Why is the LAUSD building affordable housing?

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If you look around Los Angeles, you’ll see lots of new housing being built, especially in gentrifying neighborhoods like downtown and Hollywood. But most of that housing, whether rental units or condominiums, are luxury units and far too expensive for hundreds of thousands of working L.A. residents to ever live in. And if it needs saying, that’s bad.

Recent studies show that the average renter in Los Angeles now pays almost 50 percent of their income to cover the rent. And as the cost of housing soars, people’s wages aren’t rising nearly fast enough to keep up.

In an effort to help its lowest earners live near work, the Los Angeles Unified School District has announced plans to build affordable housing for some of its employees.

Luxury apartment building under construction in downtown Los Angeles. L.A.’s experiencing a new housing building boom, but most of what’s getting built is too expensive for low and moderate income workers. (Photo: Saul Gonzalez) (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

At a recent ceremony in the heart of Hollywood, not far from pricy new apartment buildings going up on Sunset and Hollywood boulevards, the LAUSD unveiled the construction of a 66 unit, $33 million affordable housing project it’s building in partnership with Abode Communities, a nonprofit development and real estate company based in Los Angeles.

“I look outside my window and see high rises going up, and none of it is affordable housing for the working people that really support the economy of this city,” said Robin Hughes, the CEO of Abode Communities.

“There really is no separation between public education and the public. We really have to be involved in the housing crisis,” said Los Angeles Unified School Board Chairman Steve Zimmer.

“When we say workforce housing, what we are saying is if you serve our kids by day, we are going to make sure by night that you are being taken care of as well,” said Zimmer. “And the most important thing we can do is provide decent housing and shelter at affordable prices in the centers of our communities.”

Artist rendering of affordable housing now being built in Hollywood in partnership between the LAUSD and affordable housing developer Abode Communities. When it opens in 2016, 50% of the units will be set aside for LAUSD employees making salaries that make it difficult for them to find an affordable place to rent.  (Courtesy: Abode Communities) (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

With hundreds of schools and facilities across Los Angeles and surrounding communities, the LAUSD is already one of the region’s property owners, and some of its land can be used for housing.

The apartment building in Hollywood, for instance, is being built on top of an elementary school parking lot across the street from the campus, which in turn is just steps from both Sunset and Hollywood boulevards.

“They have been really great in figuring out how to use their surplus land to help address the affordable housing in the city and provide affordable housing to their employees,” said Hughes about the LAUSD. “ I don’t know of any other district here in the Los Angeles region that’s utilizing their resources in this way.”

The LAUSD has already opened one affordable housing project for its employees and others who qualify in the South Los Angeles County community of Gardena, adjacent to Gardena High School.  The 90-unit residential complex has rents starting at $425 a month. It’s called Sage Park, and was built in cooperation with San Francisco-based affordable housing developer Bridge Housing. The property features walking paths, gardens, a gym and community center. And when it comes to design and curb appeal it looks pretty stylish to a visitor.

Property manager Donna Hess said the LAUSD and its development partners want the housing they’re creating together to transcend typical affordable housing projects.

“Just because it’s low income doesn’t mean that it has to look low income,” said Hess. “It doesn’t have to look like it did in the ’60s and ’70s with the projects. You look at the projects and right away you think, ‘Oh, that’s low income.’ You pass this and you would never think that. I have people pulling up and asking ‘Hey are you guys selling condos?’ because it looks like a condominium.”

Sage Park is an affordable housing development in Gardena and built in partnership with the LAUSD. When it opened last year, 8,000 people were on the waiting list. (Photo: Saul Gonzalez)

Emanuel Arinze, an LAUSD campus aide lives at Sage Park and feels lucky, considering there were 8,000 people on the waiting list to move in. “It was not easy, but lucky for me I was able to get here. And I thank God for that,” Arinze said. “I hope they are able to build more so that other staff, my colleagues, are able to get an affordable place to live in.”

Some of Arinze’s coworkers will get that opportunity when the LAUSD opens its third affordable housing development late next year, a 29-unit complex near USC.

But these efforts by the school district are just drops in the bucket when it comes to Los Angeles’ enormous need for more affordable housing and places to build it.

At the ceremony at LAUSD’s Hollywood housing project, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti spoke about his ambition to build 100,000 new housing units in Los Angeles within seven years.

He said one key to do thing that is working with land-rich public agencies, like the school district and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. Metro, for instance, has identified 19 properties it owns that could be candidate sites to build affordable housing, mostly parking lots and technical facilities near existing transportation stops.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti at ceremony marking the halfway point of construction on the LAUSD’s affordable housing project in Hollywood. Garcetti wants to build 100,000 housing units in Los Angeles in the coming years and says the involvement of public agencies, like the LAUSD and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, are critical to that effort. (Photo: Saul Gonzalez) (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

“There’s less and less land, so we have to more creative in Los Angeles,” said Garcetti. “We need more people who have land to work with us and figure out how to put housing in the space above the land. That’s the sort of creativity we are going to need in a crowded city.”

A crowded city and an ever more expensive one for those struggling to find and affordable place to live.