Think Small Part 2.
Transforming Los Angeles for the better
This is a follow-up to my post of February 2021 about the value of small things for big cities.
It is illustrated with low-rise micro-housing projects for South LA developed last fall by my Graduate Architecture and Urban Design students at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn.
One of the projects, ‘Green Village,’ by Ayesha Agha and Sara Brandt, won a Design Award of Excellence from SARA National and a Design Award of Merit from SARA NY. SARA is the Society of American Registered Architects.
So, I am very excited to head back to teach at Pratt next spring as a Visiting Professor.
We’ll focus again on the housing problem in Southern California, this time tackling how to convert older office buildings into housing.
I’ll be back on Halloween with a treat.
One year ago this week, ten graduate housing design students at the Pratt Institute came to LA to explore how small and affordable communal houses can help to solve our housing crisis.
The fall 2021 urban design studio I co-taught with recent graduate Sandra Nataf was focused on mid to high-density affordable housing in South Los Angeles. It was based on the Low Rise Los Angeles competition, organized by LA’s Chief Design Officer Christopher Hawthorne in collaboration with the Mayor’s Office of Budget and Innovation and other partners.
Assisted by a generous donation from the Ray and Wyn Ritchie Evans Foundation, the students had the opportunity to travel to LA and visit several architectural design studios hard at work on the problem of creating new housing solutions for our city. During their visit, we also conducted a midterm design review at the Helms bakery complex in Culver City.
The Single Family Home as an article of Faith
Southern California’s urban future still rests on our weird faith in the single-family home and our covenant with the lifestyle it promises. But, almost 150 years after LA’s first housing tract was developed, the single-family home is failing us.
As the LA Times reports this week, our twinned dilemmas, sprawl and overcrowding, create deplorable, inhumane conditions. In the Pico-Union neighborhood, “….Construction workers, seamstresses and dishwashers…bunk with half a dozen or more strangers in living spaces intended for one or two people.” During the pandemic, COVID burned through these tightly packed communities, killing generations of family members and orphaning children.
There are moves afoot to address this dilemma. Many local designers, planners, politicians, and community developers have tested smaller urban footprints on smaller lots and have proposed ways to reclaim small green public spaces to re-envision our cities.
I am hopeful about the promise these compact designs collectively hold to transform Los Angeles for the better, especially after the passage of California State Senate Bills 8, 9, and 10 last fall. Just last month, Governor Newsom signed new legislation into law, Assembly Bill 2011 and Senate Bill 6, essentially waiving parking requirements for affordable housing near transit hubs and providing a means to convert existing commercial properties to residential without unusually complicated entitlement and re-zoning hurdles. These bills may make it easier to densify Southern California intelligently after much opposition.
But, predictably, many local cities are panicking about the impact of these laws. The near-hallowed sanctity of building Southern California one house at a time is nothing less than a vaguely described, late nineteenth-century shibboleth. This unexamined doctrine promises every homeowner the right to operate their own mini-sovereign state, and it is part of a beloved parochial tradition.
Indeed if there were a Southern Californian Bill of Rights high up on that list would be the inalienable right of only two people to at least three bedrooms and two baths, lots of wasted storage space, a garage for two oversized SUVs, and an unused front porch. Combined with Howard Jarvis’ disastrous Proposition 13 anti-tax crusade in the late 1970s, the phenomenon of limiting other housing types to take hold in California and runaway construction costs have precipitated the situation we find ourselves in today.
Unfortunately, the lifestyle and weather promised to generations of lives led in detached, little ticky-tacky boxes are ending because the economics no longer work for families, and our climate is changing.
A Faustian Bargain
In the United States, housing is a reliably fungible commodity, something to be bought, sold, passed on, or traded profitably. That’s why the enduring, alluring proposition of home ownership has allowed millions of Southern Californians to participate in intergenerational wealth creation.
By any measure, expanded home ownership is a civil right and a means to civic participation, equitable land uses, and diverse community building. For example, Cal Matters recently pointed out that the “path to ending the racial wealth gap is homeownership.” Further, “… homeowners have 40 times the wealth of renters, which partially explains other quality-of-life disparities such as educational attainment, health, and employment for families of color.”
But at what actual cost does our unrealistic faith in the Californian Dream come? Was Eve Babitz right when she claimed that we had “sold our souls to the devil for all those swimming pools and orange trees, and young hopefuls basking in the sun?”
With nearly 70,000 souls sleeping on our streets every night and home ownership out of reach for anyone earning less than $135,000.00 a year (just to afford the current median home price of nearly three-quarters of million dollars), has the suburban dream has been a Faustian bargain, after all?
Have we reached the point where one family’s bliss must be traded for another family’s misery?
There are other newer paths to reconsider the utility of the single-family house as part of a densifying, more networked, and less segregated social fabric.
As our students dove deeper into the problem, we discovered that there are viable ways to connect the widespread desire for a small piece of paradise to a feasible means of offering home ownership to many more families in an era of diminished standards and skyrocketing construction costs.
Although the problems seem intractable, the solution is to think smaller: legally, in terms of what constitutes a house; financially, in terms of how much a home should cost; and architecturally, in terms of what the minimum humane housing envelope might be.
We need smaller lots, smaller individually owned houses, smaller outdoor communal spaces, and, most importantly, a foolproof system that will make smaller down payments on smaller homes possible.
This means divvying up and sharing whatever is left of the Southern California pie, especially financially. Then, through design, we can advocate for a housing-first approach that will spark community and economic development, creating investment opportunities for new homeowners.
These projects can create a mix of single-family, non-traditional family units for individuals or couples, elder housing, multi-generational family homes, permanent supportive housing, and live-work spaces by doubling up or even quadrupling existing density without compromising privacy while creating shared open spaces.
By shifting from ‘big-box’ to ‘small-box’ house thinking, we can eliminate wasteful parking and make space for accessory work and home business spaces. Locally-owned community eateries and small businesses can be tucked into residential neighborhoods, suggesting ways for income-poor local families to become economically independent through the creation of Accessory Commercial Units (ACUs.)
More, in Less
Our students also imagined community planning strategies for smaller homes to free blocks up for pocket parks, shared off-street parking with EV charging, and other community uses and spaces. In addition, they investigated passive house concepts and researched semi-prefabricated systems to achieve better environmental and economic performance.
On the money side, we created basic public-private redevelopment strategies. This allowed them to generate high-level, basic pre-construction development budgets and proformas for their projects to ground their designs in financing and construction economics.
Finally, our students studied local, domestic vernacular architecture, the “ugly and the ordinary,” allowing them to produce designs that addressed context, community, and cultural history.
Given that many residential properties are very easy to cheaply convert to affordable or supportive housing, I still fail to understand our puzzling resistance to re-formatting our housing typologies from hyper-low-density single-family to medium-density multi-family instead of just cannibalizing our commercial corridors for housing.
We should all be for more efficient and compact housing models, but what is the point of densifying our urban corridors without providing relief in more open space behind or along them? The trade-off seems like a lose-lose proposition.
LA’s single-family (R-1) homeowners still have no opportunity or incentive to truly leverage the wastefully planned available land they own beyond adding a tiny ADU out back.
At the same time, developers extract more profit and add more parking (and therefore generate more traffic) to our commercial corridors without providing any green space, inevitably contributing to LA’s Urban Heat Island Index. Instead of asking developers to make more parks, even pocket parks, available to the public in exchange for upzoning commercial areas, they’re often forced to add more parking to an already over-parked city.
Thinking Small to Think Big
We seem to have it all backward.
Instead of thinking about how to solve our housing crisis by working from the granular to the global scale, we continue to apply top-down solutions to the problems of sprawl and overcrowding. It is not working.
Instead of mining the resources we have on hand and trying to extract more value from our existing city grid by subdividing it, we are gobbling up precious space, laminating big ugly luxury apartment blocks over hypertrophied parking structures.
Instead of accepting that we can do more with less space, we keep asking for more room for more people; the math just doesn’t work. Something must change to find more affordable residential ownership opportunities for everyone to own, not just the lucky few.
As Los Angeles struggles to come to grips with its pressing new realities -- soul-crushing homelessness and very little affordable workforce housing, delayed transit infrastructure projects, and limited space for redevelopment --our primary ambition should be to invent decent, cheaper architecture available to middle to low-income families in new formats and with new formulas.