Shelter for All: An Interview with Tommy Newman

The Urban Design Forum’s 2018 Forefront Fellowship, Shelter for All, addressed the homelessness crisis in New York City by examining how to dignify the shelter system through better design and exploring the root causes of homelessness and housing precarity. Fellows developed original design and policy proposals on how to address the prison-to-shelter pipeline, public bathrooms, public realm management, supportive housing, and racist housing policies, which we are pleased to publish alongside interviews with leading experts.
The following interview with Tommy Newman, Senior Director of Impact Initiatives at the United Way of Greater Los Angeles, accompanies Supportive Housing in New York City. Read the full set of Shelter for All proposals and interviews here.


Rebecca Sauer: A lot of the time we were doing this project, I was saying to my team, “Everyone In, they’re doing such amazing stuff!” So, we thought it would be perfect to hear from you! Tell us, how did you get involved with working on homelessness?

Tommy Newman: When I was working in LA City Hall, I was constantly getting calls about homelessness. The de facto response would be to call the LAPD, who would just tell people to move along, because 75% of the people experiencing homelessness in LA are unsheltered. I thought, “This is stupid. Why am I calling the LAPD?” I ultimately raised $25,000 to start one community’s first-ever outreach and engagement team.

In this process, I got to understand the gaps in the system and the lack of system. LA has always had strong nonprofit service providers, about 65 of them, but nobody was coordinating their work together, so each was its own little fiefdom with its own set of rules.

Later, I was looking for a job, so I called up LA Family Housing and convinced the CEO to hire me as her public affairs person. And lo and behold, around 2016, we’re in the early stages of talking about a $1.2 billion bond measure to fund supportive housing in the City of LA. That passed, and everybody was excited. It was the first time ever that we had a local revenue source to build affordable housing.

That’s awesome, but now we need to do the other parts of the system: outreach, short-term housing subsidies, interim housing, all of that. So, the County of Los Angeles says they’re going to put a quarter-cent sales tax on the March 2017 ballot to fund all the onsite services for supportive housing that HHH is going to build. Once the measure passed, we thought, “Oh my god, we have $4.7 billion over the next 10 years! Let’s get to work.”

What became very clear very quickly though is that just having the money and just having the strategies were not enough. People were going to fight the housing; they were going to be skeptical of the solutions. United Way knew that much and they asked me to do a public education and mobilization campaign. We figured out what the strategy was and launched Everyone In in March 2018.

RS: Nice! That was a lot of groundwork before Everyone In was birthed. What is your elevator pitch for Everyone In?

TN: Everyone In is the engine that is driving the work of funding homelessness forward. It is not government; it is outside of government. It is a coalition of everyone, because it will take everyone to understand what the solutions are to homelessness and to advocate for them in their own communities.

RS: I love that! What does that look like in terms of the groundwork?

TN: We are a hybrid political campaign. I would not have been effective at launching Everyone In if I hadn’t worked in government because I adopted a lot of political campaign strategies. We had a communications campaign across the county with a straightforward message: We know how to end homelessness; it is with a permanent, stable home; we need more of them; help us. We did 900 bus advertisements that said, “Homes End Homelessness. Sign up and take action,” 100 million eyeballs saw those.

Then we have an event strategy called Everyone In: Stories from the Frontline, which is our entry point into our engagement model. For decades, people could only go to very contentious community meetings about a proposed building. We built a robust events program anchored in lived experiences and storytelling events. We know that stories of lived experiences alone are dismissed as anecdotes, one-time one-offs. We also know that stories exclusively of systems are either too wonky or dismissed as bureaucracy. But when you’re able to link the two together—the lived experiences plus systems—it clicks. People see the example, then they see how it goes to scale, and they’re much more likely to be supportive.

Our campaign strategy is to educate folks, get them to come in at a low barrier opportunity, understand the basics, and then work through a series of trainings that gradually educate them more as their ability to be able to explain what the solutions are increases. We eventually deploy these folks back into their own communities to impact their neighbors if they’re having a conversation about what the causes and solutions to homelessness are.

That’s the campaign strategy in a nutshell. And I want to emphasize the role of the community organizer. If we were just doing communications, it would be very easily dismissed as a PR campaign. The events make it more real. So now you have a place to go, people to meet, and things to see and hear. What ties it all together is that we have a team of 10 community organizers who are assigned to different regions of LA County. They’re the ones showing up at community meetings, holding trainings, and following up with somebody who signs up on our website saying they want to get involved. That’s how the whole thing gets glued together.

Everyone In event. Image credit: Everyone In.

RS: Of all the different strategic prongs of your approach, what do you think is the most interesting part of what you do?

TN: The most interesting thing is how we weave all of them together. All three of them could exist on their own, and most commonly all three do exist on their own. There are plenty of examples of public education campaigns about homelessness, or community organizing teams working on the fight for housing. But the integrated strategy of all these things is what makes them impactful and exciting.

The best example I have is a story about the 222 initiative. After passing HHH, we had 15 city councilmembers who were skeptical about building supportive housing in their low-income districts. They said, “If they’re not going to build it in over there on the Westside of LA, then I’m not going to build it in my district.” So very quickly we’re like, “Problem!” I sat down and thought, how do I reframe this challenge? Initially the goal was 10,000 units in 10 years—we’re going to end up doing it much quicker than 10 years—so, we thought, what if we divide 10,000 by 15? That’s a very common strategy in Los Angeles. Dividing something by 15 in LA is like cutting a cookie in half to give your two children. So we did this and got 666. We were like, “The 666 plan—that doesn’t sound like a good idea.”

We thought how to reframe it and we looked at who we were talking about: councilmembers who will be termed out in the next three years. Okay, so let’s divide it by three. Now we have three, three-year goals with 222 units in each one of those three-year chunks. We leveraged our relationships with city councilmembers and convinced them that was doable. They passed a resolution through the City Council saying that they would support a minimum of 222 units of supportive housing in their districts.

Okay, that would be a classic advocacy play. It got there, but it’s a non-binding resolution—what good is that, ultimately? So, we made a page on our website with the faces of the councilmembers and the number of units in their district approved towards the 222 goal. This was an easily digestible, public-facing tool to track progress. Then we had our organizers go to community meetings and flash this on the screen nine times to get everybody fired up about how many more units they needed. We integrated the advocacy with the communications, and lo and behold, that clicked. Now we’ve had stories in the LA Times and on local radio stations checking in on progress to the 222 goal and how different districts were doing.

Just doing one of those things would not have been nearly as impactful as the integration of all of them: the communications, the advocacy, and the organizing. That’s what makes it work.

Catherine Nguyen: I’m glad you brought up this 222 initiative. I’ve been listening to the LA Podcast, and they recently talked about how City Council District 12 is up for election and they have no supportive housing units in that district. How are you approaching this upcoming election and what are you doing to muster up support for that?

TN: The 12th is a problem. It is the far western San Fernando Valley, so it’s way out there, all single-family ranch homes. Neither HHH nor H passed out there, so there is not a lot of support electorally. It is hands-down our biggest problem.

We focus a lot of our energy on the 3rd district, which is immediately adjacent to the 12th. In the 3rd, we had a councilmember who was ambivalent, so we found three parking lots in his district owned by the City of LA, and we built a coalition of 30 people who all said, “Yes, we want these parking lots to be developed for supportive housing.” We took them in and kept working on his staff, and eventually they made the lots available for study. If we didn’t have the 222 initiative, then they probably wouldn’t have felt the pressure. But they only had 13 units on the 222 tracker and everybody kept asking them why. We said, “We’ll help you. We’ll create the cover for you to make these parking lots available. You just have to hold our hands and jump with us.” And so the councilmember did.

This will be the same strategy for the 12th. We’ve been in contact with everybody who’s running. We’re going to wait and see who wins the primary, and then just squeeze them to commit to 222. We are not going to let them off the hook. We’re just going to leverage the pressure of the campaign to get them to make commitments.

Anand Amin: What capacity does a councilmember have regarding supportive housing development? Do they have to sign off on these projects?

TN: In the early days, they had to sign a letter saying that they supported the building in their district. And if there was not a letter, the deal could not get HHH funds. That was the real obstacle, because that gave them veto power over every building. We were able to highlight that enough times through stories in the LA Times that Sacramento said they would not support a LIHTC allocation to the City of Los Angeles if this letter requirement continues to exist. They put that condition in the annual appropriations package, which passed. The City of LA was then forced to remove the letter requirements from the HHH program. That used to be a real issue for us.

Now the issue is that all votes approving the allocation of HHH funds still go through the LA City Council. The councilmember can still say they don’t support giving HHH funds to a project, but this is now done more publicly and they’d get a lot more criticism for it, but they could still pull that off. Whoever controls the purse strings controls a lot of power.

To the question of what I think New York does better than us—in LA, most of our land use policy requires discretionary action, but in New York more land use policy is as-of-right. Because we have very little as-of-right, our zoning is constrained and low-density except for in two communities. The result is that the development of an apartment building in most of the city requires the support of the elected official. That is why we have a massive housing crisis here. If somebody wants to build a 60-unit building, I would assume it’s a lot easier in New York than it is in LA.

RS: We looked at this zoning question a lot in our project. You see this across the country where communities use zoning as cover to control who does and who doesn’t come into the community. It’s not always about density, but about what that density symbolizes and what it would open the doors to.

Do you see that in your campaign? How do you deal with people who you are educating about supportive housing but they object to it because of a density argument?

TN: Land use policy is absolutely being exploited and has absolutely been used to support segregation and racist housing policies here in LA. It has for a long time. 50% of LA is zoned for single family homes. Some people will say it is because they want the California lifestyle where you can sit in your backyard and hear the birds chirping. That might be true. But it also could be that it was a powerful tool to segregate people of color out of white single-family communities. This is still an issue for us.

There’s also just very little housing production. The City of LA is about 40% of the population of LA County, but it accounted for 75% of the new housing construction last year. So, the rest of the county is basically not building any housing, and that’s a problem.

Interestingly, we’re not there yet in terms of people connecting the dots between our lack of housing production and the increasing homeless population. They kind of get it, but don’t totally want to believe it. And when the rubber hits the road, and that requires a little bit more in their communities, they’re not quite there yet. At Everyone In, it’s not a campaign to densify communities, because that’s not a winning message. But we are using the homelessness crisis and what people see to back into the conversation about creating more housing. It better actualizes the source of the problem and the solution.

Supportive housing tracker for LA city councilmembers. Image credit: Everyone In.

RS: You mentioned earlier that you think you’re going to meet the 10-year goal more quickly. Given all these constraints, I was a little surprised to hear that. Can you say more about it?

TN: The idea was 1,000 units a year and we’ve already approved 5,000 units in two years. They’re pushing the money out much faster than anybody expected them to.

Despite that, it is still not easy to build housing. We have made it easier to build supportive housing; there have been various streamlining ordinances that make it easier to build 100% affordable housing, which are helpful. But we have never invested this much money in this. There’s sort of a catching up that needs to happen that everyone broadly agrees with. We build in the tens of thousands of units every year, so it’s not unusual that we could pull off 5,000 units. I would say we should be building in the hundreds of thousands of units every year.

RS: Could you dive into the ordinances and talk about how those came to be and what the changes were?

TN: There are a couple. The Transit Oriented Communities program was passed in a ballot measure a few years ago. Voters didn’t support it because it was going to increase density and reduce parking requirements around transit corridors. They voted for it because it would create more housing for families and jobs. That was the frame that it was sold with, so people voted yes.

It turned out to be helpful to expedite making what was previously not by-right, by-right in the context of supportive housing. I think at least half of the 107 supportive housing buildings approved for funding so far are using the Transit Oriented Communities program to reduce the funding requirements significantly.

We also passed the Permanent Supportive Housing Ordinance, which eliminated parking for the buildings, raised the threshold for discretionary review from 50 units to 150 units, and eliminated the minimum unit size. It made it easier to build the building and reduced costs because parking was really expensive. Unfortunately, that’s being challenged in court, but meanwhile the state passed basically the same thing.

There have been some thoughtful efforts to reduce the barriers and costs that have helped developers build a lot faster.

CN: Do you find that supportive housing is being developed on private or public land? Are there any challenges in finding land to build on?

TN: Land costs here, like in New York City, are out of control. Nine times out of 10, a regular developer is going to beat out a supportive housing developer in terms of price and speed.

Publicly-owned land is a key strategy for us. Out of 107 buildings, about 30 to 35 of them are on public land. It takes much longer to get all the approvals lined up for the publicly-owned land than it does for private land, so that’s why it hasn’t been more. We’re going to continue plugging away on it because while it doesn’t improve the speed, it does help reduce costs. It particularly helps to develop in higher-income communities where land costs are very high, which is a goal for us. So, the parking lot on the Westside of Los Angeles that’s worth $10 to $15 million, which would be 50% of the building cost if the building cost $25 million, would never pencil out. But, if the developer is getting it basically for free, then the whole thing works.

AA: With the various public sites, are they sprinkled among different agencies that control the land? What are you finding as opportune public land in terms of who’s in control of it?

TN: Lots of different entities have control over lots of different pieces of land. The low-hanging fruit is the land controlled by the Housing Department, because they are ready to make it available to an RFP for people to bid on it. Then, the city owns around 135 pretty large parking lots, many of which do not generate any revenue for the City; they’re just free parking. But those are controlled by Public Transportation, so they have to be ready and willing to make it available to the Housing Department and the City Council office has to approve it, which means that all the people who love that free parking are going to call up their councilmember and say, “Don’t get rid of my parking!” But it’s doable. Those have been the first two starting places.

There are advocates who think that the City has tons of underutilized buildings that should be converted. That may or may not be true. Anybody who has been involved in creating housing will know that converting an office building into housing is expensive and complicated. So, it is not as easy as it sounds.

I saw some article the other day about taking publicly-owned library sites and redeveloping them to have the library on the bottom and housing above the library. That’s a no-brainer, but maybe more complicated to put together all the stakeholders.

RS: Imagine a universe 30 years from now with no homelessness. How do you think we got there?

TN: Created a shit load of housing.

RS: Great answer. Straight to the point!

TN: And it wasn’t just publicly subsidized housing. We figured out how to adjust our land use policies and incentives to tap into the private capital market to create long-term covenanted supportive and affordable housing. I really do think if I were to try to do this exclusively through public subsidy, at $140,000 to $200,000 a door, which is what we’re doing in LA, I would need tens of billions of dollars to get there. That’s my next frontier. I’m going to keep doing the public subsidy, I’m not going to stop on that, but we’ve got to figure out how to tap into private capital and make it work.

Tommy Newman is currently the Senior Director of Impact Initiatives at the United Way of Greater Los Angeles. He is responsible for the organization’s Everyone In campaign, as well communications, community engagement, and advocacy as it relates to housing and homelessness. He most recently worked at LA Family Housing (LAFH) where he directed the organization’s communications and public affairs strategies. While at LAFH he worked on the Prop. HHH and Measure H campaigns. Tommy also worked at L.A. City Hall for Councilmember Tom LaBonge as a policy and neighborhoods deputy. He attended Loyola High School, George Washington University, and the University of San Francisco School of Law. He is a member of the California Bar.