Los Angeles’s Housing Crisis: Can Design Be a Solution?


Can California’s biggest city — and possibly America’s least affordable one — redesign its way out of the housing crisis?

That’s the question a city-sponsored architecture competition called “Low-Rise: Housing Ideas for Los Angeles” poses. Winners were announced the other day.

The city’s housing problem has been decades in the making. Half a century ago, Los Angeles was a booming metropolis zoned for up to 10 million people. It pioneered low-rise density, with fourplexes, bungalow courts like Horatio West Court, Irving Gill’s modernist masterpiece, and dingbats: those campy, stuccoed walk-ups on stilts, bearing make-believe names like Casa Bella and Camelot.

But the trajectory of housing in Los Angeles during the later years of the last century paralleled that of many other American cities where density came to be equated with urban decline and white residents resorted to redlining and other racially restrictive practices to keep out Black people and immigrants. Slow-growth policies, in Los Angeles’s case fueled especially by fears of Manhattanization, slammed on the brakes for multifamily housing construction. Single-family zoning became the norm. Leaning into its freeway system and an environmentally oblivious mythology of the desert as an endless terrain for exurban expansion, Los Angeles, by 2010, had shrunk its zoning envelope to 4.3 million people.

Today, the region has the fewest homes per capita of any metro area in the country, and the second-lowest rental vacancy rate of any major metropolis. More than 75 percent of residential land in the city, representing more than 400,000 parcels, is zoned for single-family houses, according to Christopher Hawthorne, the city’s chief design officer.

And with droughts, wildfires and climate change, the preponderance of single family neighborhoods, promoting sprawl and cars, is exacerbating not only the housing crunch but the region’s ecological insecurity. Meanwhile, neighbors like Culver City and Santa Monica — creating jobs without building new homes for the influx of workers — are increasing the housing pressures in Los Angeles.

More than half of Angelenos today are renters, and almost half of renters spend at least half their income on housing. That’s far beyond the federal definition of unaffordable housing (devoting over one-third of household income to housing). And it correlates with a rise in homelessness.

Local authorities have lately poured billions into a public transit system and pushed, with promising but limited results because of zoning restrictions, a Transit Oriented Communities Affordable Housing Incentive Program, which encourages construction of multifamily dwellings near transit stations. In his latest city budget, the Los Angeles Mayor Eric M. Garcetti promised $1 billion to fight homelessness. And the city has acquired some 20 motels and other properties to convert into subsidized housing.

Naturally, residents living in single-family homes don’t want to give up their backyards and picket fences. And many harbor vestigial, often groundless fears about jeopardizing the value of their properties. At the same time, the killings of African Americans by police and the nationwide protests that followed have highlighted a history of racism and real estate.

And with the pandemic, many single-family-home owners suddenly grasped the realities of housing insecurity and the limitations of zoning rules that foreclose walking to a neighborhood pharmacy or inhabiting the sort of flexible, multiuse, multifamily developments that facilitate live-work lifestyles and an alternative to commuting.

So where’s the middle ground?

Unlike with the plans for ADUs, none of the “Low-Rise” proposals can actually be built under the city’s current single-family zoning laws — and the forces arrayed against changing those laws remain formidable. Two years ago Los Angeles City Council members voted 12-0 to oppose SB 50, a state upzoning bill, in a purely ceremonial move reflecting the influence of an anti-development coalition like the ones that have emerged in other cities with runaway housing costs. In Los Angeles’s case, the coalition unites NIMBY homeowners from the wealthy Westside who fret that development could deflate property values with housing-insecure renters in underserved neighborhoods who fear it will lead to displacement.

I can’t think of a greater obstacle to solving homelessness and the affordable housing crisis in America today than this coalition.

“Low-Rise” doesn’t envisage swaying NIMBYs who can’t be swayed, but instead it aims to show Angelenos, who have legitimate concerns about their place in the city’s future, visions of what communities designed for them could look like.

The competition staged listening sessions with residents. Entrants — there were nearly 400 of them — were required to hear what the residents said. Jurors included affordable housing developers, architects, tenants and city officials.

In essence, they were looking to resuscitate a legacy of low-rise multifamily architecture. As Carolina A. Miranda, the Los Angeles Times arts and urban design columnist (who grew up during the 70s in one such condo complex in the city) summarized the logic behind “Low-Rise”: “We’ve been doing density all along. Now we simply need to do it better.”

Winners produced various examples of what better can look like. A proposal by a Brooklyn-based architect, Vonn Weisenberger, pictured a suite of gabled, green-roof buildings with prefab cores and modular apartments sharing a shaded courtyard. The design mixes vernacular allusions to the old bungalow court and to Cliff May’s classic ranch houses. The plan includes a ground-floor community room or commercial space, facing onto the street, so residents in the neighborhood could, say, walk to a corner grocery store to pick up milk instead of having to drive somewhere.

The obvious question remains: Will pretty pictures change minds?

Who knows. The architecture in “Low-Rise” may at least jump-start a conversation. The Los Angeles mayor’s office is now working with the Department of City Planning to determine how to incorporate ideas from the competition in updates to the city’s housing and community plans.



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