Bizarro Randal O’Toole

Reading Randal O’Toole if you care about the growth of cities is often an exercise in frustration. (I do it for two reasons – to know what the opposition is saying, and because you never know where you’ll find good data or ideas.) The really frustrating thing is that he frequently lays out principles that seem to favor dense development in some cities, but still manages to convince himself that single-family residence (SFR) neighborhoods never disappear unless urban planners force them out.

I think part of the problem is that while his analysis might be relevant to Portland, as he lives in Oregon, he applies the same conclusion to places where it’s only part of the story, like SF, and places where it’s almost irrelevant, like LA. For example, it seems unlikely the Pearl District would develop the way it did without tax subsidies. O’Toole is right that subsidizing this development is bad policy, and hurts the ability of the city to provide services to other neighborhoods. And no doubt, the fields and rolling hills south of San Jose would be turned into housing if permitted. But when it comes to SF, he’s all like “just how attractive and hospitable will San Francisco be after all of its single-family neighborhoods have been replaced by mid- or high-rises?” Well I don’t know, how popular would Doritos be if they replaced Cool Ranch with Kimchi? Only way to find out is give people a choice and see what happens, right?

The other problem with O’Toole’s analysis is that it’s rarely mentioned that one of the driving motivations behind zoning is “protecting” or “preserving” SFR neighborhoods from development, usually at the insistence of those neighborhoods. If planners are guilty of trying to force dense development in some areas, they’re just as guilty of trying to stop it elsewhere.

With that in mind, I present you with Bizarro Randal O’Toole. Bizarro O’Toole starts with the same assumptions yet ends up with different priorities regarding the problems facing cities.

bizarrochart

You get the idea. I’m going to start calling it a “Bizarro O’Toole moment” any time I realize I could use his arguments in favor of denser urban development.

*I’m aware that O’Toole has written several papers in favor of funding freeways with tolls. However, while he frequently criticizes specific transit projects, I don’t recall seeing any editorials against useless rural freeways, of which there are plenty.

Torre David: What is an Informal Community?

Almost a year ago, Torre David briefly flashed through the US city planning universe, thanks to an article on Atlas Obscura that linked to a short film.

Torre David refers to a complex of high-rise buildings in Caracas that were abandoned in the middle of construction in 1994 when the Venezuelan financial sector collapsed. By historical accident, the project was suspended at a point where the buildings were substantially complete. The structural frames and floor slabs were done, stairs (but not stairwells) were finished, and portions of the curtain wall had been attached. The site sat in suspended animation for 13 years until a rainy night in 2007, when people evicted from another squat converged on the tower. The guards relented and allowed them in.

Torre David: Informal Vertical Communities (Lars Muller Publishers) by Alfredo Brillembourg and Hubert Klumpner, with photos by Iwan Baan, offers an attempt at the detailed study warranted by this unusual community. The book is split into four main parts: Past, Present, Possibility, and Potential, including a graphic novella in the first part.

Past and Present

Thankfully, the overwhelming majority of the book is dedicated to the past and present of Torre David, allowing the community’s history and present condition to speak for itself. The authors also provide geographic and social context for Torre David – its place in Caracas, the geography and growth of Caracas, the impact of political upheavals such as the policies of Hugo Chavez. The photographs, for their part, are simply stunning.

The authors are the cofounders of Urban-Think Tank, and Chair of Architecture and Urban Design at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, lending a heavy architectural influence to the analysis. In this regard, the book truly shines. Crisp graphics paint a clear, detailed spatial picture of the buildings. The researchers have surveyed every occupied floor of each building in the complex, including the ingeniously improvised electrical and water systems. Flipping back and forth through these graphics, one can’t help but lament that similar respect wasn’t shown to that other famous informal vertical settlement, the Kowloon Walled City, before it was demolished.

Physically, the complex consists of a ten-story parking garage, an atrium intended to be the main entrance, and three buildings. The buildings are known as Edificio A (the 45-story high rise most often referred to as Torre David), Edificio B (19 stories), and Edificio K (19 stories, connecting the parking garage to Edificios A and B on floors 6-17). Access is via the parking garage, where residents can hire taxis or motorbikes to take them up to the tenth floor, then through Edificio K and across vertiginous 12-inch gap in the floor to Edificios A and B.

The initial occupation focused on Edificio A, now occupied up through the 28th floor, which offers a gym and children’s play space with an airy view. Vertical circulation is through only one staircase, with the other staircase having been converted to a shaft for utilities. Recently, apartment construction has been focused on Edificio B and the Atrium (imagine building an apartment on one of the upper levels of your local indoor mall). In addition to apartments, there are also several small stores, a hair salon, and a church.

Most media refers to Torre David as a vertical slum, but the photographs reveal a wide size and variety of housing. Apartments near the edge of the structure are more desirable, since they offer better natural light and ventilation relative to those near the building core. Apartments range from several bedrooms down to what US city dwellers would know as singles, bachelors, and studios. As time passes, apartments are upgraded with amenities like bathrooms, kitchen sinks, dishwashers, and clothes washers.

Some apartments are undeniably spartan, with minimal furnishings, unfinished concrete floors, walls of large red clay bricks, and no ceiling other than the preexisting steel trusses and concrete deck. However, other residents have invested a significant amount of time and money into their dwellings, installing linoleum floors, floor or wall tiles, and drop ceilings. You could post these places on Craigslist in New York or San Francisco at normal rents and have a lot of interested inquiries. (Actually, how many people in New York or San Francisco would like the opportunity to get an unimproved space and turn it into an apartment over time?) And in any case, however improvised the tenant improvements might be, residents of Torre David have a solid roof over their heads and solid floor under their feet, something not enjoyed by all barrio dwellers.

Converging on Formality

The authors call Torre David an informal vertical community, but it’s an interesting question to ask what we mean by formality in the first place. Certainly, the residents of Torre David do not submit plans to the Department of Building and Safety and dial them up for shower pan inspection when building a bathroom. Yet it would also be inaccurate to describe Torre David as chaotic or anarchical. Far from it.

From the very beginning, the viability of the occupation of the complex depended on social networks. On the day it was initiated, it depended on the ability of squatters to muster a large enough crowd that the complex guards assigned to keep people out would be overwhelmed by the volume of human desperation confronting them.

Torre David also has its own bureaucratic structure, which the authors describe as an authoritarian democracy. The governing cooperative, the Asociasion Cooperativa de Vivienda “Casiques de Venizuela” RL, was officially registered in 2009. Most residents are Evangelical Pentecostal Christians and attend services in the complex church, presided over by Alexander Daza, who is also the president of the cooperative. (The book is notably silent on Daza; perhaps this is the price of access, perhaps he is simply not that interesting.) An inner circle around Daza makes decisions, and then lower level of leadership and floor coordinators work with residents to maintain space and utilities.

Each family pays $15 per month to the cooperative for services including electricity, water, and security. Utilities were pirated at first, but the cooperative now purchases them and employs its own crews to maintain the electrical and water systems of the buildings. The cooperative also employs its own security guards to control access to the compound. Residents can be evicted if they accrue enough violations of a general code of conduct.

The cooperative has guided development of the complex – for example, it has decided that no space above the 28th floor of Edificio A will be occupied. In the beginning, anyone could apply for occupancy every Monday from 5pm to 8pm; now, few new residents are admitted unless there is a vacancy. When the first residents moved in, they lived in tents while they outfitted new apartment space, but that practice was ended in 2012.

The development of social and bureaucratic networks is fascinating, and makes one wonder how we, as a society, decide what is and what isn’t a formal community. The cooperative exists in a very strange place, as a legally recognized entity that does not officially own the property it manages. Yet the increasing formality with which the cooperative approaches development suggests that if the government doesn’t exist, you have to invent one. Torre David may be called an informal squat, but the cooperative provides services in exchange for mandatory fees, enforces socially accepted laws, provides security, and considers resident input. Is that not a formal community? Is that not a government?

Possibilities and Potential

The analysis of possibilities and potential is notably weaker, but overall still interesting and well-done. Happily, the authors largely avoid the impulse to shoot the moon with big, costly design-based solutions, instead focusing on incremental improvements to residents’ lives.

For example, the construction of a dumbwaiter system  in the existing elevator shafts offers great potential. They are mechanically simple, low-cost mechanisms that the cooperative could afford to maintain. They would alleviate the significant burden of climbing and transporting all goods up the stairs from the top of the parking garage on the 10th floor to the 28th floor. This would allow the cooperative to make use of the higher floors of the building for new apartments.

Incremental improvements to water and wastewater systems would also be beneficial. The lower levels of the parking structure often flood during rain storms, and the wastewater system was never finished properly.

However, for better or for worse, we are all captives of the age we live in. While the book does have a  beneficial focus on working with residents to improve the complex, it also incorporates some of the questionable trends in modern planning.

For example, the authors note the unreliability of electric supply in Caracas, and in the name of sustainability suggest that the upper portion of Edificio A be outfitted with an array of small windmills that would provide power and run a pumped hydro energy storage facility. I’m not sure residents need to be dealing with construction and maintenance of wind-generation equipment on the side of their building. I’m also not sure why this is a sustainable solution, since it’s not available to the much larger portion of low-income Caracas residents that live in low rises. And I fail to see why sustainability should entail generating all of a building’s energy on-site. Why not generate it wherever it can be most efficiently generated? (The pumped hydro is pretty basic and could be used without the wind generation.)

I’m also not crazy about the aerial tramway concept. This technology has a place where topography and existing development make bus or rail transit impractical. However, the capacity of an aerial tram system is smaller and its geographic scope is going to be more limited.

Still, on the whole, the authors do a decent job with these sections. Maybe it’s just me, but I’m far more fascinated by how communities evolve on their own terms.

The Human Touch

If there’s anything missing from the book, it’s the human touch. Whereas City of Darkness tells the story of Kowloon Walled City through stories and interviews with former residents, leaving one to wish for better spatial understanding, Torre David provides a complete spatial analysis and a summary of the social structure, without much in the way of personal stories.

Perhaps, as a more complete social and economic unit than Torre David, Kowloon Walled City lends itself to a greater diversity of stories. Torre David is essentially just a residential building, with a few small retail establishments serving residents, while Kowloon Walled City was home to an astonishing variety of retail shops, noodle and fishball producers, metallurgists, dentists and doctors, and small factories.

But even at that, there are thousands of people living in Torre David, and it would have been nice to hear some of their personal stories – where they came from, why they chose to move to Torre David, how they view the community, their hopes for the future. It may be that it was easier to get Kowloon Walled City residents to open up, since the city’s fate had already been determined when City of Darkness was written. Residents of Torre David hope to stay in their adopted home, to which many view their claim as tenuous at best. Marginalized communities – or communities that have been labeled informal – are rightly suspicious when those who determine what is formal show up.

Buy This Book

If you’re interested in how urban communities emerge and evolve, spatially and socially, I recommend buying this book. When I got it last year, you had to order it through the Swiss publisher, but it looks like it’s available on Amazon now (and if the going price for City of Darkness is any indication, you might as well buy it as an investment). It’s a fascinating look at both an architectural anomaly and a developing urban community.

Note: for a substantially contrasting analysis of the tower, see this Jean M. Caldieron article.

One-Way Pair for Clarington and Hughes

After a string of theoretical posts on housing at the regional level, it was nice to bring things back into the civil engineering wheelhouse with a look at some local streets in Palms!

Clarington and Hughes should be a one-way pair from Palms to Venice, or maybe Washington.

Now hold up. Before you start telling me about the virtues of two-way streets, hear me out. Clarington and Hughes are in a weird place where they serve both neighborhood and through traffic functions. They’re narrow (two lanes of traffic and one or two parking lanes in about 32’-34’), and people go too fast, making them a little uncomfortable on a bike.

So put this in your gears and grind them: each street should have one 10’ travel lane (southbound on Clarington and northbound on Hughes), 7’ parking lanes (two on Clarington and one on Hughes), and buffered bike lanes.

Boom! Through traffic and local traffic functionality preserved, plus dangerous lefts from Clarington to Palms eliminated. And if you’re riding between Venice and any possible bike lanes on Palms, now you have a dedicated lane east of Motor, and a solid connection to the Expo Line bikeway, and from the Palms Expo Station to downtown Culver City.

CHmap

Using the excellent Streetmix, here’s a sketch of what each street would look like. Note that the location of the bike lanes minimizes the risks of getting doored.

Hughes Clarington

If Culver City wants in, between Washington and Culver, there’s enough pavement on Clarington (or Madison as it’s known in Culver City) for bike lanes, and south of Culver, it’s a quiet street that doesn’t need any special bike accommodation. Meanwhile, Hughes (or Duquesne in Culver City) south of Washington is at least 44′ wide, and could accommodate bike lanes while maintaining the same number of travel and parking lanes (two 10′ travel lanes, two 7′ parking lanes, two 5′ bike lanes). That would get you a connection to the Jefferson bike lanes.

Now, in the scheme of things, there’s nothing really that wrong with Clarington and Hughes. But this would just be a few stripes. If it didn’t work, things could easily be changed back. Assuming four 4” solid stripes would be needed on each street, the cost would be less than $20,000. You’d also need some new signs and maybe some signal retimings at Venice and Washington, but still, this would be a cheap project. You could also use the opportunity to get rid of a bunch of the extra pavement at Hughes and Expo, but that part could wait. The LA Great Streets project is focusing on arterials, but a small project like this might be able to get off the ground quickly, and show people that the world doesn’t end when you make room for bikes.

Where’s the Political Constituency for Increasing Housing Supply?

It sounds simple enough. LA, like many US cities, has a housing shortage. Increasing housing supply would reduce the cost of housing, allowing people to save or spend more on other things. It would also allow more people to move to the city and take advantage of economic opportunities. LA is already a city of renters by a wide margin (62% renter to 38% owner), and even at the county level, LA County is 53% renters. By this logic, there should be a lot of people who have an interest in seeing a lot more housing construction.

Clearly, though, the reality in many cities is that the forces opposing development are well-organized and exert a substantial amount of political power. Good ideas, no matter how good, will be doomed to the purgatory of academia and the blogosphere forever if there is no political constituency behind them. If increasing housing supply is a good idea, we need to figure out why there’s not more political support for it – and what could be done to change that.

Consider this a very rough attempt at a first step in that effort.

Diffuse Benefits

It’s hard to get motivated to take political action when the benefits are so decentralized. For example, how much benefit am I personally going to derive from an increase in construction in the San Gabriel Valley? And how seriously is my input, as a Westside resident, going to be considered by local politicians who don’t have to answer to my vote? Meanwhile, vocal NIMBYs perceive impacts at a hyper-local level – a street, a block, an individual property – and it is much easier for them to coordinate action. This is essentially the argument that Matthew Yglesias makes in The Rent is Too Damn High.

I think this is a weak argument. People will be motivated to apply political pressure if they perceive an issue to be important. For example, many people in California will see little personal benefit from the state’s efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, yet still support those efforts because they believe it to be an important issue for society. People either do not believe land use in other neighborhoods is important, or they haven’t been provided with an adequate way to express their opinions.

Different Priorities

When a good is scarce, people often try to preserve their own access rather than try to increase supply of the good. This is why anti-immigrant sentiment always increases during recessions – easier to save the jobs for yourself than try to increase the supply of jobs.

In the case of housing, this impulse manifests as things like rent control and anti-eviction regulations. While these policies do something for people who already live in the city and qualify for the policies, they don’t do anything for people who don’t qualify, or for people who live somewhere else but would like to move to the city. In fact, for those latter groups, these policies arguably make things worse.

Policies like rent control and eviction controls are essentially defensive reactions to unaffordability. Increasing housing supply would be going on the offensive. People acting from a defensive mindset aren’t going to have the same priorities.

I like the way that AURA, an advocacy group in Austin, Texas, frames things: we need abundant housing.

When Austin has enough homes to accommodate all those who wish to live here, housing will be more affordable across the entire housing market. However, there will always be a need to provide for those who need it most. Public subsidy should be focused on those most in need, using proven programs such as the Housing First model of addressing homelessness.

Abundant housing includes affordable housing, but goes beyond. Defensive policies don’t do anything about the city being gated; they just decide who gets to be inside the gate. Abundant housing would mean that the opportunity to be an Angeleno would be available to anyone, and let us welcome new residents to LA.

Unequal Access

Many minority and low-income communities remember that for decades, governments and markets conspired to deny them equal access to housing. In fact, in many cases these forces conspired not only to deny access, but to actively destroy minority wealth through housing. Having secured some measure of political power, these communities are understandably reluctant to make themselves vulnerable to market forces.

They also see, and correctly interpret as unfair, calls for more development in their communities, like Boyle Heights, while no development occurs in wealthy SFR neighborhoods on the Westside, like Cheviot Hills, Rancho Park, and Beverlywood. Urban development plans, right up to the present, often treat low-income and minority communities as if they don’t exist or are expendable.

There will only be support for increasing housing supply in these communities if people can believe they will not be treated unfairly. And the policies have to deliver, too! Allowing growth, especially of the smaller housing types, should be a way to build wealth in minority communities. Development should be spread out across the region, too – that’s a more equitable way, and it also makes more sense given LA’s polycentric nature.

Building a Constituency

The task of building a political constituency to advocate for increasing housing supply is daunting.

However, all the impediments to increasing supply are political, and politics can change. If you think it’s impossible, remember that in 1985 the Westside Subway was illegal, and now it’s inevitable. In 1998 Zev Yaroslavsky was banning the funding of subway construction with county sales taxes; in 2008 he was promoting Measure R to build the Purple Line. Residents in the San Fernando Valley prohibited light rail, now they want the Orange Line converted to LRT. If you want a land use example, consider that the last time Houston had a vote on introducing zoning, it was defeated by low-income neighborhoods. In politics, everything is untenable and impossible, until it’s not.

How do you build that constituency? Well, that’s the hard part. And to be honest, I have no idea. I think to start, everyone will have to just listen to potential advocates and allies, rather than telling each other what to do. But if housing supply is going to have a chance, we have to start somewhere.

What Are City Planning’s Goals?

In Chapter 10 of Human Transit, Jarrett Walker writes about the contradictory missions faced by many transit agencies:

Coverage: serve all parts of our community.

Ridership: maximize ridership with our fixed service budget.

It is one of the most fundamental insights of Human Transit that, while reasonable and achievable when stated separately, these goals cannot be executed simultaneously. Thus, agencies usually face criticism on both counts: that they are not serving low-demand parts of the city well enough, and that they require too much subsidy per rider. Note that, all other things being equal, it is impossible to improve on both measures at the same time – doing one works against the other.

City planning, as we have currently constructed it, also faces contradictory missions – an urbanism equivalent of “fast, cheap, or good – pick two”. In coastal regions of the US, we have assigned city planners with three primary missions:

  • Stop sprawl: slow the conversion of rural land into suburban developments of single-family homes and low-rise commercial.
  • Protect existing neighborhoods: prevent changes that current residents find discomforting, such as construction of apartment buildings or “McMansions” in single-family neighborhoods.
  • Affordability: ensure that a variety of housing types are available so that everyone can find a place to live without spending a burdensome part of their income.

Any two of these goals can be executed well together:

  • Stop sprawl and affordability: you can do this if you increase density in the existing built-up city. Who does this well? Tokyo. And Toronto! You can buy a brand new condo in a high-rise in downtown Toronto for barely $200,000. Read it & weep, coastal elites.
  • Protect existing neighborhoods and affordability: you can do this if you unabashedly sprawl out. Who does this well? Sunbelt cities, like Phoenix, Dallas, Atlanta, and any place in North Carolina.
  • Stop sprawl and protect existing neighborhoods: you can do this if you don’t give a crap about how expensive your city gets. Who does this well? San Francisco, obviously. London, again obviously. This is where Boston might end up, too.

Notice that I didn’t throw LA, or Houston, into any of these bins. LA’s development pattern until 1990 allowed both sprawl and densification of existing neighborhoods, much like Houston does today. And while “neighborhood protection” has become the NIMBY rallying cry in LA, and some inland cities like Norco and Redlands have “slow growth” regulations, the sprawl outlet is still very much available in Southern California. There’s not much stopping suburban development in places like the Victor Valley or the Antelope Valley – in fact, people like Lancaster Mayor R Rex Perris are out there trying to encourage it. The problem in LA is that the land where it’s easy to sprawl is too far from the locations with high job growth – even given LA’s polycentrism.

Walker writes in Human Transit that “eventually… the reality of the contradiction overwhelms the best rhetorical efforts”.

This is where we are with land use planning in California. Every city general plan, and every politician, will tell you that affordability is important. But when the steel hits the rails, that piece of land is too special to develop, that neighborhood can’t possibly support any redevelopment, and that building is too unique to be demolished. For a while, the terrible economy of the early 1990s and pre-existing housing slack masked the problem in LA, but no more.

Actions speak louder than words. No matter how loudly they claim to care – if they think Expo/Westwood and Expo/Western should stay SFRs forever, if they support the proposed downzoning in Echo Park, if they opposed the seven years and 8,000 page EIR in the making Bergamot Station plan – they don’t care about affordability in a meaningful way. The real world outcomes confirm that: the sprawl gets stopped, and the neighborhoods get protected, but housing prices and rents continue to rise.

Our current policies prioritize stopping sprawl and neighborhood preservation, with little regard for affordability. It’s important that we realize this and have this conversation. If you’re a renter in LA, you need to ask yourself how important it is to you that SFR owners are protected from change. Are you willing to pay higher rents for that? Because that’s the option you’re being presented. If that doesn’t sound like a great tradeoff, we need to do something about it.

Four LA-Native Housing Types that are Ready to go to Work Solving Our Affordable Housing Problem

LA needs a housing boom. Not just in downtown or Hollywood or Santa Monica, but everywhere. From Reseda to Harbor Gateway, Palms to Fontana, Bellflower to Mar Vista. It can’t be just a few enormous projects; we need thousands and thousands of small projects all of the region. To paraphrase Mao, let a thousand dingbats bloom, let a thousand accessory dwelling units contend.

In that spirit, here’s four housing types already found all over LA that are good to go. All we gotta do is let them do their thing.

Dingbats

We sort of have to start here, don’t we? The dingbat is probably the definitive LA apartment type. Reviled by architecture critics and urbanists for their style, doubted by structural engineers for their seismic stability, lived in by hundreds of thousands for their undeniable functionality and cost effectiveness.

DSCN0103

On the style count, well, everyone can’t be as beautiful as Andres Duany. If you care about architecture, worry about making sure that architectural variety and experimentation aren’t being sacrificed at the altar of neighborhood character. Most of us can’t afford Hermès, but we’ll happily take Forever XXI.

On the seismic count, the problem with dingbats is the open nature of the first level caused by parking bays. (In engineering parlance, it’s a soft story because it has much less shear strength than the solid-wall apartments above.) This can be fixed pretty easily by (1) reducing parking requirements and eliminating the problem in the first place and (2) engineering better connections between the steel supports and the wood above. It’s a trivial problem – really.

Where should they be built? Just about anywhere in LA County. In the City of LA, the sweet spot for dingbats is probably neighborhoods that are currently zoned for minimal multiple-family (RD or R2) where dingbats could probably be built under R3 or R4.

Attached Apartments

Regardless of the zoning code’s approval or lack thereof, accessory dwelling units and attached apartments abound across the city. It’s a win-win-win: the region gets a bunch of apartments supervised by someone who’s bound to really give a crap about the impact of their tenants (i.e. an on-site owner), owners get some bonus income from renting the units, and renters get, you know, a place to call their own.

DSCN0105

You see these here and there in places like Palms and Torrance, sometimes even purpose-built as SFRs with apartments in back. In a few places, like Hawthorne, you see them all over the place. It’s a really natural addition to neighborhoods.

Where should they be built? Any single-family neighborhood that hasn’t seen an increase in supply in about 50 years. In the City of LA, this is everything R1 and below.

Cudahy Lots

Way back at the turn of the last century, LA was seeing a large number of immigrants from the Midwest, looking for better weather and better work. Michael Cudahy enticed a bunch of them to buy long, skinny lots (50’-100’ wide by 600’-800’ long) in his eponymous city, with the idea being that you could build a house and have a huge back yard for a garden or orchard.

As the population of LA County boomed, these lots were redeveloped into apartment complexes that are sort of like the megafauna of railroad flats.

Cudahy_lots

The resulting urban form looks like low-rise suburbia, but creates surprisingly high densities: Cudahy is the second-densest city in California (after Maywood).

In addition to their namesake city, Cudahy lot redevelopments can be found in places like El Monte. Historically, these redevelopments have been mostly 1-2 story low-rise, but there should be no harm in letting them go to 3-4 stories and do apartments.

Where should they be built? Any place that has the requisite lot type. This includes Sylmar, Avocado Heights, Fontana, several parts of San Bernardino, Jurupa Valley, parts of the Antelope Valley, and the remaining lots in Cudahy and El Monte.

Podiums

You know podiums – they’re those mid-rises with up to 7 stories of wood-frame construction sitting on top of a story or two of concrete base. The height limitations are due to seismic code and fire code requirements, which in LA essentially mandate steel and concrete construction for anything over 75’ tall.

photo (5)

Podiums often draw a lot of architectural criticism (first law of affordable housing – the more reviled it is, the better the job it’s doing at being affordable, right down to the ultimate rural affordable housing, the universally despised trailer park). As I’ve said before, this blog isn’t in the business of worrying about architecture. Podiums are great as a building form, and like any, they can be executed well or not so well.

In the scheme of housing, podiums are the last gasp of cost-effective wood-frame construction before you’re forced to incur the costs of steel and concrete frames. The first three options in this post can be constructed for around $60-$100 per square foot. With podiums, cost rise up to around $200/SF, so they’ll always be more expensive to build. The trade-off is usually taking a smaller unit, and perhaps being able to save on transportation. Of course, after the building capital costs have been paid off and the units start to filter, rents can fall in older buildings.

High-rises cost considerably more, around $400-$500/SF, which is why affordable housing solutions that depend on them are a bad idea when there’s enough room for the four cheaper options presented here. High-rises still play an important role, though, because they satisfy luxury demand and prevent it from bidding up prices for low-rise and mid-rise construction. That’s why we should allow construction of (unsubsidized) market-rate high-rises.

Fortunately, LA is a huge region, and we have plenty of space to grow. We can build all the housing we need without needing high-rises for a long, long time.

Where should they be built? Anywhere on the Westside, much of Southbay, parts of the Valley, the San Gabriel Valley, San Bernardino, and Riverside.

Do the Math

Recent estimates have put LA County’s deficit of affordable housing units at about 500,000. Population growth probably requires somewhere around 30,000 units per year, so let’s round that up to 50,000 per year (on the assumption that more affordable housing would increase population growth).

So, if we could build 100,000 housing units per year for the next 10 years, we’d be getting back on track. That may seem like a daunting task, but if you break it down, I think it’s achievable. Maybe it looks something like this, every year:

  • 10,000 SFRs (basically Antelope Valley & Santa Clarita)
  • 20,000 ADUs
  • 30,000 dingbat units (or 3,750 8-unit buildings per year)
  • 35,000 podium units (or 350 100-unit buildings per year)
  • 5,000 Cudahy lot units (or 333 15-unit buildings per year)

Aren’t these numbers a little audacious? Not really. This boils down to building 27 SFRs and 55 ADUs per day, along with about 10 dingbats, 1 podium, and 1 Cudahy lot redevelopment. This amount of construction might be a little jarring at first, just because we’ve adjusted to a slow growth level of construction. But technically, it’s trivial – does anyone really think it’s hard to find the capital, materials, and labor to build one podium per day? These targets are the equivalent of building about 275 housing units per day.

Realistically, you probably wouldn’t even have to hit those targets, because market-rate high-rises, non-profit developers, and institutional builders (like universities) will also be building units.

As with any product, the way you reduce costs is by standardizing the plans and the procedures for putting them together. In some future posts, we’ll take a look at how that can be done in the case of these housing types.

LA Needs A Housing Boom

Stephen J. Smith of Next City and Market Urbanism recently published some great visualizations of growth in American cities since 1940, using animated GIFs created by Ian Rees (@woolie).

These graphics make the need for a large increase in housing supply abundantly clear, and I want to look at the LA images in more detail.

1950s

Growth between 1940 and 1950 was somewhat muted by World War 2, but in the 1950s, the suburban boom really took off.

la.density_1950_1960-mod

There’s growth all over the Valley, South Bay, and the Gateway Cities. The initial wave of suburbanization takes off in Orange County, and advances into the San Gabriel Valley as well.

Counter to the “LA is sprawl” narrative, there’s also a considerable amount of growth in built-up areas like Santa Monica, Venice, Long Beach, Hollywood, and what’s now Koreatown.

1960s

Here’s the graphic for the 1960s.

la.density_1960_1970-mod

Suburbanization in the Valley advances to Santa Clarita and Simi Valley, while construction in the Valley falls off. However, there’s still a considerable amount of apartment growth in places like Reseda, Sherman Oaks, North Hollywood, Van Nuys, and Panorama City.

Construction in southeast LA County tails off, while suburbanization in Orange County pushes south.

Note that there’s still a ton of construction in Koreatown, Hollywood, Sunset Strip, Santa Monica, and Venice, and a continuing boom in Inglewood and Hawthorne.

1970s

The same trend continues into the 1970s.

la.density_1970_1980-mod

Notice that in the 1970s, there’s actually an intensification of growth in the Valley, especially in Warner Center and the previously mentioned areas. Growth in Burbank, Glendale, and Pasadena also occurs.

Further east, the southern San Gabriel Valley and Pomona Valley start to grow.

Santa Monica and Venice continue to boom, and Palms is on an absolute tear, as are the beach cities of South Bay and Long Beach. Koreatown, Hollywood, and Sunset Strip all keep seeing a lot of construction.

In Orange County, suburbanization advances into Tustin and Irvine, but previously built-up areas continue to grow too.

1980s

In the 1980s, there’s still a lot of building going on, but you can start to see the wheels coming off, thanks to widespread downzonings.

la.density_1980_1990-mod

The Valley and Santa Clarita keep growing much as they did in the 1970s, as do Burbank, Glendale, and Pasadena. In the San Gabriel and Pomona Valleys, Diamond Bar and Chino Hills start to grow.

Thing start to quiet off on the Westside, but Santa Monica, Venice, West LA, and Palms still see growth. Koreatown keeps growing, but Hollywood and Sunset Strip decline noticeably.

Similarly, Long Beach and the South Bay beach cities see some growth, but a noticeable drop off. Meanwhile Hawthorne keeps growing.

With the exception of Irvine, things get much quieter in Orange County.

1990s

The 1990s are sort of LA’s lost decade, thanks to a punishing recession from 1990-1994 associated with defense spending cutbacks. The lackluster growth is somewhat forgivable in that regard.

la.density_1990_2000-mod

Koreatown, Hollywood, and North Hollywood see growth, but at a much lower level, as does Panorama City. Irvine and Tustin are about the only thing going on in Orange County. In the San Gabriel Valley and South Bay, it’s crickets. On the Westside, only West LA, Palms, and downtown Santa Monica see noticeable growth.

2000s

In contrast to the 1990s, the 2000s were a time of prosperity and rising prices. There’s no excuse for construction to be this low.

la.density_2000_2010-mod

There’s a little pick up in Warner Center, Sherman Oaks, North Hollywood, Burbank, and Pasadena. Koreatown and Downtown grow, but Hollywood construction falls off. On the Westside, there’s West LA, Palms, Marina del Rey, and Playa del Ray, but that’s it. There’s a suffocating lack of growth in southeastern LA County and the San Gabriel Valley, and except Irvine, Orange County isn’t much better.

Here’s the animated graphic with neighborhood overlays. (Update: to get the animated gif to display in the post, I had to rescale it to a smaller size. Drop me an email if you want the original size.)

la.densit.overlay-reduce2

LA Needs a Housing Boom Everywhere

This is why we’re in the hole we’re in on affordability. And when you’re in a hole, one of the first things you can do to help yourself is stop digging. We have a 20 year deficit of construction to try to make up. Increasing supply isn’t a cure for all our housing issues, but I don’t see how we have a chance of solving other issues without it.

This growth can’t be only in a few favored neighborhoods like Downtown and Hollywood. We need new housing everywhere – the Valley, the Westside, South Bay, southeastern LA County, Orange County, the San Gabriel Valley – everywhere.