Blog Michael Lens on Making Urbanism Antiracist

Bridging the Gap Between Academia and the Planning Department

Aug. 4, 2020

As the horrific murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery launched a nationwide reckoning with the depth of structural racism, YIMBYs knew we also had to do our own reckoning. We are part of an urbanist movement with a long legacy of building spaces that have marginalized Black communities and excluded Black voices from our decision-making, even as we have fought against segregationist housing policy. We have so much work to do. So YIMBY Action is conducting a series of conversations called “Making Urbanism Antiracist.” Our hope is that these conversations can help us do the work with intention.

Our third conversation in this series was with Michael Lens, Associate Professor of Urban Planning and Public Policy at UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs. He began his career studying subsidized housing and opportunity, and has since studied a wide array of housing issues, including eviction, homelessness, zoning, and housing supply. Late last year, Michael published (along with his colleagues Michael Manville and Paavo Monkkonen) a cri de coeur titled “It’s Time to End Single-Family Zoning” in the Journal of the American Planning Association, which has advanced the academic argument for the idea of ending apartment bans completely.

Michael spoke about how people who are making new commitments to racial equality need to look carefully at their neighborhoods:

A strong subset of those people are also saying, “What can I do? What can I read? How can I help? This is terrible, I hate this, and I feel sadness about the state of Black America.” You have to take people at their word, and if you’re a city council person in a very segregated place or a place that is 90% single-family housing, or if you’re a parent whose child goes to virtually all White or all White and Asian school, the answer is right in front of you: you need to push for integration of your community by all means.

Watch the video to see Michael discuss:

  • Why a paper like “It’s Time to End Single-Family Zoning” is a bit of a “post-tenure luxury” in an academic setting (7:40)
  • His start in policy as someone interested primarily in poverty, and how that led to an interest in housing (10:00)
  • The ideal of exchanging information between academia and the policy world, and why it doesn’t always work out (14:40)
  • How he modulates his housing message depending on the audience when working with policymakers (17:50)
  • Why the American myth of the level playing field is an important tool to get white folks to recognize inequities in their neighborhoods (29:40)
  • The tensions between YIMBYs and tenants organizations around the best solutions for displacement and what “the easy answer” is (hint: it’s not actually easy) (31:25)
  • The difficulties of modeling high opportunity areas and communities of concern in legislation such as California’s SB50, and how data may not always match our qualitative instincts (37:50)
  • His family background, and how his trajectory from benefiting from section 8 vouchers as a kid to being a professor as an adult reminds him why he does the work (39:30)
  • Why the home ownership gap for the last 70 years is one of the best arguments for reparations (48:50)
  • Whether single-family zoning is inherently racist (50:05)
  • How we can integrate neighborhoods while protecting people of color (55:00)

The discussion with Michael Lens was proudly cohosted by YIMBY Action, YIMBY Law, and Abundant Housing LA.

Thanks so much to Laura Foote of YIMBY Action and Roderick Hall of Abundant Housing LA for conducting the interview. Thanks also to Board Member Sasha Aickin for compiling this blog post recap.

If you enjoyed this talk, please consider attending our next talk in the series, catching up on the entire series, or joining YIMBY Action as a member!

Join us for the next in the series: Dr. Andre Perry, author of Know Your Price: Valuing Black Lives and Property in America’s Black Cities, joins us on Tuesday, August 11th at 5pm PT / 8pm ET. This event is cohosted by YIMBY Action, YIMBY Law, and the East Oakland Black Cultural Zone Collaborative.

Tune in on Tuesday, August 11th