House, Housing Home : LA’s Domestic Design Challenge By Jennifer Dunlop

On Thursday evening, January 31, 2002, architect John Kaliski moderated the second in the Forum’s “Slippery When Wet” panel discussions, this one focused on housing and held at Woodbury’s downtown facility. It was a riveting and illuminating evening for two reasons. First, the discussion was driven by a panel of individuals widely regarded as experienced, talented players on this particular arena, that of making housing. They fueled a debate peppered with exasperation with the process, but the discussion was impressive in that everyone was unified in wanting to improve the current and future housing situation in Los Angeles. The source of their consternation stemmed from a wealth of real-world experience battling to get housing built. The second reason that the evening was memorable is that with this growing wealth of educated players and a new political environment at City Hall, the possibility of change seems realistic.

Kaliski initiated the discussion by identifying the evening’s topics: the city’s urgent housing challenge, the separate roles of the government and the private sector, housing design, interesting case studies, and how legislative policies helped or hindered housing production.

The consensus was that producing housing here produced as many, if not more, headaches than rewards. Some panelists pointed to the huge amount of time and effort spent in resolving conflicting, obscure, awkward legislation, or assigning precious staff time to responding to unwieldy bureaucracies originally designed to encourage community involvement, a laudable goal of the democratic process but one which now appears to have a stranglehold on the larger process of actually getting things built. As Los Angeles reaches its population saturation point, the panel seemed to agree that the city has hindered its own urban progress by allowing the political process to determine housing strategies. While the panel produced more questions than answers, there were a positive suggestions that stemmed from creative and cooperative approaches, giving hope that housing solutions are not unattainable.

Everyone on the panel, including Los Angeles’ housing department’s director of policy and planning, Sally Richman, pointed a frustrated finger towards the city government and the stronghold of politics involved in providing basic, decent housing, though the definition of “decent” was also contested.

Some factors in this crisis are unique to Los Angeles, others apply to affordable housing everywhere. Here population is rapidly exceeding the available housing. The lack of housing for middle to low income residents has increased both rent and sale costs and therefore, Los Angeles home-ownership is low. The rental vacancy is relatively high because most units available are luxury rentals, with owners for whom the need to rent is less urgent. Little undeveloped land, a lack of leadership, lagging economy, changing demographics and the muddled bureaucracy after the 1994 Northridge earthquake, which destroyed 21,000 homes, all have been factors in the current housing crisis.

Currently, building safety codes are being strictly enforced to avoid future earthquake destruction, which slows down the reconstruction of damaged homes considerably. Additionally, politicians kowtow to self-righteous homeowners; affectionately known as NIMBYs (not-in-my-backyard). According to the panelists, citizens are allowed too much of a voice in how their property and surroundings are governed, causing delay after delay until financing and project support runs out. The caricature of the standard “politicians trying-to-please-all attitude” seems to slow, and possibly even prevent, local housing projects. Business investors, shaken by the earthquake and the inevitability of another, are anxious to get a quick return on their investments and therefore regard property only as capital. This often means tearing down affordable apartments and replacing them with luxury ones. All of these reactions, along with the population increase have led to the current housing state.

The primary problem is the system in place to protect homeowners and renters. According to developer John Given, the building codes and zoning laws are hindering progress. Los Angeles has maxed out its land use, and is now faced with a density issue. The current laws don’t allow for height change (currently two stories) in mixed-use zoning (combining residential and commercial properties.) Given believes that Los Angeles has backed itself into a corner by not supporting mixed-use development. Residential neighborhoods don’t want to incorporate commercial businesses into the neighborhoods, and there is a negative public perception of commercial development. Given recently worked with Koning Eizenberg Architects on a mixed-use downtown development in Brea, which allowed for apartments over one-story shops. According to Given, the project was a success as all the commercial shops and apartments have been rented, and there are plans to continue to build more.

Given believes that astute marketing was the key to the project’s success. In order to change Los Angelenos’ perception of mixed-use housing, a strong marketing campaign will be needed that promotes a dense living in a way that is desirable. Though Los Angeles it as widespread and as spacious as Houston, it aspires to be just as metropolitan as New York. People move to Los Angeles for opportunities and lifestyle; everyone on the panel agreed that the ‘car dependent and single-family house’ lifestyle would have to change in order to accommodate the increase in population. This means that a solution needs to be in place for traffic and that “density” needs to be marketed as a desirable condition. Architect Lawrence Scarpa cited Atlanta as a city that was not willing to give up space and pushed residents to the outer boroughs and towns, which subsequently has created some of the worst traffic in America. Developer Given suggested relooking at the strip mall, which is famously designed to accommodate cars, not pedestrians. If one could build even two stories of apartments above every strip mall, there would be no housing problem at all, he proposed. Reducing the required number of spaces required per residence from two to one was suggested, but qualified by the idea that if more people lived closer to, or even above, commercial spaces there would be less need for cars. Unfortunately, current local laws are biased towards the automobile and its need for ample parking. By comparison, most New Yorkers don’t own cars because they are cost prohibitive, as New York city has not privileged car owners by mandating parking spaces for residents. If Los Angeles wants to be as metropolitan as New York, it needs to re-examine its relationship to the car and work towards providing a usable public transportation system.

The restrictive city codes have taken the pleasure out of designing housing, according to architect panelist Julie Eizenberg. The current micro-management state might prevent the construction of complete schlock but it also impedes any progressive retooling of existing paradigms, or experiments that can elastically respond to changing demographic trends. A certain amount of risk must be assumed by the city in order for change to occur; however, in these dubious financial times, investors and politicians are less willing to take risks. Instead of putting money behind experimental development projects–housing or retail–they would rather emulate previous financial successes, such as Third Street Promenade and fund a formulaic design, which breeds homogeneity.

Lee Stark, a developer whose interest is housing whether low income, single-family, or luxury, is currently developing what the panel described as a remedy to the housing crisis. In controversial playa vista, Stark has plans that are underway for mixed-use properties with businesses on the ground floor and up to four stories for housing above. (He invited everyone to view the model on display at the Playa Vista Welcome Center.) Los Angeles has not yet adopted this model for mixed-use live/work and it is refreshing to see that someone might be able to employ such a model for new property. While it seems to present a viable model for many of Los Angeles’s housing problems, it is unique as it is being built on the rare commodity of undeveloped land. The real challenge is changing existing housing and lifestyles. Richman is a proponent of preservation and upgrading of existing buildings, as opposed to demolition and reconstruction. Such a tactic preserves viable housing and promotes maintenance, but it probably won’t solve the impendent density and traffic problem.

Kaliski was optimistic that affordable housing could get built as long as designers were willing to compromise. He has found that in order to promote density in housing, one needs to present a more traditional design–not compromise good design but perhaps compromising style. The panel concluded with Kaliski asking each of the panelists what they would change if they could, and practical responses were instantly proffered. Larry Scarpa would do away with the two-car garage (which everyone agreed ended up as private storage sheds for ‘stuff’) and narrow some residential street widths. Jay Stark would promote home ownership by asking the city to give more incentives, tax or otherwise, to homeowners. Sally Richman supported more leniency with the ban on accessory units, which would increase density and provide an owner with means to rent out space, house a relative, friend or student, or respond to a new need. John Given would edit, clarify and simplify existing building policies, eliminating some redundant or arbitrary rules, acknowledging initially that some mistakes might be made, but the infusion of grass roots innovation and initiative would be well worth the effort. Like Richman, he also would like to see a wider range of financial incentives extended to housing conservation, so that it is more financially viable to preserve a space than to demolish and replace it. Julie Eizenberg, whose firm has worked on several award-winning housing projects, would like to continue doing so only if there were a revision and simplification of the city codes. John Kaliski would like to see longer mortgage terms (100 year terms) to promote better design through using materials that last longer (30 years is not that long for a house or housing structure and encourages cheap building technologies, solutions and materials.)

Even though all the panelists appeared to blame politicians and government policies as the bad guys, I would argue that the real focus of their frustration is the general public. As John Given said, Los Angeleno are pretty design savvy and very active in enforcing property-owner’s rights. If Los Angeles were to incorporate the changes in density, the panel suggests, it would alter the current LA lifestyle that encourages spaciousness.

Philosopher Pierre Bourdieu coined the term habitus in his book Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste. He claims that identity and self-expression are formed by an internalized sense of self-destiny based upon one’s upbringing. One feels destined to reach or surpass a certain educational and financial level in which one was raised. He writes, “. . .the best [one] can expect from the future is the return of the old order, from which [one] expects the restoration of [one's] social standing.” (Distinction, p 111). Without educating people about the housing crisis and the restrictive codes or promoting a different way of living in Los Angeles, no change can occur. “Home” is a very personal and subjective issue. Almost everyone has a strong sense of home and what a home should or shouldn’t be based upon their own upbringing. One’s residence becomes an extension of his identity. If someone was raised in a single-family home with plenty of yard, then according to Bourdieu’s theory, one will strive to attain that same style living or better. Any marketing campaign would need to promote the condominium lifestyle as equivalent socially to single-family home lifestyle.

People come here for the weather, the business and cultural opportunities, the generous sense of space and spaciousness. Los Angeles is promoted as such. Most of the local residents are no more than two generations invested in the city and are still living the Los Angeles dream of the single-family, free-standing house. Developer Given thinks the only way to change Los Angeles is by convincing people that urban apartment living is on par with a single-family home. Architect Eizenberg agreed, citing recent issues of Dwell Magazine that made apartment living desirable by profiling the residents and their sophisticated, alluring, metropolitan lifestyle.

Bourdieu also wrote about the effect of all the choices one makes in living in a capitalist society. He noted that a consumer believes he has participated in the creation of a product or cultural object simply by choosing it. The consumer decodes the product based upon his own background and makes a selection that is appropriate to his social standing. Therefore, in order to change Los Angeles current attitude towards dense living, it will need to employ strategic marketing. In my opinion the city needs to hire these panelists or those like them to create a campaign that promotes an alternative to the conventional Los Angeles dream that does not totally reject its regional identity; an identity that appreciates a good set of wheels, spare Modernist design, and outdoor barbecues.

Back to Forum Issue 3: Rethinking Housing