I recently had the opportunity to travel to both Philadelphia, a city I don’t know very well, and Boston, a city I lived in for 12 years before moving to LA in 2012. In Philadelphia, I was fortunate enough to have @riccoja show me around Northern Liberties and Fishtown; in Boston, I spent a lot of time walking around the city looking at how things had changed (or not changed) since I left. (I also visited DC, but really just the tourist thing and didn’t get to see much new development.)
I came away from my trip with two main thoughts on housing in Los Angeles:
- We have systematically made it harder and harder to build missing middle (link) housing in LA. This is unfortunate, because I don’t think we can solve the housing crisis without building a lot more of it.
- The homelessness crisis is the most visible and critical facet of the housing crisis. Even being away for just 10 days, it was shocking how bad things are in LA when I came back.
Row Houses and Ridiculously Narrow Streets
For historical reasons I don’t have the time to research or go into here, Philadelphia seems to have a strong development cultural emphasis on single-family housing, regardless of how small the lots or buildings are. Philadelphia is also cool with really narrow streets. This leads to a pattern of narrow streets with narrow two to four story row houses fronting right on the property line.
Unlike other American cities, it’s still possible to do development like this in Philadelphia, and there’s a ton of infill row house development in Northern Liberties and Fishtown. The only other place that allows townhouses like this is Houston, I think, and it’s certainly not on streets this narrow!
My biggest impression from Philadelphia is that LA needs to unleash this type of development. The virtues of small scale development like this are many:
- It doesn’t require lot assembly, so there’s no delay for that and never any need for redevelopment agency shenanigans.
- It’s cheaper per unit to build, because there is less common area and amenity space than a large building.
- It’s cheaper per development to build, which means a larger number of people can build them. This both increases housing supply and increases community input into how development occurs. It also makes it more likely that small local developers, who know the community well, can participate.
- It’s less complicated to build than a large building, which means a larger number of contractors and construction workers can be employed in its construction. This increases employment opportunity and lowers costs.
- It’s faster to build than a large building, which means it can respond to housing needs faster than large developments. This also lowers costs because carrying costs are directly proportional to the time between when the developer buys the lot and when the building opens.
- It creates small retail spaces, which increase the diversity of local business and creates opportunity for a wider range of small entrepreneurs.
All of this means a faster, larger, and cheaper response to the need for new housing. This is both good on the merits and good politics, because slow and expensive responses to the need for housing lead to more widespread disillusionment and agitation for radical action.
New Districts and Static Neighborhoods
In contrast, development in Boston seems to be focused in a handful of new districts: the Seaport, North Point, Harvard’s campus in North Allston, Station Landing, the area near North Station vacated by demolishing the Central Artery, Assembly Square, and Kendall Square. There was a little infill development (a couple buildings in the North End, a house in Brighton Center whose architecture my friends complained about) but it seemed to be the exception.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with replacing parking lots and abandoned rail yards with new neighborhoods. In fact, it’s pretty great. But it almost necessarily involves a lot more central planning from the city, big institutional developers, and big institutional finance. That means projects that move much more slowly, have a higher cost per unit, and are less likely to happen before the next market downturn. North Point is great… but it was one of the first projects I worked on when I lived in Boston after graduating, and it’s just getting built over a decade later. The same could be said for Assembly Square, Station Landing, Harvard’s campus, and the Seaport. These projects will happen when demand is high enough but they take a long, long time.
My friends in Boston are white collar professionals and public employees. They’re not housing insecure by any means. But they didn’t hold new development in Boston in high regard, and it’s somewhat understandable. It’s not really for them; it’s for people just a little higher up the income ladder. Comparing to Philadelphia, I can’t help but think that Boston would be better off if it were also building a crap load of small scale development like townhouses and small apartment buildings in places not quite as central as the new districts but still T-accessible.
Golden State Squalor
Returning to LA, I was more convinced than before that we need to allow more missing middle development here. If it were up to me, I would rezone every RD, R2, and R1 zone in the city to something like an “RD1.2” or “RD1” townhouse zone, with townhouses allowed by right with a minimum lot area of 1,200 SF or 1,000 SF. (I’d also eliminate parking requirements and reduce the impact fees.)
But more immediate, and more appalling, was returning to LA and walking around downtown, bearing renewed witness to the tide of human misery that floods downtown every night, retreating east of the double yellow line on Los Angeles St and south of 3rd St during the day, a thousand sidewalk washers in its wake.
I didn’t notice the absence of homeless on the east coast, but I noticed the presence when I got back, and it’s a complete embarrassment to LA and California that a state so rich should have so many people living on the streets. The numbers are overwhelming, the state of public health on the streets is atrocious, and yet still, proposals to relieve the situation face NIMBY opposition.
It’s hard to put into words how bad things are in California compared to other US cities, so let me not mince words in my final thoughts. We need to be out there trying to do something every day to fix this problem. And if you oppose new housing, especially permanent supportive housing or temporary shelters for the homeless, you are a bad person, and I hope you feel bad about yourself, because you should. I’m not a religious person but if this crisis doesn’t move you, by god, what would?