I’ve followed the news about free speech and campus politics with equal parts trepidation and disinterest. As much as I support free speech and as much as I’m disgusted by the buffoonery of Milo Y, Richard Spencer, & Co., I figure that many of these debates amount to little more than shouting matches.
Strangely enough, some of the most promising political action of late comes from a relatively apolitical campus: UCLA.
Last week, a coalition of students, grad students, and community members announced plans to fight the power by forming their own Neighborhood Council. In this case, the “power” is a generations-old coalition of homeowners in the Westwood area who have consistently and progressively fought growth and muted any semblance of social activity in Westwood Village. Despite the obvious interest that UCLA’s 44,000 students and its equal number of employees have in supporting a vibrant Westwood Village and abundant nearby housing options, students are too transient to amass the political power needed to oppose the homeowners that dominate the current Neighborhood Council.
(Neighborhood Councils are Los Angeles’ official advisory bodies, composed of stakeholders and organized community-by-community.)
So grave is the situation in Westwood that it was the topic of the very first article I wrote for CP&DR. I wrote all about the demise of Westwood Village and the frustration that may students felt about not having a true college town at their doorstep, despite the village’s nearly ideal streetscape. That was back in — wait for it — 2008.
A critical mass has finally formed.
First, we have the housing crisis, which is more than dire enough to spur action among even the most apathetic students. The current Westwood NC recently opposed new student housing — even though it was to be developed by UCLA on its own land. Second, we have the state- and nationwide YIMBY movement. LA’s local YIMBY group Abundant Housing Los Angeles — with which I have been involved on occasion — has given the UCLA community a forum in which to discuss and unite around Westwood’s decrepitude. Finally, like the NRA’s campaign to constantly loosen gun laws with increasingly ridiculous freedoms, local homeowners have squeezed just about the last drop of life out of Westwood. (Indeed, Westwood resembles NRA country in at least one way: dancing is forbidden.)
So, unless you own a multimillion-dollar house, Westwood has nowhere to go but up. These discussions culminated in this week’s resolution.
The new Neighborhood Council would carve out an island of campus and surrounding streets from greater Westwood. While the old guard will surely be furious, it’s hard to argue that the kids who actually live and work in this area don’t deserve to have a say in its governance. I expect, therefore, that this proposal will bear fruit as long as the current leaders stay at it (and don’t graduate before they can navigate the city bureaucracy).
While Neighborhood Councils have no formal power, they have advisory power that is, in LA’s odd governance structure, fairly influential. Traditionally, each City Council member wields nearly unencumbered decision-making power within his or her district. Councilmembers typical consult Neighborhood Councils and seldom vote against NCs' recommendations — or at least they heed NCs’ wishes when they’re brokering development agreements.
This heralds a new world for Paul Koretz, who represents Council District 5 and UCLA. His power base is very much the old guard; he arguably has the most affluent and least diverse district in Los Angeles. A crisis of conscience may be in the offing as he tries to decide whether to give the new NC as much deference as he does the current NC.
It’s hard to say whether this development has any statewide implications, but it might. If nothing else, it’s a potential victory for the YIMBY movement. It’s one thing to write pleading letters; it’s another thing entirely to inspire a whole new governmental body. It’s also a model for political engagement on other campuses. College students are residents too, but I’ll be darned if most of California’s college kids even know what city they live in, much less who their local elected officials are.
I’ll also be darned if California’s college kids love the rents they’re paying. From La Jolla to San Luis Obispo to Santa Clara and beyond, nearly every major college in the state is located someplace more suited to financiers than freshmen. Likewise, if students can wield power and assert themselves as pro-housing and pro-renter, everyday residents across California may be able to do the same.
For students’ sake, hopefully this lesson in housing policy will bear fruit, in the form of more housing and fewer cranky neighbors. While the alt-right, the antifa, and everyone else keep flinging vitriol at each other, this is one campus debate worth having.