Q&A with William Huang on Leadership in Local Housing Policy

Innovation, it seems, is second nature to William Huang, the housing director in Pasadena, Calif. Indeed, his vision and leadership were critical in the city being recognized with the Urban Land Institute’s Robert C. Larson Housing Policy Leadership Award in 2014. Huang, who oversees Pasadena’s affordable housing development and homeless programs, is a licensed architect who also spent 10 years as deputy director of the Los Angeles Community Design Center (now Abode Communities).

Among the housing innovations Huang brought to Pasadena is PasadenaHousingSearch.com, a website for landlords and renters that lists thousands of available apartments or waiting lists for projects in development throughout Los Angeles County. He also launched the Real Change Movement, a public education program on homelessness that turned parking meters into public donation stations for homeless services. The funds are matched by the United Way and used to provide services to the city’s homeless population.

How Housing Matters recently spoke with Huang about his work in Pasadena. His comments have been edited for length and clarity.

How Housing Matters: How has your own background as an architect influenced your thinking and actions as housing director in Pasadena?

William Huang: I have two degrees in architecture — one from the Southern California Institute of Architecture and the other from Harvard’s Graduate School of Design — and both of those programs are very design-oriented architectural programs. And I think the education of designers is unique. It really encourages and requires participants in the programs to always be asking the “why?”, the “how come?” and the “can it be better?” kinds of questions.

I’ve used that training in a number of ways. There is a concept called Housing First. We didn’t invent it, but definitely saw its potential. The program takes the most chronically homeless persons — those most likely to die — creates a registry of who they are, and then utilizes resources to get these individuals housed first and then deal with often deeper-seated problems such as substance abuse, physical and chronic health issues, and/or severe mental illness, or some combination of all three.

We were one of the early adopters, and it has been fantastic. We’ve housed in the last three years over 60 of our most chronically homeless persons, and well over 90% of them remained housed after a year. The success rate nationwide is 85% to 90%.

HHM: How have you partnered with Pasadena-area employers or other non-traditional housing partners on affordable and workforce housing?

Huang: A great example is our partnership with our local hospital, Huntington Hospital. We actually take direct referrals from them for frequent users of their emergency room, and we house some of their very, very costly clients with our Housing First program. We recently provided housing for a gentleman who had been in the hospital for four months straight, including one month in a coma — so probably cost the hospital $1 million for that one stay — but we were able to provide permanent housing.

We’ve talked with educational institutions about housing opportunities, and the one that has really come to fruition is with Fuller Seminary, which actually bought some of the units in the Fair Oaks Court project as moderate-income housing units to help faculty and staff with housing costs. They provide a housing subsidy for staff members who live there.

I recently met with the head of Innovate Pasadena, which is an association of startup companies, to talk about holding a housing workshop for their members on affordable housing opportunities.

We had a very, very successful transaction just recently with a PhD candidate at Caltech who used our first-time homebuyer program to buy a little one-bedroom condo, and lived in it for many, many years. Just recently they decided to sell because they’re starting a family and they need a bigger unit. We exercised our first right of refusal, which is written into our first-time homebuyer program, so that we could keep it as an affordable unit, and he wrote an unsolicited letter about how important this housing unit was for him and how it compelled him to find a job close by here in Pasadena because he lived here already and that more people in the tech sector should take advantage of the program.

It’s something that we know works for folks who need workforce housing. We just need more people to participate, and recently we’ve been really struggling with our first-time homebuyer program because we’ve lost redevelopment funds here in California.

HHM: You’ve said that the city’s inclusionary housing policy has resulted in the “geographic de-concentration” of new affordable housing production. Why is that important and what are the positive outcomes you are seeing as a result?

Huang: Pasadena is very expensive, but we have an inclusionary housing ordinance — which sets aside some units at workforce or affordable housing rates — that is one of the strongest tools we have left to produce affordable housing. We have more than a dozen projects in the pipeline. We have a number of projects under construction right now, and they all have an inclusionary requirement to them.

We will have another 120 or so affordable units coming online over the next year or so just through our inclusionary ordinance, which doesn’t use any city subsidy whatsoever. These units are just private developers setting aside 15% of their units for affordable housing or paying a very large in lieu fee, which we use to build more affordable housing.

A couple of years ago, a developer opened a project that was 498 units of high-end, market-rate rental housing. It’s transit oriented, two blocks from the transit station and two blocks from our main shopping area, and it had 97 very-low-income units in it with no city subsidy. If we were to subsidize a project like that it would need at least a $10 million subsidy, assuming we could leverage tax credits and the like.

The market-rate housing tends to be built in the nicest areas. With inclusionary zoning, affordable units get built not in the lowest-income areas, but in the best areas, and we get geographic distribution of affordable housing. One of the primary goals for affordable housing is not to concentrate it in just one area.

HHM: What are your hopes for affordable housing in the United States in the next 10 years?

Huang: Well, I’m encouraged that at the national level things like the National Housing Trust Fund may be getting funded very soon through proceeds from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. And there’s a lot more that I hope will happen to make affordable housing more accessible and more plentiful, such as tweaks to the low-income housing tax credit program and improvements to HUD’s Section 8 program. There’s a program there called Moving to Work. We would love to be a Moving to Work housing authority, but we’re not qualified, at least not yet. A lot of the HUD housing programs are just very, very cumbersome to administer, and it really doesn’t need to be that way.

There’s a lot of push for reform, but that push has been going on for decades, and we hope that we can continue toward improvements. Often, we feel like we’re fighting a real, real uphill battle, but we’re talking about housing, which is the most important cost item for almost every household in the United States.

Photo: Orange Grove, Abode Communities