FROM Angela Brooks
The high cost of affordable housing 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. 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. 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 a longtime builder of housing at all income levels and 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.” 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,” 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. “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. Mosaic Gardens at Westlake. Photo by Avishay Artsy.
Lakewood, a "Paradise of the Ordinary" DnA is currently exploring the theme of “This is Home in LA: From the Tent to the Gigamansion (and everything in between).” The premise of the series is that in the boom years of the last century, Los Angeles developed homes that were specific to the region, its lifestyle and the economy. “When I think about how the lifestyle product called California was marketed to the world, I have to start with the houses of Southern California,” says DJ Waldie, historian and author of “Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir.” DJ Waldie stands in the middle of a typical street in the City of Lakewood. Photo by Avishay Artsy “These structures embodied before and after the Second World War much of what America thought was the good life. They were homes that were accommodating without being pretentious. They were open to novelty and experiment.” The question is, are we realizing the same level of novelty, experiment and specificity to place today? To find answers, so far we’ve looked at contemporary LA homes starting with the very smallest: tents, ADUs and boats. Today we visit the longtime California ideal: the single family home, specifically the mass-produced tract houses of Lakewood that were built in the thousands in the early 1950s to house young couples who had experienced the Depression and World War II. These represented a “paradise of the ordinary,” says Waldie, as he tours DnA around Lakewood’s residential streets, recalling the time when you might find as many as 80 children out roaming together, without parental guidance. These streets of small, three bedroom houses on 5,000 square foot lots make up 94% of the city’s development. When they were built, a typical Lakewood house would sell for about $11,000, or around $108,000 in today’s dollars. Now the cost is nearer half a million dollars or more. Despite their relative priciness, Lakewood is trying to preserve this lifestyle, even as neighboring cities like Long Beach and Los Angeles are looking to densify and expand mass transit. One way planners and elected officials hope to achieve more affordable housing while enabling homeowners to pay their high mortgages is through permitting ADUs. Todd Rogers, vice mayor of Lakewood, tells DnA he would resist ADUs if he could. “What we're trying to do is is educate our legislators that there's a disconnect between the social engineering that's taking place at the state capitol and how real Californians feel.” He adds, “If you took a survey of most Californians they want someplace where they can go... in their backyard, play with their dog, and play with their kids and have their own little slice of heaven, if you will, and people describe Lakewood as that.” Meanwhile in Los Angeles, architects and planners gathered at an AIA/LA conference last week to discuss the affordable housing challenge in the region. Michael Lehrer, John Egan, Larry Scarpa and Angela Brooks share their thoughts on how to square yesterday’s dream with today’s reality in denser housing strategies that keep something of the flavor of Waldie’s “paradise of the ordinary.”
Skid Row Housing Trust Does quality of design matter when you've got thousands of homeless people to rehouse? Yes, if you are Skid Row Housing Trust, the nonprofit developer that taps creative architects in the belief that well-designed supportive housing can enable recovery from the trauma of living on the streets, and knit housing for the formerly homeless into the life of the city. DnA talks with the head of Skid Row Housing Trust, residents and architects of Star Apartments, the Six and New Genesis, and the editor of “Design Resources for Homelessness.”
Transforming Parking Space into Open Space In San Francisco two years ago, a group called Rebar descended on a number of parking spaces. They fed money into the meters, rolled out sod, and installed trees and benches. They created pocket parks that lasted until the timers ran out--asserting the claim that dense urban centers need more open space. Last year, the idea spread to thirteen other cities, including New York, London and Rio. Friday of this week has been designated as Parking Day LA . Image: Flickr via parkingdayla.org
Securing Public Spaces, Super Wealthy Asians Vehicles are increasingly being used as weapons, as seen in the London Bridge attack over the weekend and in New York’s Times Square last month. The Compton-based company Calpipe is designing security bollards to help make public spaces safer. And novelist Kevin Kwan satirizes the “crazy rich” Asian jet set and their luxurious tastes in his latest book, “Rich People Problems.”
Industry insights and lessons learned from memorable guests We have interesting guests on The Business, and sometimes our conversations are too long to fit into one show. This week we give you stories that were too good to leave on the cutting room floor, including some sharp insights on making it in the industry from David Mandel, David Simon, Shawn Levy and Matt Reeves.