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UCLA Students Push to Create New Neighborhood Council, Citing Lack of Representation and Obstructionist Policies

The proposed boundaries for the new neighborhood council is shaded in blue, surrounded by the current boundaries governed by the WWNC.

Following on the heels of the Westwood Neighborhood Council’s (WWNC) decision to oppose plans for more student housing on UCLA’s campus, a group of students announced their intention Wednesday evening to create a new neighborhood council.

The full letter [PDF] outlines in great detail -- and with ample citation -- the many grievances the students have, from their frustration with the current neighborhood council’s general opposition to new housing, to the council’s support of policies that stifle nightlife and local businesses in Westwood Village, to the alleged contempt by current members of the council for public participation by students.

The letter, which is signed by a group of nine students, staff, and community members, also expressed frustration with the way members of the council are elected, noting that the Westwood Neighborhood Council is one of very few of the nearly 100 neighborhood councils that don’t allow members to be elected through online voting. By artificially limiting the opportunities to vote, the letter argues, it biases the process against people with less time to go to a physical location to vote, for example students.

While the list of reasons given in the letter is long, the most recent incident leading to this push was a Westwood Neighborhood Council meeting last month at which the council voted to oppose a project that would have added living space for up 1,350 students.

According to the Daily Bruin:

Connie Boukidis, land use and planning chair, said the Land Use and Planning Committee voted against supporting converting a UCLA Extension building into UCLA dorms, which would hold up to 1,350 students and be constructed on Le Conte Avenue. Boukidis said the board sympathized with UCLA’s need for more student housing, but opposed the construction project because they felt the building was too tall and was surrounded by smaller, iconic buildings. Boukidis added that since UCLA is constructing five new dorm buildings, she thinks the university could make one of the other dorm buildings larger in order to maintain the aesthetic of the area where the UCLA Extension building is located.

The letter did not mince words about the issue: “[Y]ou’d think they’d [Westwood Neighborhood Council] feel a humanitarian sense of urgency to bring significantly more housing into our community when our crippling housing shortage is forcing students into homelessness or deep into debt just to live in squalid conditions with numerous roommates."

That’s not just inflated rhetoric, either. The housing crisis is significantly impacting college students. Last year, Mount Olive Lutheran Church in Santa Monica opened a shelter specifically for UCLA students struggling with homelessness called Bruin Shelter.

It’s a small answer -- Bruin Shelter has nine beds, according to an L.A. Times feature, and even that small amount elicited some hand-wringing by city officials -- to a much larger problem. According to the same article, “Though no one knows exactly how many college students are homeless, it is most certainly in the tens of thousands here in California. A recent Cal State University survey found that 1 in 10 of the system's 460,000 students are homeless.”

Without more housing that students can reasonably afford, the problem will only get worse.

While the neighborhood councils in Los Angeles are purely advisory, they can be very influential in shaping the planning policies at the City Council level, so it makes sense that students would seek to eke out a space for themselves, especially given that the Purple Line extension is due to arrive in Westwood in less than a decade and the city will be developing plans to guide changes in that area going forward.

But, much like the Bruin Shelter, while it will help, but it won’t solve the underlying cause of the housing crisis that is affecting so many.

“It is an inspiring and exciting moment to see student leaders address this by proposing a subdivision of the neighborhood council in a way that will give them a voice in discussions that affect the UCLA community directly,” Paavo Monkkonen, an associate professor of Urban Planning at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, said in an email to Streetsblog L.A. Wednesday.

“In a larger sense, however, it does not solve our regional problem of fragmented land use decision making,” he said. “Highly localized control over land use creates a collective action problem in that most neighborhood councils want to block development.”

Monkkonen said that this fragmented system “reduces housing development overall, and pushes the development that does happen into those neighborhoods with less political clout.” So, while the Westside rejects new housing, those pressures are pushed into neighborhoods like downtown L.A. and East L.A.

“This new [neighborhood council] will be somewhat unique on the Westside in that it will likely support more housing and development, which is important and to be commended, but we will be essentially letting the nearby single family neighborhoods in ‘east’ Westwood off the hook,” he said.

Even though the Measure S battle is behind us, it's clear that L.A.'s future -- and who gets to determine it -- remains an open question, one that will likely not get settled any time soon. Still, new voices are entering the fray.

The students are going ahead with their push for a new neighborhood council that they hope will be more representative of the diversity in the area. According to their letter, their proposed bylaws and boundary areas are at their website where they are also gathering signatures of stakeholders in the area for support of the new neighborhood council.

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