Lindsay Sturman, an English major from the Harvard and Radcliffe class of 1992, discusses her advocacy work in Los Angeles. She moved to Los Angeles after college and returned to New York for film school at Columbia and became a TV writer and has been doing that for around 20 years. She has always been interested in public policy, and she became involved with the Ed Reform movement to improve public schools. Lindsay and a group of 3000 people fought the election for the Democrats. After the 2020 election, she became aware of the housing crisis in Los Angeles. The problem was that the city stopped building housing in the 1990s. The city’s downtown was built in 1987, but it took decades to catch up, making it difficult and expensive to build. People drove further and further out, leading to a massive increase in rents. Rents are now twice as high as the rest of the country’s comparable cities. Lindsay and the group have been working to unpack the issues and find solutions. She talks about what they found in terms of a wide range of issues leading to the housing crisis and best possible solutions to the problems which the group are bringing to city council. Lindsay talks about over regulations and the barriers to building housing. They unpacked the causes of the high cost of construction, which surprisingly leads back to parking. One of the solutions is to allow companies and people to build without parking, which could lead to the construction of three to five-story buildings in under a year or eight months, but this can only be achieved with citizen buy-in, which can be achieved through deep canvassing, where people are trained to listen to NIMBYs and their reasons for building without parking. Other barriers to building include reduction of single family house value, privacy, noise, and visual appeal.
The 15-Minute City Solution
Lindsay explains the 15-Minute City concept, developed by Carlos Moreno, a French Colombian scientist who created the idea that everything people need can be reached in 15 minutes. She refers to lower Manhattan, where 80% of people don’t own a car. The idea is that housing doesn’t need parking, and people can walk or bike to everything they need in 15 minutes. However, there are several hurdles to implementing this solution. One of the main challenges to the adoption of this concept. Lindsay identifies the list of changes that need to be made to green light this movement, including politicians’ control. The idea is to take the power away from politicians and set up a system where city streets are allowed to build according to standard plans. Lindsay explains how the organization is taking practical tactical steps to get reforms passed in LA. They are meeting with city council people one-on-one and attending 99 neighborhood councils. They are networking and telling the story, focusing on pain points. They are also addressing the misinformation that housing can only be built if it is 100% affordable, that developers are evil and greedy, or that there is no housing crisis.
The Livable Communities Initiative
The organization is working on the Livable Communities Initiative, or a 15-minute city, advocates for a few streets in the city to become low-car, bikeable streets with low traffic. They are advocating for a network of these 15-minute communities, which are being implemented all over the world. They are convincing people to use their ideas hand-to-hand, convincing neighbors, skeptics, electeds, and bureaucrats. They are also working with planners to show them the problems in the building codes and make them frictionless. The organization is praying for electeds to join the parade and lead the way in addressing the housing crisis.
The Climate Crisis and Transport Solutions
Lindsay shares what drives her commitment. She talks about people who work with the homeless and how they call them their unhoused neighbors, and it’s heartbreaking to see. She explains that housing and transportation are interconnected, and that often 50% of the area of a city is ripped down for surface parking lots. She also highlights the importance of rethinking the inner core of cities. Her passion for this work stems from understanding the tensions in cities and the impact of transportation on climate emissions. She further explains that 20% of the city’s climate emissions are from transportation, with cars being the primary source of emissions. She cites the debate over bike lanes and the supply chain issues surrounding electric vehicles (EVs). During COVID, she became interested in bikes and was interviewed about her tweets on a podcast called Bike Talk. She interviewed a climate scientist who found that EVs cannot scale in time to reach Paris climate goals, which are modest. She believes that climate is far more alarming than the average person. She believes that we need to address the crisis in 15-minute cities and understand how mobility systems work. She believes that we need to advocate for more forceful and existential solutions to address the crisis. She believes that climate is the top priority and that addressing it with 15-minute cities is a crucial step towards climate crises. Lindsay discusses her conversations with politicians, city officials, planners and developers and the difficulties they encounter in the process of getting building approval. She talks about the solutions for the transit system, mobility, and the importance of building affordable housing units for the homeless. She emphasizes the need for low and moderate income affordable housing as opposed to building luxury housing and hoping the occupancy will trickle down. She suggests that there are three main issues to address: building the deficit, building affordable housing, and inverting the current model. She believes that building affordable housing should be small and affordable. Lindsay also emphasizes the importance of equity in building housing. She believes that a ton of vacancies at all price points is crucial to prevent 70% of unhoused neighbors from falling into homelessness. She also suggests working with nonprofits to build housing, which can be done through church land donations and construction loans.
Influential Harvard Classes and Professors
Lindsay mentions a class called Rock for Jockeys, changing the surface of the earth, and Rob Moss, a professor of VES 10, and the resources available at Harvard.
02:45 How the problem of parking became visible
09:06 The issue of NIMBYs
11:46 The 15-minute city concept
17:24 The problem of windshield blindness and car blindness
22:24 The livable communities initiative
25:20 How housing and transportation are interconnected
31:17 Working with city administrators and bureaucrats
37:22 Luxury housing and the missing middle
42:12 How do you build housing that doesn’t push longtime residents out?
92-73. Lindsay Sturman
Lindsay Sturman, Will Bachman
Will Bachman 00:01
Hello, and welcome to the 90 T report conversations with members of the Harvard and Radcliffe class of 1992. I’m your host, will Bachman and I’m here today with my friend, Lindsey Sturman who many of you may have known as Lindsey Jewett in her at college. Lindsay, welcome to the show.
Lindsay Sturman 00:22
Thank you so much for having me.
Will Bachman 00:23
It is great to reconnect. We both have our coffee. Now, we both poured our coffee here before we started. Lindsay, tell me about your journey since Harvard, and I know we want to focus on some of your advocacy work recently. So lead us lead on where would you like to start?
Lindsay Sturman 00:41
Thank you. Yeah, I moved to Los Angeles at a college and I went back to New York for film school at Columbia. And I became a TV writer. And I’ve been doing that for about 20 years. I love it. And I you when you’re a TV writer, action strike right now, you have a ton of downtime. And I’ve always been interested in public policy. I was an English major, so and did a ton of theater HRDC in the Hasty Pudding. But I I’ve just always had this passion for public policy, good public policy, what does that mean? And I got really involved for about a decade with the ed reform movement, and, you know, how do you, you know, improve public schools. And then recently, I and then I got, like, a lot of people got very activated. In the last, you know, five years, six years, to do a lot of door knocking on the tech spanking, to elect Democrats. And I think a lot of people felt like, you know, that was, it was a real existential threat to the country. And I was part of a civic group of just, you know, it’s like, 3000 of us, and we just door knock, you know, we send postcards. And out of that, after the election, and in, in 2008, after the 2020 election, we sort of looked around and said, Well, what can we do locally, and we have in Los Angeles, just an absolutely heartbreaking housing crisis, it’s, it’s hard to explain, it’s just it’s, um, we stopped building housing in the 1990s. And it was one of those things where just got, it was like a frog in the water, like, we just didn’t notice how it was getting worse and worse and worse, was very hidden. And then a few things happen, that sort of, you know, broke the dam, there’s an ACLU lawsuit that the city could not remove people living in tents on the sidewalks. And so what happened is, this is this invisible problem became very visible. And I sort of woke people up. And, you know, it was it was, people came to really understand the scope of the depth of the problem. And the other problem that happened is that the, we downtown, the city in 1987, and it took about, you know, a few decades to catch up with us. So you couldn’t, they made it very hard and very expensive to build. And people just kept driving that, you know, you drive further and further out. And you’d hear about these mega commutes and the super commutes, people are driving two to three hours each way into LA for jobs, not like a lot of people but the fact that any person was doing that is so upsetting. And then people just you couldn’t drive any further. And so we just had, and then you got just rents exploded, because there’s nowhere left to go. And we now have rents that are twice as high as the rest of the country. And, or I should say, comparable cities. And I think our rents are higher than New York City. And it just doesn’t make any sense because LA was just classically a cheap city to move to. And so we’re in this knot in about 25 of us dove into it, and tried to just unpack it, understand it, take it apart. We literally called up professors at UCLA and did office hours to explain this to me. And we kind of came up with we figured out what the best solutions are and we’re sort of trying to push it through our city council now.
Will Bachman 04:20
Okay, so what are the solutions? I I have seen some anecdotes I you know, I follow Matt Yglesias and his slow boring blog, you know, substack where he talks about you know, housing in California a lot. And you know, you get the sense that a lot of this is due to we can regulate it ourselves to the point where it’s difficult to build anything and so somebody vetoes right in the way but but I’m curious to hear what have you learned what are the what’s the things that we need to do to fix this problem?
Lindsay Sturman 04:53
Yeah, that’s exactly it is that we overregulated it and we overregulated through this complex A web of I’d say, just anxiety. And some of its really legitimate. So the that if you like back into it, it’s a core, you can’t build housing because it’s an economics problem, you lose money. So we’re in this historic housing crisis. And builders and developers literally lose money. And so we unpack that. And luckily, Berkeley does these massive studies on the cost of housing. So we unpacked what is happening here. And believe it or not, it all goes back to parking. And there’s a book out right now paved Paradise by a slate reporter, Henry crowbar, and he’s, it’s getting covered all over, like you said, it’s sort of in the zeitgeist, everyone’s trying to figure this out the Atlantic, Vox, The New York Times LA Times, everyone’s sort of talking about it. And it’s an it’s well understood in academic circles, like they understand it. It’s just, it’s one of those, those. It’s that research and data and public policy ideas. It’s in the academic world, and it just hasn’t made the leap to realize. So it’s parking is so expensive to build. But it’s it’s not that the tipping point. So then it gets confusing, because you’re like, well, it’s not the parking Well, it is the park, it’s a piece of it. The other piece of it is that the reason we have required housing to have parking for decades, is because nobody wants more traffic in their neighborhood, and they don’t want their parking jammed up there. It’s an anxiety point that this book explains it. And people will literally come to these public comment, you know, public meetings, their neighborhood council meetings, city council meetings, and say, I don’t want 400 units on my corner, because where’s everyone going to park? And so you start the sort of catastrophic failure where the builder has to put in a ton of parking? Well, to put in a ton of parking, you actually have to rip up several, you can’t just do one parcel you have to do you have to lat assemble a bunch of parcels, okay, well, that just added 30% of the cost, you have to dig down, I need a big bulky building, now it’s got to go really high to support this underground parking. So you’re just, you’re getting bigger, and, and it’s, you’re getting bigger, you’re getting wider. But what happens is the neighbors are like, Well, you’ve just dealt with the parking issue, but you haven’t dealt with the congestion, I’m still gonna get traffic in my neighborhood. And I’m now I’m going to get a tall building I don’t want. And by the way, nobody cares about the architecture. So it’s an ugly building. But it’s really way too tall for the new president people’s opinions. And they don’t want to they don’t want the congestion. So the electeds try to kind of make a deal with the neighbors and the developers are going to put it out sector parking, but it still doesn’t satisfy anybody. So that’s where we overregulated. So over a decade, sort of, I don’t want to say cynical, but let’s just say it happened. Everything got tied up and not so I think, you know, you could say some electeds agreed to an endless series gears, four to seven years of, of negotiations, delays. And now you’re just into that’s where you get into the catastrophic failure, because you’ve add 20%, to, you know, these developers that they’re not going to negotiate with city, you know, the local neighborhood council themselves, you’ve got a lawyer, and expediter, or consultant, doing all that work, fighting your way through the city, these meetings take forever, it can take months to get on the agenda. And now you’ve got carrying costs, which is another 20%. So that’s Oh, and then by the way, we’ve decided we hated you, because you’re a developer, you’re evil and greedy. And so we throw on a ton of fees and rules that don’t apply to just like building a single family home. So we have tons of single family homes, we have tons of high end real estate mansions. And the minute you just try to take a parcel and turn it into like a little apartment building, we put you through such hell, per device, every builder and developer I talk to you is like, unless you’re a mega developer, they’re like, I don’t even try to build an LI It’s too hard.
Will Bachman 09:06
So that sounds simple to fix. What what are the what are your recommendations? What are you trying to make happen?
Lindsay Sturman 09:14
Well, if you’re gonna, if once you allow people to build without parking, you can build a little building, you know, in under a year, even under eight months, you know, three to five storeys. And so really, the process started with going to NIMBYs right there. It’s the the phrase is not in my backyard NIMBY. And, you know, we try to just not hate on people, like, you know, people have their reasons, and we listen to their reasons. And we were really trained to do this because we’d spent four years door knocking and Phone Banking and, you know, trying to get Republicans to vote for Joe Biden, you you meet people where they are, you don’t shame and scold people, you try to have a conversation. And so we sort of took that on You literally get trained in it. It’s called Deep canvassing or deep organizing. And so we listen to NIMBYs and stakeholders and ask them and people, again, they have their reasons. It’s like, I don’t want a five storey apartment building next to my single family home, because it’s a privacy issue. It’s, you know, there’s noise. It’s a, it’s, you know, it’s not visually pleasing. And my entire nest egg might be in my house, and you’ve just killed my property values. And that’s, that’s my retirement. So people get really afraid, for good reasons. So we tried to just be neutral on judging people for their reasons. And it really just came down to they don’t like to hike. They don’t like ugly architecture, and they don’t like they don’t want traffic and parking. So it’s three reasons. So we solved for the three reasons. Well, what is its three storeys five stories, right? In a five story building, you can it’s called wedding kicking or tearing, you can hedge can cover a five story building next to you believe it or not, because of the plane, the angle of the how you do it. And definitely three stories. So people are like, I can live with three stories to five stories. And then we said, what if there’s no parking, and there’s no traffic, because it’s for people who don’t want to buy a car, they can’t drive a ton of people with disabilities can’t use a car, right, they can use a adaptive bike, or a golf cart, but they can’t drive a car. So you have all these different you have seniors, we we will outlive on average, our ability to drive by seven to 10 years. So people are really forced to move to a retirement community with where you can use a golf cart, or bike around like you can use a three wheel, it sounds so crazy. But it really is. That’s why people move to retirement communities often is because they can’t drive and it becomes this crisis of loneliness. And I don’t know if you’ve picked up on this. But there are a lot of articles right now that the country is having this growing crisis of loneliness, and especially suburban loneliness, senior loneliness. So we solve for all those. And we stumbled onto this concept called the 15 Minute city. And it’s a it’s Paris is doing it comes from a French Colombian scientist. And he came up with this idea, Carlos Moreno. And it’s the idea that everything you need, you can walk or bike to in 15 minutes. And that’s, you know, living in lower Manhattan. So most people don’t, if 80% of people living in Manhattan, don’t own a car, you don’t need a car. So what if we could create communities where people could live without a car, now the housing doesn’t need parking, and you have everything you need. And every now and then you can grab an Uber and a lot of young people, a lot of professionals don’t want a car anymore, they just Uber, it’s almost like, you know, for some people, it’s like having a driver. For some people, it’s just a budget issue, they work from home, they’re a writer, if you’re retired, you know, you don’t need a car. And you know, cars, on average, sit empty 95% of the time, but I work from home, I used to I can I can go weeks without using my car. So it’s you, we created a model that solves for the opposition, and then also solve for the feasibility. So it will be profitable to build. The units are small with no parking, so they’re actually quite cheap to rent, and there’s no opposition.
Will Bachman 13:24
So what does it take to make something like that happen? I imagine that there’s all this whole network of, you know, city regulations that would prevent something like that from being built.
Lindsay Sturman 13:38
Exactly. There are layers of problems. We just kept going upstream and like, Okay, what’s the source of this? And, you know, there’s about 20, things have to change, but it’s not an infinite number. It’s a finite number. So we’re making the list of everything that needs to change, and kind of crossing it out as we go. And he know it core. You know, there’s there’s probably two last hurdles. And one of them, it’s, you know, sadly, it’s the electeds. I think that it’s hard for politicians to let go of control. And right now they have tremendous control every project is, is they get to personally approve project by project. And I don’t want to say this graft. In some cases there are we have actually several city council members either indicted or in prison because of this issue. I mean, this is the issue because it sucks up everybody’s time. And if you’re approving each project, you know, you can also say hey, hire my lawyer, friend, hey, what case bring me a suitcase full of cash. And I think that not even blaming anyone. It’s just a it’s it’s, it’s ripe for corruption. Why would a city council member be able to approve whether you build housing we should have a set of laws that say where you can put housing the way we say where you can put You know, you know, a single family home, we say it’s right here and you can’t put anything else by the way. So part of the idea is to take the power away from the politicians, you know, willingly like they agree to it. Although, in theory, you could just do a ballot measure, but take it away, and, and really set up a system where here are the streets you’re allowed to build. And if you look at beautiful cities all over the world, whether it’s Paris or Brooklyn brownstones, this one height, so you pick a height, you pick a style, and Paris was actually built using something called a standard plan, where you had to build the building at six storeys, if you’ve ever been there seen photos of those yellow buildings that are all the same height. And they have the same set of finishes, they, you know, small variations, it’s called order and variation. And so to really address the architecture, we created a whole part of the plan, which is to say, let’s pick what height you want, it could be three storeys, it could be five storeys in, frankly, if it’s next to another apartment building, it could be six storeys, even eight storeys, and but pick the heights of the block, make it consistent, create that order. And then you can either just go crazy, and the architects can do whatever they want. Or you could pick a vernacular, Santa Barbara, if you’ve ever been there seen pictures, it’s one vernacular, you have to build in this one style. And it’s, it’s sort of white stucco, and then with the Spanish tile roofs, these red tile roof, and it’s beautiful. So that’s part of the idea is like, let’s make la beautiful. And if you can give people standard plans, you can actually make radically lower the costs. But you’re saying, Hey, you don’t have to use this plan. But here’s a, you know, low, low cost, user friendly off the shelf plan. And you can just you can, you know, you have a 24 hour approval for it. And there’s standard plans all over the country. So there’s already a model for this. And, you know, we’ll get you through the system in 90 days, we’re not going to make your life not no more four to seven years. And again, you’re sort of making a cookie cutter, frictionless to build housing. But there’s another huge piece to it. And that’s the other block. So if you can get the politicians to just give up control great. But it’s really hard to get people over the parking. It really is the issue. That is it’s we all know it’s a problem. And we just can’t quite imagine that anyone. It’s hard for people to imagine that other people are not them. We say this to people, I heard this phrase, we just repeat. It’s like you are not everyone you may have for kids with you know, needs play for different sports and for different states on a weekend. That’s not everyone, like other people have lives where like they can’t drive. I have family members who can’t drive like they don’t need parking. They don’t need to drive places because they don’t drive. So it’s getting people it’s called windshield blindness or car blindness is just getting especially Angelenos pass the concept that we need a world that is filled with cars, every street has to be a freeway, I have to cut down every residential street at 50 miles an hour to get where I’m going 30 seconds faster. And I need to be able to park right in front of the store. I go there. It’s unsinkable that I want to walk and I live in one of the few walkable neighborhoods in LA which is called Larchmont. And we all walk everywhere we just walk to get we have a meal shop a pharmacy where we just actually got a grocery store. We’ve had one for decades and one way now it’s back. And I mean, there was like a butcher on the street at a hardware store. And and there’s tons of restaurants so you can get everything you need done on a weekly basis. You know, it’s it actually there’s a dentist. But you know, sometimes you have to go to a doctor across town and you drive you know, you can Uber you can car share, but it’s living a real so hell life.
Will Bachman 19:00
So, what tell me a bit about the kind of very practical tactical steps that you and your colleagues in this organization are taking, is it you know, try to meet with city council people one on one, is it going to city council meetings? How do you actually what’s the tactical aspect of getting these reforms passed?
Lindsay Sturman 19:26
Yeah, that’s exactly it. It’s like, grassroots. We go to every meeting, we’re invited to, we vote it, there’s 99 neighborhood councils, we’re working through them and literally go at seven o’clock on a Tuesday and present. We have a whole team of us that do it. And it’s it’s, you know, it’s it’s just networking, and we talk about telling the story and a lot of us are TV writers, so we’ve really tried to simplify it and hit every, you know, pain point People have a lot of pain points, you know, if you’re hardcore NIMBY, you you’re also been told a ton of lies. There’s a whole narrative of, you know, from the radical, you know, the people really fight housing, and then it gets seeps into just like you and me, like, we might hear it and be like, Oh, we don’t need to build housing, we have a vacancy problem. And it’s called, you know, it’s a, it’s a lie, we don’t we have the second lowest vacancy in the country. It’s not that their apartments sitting empty, because developers are greedy, and there’s some house have some complex system they’re using, everybody’s acting rationally, and you just have to work with people’s rational motivations. And so it’s not a vacancy problem. And then there’s another, you know, it’s a complex series of of sort of misinformation, that we can only build housing, if it’s 100%, affordable. And that’s a wonderful goal, and nonprofits do it, and they do an amazing job. But it’s also a way of saying you can’t build anything where a builder can make a profit will, therefore nobody’s building housing that makes any profit, and we just don’t we have tax dollars for maybe one or 2% of the need, because we’re, we’re 500,000 units in the whole, like, that’s, we have 1.4 million households in LA, like, that’s a huge percent that we’re in the hole. And there’s no way for there’s no path, there’s no, there’s just no feasible way, these, it’s like hundreds of billions of dollars to build this housing. So we have to make it modestly, at least modestly profitable. You know, it can be profitable. And we have to sort of stop, you know, this baked in attitude that developers are evil and greedy. And I kind of joke like, I’m a TV writer, I don’t know why I’m less evil and greedy than a developer. And it’s just, it was, every time a developer would ask for things to be fast tracked, a glossy flyer would go out to the mailboxes of everybody in, you know, that elected officials, you know, catchment area saying, you know, you know, assembly member, Senator, or city council member, blah, blah, is in bed with evil and greedy developers. And that just became this phrase that developers are evil. And then when you say, builders, or contractors, or carpenters people like, oh, well, I love them. I’m like, a builder is a developer. And of course, I learned all this, I didn’t know any of this. And so, you know, we, it’s just changing. It’s getting into the misinformation, the misbeliefs. Trying to tell the story. And, and, and just come with the facts. hat in hand, like, we don’t bully people, we don’t, you know, and we say, this idea of, it’s called the Livable Communities Initiative, or a 15 minute city, this idea, you don’t need to do it. What we’re advocating for is a few streets and in our city can become a street with low cars. It’s bikable. It’s, the cars are slow. Maybe we there’s one pedestrian nice Street in LA called Third Street Promenade. That’s a perfect street, they don’t have cars, and you create a network of these 15 minute communities. And again, they’re doing it all over the world, like it’s not our concept. And nothing I’m pitching to anybody out there is new, which is good, because we know it works. And create a network and just convince people, you know, again, to your question is it’s just hand to hand. It’s like convincing the neighbors, convincing the skeptics convincing the electeds and the bureaucrats. And that’s where we get in there with the planners, actually. And we show them line by line, what’s wrong in the code? And it’s the analogy if you know, anybody who works in tech engineers will every two weeks, they’ll sit down and they’ll look at like, Okay, we have this app, what are the complaints? Where is it crashing, and they go through it just in a very, like, you know, sober, logical way and fix everything. So that’s what we think of it is like we’re, we’re, we’re the systems gummed up we’re combing out the problems to make it frictionless and get the electeds they see it. And they the someone said to me, they’re very excited to jump in front of any parade we start. So we have to start to pray until grab that baton and stand in front of it and lead the way so we’re trying to just start the parade.
Will Bachman 24:32
This sounds like it is take quite the investment of time and energy on your part. Tell us a little bit more about your motivation like what is what is driving you for this this is like a major commitment.
Lindsay Sturman 24:48
It’s honestly if I had any. But we you know, we wanted to just start with with you know, why do we have this crisis and, and a lot of people one of the things we say A is and I learned this is that people in who do the work with our, with the homeless call call the homeless, or unhoused neighbors. And at first I was like, what are you what? And I was like, No, they are our neighbors. It’s, it’s really heartbreaking. And you drive down to Skid Row and it’s just, I don’t have any other words. It’s heartbreaking. And then once we got into it, we understood that housing and transportation are interconnected. And again, it just goes to back to parking. But you could also zoom out and, and look at it as 50% of the area, the of the spaces, you know, the of Kansas City has been ripped down for surface parking lots has been transformed of their, of the city of Tempe. There’s, there’s, there’s a bunch of cities that have 50%, or just surface parking lots. We’ve built freeways through cities. And, you know, this is Robert Moses, the story of building freeways, Manhattan, I’ll just point out, I grew up there, is encircled by freeways. And not to be I’m not anti car at all. I love my car. But we’ve cities have just been sort of overwhelmed by cars. And so it’s once you kind of step back and start thinking about what is the purpose of a freeway through Greenwich Village, which is of course, that was the fight between Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses. It’s there is no purpose for the freeway. And it’s we’ve really, I think that we just once I saw, it was like, I took this red pill and like I saw the matrix and there’s this, if you’re on Twitter, like there’s millions of people the world are saying this, it’s but it’s it’s sort of like rethinking the inner core of cities, to that you don’t need fast cars, racing through cities. And they just don’t make a lot of sense in downtown’s. Of course you have some cars, but rethinking our cities. And this is the real play for a lot of us kind of got very passionate about this work, is we stumbled into the climate aspect. And again, we just started with trying to understand the tense in our city. And then we kind of got to the transportation, and that like, oh, wow, so much of our city is taken up by parking structures, parking lots, freeways, all of our street spaces given over to cars, we have these battles, we recall the city council member over a bike lane, it didn’t work, but the it scared everybody for 15 years, like don’t put in bike lanes, you’re gonna get recalled. And I’m sure if you’ve ever heard these fights over bike lanes, and you know, but nobody ever questions putting a freeway somewhere, or widening a freeway. And we now know by the way that if you widen freeways, you actually just slow the traffic down, it’s called induced demand, we know empirically widen a street, you’ll get more traffic. And actually, if you narrow the street, you you evaporates. So it’s, I feel like it now I see everywhere, articles are everywhere. And I just started to like, a lot of us started to put it together. And then you get to the climate of it. And here’s the data is that 20% of our climate emissions are from transportation. It’s mostly cars. And everybody’s in a single you know, you’re in your own vehicle alone. You know, it’s usually a combustion engine. EVs are tiny percent they’re selling but there’s huge problems in the supply chain to create EVs. And then out of just dumb luck during all of this during COVID, I was tweeting about bikes, I got really into bikes, I take it right before COVID I’d taken a trip to Amsterdam, and Copenhagen. I was like, bikes are so great. And I just didn’t realize where this would lead. And I started. I was tweeting so much about bikes, I got interviewed about my tweets on a podcast, and then I got asked to co host it. And it’s a it’s a little podcast, you’d only be interested if you’re really into bikes called bike talk. And, and from there, I was interviewing a climate scientist and just like the producer said, Hey, I mean, like I’ve not even paid like this is just like a fun Lark. And he’s a we interview this climate scientists, Costa s’mores, and he’s from Carnegie Mellon. And he he wrote a paper about E bikes and turns out what he was writing the paper about was that EVs electric vehicles cannot scale in time to reach any kind of Periscope, which is like our Paris climate goals or like the most are modest goals. EVS can’t scale in time. And I was like, what I like had to go back and like read the report and like what, and this is it, we have to address. I think climate is far more. I’m much more scared, I think, than the average person and it Have you ever saw the TV show? Chernobyl? It’s like, no, it’s like everybody was asleep at the wheel. When you watch this TV show read about it. The the Soviets, they were not. There was no grownups in the room. And I feel like we’re just you know, there are a lot of people very hysterical. But I, I’m feeling very stressed about it. And my kids are really stressed about it. And nobody is addressing this. Evie issue. I mean, people are I’m not, I’m not making it up, people are sounding the alarm of transportation. And because that we’re really cleaning up the grid, you know, wind and solar wind especially is, is it’s more profitable than a coal, opening a coal mine at this point in America. So we’re really addressing pieces of it. But this is kind of uncrackable piece. And I just felt like, you know, here, I’m, you know, like, understanding this, and I just felt like, we’ve got to address it in 15 minutes cities, and I can talk you through the how mobility systems work, we have to we have to, I feel like I want to advocate for more forcefully, like I want to be, you know, to the extent like I can, you know, be part of a solution? It’s I just think it’s a crisis. I think it’s, I mean, I think it’s an accident, existential crisis. So I think that’s where my real passion, climate is, you know, for me, it’s the sort of the top top of the list of things we have to deal with.
Will Bachman 31:27
What’s the conversation like that you have you with the kind of bureaucrats or members of the kind of administration at the Department of Housing or the other city departments, when you when you meet with them to kind of walk through the code at a very detailed level? Do people tend to be, you know, kind of a little bit, you know, antagonistic or wedded to the current system? Or do you find that people are like, super eager to improve things, you know, streamline things so that people, you know, they have more houses can get built? And I’m curious what it’s like, when you’re beyond the elected officials, when you’re working with, you know, city administrators, what the, what those conversations are like,
Lindsay Sturman 32:13
yeah, they, it can be incredibly inspiring. And, and we’re talking to two departments, right? The transportation, so it’s called most cities, it’s a DOD Department of Transportation. So we have la do t, and then you’ve got the planners and building and safety on the other side, for the housing. And so for the, for the planners, to be honest. They’re reluctant. They have been, also, they’ve been so beaten into the ground, because the electeds are always saying to things, in elections, I mean, the politicians, they’re always saying, don’t talk Don’t enrage the NIMBYs. And they come into office saying, you know, I’m going to fight the good fight. And then they they get beaten down. They just, they get just yelled at they. And it’s like, these are city council. It’s a local elected official, like you’re not a senator, you know, and they just get beaten down. And so the message to the planners is we need housing desperately, by the way, don’t poke it, poke any NIMBYs, by the way, by the way, by the way, like, there’s so many, they’re just trying to, like blow up the Death Star, like they, it’s like, one shot, you know, remember, in Star Wars at the end, you have to, like, hit this tiny little, you know, a tiny little hole to blow up the Death Star. And they really just never gave up the parking. So their model of change, and I’m saying really broadly, because we have, you know, hundreds of cities in California and just in Southern California, LA County has, I’m not I can’t remember the exact number. I think it’s over 100. So, Culver City, Beverly Hills, West Hollywood, Santa Monica, they’re their own cities, Burbank, you might have a city of you know, 30,000 people, five members of the city council, sometimes they’re not paid, sometimes they have no staff, by the way. So if they want to write an ordinance, they have to actually do an RFP and pays a consultant. So you’re really into tons of personalities. But the overall, I would say, to a tee, most planners started with a position, you know, they get their signals there, you know, the directives from the electeds. And it’s parking, parking, parking, you absolutely cannot not have parking. And so getting them, they mostly came up with a theory of change. And this is what I would have done too, by the way. And actually, I’ll say it’s where I started. I started I think of it as the stages of grief, coming to terms with barking and like we all start with like vacancies, right and then we’re like just and then you go to tall buildings with a lot of parking and height makes things pencil so the core again, it’s an economic problem. It’s you lose money building housing, well, how do you make money? You luxury, luxury tall buildings, they make money. People hate them. So you’re into like, you know, a fight. And then you need deep pocketed developers. And there’s a great joke that a big housing advocate says that we, we, we hate deep pocketed, you know, highly politically connected developers. But we have a system that you have to have deep pockets and connections to get through. So we’ve, you know, we’ve put ourselves in this conundrum. So the planners are very reluctant, and, but a few of them really see it. And I think that we’ve, again, we just go hand in hand. We hired a planner, we had a little budget, and we hired a planner to do the planning code work. So this he speaks the language. And we come in, we redline it for them, we simplify it for them, we show it to them. We have an architect in our group. It’s actually he’s he’s class of 91, from Harvard, John Claflin. And he, we literally Drew, we took small parcels, he drew a beautiful little building, seven units, 20 units, very small, little, you know, buildings, because people want to build 40 to 100 units minimum to again, break even. And we show the feasibility. And we show it to them, and we show them the standard plans, and we show them other cities, South Bend, Indiana, just came out with a series of standard plans. La has standard plans for adu so we shipped we literally just show it to them, try to bring it to life, did it on the D O T side. That’s interesting, though, because they’re true believers already, like, if you’re working in Department of Transportation, you’re probably a bike person, you’re probably a transit person, like you believe in this stuff. And there’s tons of data, the Dutch of the worldwide experts in transit systems, they have 40 years of data. And I know this because they interview them on my podcast. So I was able to bring all this mobility information, and research and the data. And the thing that I would just say about about transit and bikes is that transit works or tries to say transportation is called mobility. It’s like how we get around, it works in systems. So it’s like, think of it an app on your phone. If it crashes your phone, you’re deleting it, you’re just, if you’re dealing with a bus that’s unreliable, or unsafe, or just really unpleasant, like it’s not air conditioned, you just opt out, because the system doesn’t work.
Will Bachman 37:22
You mentioned luxury housing, and I’m curious to get your read on this, you’ve dove in so much. One might think that let’s say we have one unhoused person, right, and we want to get that person housed. So you might think the obvious thing would be, well, let’s build an affordable housing unit for that person, they can move in directly, right. But it might also work to build a luxury housing unit, and you say, well, that’s not gonna help the homeless person, but, but if you build one luxury housing unit, then you know, your rich person moves into that one, there’s no vacancy, like, slightly less rich person moves into their house, tick, tick, tick all the way down. And then you know, someone moves into the next tear up, and then now there’s a vacancy for the unhoused person. So, you know, sort of game of musical chairs where you’re opening up a chair, by putting on at the expensive end. Is that you know, true? Like it doesn’t work just as well to build high end expensive housing, because that sort of frees up capacity, or is that? What have you found, as you looked into, you know, the best way to actually get affordable units available for people?
Lindsay Sturman 38:36
It’s so interesting that you ask that because there’s actually studies done on that. And we’re not advocating for luxury housing, we’re advocating for something called the missing middle. It’s also low income and moderate income, affordable housing. And I’ll just briefly say that we you’re absolutely right, that we have to build the deficit and the deficits, 500,000 units. And so there’s, I mean, there’s like three issues, and you really touched on all of so you, you, we have we have this deficit, and it’s necessary, but not sufficient to build it. So again, you get into a lot of like, well, that will do that. That’s not the entire problem. You’re like, yeah, you have to do 20 things. So one of the problems is building the deficit. And the there’s, they did the study in Finland, and they looked at 20% of the population. And Finland really tracks it’s such a small country, they know exactly where everyone lives. So they handed over they anonymize the people’s, you know where people live, so you don’t know the names, but they could track people. And what they found is is that people move on average upper decile. It’s exactly what you said like it’s a hassle to move. So you might move in life. You start out with roommates, right? In a tiny little, you know, apartment and then you might move into a one bedroom on your own, or you know, five years later you get a raise and You move into a two bedroom, maybe you know you have a family, and you you move up a ladder, but then, you know, you might downsize. But on average, we go up one decile, just that’s that what the data says. And as I said, follow up, like 20% of the population. So it’s like a huge data set. And so you one of the things we also talk about is that you, we are our price point, a price point of a 600 square foot, two bedroom, which exists, and it can be beautiful, with beautiful design, you know, even 800 900 square foot, by the way, it’s not a 2000 square foot single family home with a backyard and a pool like these are radically different housing units, right, and there’s no parking in LA. So what you’ve done is you’ve automatically lowered the price. But what, what you really wanted to do is have the market build as the most affordable units it possibly can. So we have inverted our model. So instead of requiring parking, which is called parking minimums, and forced developers to, to limit the density of units, because people didn’t want a lot of housing in their neighborhoods, we’ve inverted it. And we think parking maximums and density minimums you have to build a lot of units, because we want them to be small and affordable. And we also see it as very iterative. Let’s see what happens, let’s change the rules. Because we do obviously want to do the most amount of good as quickly as possible. And they do think we could build 200,000, that’s the theory out there is you could build about 200,000 units of housing in a year. So like we can solve this problem in three years if we just hit the gas. But back to what you’re saying. So it is musical chairs. And it’s not just it’s so it hits, we kind of beat up housing from so many different directions. So if you build if you do build luxury housing, it will work its way through the system. But if you build moderate that will work its way through the system a lot faster, and you do something else is really important. And this is from an equity perspective. And we sort of grounded everything from the beginning and equity because it’s it’s our cities, obviously. So America, so on inequitable, and how do you build housing that doesn’t gentrify the neighborhood in a way that, you know, that pushes longtime residents out. So what’s happening right now is because we have such an acute housing prices and rents are twice what they should be middle income households, you know, you could have a lawyer moving into a low income community or community of color, and they raise the rents because they’ll bid up the rents. And they’ll outbid longtime residents. And it starts a domino effect that pushes the residents out of their neighborhoods, into cars, and ultimately into a 10. So one job loss, there’s no safety net. So what you the point you’re making is, is really, it’s what we want is a ton of vacancies at all price points. And the study just came out that the difference between three to $500, who keep a lower rent per month, we keep 70% of our unhoused neighbors from falling into homelessness. I mean, that’s if you can solve 70% of the problem, the government can really have an impact. But right now, it’s it’s it’s we can’t turn the faucet off. And as you said, it’s musical chair. So what you want to do, and you also want to help the nonprofits build housing, and there’s nonprofits, we actually work with a faith developer. And they don’t take government subsidies, they figured it out with church land, so the lands donated, they just get a construction loan, and they do mixed income, or just keep it as affordable as possible. And because they’re a nonprofit, they don’t need to turn a profit. So you have all these amazing mission driven builders who are building, you know, wonderful housing, sometimes for people coming right out of a tent. So, you know, it’s called supportive housing, permanent supportive housing. So what we want to do is hit it from all sides. And I’ll just throw one last thing. And so we have vouchers for every homeless family in LA, and we can’t use them because we have no units. So we let federal vouchers just go unused, because we literally have nowhere to put people. So it’s what you’re saying is absolutely right, is that we can solve not the whole problem. That’s such a huge piece of the problem by just building and, and people don’t believe this, but the data says rents will come down rents fell 15% in LA during COVID. They just dropped because there was no people were moving back home, they’re, you know, moving to other places to you know, get away from, you know, concerns about COVID living in a city and in Oh, they could move somewhere else. So we just saw rents dropped so rents are like the price of gas. Everybody says the price of gas doesn’t come down. We just saw it go up to $6. It came back down to $3. So rents do come down if you just empirically, if you’ll just look at the data, so you could see a massive drop in rents. And now we’ve helped everybody because people are overpaying and that’s it’s can be 60 70% of people’s income is going to rent an ally, which is just, I mean, think about how that would just devastate your your home, but your household budget. So, yes, you’re absolutely right.
Will Bachman 45:21
I still believe in supply and demand curves that we learned at EQ 10. I want to ask you turn the topic to Harvard. Are there any classes or professors that you had at Harvard that continue to resonate with you?
Lindsay Sturman 45:37
Yeah, yes. And I’ll say, I’ll just say that anyone who had Rob moss for vs 10 He’s just, you know, he’s really just stayed with me, but
Will Bachman 45:48
would you choose vs 10? Was that drawing which one was that?
Lindsay Sturman 45:51
Oh, vs. 10 was documentary filmmaking, alright,
Will Bachman 45:54
Lindsay Sturman 45:56
But I’ll give you the the bigger one, which is that I waited to take my science beat Jill, senior spring. And I took I think it was called Rock for jocks, changing surfaces of the earth. And I was I was not a great student at that point, I admit. And I, I skipped maybe a few too many of the lectures, I was cramming for this final exam. And I did it with my roommate. And at the last minute, we’re like, let’s go to the final lecture. And we were sitting there, and I again, like I hadn’t paid enough attention. And at the very end of the lecture, he sums it up. And he goes, and that’s how I came up with the theory of global warming. And everybody clapped, and I was like, Why didn’t I listen to this? This semester of gold information? And, yeah, so it’s that stayed with me and I went back and I read a lot about it. And, and I realized, like, what an incredible what resources you have at a place like Harvard, it really is. You know, it’s, it’s, you really are at the center of this this like, you know, community of of learning, and I do miss it.
Will Bachman 47:10
How can people find you online, if they want to learn more about the organization that you’re a part of and the mission that you’re helping to push forward? Where can people follow up you and find you?
Lindsay Sturman 47:25
Thank you. Yeah, I’m on LinkedIn. Lindsey Sturman and I’m on. I’m on Twitter. It’s Lindsey loves bikes. Lindsey, Jas. And then yeah, and, you know, go to our website, livable communities. initiative.com. And, you know, we have a little newsletter, if you’re interested, and I’d love to talk to anybody because we really just talked to everybody and, and for a lot of people, this is you know, they’re interested in these issues. So, thank you so much.
Will Bachman 47:53
Amazing. Lindsey Jewett sermon. Thank you for joining today. This was a really fun discussion and understanding about affordable housing and what needs to happen to make it happen. And listeners, you can go to 92 report.com and read the full transcript of this episode in every episode of the 92 report. Thanks for listening.