Can High-Density Housing Solve Our Regional Housing Crisis? The Answer: It’s Complicated

Southern California Public Radio affiliate KPCC, in partnership with the Milken Institute, assembled a panel of experts Wednesday night to answer the question: can high-density housing solve the housing crisis currently facing L.A. County and California?

Back in 2008, Streetsblog looked at the Solair Development along the Red Line in Koreatown.  ##http://la.streetsblog.org/2008/03/11/is-solair-real-transit-oriented-development/33Is Solair Transit Oriented?##  Our review was mixed.
Solair at Wilshire/Western in 2007. Photo: Damien Newton

For those who have been following news about the crippling housing supply crisis in our region, it may not come as a surprise that there were no straight-forward answers to this question offered up over the course of the 90-minute discussion (available to watch here in its entirety), moderated by KPCC senior reporter covering housing, Josie Huang.

The five-person panel did, however, generate some interesting possibilities for the future of our region and how to address the skyrocketing rents and home prices that are driving middle- and low-income people out of Southern California and even the state.

Or, in the words of panelist, Larry Gross, the executive director Coalition for Economic Survival, how do we prevent “the people who run Los Angeles [from] being run out of Los Angeles”?

“I don’t think density in itself is neither the solution for affordable housing, nor is it the great evil that will destroy neighborhoods forever. It has to be done well, it has to be located right, designed right, planned out right,” said William Huang, director of housing for the city of Pasadena.

Southern California’s historic aversion to density is clearly part of the problem, according to Professor of Architecture/Urban Design and Urban Planning at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs Dana Cuff, who was also on the panel.

“One of the reasons housing prices have gone up so much recently has to do with the fact that we can’t sprawl out any further,” said Cuff.

“It used to be that people went out of the city to look for cheaper and cheaper housing,” Cuff said, which has resulted in Southern California having the nation’s highest rates of “extreme commutes,” which means a commute of at least 90 minutes each way.

But as the region densifies, especially along our growing transit system, how can communities make sure that homes are homes built not just for the wealthy, but also for middle- and low-income households, who are more likely to ride transit on a day-to-day basis?

If we develop our transit system in the wrong way, we’ll have higher-income people moving along those transit corridors, who may use transit to commute to work, but not for their regular trips, and you [will] actually see a decline in ridership on the transit system,” said panelist Jeff Schaffer, vice president of Enterprise Community Partners.

“Phil Washington, the new head of Metro, has said if low income people are forced to move further away from transit, then he’s going to be obligated to build transit to get out to them,” he said. A step in the right direction, however, is Metro’s plan to assure that at least 35 percent of all new housing developed on Metro property be affordable.

“We have a lot of ideas in terms of solutions [to the housing affordability problem],” said Schaffer, “whether it’s through design innovation, planning and zoning changes…, a mix of subsidies, incentives, requirements.”

“What we really need is some kind of comprehensive plan that ties all these together and fundamentally, we need a societal commitment that every person in our community deserves a decent, safe, and sanitary place to live,” he said.

If we just leave it to market forces, we’ll see a “dismal performance” in terms of housing production for low-income people, he said.

It doesn’t help that city of Los Angeles has “the unfortunate distinction,” according to Schaffer, of being one of the few high-cost cities in the country that doesn’t have a local source for affordable housing subsidies. While there are state and federal funding sources available for affordable housing production — like cap-and-trade money, for example — without a local funding source, it is harder for municipalities to compete for that money.

That’s a problem, Gross said, as developers replace existing, affordable, and often rent-controlled units off the market and replace them with luxury units. He called for not only a “no net loss” policy with regards to affordable housing, but a “net gain” policy.

Pasadena, Huang said, has managed to find one solution. It is one of 11 cities in Los Angeles County that have inclusionary housing rules on the books, which require developers to build, as part of their market-rate developments, affordable housing. Santa Monica is another; voters in the beachside city adopted Proposition R in 1990, requiring that at least 30 percent of all new housing be affordable to middle-income (or lower) households.

Huang said, inclusionary zoning geographically distributes the housing and provides incentives for developers to produce low-income housing in desirable places, like near transit.

But, without a statewide rule clarifying individual cities’ rights to establish inclusionary zoning rules, the implementation is piecemeal throughout the region.

Political obstacles to density also remain, especially in the form of neighborhood NIMBYism.

“We have a very bad history in Los Angeles of the politics of density and affordable housing and that has contributed to our problem. Nobody wanted it in their neighborhood even though it was them that would qualify,” said Cuff.

But that’s largely due to misconceptions about what density means. It doesn’t mean Manhattan, though that’s often what people think, said Cuff.

There are a million single-family homes in Los Angeles, she said. If 20 percent of them were allowed to create an additional unit, it would meet L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti’s goal of adding 120,000 new homes.

That would require rethinking some of the zoning requirements currently in place specifically designed to be barriers to certain types of housing models, including onerous parking requirements. Downtown Los Angeles’ adaptive reuse ordinance, which waived parking requirements for developers who wanted to repurpose underutilized office buildings as housing, is a prime example of how legislative change can produce thriving neighborhoods, she said.

“Of course we have to become more dense. We should be distributing that density across all neighborhoods in the city,” she said. “Every neighborhood council should take its share of housing.”

“If we shifted the American dream from being the single-family house to having every household have a house, it would be a way of developing options in the residential landscape,” Cuff said, adding that the diversity of housing options should reflect the economic diversity of region.

Over the course of the pane discussion, the audience participated in a twitter conversation under #AffordableCA. Read their comments here.

Wednesday’s panel was the first in KPCC’s series, “Rescuing the California Dream: Policies for an Affordable Future.” The series is co-presented by KPCC/Southern California Public Radio and the Milken Institute.

  • GlobalLA

    “here are a million single-family homes in Los Angeles, she said. If 20 percent of them were allowed to create an additional unit, it would meet L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti’s goal of adding 120,000 new homes.”

    The would be THE WORST thing Los Angeles could do. Building an additional unit would only ENSURE that density growth will be spread out all over the southland along with these single-family homes. Thus, the negative effects of sprawl associated with single-land use separation and the horrendous traffic commutes associated with them would only exacerbate the congested roads we have now.

    What was Dana Cuff thinking?!

    “Huang said, inclusionary zoning geographically distributes the housing and provides incentives for developers to produce low-income housing in desirable places, like near transit.”

    Agree in principle but inclusionary zoning also distorts the market so that encouragement of housing in terms of volume is further constrained. Zoning such as maximum density, setbacks, height restrictions and floor-area ratios already constrain the housing supply. Adding the mandate that affordable housing be included only tightens up the pro formas (one of many financial reports) for these projects. Thus, developers only build housing to the extent they deem ARE FINANCIALLY viable, NOT TO THE EXTENT IN TERMS OF ADDRESSING THE HOUSING SUPPLY. Developers only look at other housing supply available primarily to assess the market environment and how it affects the economic viability of their own projects. The problem people like Huang seem to have are to view developers as the supply problem solvers through more rules (inclusionary housing).

    Rules are OK, but they need to be considered holistically among all the other mandated zoning rules out there. Another thing that needs to be seriously highlighted is NIMBYism and its influence on growth. You can have all the rules in place but if people don’t like it or it changes the status quo, they will fight it regardless of what policies are out there (good or bad).

    I agree higher-density is the answer. It’s complicated because yes, there are a lot of factors to consider. It’s not too complicated that we or are experts can’t understand it, but the underlying facet I feel is the real culprit is that many of these proposals, ideas, and concepts are POLITICAL. Because we have such a democratized process where developers can be forced to alter plans because of community resistance, we only get compromised half-ass projects that barely meet our housing needs while doing nothing but worsening our regional infrastructural growth.

    We need a stronger REGIONAL plan that places more teeth in its housing goals that can be flowed down to the various cities in our county. Unfortunately, the loosely structured democratized process of urban development we currently have in place won’t allow that. People may fear another Robert Moses type plan to destroy their neighborhoods, but the flip-side is that without strong central-type regional plan, we are also destroying our neighborhoods by making EVERYONE suffer slowly through expensive housing and congested roads.

  • calwatch

    One issue is that as families are getting smaller, and average space per occupant grows (i.e., every kid now demands their own room, and spare rooms and special purpose rooms are more prevalent), the actual occupancy of many properties in post-war neighborhoods are less than when they were first constructed. Also, many seniors age in place due to their love of their home, and Proposition 13 protections. So adding ADUs would not necessarily add more population but just revert the population back to its original level, when homes were occupied by families.

    You could blanket legalize ADUs on properties within half a mile of a frequent transit line as defined by SB 375 (15 minute peak service or a rail station). Many of the older homes have garages in the back of the house anyway which allow for lots of car storage.

  • Azunyan

    Classic chicken-or-the-egg issue.

    In my opinion, much of the parking lots owned by supermarkets all across LA can be reused to build a high density condos. If only there was a way to convince these supermarkets to redevelop their parking spaces into residential buildings. But you know the supermarkets don’t want to do that when they need those parking lots for their customers.

  • jk2001

    You can’t lift the parking requirement unless several things happen: parking tickets on street cleaning days need to be reduced, zoned sticker parking so you regulate people doing “satellite parking” in your community, public transit is available within half a mile, and it operates until 1 a.m., going to a transit hub (and it can’t be taken away), and a car rental business be within half a mile (even if it means making special financial provisions to allow such a business).

    The fact is, LA is still a car and bus city, and if you want to increase density, you need to account for that fact. It’s not enough to increase density – you have to help people get to work, or these high-density areas are going to become only workable for retired people and people on some form of welfare.

    Also, one other thing – allow people to turn their front lawns into parking areas.

  • jk2001

    They could build stacked parking, with the housing above the parking – or underground parking.

  • jk2001

    We can increase density in SFR areas. It’s been done before. The city is mostly R2. It’s feasible to transition if there’s sufficient public transit nearby, and a car rental business nearby. The thing is – the city *must* provide the bus, and must ensure that there is a car rental business. Then, it’s actually more convenient to not drive. I did this for a while in Oakland, and when I got a car, ended up using it on the weekends. It was actually a big waste of money and resources to own the car.

    I drive now, and mostly for family and medical reasons, but for myself, it’s feasible to mainly use public transit where I live now. The main thing missing is easy access to a car rental company within walking distance. Nearest one is a couple miles away. That’s too far. Sometimes, you just need to go a long distance, or run a series of errands, and need a car.

  • jk2001

    thx for the bill number – didn’t know it even existed.

  • Azunyan

    How will they be able to run their business while construction is going on? Building a stacked parking or underground parking doesn’t happen overnight. For the duration of construction, they’re going to need to shut down that business.

  • Azunyan

    LA is already dense as it is and going to get worse. We already have 10 million people living here and if LA County acted like under one single consolidated city-county like San Francisco, we’d be the largest city in the US overnight, not NYC.

  • calwatch

    When compared to the other top 25 cities (even limited to those countries in the First World, i.e. Canada, Europe, and Japan) LA is not as dense. Also NYC connects a contiguous urban area (well, except for Staten Island), while the residents of West Covina don’t have much in common with Los Angeles proper.

  • Jason Grant

    10 million in a single county is already dense as it is. We have more people living here than the entire state of Georgia.

    Besides, a large portion of LA County can’t be developed anyway so LA County is facing a land use shortage. Population is only going to get more bigger, but no land is left to develop. We’re bound to be the next London or Tokyo: large population spread out over a large area with limited land use space.

  • Joe

    In order for density to be successful the rate of car ownership needs to decline.

    I think the best way is to add density that “encourages” alternative modes of transportation.

    This will work best in providing housing for low-middle income areas. It is much easier to encourage low-middle income individuals to take advantage of alternative forms of transportation, as the economic incentive is higher.

    Zone for high density around existing and near future transportation developments. Light rail stops, bus stations ect. Lift the parking requirements in these area’s.

    Put this system in place and expand it as transportation alternatives expand.

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