessness here in Los Angeles is that I think people who may have a range of struggles, not just mental illness, but whatever it may be, they simply are not able to stay in their homes. And then once you lose your home and you have an existing vulnerability, I think that can really get exacerbated by being on the streets.
It is a public health crisis, though, and so I think in your assessment of that, it’s absolutely correct. And I think our housing crisis feeds into public health issues in ways that are under-discussed and under-addressed. And I think COVID really brought those to light in a really powerful and deeply, deeply sad way. Overcrowding in Los Angeles is a major issue. We have single apartments where you have potentially multigenerational families living, where you have six or seven people crowded into a single unit, where you have people living in substandard housing that’s not legal, that doesn’t have some of the water and power connections that you need in order to stay clean and stay hygienic. That’s where you saw COVID spread in the most devastating ways. And I think when you look at the maps of where overcrowding exists in Los Angeles and where COVID really spread, particularly during the worst part of our surge, those maps are exactly aligned. And you saw over and over again that you had incredible disparities in income and in racial disparities in getting COVID. And overcrowding was a huge part of that. So I think, for me, our housing crisis, our homelessness crisis and public health are absolutely, absolutely intertwined, but not always in the ways that people immediately understand them to be.
CK: I think it’s fair to say there’s a trend of advocacy in your work, no matter the position or organization you’ve been with. And the topics range from unhoused to neighbors to women and entertainment. I’d like to hear where your passion for advocacy work comes from.
NR: I think I’m just kind of an energetic person. Yesterday we were touring Sister Corita’s Arts Center. She made all this beautiful kind of pop art. She was a Los Angeles-based artist. Where she lived was in the council district that I now represent. And the way in which she thought about her role and her art and her teaching and advocacy. I felt very drawn to her and her life story. She was very critical of much of what was happening around her. But the way that she spoke about her critiques was in ways that were beautiful, that were joyful in their kind of public presence. She organized this protest march to bring attention to food insecurity, and we saw photographs of that yesterday. It used the language of protest, but it was much more about bringing community together to bring awareness to those issues. It was really about working within the system to transform the system and doing it by creating joy, by creating community. And I think, for me, that has been what I’ve found most inspiring about any piece of work that I’ve done. And here in Los Angeles, before I ran for city council, I started this nonprofit in my neighborhood with a bunch of my neighbors. And of course, the goal of the nonprofit was to serve people who are experiencing homelessness in our neighborhood. But even beyond that, we also built a whole community that saw itself as a community that was serving its own community members. And that was an incredibly powerful thing. And really, it just made me feel so connected to my neighborhood and to my community and transformed the way in which I thought about the city. And I think, for me, that’s the thing that drives me more than anything else, is that ability to make those connections and to bring people together in that way.
CK: You shared such an important reminder, if it’s fair to summarize it this way, that we don’t have to sacrifice joy to seek justice.
NR: No. Yeah, and I think sometimes our efforts to seek justice can be more successful if they can incorporate joy into them.
CK: Definitely. So on our last episode, we spoke with Naomi Dorner, and she spoke with us about the concept of “untokening,” which is an organization she co-founded, and centering the experiences of people of color. As the first South Asian Council member and first Asian woman elected to the council, what perspective are you able to bring that wasn’t there before?
NR: So if you look at Los Angeles history, I think very few of the residents here in L.A.—or a very small percentage of the residents here in Los Angeles—felt like they could call on the city for help. And I think one thing that I bring to the table is I’m an immigrant to America. I moved here when I was six years old. And I know that unless someone invited me in, I would not have felt like I could call on my city for help. As an immigrant, I think you don’t take anything as a right necessarily. You don’t take anything for granted about your new home. And I think that awareness of the fact that you have to go out and invite people into the city, you have to invite them to rely on the city, you have to invite them to be part of the city. That, I think, more than anything else, is the perspective that I bring to this role that is unique to my experience and to my particular approach to being in the city.
CK: So I want to focus a little bit on your time in office. A recent report by Up for Growth ranked the Los Angeles metro area No. 1 for housing underproduction. And you recently shared with the Planning Report that your time in office has revealed how the cost of land and the density of L.A. complicate that issue. Now, you’ve only been in office about a year and a half, so we will all take that into consideration. But do you have a new perspective on the role and capacity of city government on that issue now that you’ve got your feet wet?
NR: Yeah, for sure. I mean, this is like the biggest issue that we’re facing here in Los Angeles right now. Housing production, housing prices, the homelessness crisis, these are all obviously deeply connected. And I think one of the things I’ve realized that is so important for us to address as a city and as an elected official is the issue of trust. So here in L.A., we have decades of distrust between residents and city officials. And to be honest with you, if you look at the history of Los Angeles, that distrust is absolutely warranted.
CK: Yeah, I’ve heard the term earned distrust.
NR: Yeah, it’s exactly right. We’ve earned the distrust of Angelenos, and we’ve earned it over and over again. So when we had, for example, it was about 100 years ago that L.A.’s first zoned plan was put into place. And then basically the minute that that zoned plan was put into place, council members and the private real estate lobby basically got together and started changing zoning to increase the value of properties, right. So they would really be pushing for changes from residential to commercial and that would increase the value of each plot by like 300%. They were changing things so that you could build more, build higher, and that would instantly raise the value of land. And this was at a time when even the L.A. Times was owned by a private real estate magnate. The city and its elected officials and the private real estate sector worked hand in hand for decades, sometimes through legal means and sometimes through illegal means. And we’ve seen that kind of collusion happening throughout L.A. city’s history and even until more recently, in recent years, we’ve seen three different L.A. City Council members indicted by the FBI for exactly this, for corruption, for collusion with private real estate sector, or with mishandling their public powers. And so I think that earned distrust is something that we have to grapple with if we’re going to take on the issue of housing production.
And I think one of the ways in which we need to be doing that is by being much more upfront about: What exactly is the nature of the crisis? What’s the capacity of the city to respond? And why we need to rely on private real estate partners for us to be actually able to move out of this crisis. I mean, if I had the federal dollars to implement a mass public housing construction program, we would be in a very different position, you know? But given what our city budget is and given what our needs are as a city, in order for us to stay a vibrant, thriving city, in order for us to increase affordability, I think we do need a partnership with the private real estate sector in order for us to move forward.
I think that distrust is increased, particularly, when people see a real gap between what they perceive as the needs in the city. So like I think everyone agrees we need more affordable housing. And yet what they see being built, for the most part, looks very expensive. And it often works to increase rents, particularly in rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods, new buildings that are very, very expensive. I think there’s a real fear that if you put a new building there, that it’s going to actually increase rents in the entire community, you know? And so I think we have to be much better at articulating why we need more housing overall, why we need housing at all different levels, but also at the same time advocating for more affordable housing and making it way easier to build affordable housing in the city. Like, I think those two things have to go hand in hand.
And the third piece of it that I think is super important is renter protections. I think we have to go out of our way, we have to bust our butts to make sure that whatever renter protections we have on the table right now and whatever new protections we’re adding are real protections. That means that people know about them. That means that they have access to a lawyer so that they can act on instances where their rights are being violated. That means that we have capacity at the Housing Department to monitor violations by landlords and that we’re actually acting to make sure that tenants are protected from hazardous conditions or from harassment by landlords. Like all of this stuff is so important because I think it’s only through protecting current tenants, by preventing displacement, and by making sure that we’re really supporting them to stay in their homes, that we’re going to build the support and trust we need in order to build more housing, to accommodate more people, in order to accommodate people’s children, their families, all of that stuff.
CK: Definitely. So I am curious, knowing what you know now, would you encourage more planners to run for office?
NR: I would definitely encourage more planners to run for office, absolutely. I think that cities are undergoing really, really big challenges right now. And I think we need more people who can engage with those policy debates and educate people and bring people on board. I think that’s the need of the hour. I will say, though, that we’re in a very tough time overall for local government. I think you have to have a pretty tough skin in order to be doing this work. I have a huge district. I have 260,000 constituents. And many of them are deeply, deeply frustrated by our city’s failures. And they have every right to be. But for me and my staff, I think a lot of our work is really trying to tell people that we share their frustrations and that we will work as hard as we can to solve these problems. But I think it’s a hard moment to be asking for patience from people because they’ve dealt with challenges for a really, really, long time. And so I would encourage people who are thinking about this to go into it with their eyes open. Because I think the challenges that the city level. Are very, very different from running for state assembly or state senate or for congressional office. You are much closer to people. Their needs are much more immediate. And I think in many ways, justifiably, their frustrations are much higher. And I think you have to be willing to deal with that.
CK: Yeah, life definitely feels urgent, and everyone’s been going through probably multiple things over the last couple of years. Bringing it a little closer to home, working moms, my goodness, we’re still not okay. You’re a mother of twins and you have talked about making the council more inclusive for working parents. Do you see some opportunities how to do that, either specifically for the role you’re in or even at a larger scale like schools and cities?
NR: Well, one of the things that is most exciting for me is talking to parents and talking to families in the district. This is not a policy change, per se, but mostly a change in how city council offices traditionally operate. So most city council offices, you wait for complaints to come in. It’s a customer service job.
CK: Kind of reactive.
NR: It’s reactive. I will confess that before I ran for office, I had never reached out to my city councilperson for anything. I reached out to them through the nonprofit in the context of homelessness-related policy, right. But for like me, in my own home, living with my kids, my twins and my husband, I never reached out to my city councilperson for help with any of the issues that I was facing in my neighborhood. And I really want to change that. I want to make sure that parents feel like we’re a resource that they can lean on. I want them to feel comfortable calling us about challenges that they’re facing. I would love for more people in the city to feel engaged with my office and with our work. And I think a big part of that is by changing the ways in which you engage with the city traditionally and making it much easier for people to engage with the city.
So a big part of what we’ve been trying to do since I’ve been elected is really go out to people and meet them at their doors. We have a staff member that is dedicated to outreach in the office, all kinds of different kinds of outreach. So they do outreach to PTAs, they do outreach at doors, and we lead door-knocking operations in various parts of the district as much as we possibly can. And other staff members go with them. I go with them, and we just go out and knock on doors and say, “Hey, I’m from the city. I’m your elected city rep. Here’s a project that we did right in your neighborhood. We’re wondering whether you liked it.” But also, “here’s all the other ways that you can lean on the city.”
And I think every step of the way, trying to make sure that people have the tools they need to get what they need for stability, like, that’s the work that I want to be doing. And, to me, that’s the core of inclusivity. Like, you don’t just set up a service and wait for people to come to you because the people who are going to be coming to you are the people who have the time and the energy and the wherewithal and the knowhow to come to you. They have the map already. So that’s why you gotta go to them and show them the map and invite them in.
CK: I appreciate the reminder of low-tech engagement options, right? Good old door-knocking. There’s nothing like it.
NR: I love door-knocking. It’s my favorite thing to do.
CK: Well, I appreciate your insights on planners running for office. For the planners who don’t ever choose to do that, do you have any tips, tricks, or insights since you’ve been on both sides for planners to work more effectively with elected officials?
NR: Planners probably know this through the course of their work—particularly if they are planners working with the city or if they’re working with developers on big projects—planners know that our current systems are set up so that the people who are most incentivized to come forward are the people who say “No.” And that’s just how it’s set up and that is just how it works. We’ve created a system where that’s how feedback is given for so many of the biggest decisions that the city is making, right? And for the smallest decisions, whether it be a project on the street corner down from you or for a major transit investment. It’s the people who have major challenges with it that end up, I think, taking up the most amount of public comment time, who end up reaching out to their council offices the most, who end up reaching out to their city planners the most. I think the way in which a planner can really contribute to change in a city or to engage with an elected official better is to really start building that understanding of equity, of the connections between planning, land use and equity that we know exist in cities across America, that we know the history of cities have embedded into them.
I think making those connections for people is something that planners can do in their own communities or in their own work more regularly. And I think bringing forward a community that says “Yes,” and activating that community that says “Yes,” and that is supportive of the direction in which we need to move as cities, that is really, really important.
CK: Leaning into that responsibility almost.
NR: Yeah, I think we talk about civic engagement all the time, right? We talk about participatory planning. But what does it mean to be like, “OK, I work for the city” or “I work for a private developer and I’m a planner and I’m in my neighborhood”? Doing participatory planning is like being a member of your community and educating people about why we need to move forward and not backward in our cities. Why things that seem counterintuitive are actually better. So like this is a small example, but sometimes when people talk about what will happen with traffic.
CK: Oh, yeah, right.
NR: Oh, yeah. Here’s a big project. It doesn’t have enough parking spots. What about the traffic impacts? And I’m always like, “Hey, why don’t we look at the population of Los Angeles over the last decade?” We lost population over the last decade, a significant number in L.A. city and in L.A. County. They left for cheaper areas. They left for Nevada, they left for Arizona, they left L.A., and our traffic has gotten worse during that period. And why do you think that is? That’s because people are living in the Inland Empire, but they still have to come to L.A. city for work. And so if we don’t build this building here, they’re still going to work here, and they’re still going to need to get here. And so traffic is getting worse because you’re not building the buildings, not because you’ve built the building, right. And I think those are conversations that planners, we know this, right, because we’ve studied cities. We know how this stuff works. We know what induced demand is. We know how the pushes and pulls of planning and land use matter. We also know in many ways the racism that’s been embedded into our cities, that has led to the way in which cities look today.
And I think for me, what I would want from planners is to be engaged, to go out there and to engage with your neighbors and your community and to tell people like, “Hey, we can do it right, we can do it better. But it's going to take all of us saying ‘Yes’ to positive change, and it’s all going to take all of us saying ‘Yes’ to hard things in order for us to be able to tackle some of the issues that we’re facing right now.”
CK: Absolutely. Well, I want to thank you for your time and your insights. It was wonderful to hear about the transition into elected office. And I wish you the best of luck.
NR: Thank you, Courtney.
CK: Thanks for tuning in to another episode of People Behind the Plans, an APA podcast. Tune in next time as we sit down with Mark Wheeler, a planner and CIO for the city of Philadelphia. We ask him what planners should know about emerging blockchain technologies. For more episodes, subscribe to the APA podcast on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher, SoundCloud or wherever you get your podcasts. If you’re enjoying the show, please rate us on iTunes, and to listen to past episodes. Visit planning.org/podcast. Until next time, thanks for listening.