The high cost of building affordable housing

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Affordable housing is being really well-designed, but it’s also very expensive. At every level, designers and builders are trying to work around a Rubik’s cube of obstacles. DnA looks at the challenges and possible solutions to creating housing for the formerly homeless and low-income residents of Los Angeles.

Affordable housing is being really well-designed, but it’s also very expensive.

As part of DnA’s series “This is Home in LA,” we’re finding that designers and builders are trying to work around a Rubik’s cube of obstacles. And that is particularly so in the very housing type that should be as inexpensive to build as possible: affordable housing.

“We do the same essential design for a market rate project that’s private as we do with affordable housing. We treat them the same but the cost per square foot for the affordable housing is actually higher than the market rate projects,” said Larry Scarpa, co-founder of Brooks + Scarpa, an architecture firm that designs affordable housing projects.

Affordable housing is a building type that has attracted some of the top designers in LA over the past couple decades.

DnA talks to the creators of “affordable” housing about aiming for a great quality of life — and making it pencil out.

Mosaic Gardens at Westlake. Photo by Avishay Artsy. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

An affordable housing project called Mosaic Gardens at Westlake had a grand opening in June.

It has 125 units for formerly homeless families, low-income people and seniors. It also has supportive services like job training and mental and physical health centers.

“It just goes to show that you can have quality design and you can live in a quality structure at the urban core no matter what the socio-economic level,” said Councilman Mitch O’Farrell.

Mosaic Gardens was developed by LINC Housing, a nonprofit affordable housing developer.

“It’s incredibly complex because we were trying to address a lot of needs. We have the affordable housing piece. We have the homeless piece. There’s a portion that’s reserved for the chronically homeless. It’s also intergenerational. So we have a tower that is reserved for seniors and a tower that’s reserved for families, said Suny Lay Chang, the COO of LINC Housing.

There’s fierce competition to live in projects like this. Chang says over 10,000 people downloaded for the initial lottery for the 60 affordable homes for families and seniors earning up to 60 percent of area median income.

Suny Lay Chang, the COO of LINC Housing, speaks at the grand opening of Mosaic Gardens at Westlake, a 125-unit project for formerly homeless families, low-income people and seniors. Photo by Avishay Artsy. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Financing is also a complicated process, with Mosaic Gardens receiving as many as a dozen funding sources, including public dollars at the federal, state, county and city level, along with private dollars.

“It took us five years to put this deal together. It’s an incredibly complex process,” Chang said.

Several prospective new tenants spoke at the Mosaic Gardens opening, and expressed their appreciation for being given a place to stay.

The architect, Mark Lahmon is founder of Lahmon Architects and a longtime builder of housing at all income levels. He says it’s days like this that make his work exciting.

“I have a hard time not tearing up listening to their stories. It’s overwhelming,” Lahmon said. “I also do market-rate housing. I absolutely love doing this type of work more than anything else because it truly makes you feel like you’ve made a difference in the world when you go home.”

A homeless man who spent two years living in his car is one of the prospective new tenants at Mosaic Gardens at Westlake. Photo by Avishay Artsy. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Each unit at Mosaic Gardens came in at around $300,000.

But affordable housing units can routinely cost more than $400,000 dollars to build.

Rushmore Cervantes, the General Manager of the Los Angeles Housing and Community Investment Department, says there are several reasons for these high costs: the price of land, the cost of construction materials, compliance with environmental standards, rules that require developers to hire union labor, and the competition for that labor.

“So we are in some ways a victim to the health of this economy by virtue of the large amount of construction that’s going on in the region, therefore you’ve got subcontractors that can get top dollar, that also drive up the cost for us,” Cervantes said.

Many builders of affordable housing will tell you there’s another obstacle: regulations.

“My team worked overtime in breaking through the red tape,” LA City Councilman Mitch O’Farrell said. “We handheld the project team through its permitting phase to get this thing off the ground.”

The firm Brooks + Scarpa has designed market-rate, single family and multifamily homes. They’ve also designed for several nonprofit developers. One of their projects, The Six near MacArthur Park, was built for disabled veterans and formerly homeless people by nonprofit developer Skid Row Housing Trust.

The Six offers 52 homes for the formerly homeless, with 18 of them set aside specifically for veterans. Brooks + Scarpa designed the building for nonprofit developer Skid Row Housing Trust. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

“We started with affordable housing 20 plus years ago. And frankly it was a type that little suffered from good design,” co-founder Larry Scarpa said. “Well, fast forward 20 years and the tide has changed. Now you see a lot of the bigger names in architecture producing extraordinary buildings that are award-winning buildings in that arena.”

Scarpa says one of the drivers of cost for affordable housing is the funding regulations, which “are so mired in complexity and every single money source has a different requirement. So the housing department has a requirement that conflicts with the tax credit requirements that conflicts with the bank requirements.”

For example, Scarpa points to an affordable housing project his firm built in Venice.

“And just down the street we did a multimillion dollar custom home that has no air conditioning in it. It’s by the ocean. You know, you get the breeze. Well, we were forced to put in air conditioning in all those units to the tune of north of $300,000,” Scarpa said. “So it’s not design that’s driving the cost on affordable housing. It’s the regulations and the overburdensome regulations of them.”

His partner Angela Brooks added, “for us, good design is something that we all believe in and like. It’s having natural light into your dwelling space, having social spaces with which to talk to other people if you want to, having a proper entry sequence from the street so that your door is not right on the street.”

Those are the features you can find at The Six— as well as a dramatic form. But being innovative in Los Angeles is challenging, Scarpa said, with stringent restrictions on the use of new materials

Still, ambitious architects are drawn to building affordable housing because they want to make a difference in the community.

“We believe that we should be providing it,” Scarpa said.

Inside the courtyard of The Six, designed by Brooks + Scarpa. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Affordable housing in Los Angeles can be ambitious in design and liveability, but also costly. That’s because it’s produced by non-profit developers who have to meet a bunch of conditions that add on dollars. Would it be cheaper if the private sector built affordable housing?

DnA met with Lawry Meister, president of FlyawayHomes LLC and CEO of the Steaven Jones Development Co. They are working with the nonprofit The People Concern to build “the first permanent supportive housing project funded with social impact equity,” on a lot in South Los Angeles.

Meister says there are many obstacles to building affordable housing.

“It’s very expensive. It takes a long time to get accomplished. Funding is very tricky to put together with low income tax credits, and with the tax cuts maybe those are becoming less favorable as an investment vehicle. The NIMBYism is delaying projects,” she said.

One of the ways her firm has sped up the permitting and construction process is by using modular units, which are approved by the state of California and made in a factory while they did their site work.

By repurposing shipping containers, Meister said, “we’re solving an environmental problem as well, because there are four million unused shipping containers down in the Port of Long Beach,” she said. “We think that the shipping containers actually are very appealing aesthetically on the outside. It looks like a contemporary building.”

The walls are fully insulated, heated and air conditioned, and from the inside look like any other traditionally-built apartment building. The building comprises eight pods of four-bedroom units. Clients have their own private bedrooms but share a bathroom, dining area, living space and kitchen.

Workers construct an affordable project out of shipping containers for FlyawayHomes in South LA. Photo by Avishay Artsy. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

FlyawayHomes is just one developer that’s looking to shipping containers as an affordable housing model. This strategy has even earned a nickname: “Cargotecture.”

An architecture + planning firm called KTGY plans to break ground in September on a homeless housing complex in Westlake that’s made of shipping containers. The four-story building, called Hope on Alvarado, will hold 84 studio and one-bedroom apartments.

FlyawayHomes’ South LA project also includes an outdoor group session area, a casual lounge area with barbecues, a doggie play area and a community vegetable garden.

There are some obvious benefits to building with shipping containers. They are strong, durable, easily available and relatively cheap. But critics argue that shipping containers are not a simple housing solution. They’re designed to be filled with freight, not people, and require expert welders to make them habitable, which further drives up the cost.

Another way FlyawayHomes has reduced cost is by using non-union workers, which cuts about 30 percent of the cost of labor. That’s something that is required of non-profit developers.

“I don’t know why the workers should be subsidized by our project. I sort of look at it as, by increasing the cost of the project that’s that many fewer people that we can afford to house,” Meister said.

Meister says she hopes to complete this pilot project in September, and then build more shipping container homes.