It’s not often that small architecture events are noted in the calendars of politicians, let alone attended. At L.A. Forum’s recent impassioned panel discussion on housing, (see Jennifer Dunlop’s report), the presence of Jonathan Kevles, the Director of Economic Development for the City of Los Angeles, created a small ripple. His polished demeanor looked slightly out of place amidst mostly artfully disheveled architect types.
Except Mr. Kevles was very definitely in the right place. With advanced degrees in urban planning and business from UCLA, he was a foreigner neither to the discussion nor to some of its participants.
At the end of the meeting Mr. Kevles rose and asked the crowd for input in changing the City’s approach to housing, particularly with regard to zoning and density. His request signals a optimism that something may at last change, that front-line experience of the architectural community has reached a critical mass which can at last be harnessed. It can be part of the process rather than only an articulate critical chorus.
The immediate vehicle for that input is the City’s newly established trust fund for affordable housing of $42 million rising to $100 over the next few years. “The Housing Trust Fund is important not only because what is in it [the funding] but because of what isn’t in it,” Kevles said, “no inclusionary zoning, no linkage fees, no ‘in lieu’ fees that discourage a developer from considering affordable housing.”  The team’s longer-term goal is to evaluate suggested alternatives and integrate viable proposals into a coherent program that can be realistically implemented, addressing both affordable and what the Mayor’s team calls “work-force” housing. (Such a term may be politically astute: historically, affordable housing has had a problem with semantics. Affordable housing for moderate income levels may be the same as work-force housing, but the latter phrase has no perjorative ring to it.) The Mayor, he said, is interested in housing because both for its innate bearing on human dignity, seeking to increase both the quantity and the quality of homes, but also for its implications for business growth and development.
That can probably mean that long-held density restrictions that serve to exascerbate the housing crisis and sustain its stagnation will be one of the first things to be re-evaluated. Kevles and his colleagues are looking at mixed-use nodes of increased density focused around transportation centers, an approach that almost literally as old as the hills but considered a progressive urban tool today.
“We’d like to take that frustration [manifested at the discussion] and see people develop precise recommendations. We are trying to harness that vast collective expertise so we can make incremental changes,” Kevles said.
(He took care to mention key teamplayers in the development of the fund, such as Carmel Sella, Deputy Mayor for Inter-governmental Relations; Sarah Dusseault, the Mayor’s Director of Policy for the Housing Trust, and Eric Brown, the Mayor’s Special Assistant, who has been involved with directing Community Development Block Funds, CBDGs, to housing, rather than to other urban amenities.)
 Inclusionary zoning refers to local ordinances or guidelines that require or encourage residential developments to include a certain percentage of affordable housing. Often, payments may be made to a trust fund in lieu of building housing. Similar programs affecting non-residential rezonings are called “linkage” programs. One of the earliest applications of inclusionary zoning occurred in California. The California Coastal Commission has had, for many years, an inclusionary (affordable) housing requirement for development of any property within 1,000 feet of the coast. Subsequently, numerous Inclusionary Zoning programs appeared in California in the early 70’s. Housing prices had escalated to a point where there was little supply of “affordable housing.” There was a growing interest in the need to develop programs that would provide housing at a price affordable to low level employees, public servants and others whose needs were not being met by the market. Statewide legislation was passed that applied to all redevelopment areas: if developed by a private developer there had to be a 15% set-aside; if developed by a public agency the set-aside is 30% (6% of the units must serve very low income households, 3% low and 6% moderate income). In addition, a model inclusionary zoning law was written and subsequently at one time, approximately 75 California jurisdictions adopted their own inclusionary zoning laws.