Rules in Reality: Understanding the Human Story in California’s Housing Crisis

I have to warn you,” Jonathan Pacheco Bell told the audience gathered in SPUR, “there’s a part of this talk where I get choked up.” Bell was traveling around the country giving his presentation, and it had never once failed to make him emotional.

Bell has been a public sector urban planner in LA County for 12 years, and in his zoning enforcement work he’s seen it all, from garages plastered up and turned into dwellings, to a U-haul trailer converted into a home in a residential driveway. Informal housing exists everywhere in the developed world, and everywhere Bell saw urban planners sitting behind their desks, unaware of the “street reality.” By telling the story of one family he worked with, Bell is trying to put a human face on the issue.

The Medinas were struck by tragedy and crisis in 2007, when the family breadwinner, Pablo, was fatally injured in a bus crash in Mexico. Pulling together their resources and connections in the “informal economy” of their neighborhood, the Medina women built a backyard rental unit to make enough income to scrape by. They operated the unit for 10 years, never charging more than $500 rent and never requiring a lease beyond a handshake. Then Bell received an anonymous complaint.

“How many people did I displace? How many of them ended up homeless?” — Jonathan Pacheco Bell

As Bell worked with the Medinas to evict an uncooperative tenant and demolish the unit, he witnessed firsthand the emotions they experienced: worry, anger, and embarrassment. Though they had built in an unsanctioned zone, without permits, the Medinas stressed it had been a matter of necessity; they weren’t trying to take advantage. Even as Bell left behind a painful void in their backyard, they offered him tamales for the holidays.

“I hid behind a neighbor’s wall and wept,” said Bell, and indeed his emotions resurged as he showed the audience a picture of Janelle, the Medina’s youngest. “How many people did I displace?” Bell had asked himself. “How many of them ended up homeless?” He felt like the world would be a better place if all urban planners could have this kind of experience. But first they would have to get out from behind their desks.

Bell has trouble recruiting more colleagues into the field — most cities use police, not planners, to do zoning enforcement. They say “I didn’t go to school for that,” Bell explained. “It offends me greatly.” In addition to removing the stigma, Bell thinks more planners should be drawn from the communities they will serve, through new bootcamps or academies in lower income areas. Increased outreach (ideally, “a planner on the street for every community”) would lead to more understanding on both sides; many offenders simply don’t know the zoning rules.

Moderator Fay Darmawi (left) and Jonathan Pacheco Bell (right) during the audience Q&A. Photo by Austin Blackwell

Bell hopes these rules will become less black and white over time, as the “human dimension” is better understood and accounted for. The Ghostship tragedy in Oakland drove home the importance of zoning enforcement. But Bell wants to “build a little more gray area into the zoning code,” because there’s a difference between a family trying to survive a crisis and a landlord getting rich off dangerous bunkhouses. The Medinas were fortunate that Bell gave them time and advice; in another district, they might have been prosecuted for a misdemeanor and charged hefty fines. And only some landlords have the agency to put up a fight. An audience member shared her research from Arizona, where cowboys successfully defended their informal units, but Mexicans lost the same battles. She believes there is “a racialized component to how we see informality,” and Bell agreed. He frequently gets anonymous complaints containing racial slurs, but his department doesn’t have a good way of responding to the hate.

A recent relaxation of the zoning rules means the Medinas would now be allowed to build in their backyard — but they would still have to go through the permit process. The fees add up, making the base price for a unit around $160,000, about 10 times what the Medinas paid in 2008. Until California’s housing crisis improves, it seems likely informal housing will continue to grow, and the need for better solutions along with it. And Bell will keep talking about empathy, no matter how choked up he gets.

Bell’s manifesto, “We Cannot Plan From Our Desks,” can be found here. Interested in his presentation? Reach out to him on Twitter.

This event took place on November 14, 2018 at SPUR in San Francisco. For more information about SF Urban Film Fest, visit their website.