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Housing for Quality of Life and Social Change

Larry Scarpa

By Larry Scarpa -

Shelter is one of the most basic human necessities. Early architects and builders helped humanity survive a hostile new world on a journey from rudimentary and primitive shelters to an architecture that represents contemporary culture and society. Today, living without a home is one of society’s greatest existential challenges. Housing must be a basic human right.

In the US, there has been a volatile history of ups and downs with housing because it is not seen as a basic right. Affordable housing - defined as costing less than 30% of household income - comprises a complicated patchwork of programs that vary widely across states. A “National Housing Act,” written comprehensively and from scratch, would resolve inefficiencies in funding mechanisms, building systems, infrastructure, and improve unequitable housing policies.

Other countries and governments have long since enacted and benefitted from similar legislation. In The Netherlands, the National Housing Act of 1902 was based on the premise that housing is a shared national responsibility; a right, and not a privilege. Similar legislation in this country could streamline our ability to provide housing for more people and address the inequities remaining from our history of redlining and from lack of social capital - a term coined about two decades ago to describe shared values and fairness of public programs for everyone; not just a few, and not just the predominantly wealthy. The tools are available to federal, state and local governments; however, a change of approach will be necessary to remove the unjust and unnecessary barriers from both policy and societal perception if equitable and fair housing is to become affordable. Doing so would improve our neighborhoods, cities and quality of life for everyone.

Building affordable housing today has become one of the most divisive issues in nearly every US community. Virtually any project that includes the words “affordable housing” springs opposition groups into action. NIMBY’s (Not In My Back Yard) and now even BANANA’s (Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything) claim such projects devalue their neighborhoods by bringing crime, drugs, nefarious people and other illegal activities. Despite what NIMBYists may claim, housing affordability does not lessen the value of neighborhoods. Instead, it strengthens them, as studies by urban planners, social scientists, and nonprofit organizations such as Enterprise Community Partners and the Affordable Housing Design Leadership Institute have documented.

Neighborhoods are more resilient when we invest in social capital. If everyone has improved access to safe and clean shelter, healthy food, a local economy, and quality schools, infrastructure, and services - provisions that benefit everyone - communities would be more adept in overcoming issues that hurt communities. Health crises, natural disasters, and chronic challenges such as air pollution would be lessened because people at all income levels would be able to live closer to where they work and access mass transit more easily, which also allows easier access to critical services that improves health. Housing for all could strengthen local businesses through a healthier and closer workforce, could improve schools by eliminating the lack of neighborhood funds/help that occurs in lower income neighborhoods. Ironically, groups both for and against affordable housing and change in their communities generally want the same things. They want pleasant, walkable streets. They want restaurants with outdoor cafés, lots of great little shops, lots of available services and they like to run into friends on the street. Not to mention they also want great, human-scaled architecture. Neither group wants more crime, traffic or congestion. Most would like to see a streetcar or some other form of decent public transit, parks and other social infrastructure.

People, by nature, are social beings and need each other to survive. We thrive when we are in proximity and able to form social groups as many studies have shown. So then why has it become so difficult to effectively house people more compactly? Why has housing become unaffordable for large portions of our population? These are difficult questions that involve a myriad of unfounded political, ideological, and emotional fears about what affordable housing brings and the kinds of people that live in such places.

Policy and Perception, the Drivers behind Less Housing

A large part of the problem can be attributed to historic precedent. Beginning with the Great Depression of the 1930s and lasting well into the 1950s, working-class Americans, like much of the world, faced serious housing shortages. In response, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal created the first public housing for civilians not involved in defense work. “Public housing” as it was called, was meant mostly for working and lower middle-class white families. It was not heavily subsidized, and tenants paid rent. The purpose of public housing was not to shelter those too poor to afford it, but to shelter those who could afford housing but could not find it, because housing was in short supply and unavailable. Although Roosevelt’s New Deal included policies that created separate affordable housing projects for white and black families, most projects were commonplace in neighborhoods and accepted widely by most communities as part of the normal fabric of cities. Despite these policies of racial segregation, housing projects in cities still included, in part, racial, religious and social diversity.

After WWll, freeway expansion paved the way for privately funded suburban, automobile-dependent developments. Jobs moved to the suburbs, and middle and lower-class white families quickly followed. Commonly referred to as “White Flight”, this gave birth to, as Richard Rothstein details in his book The Color of Law, de facto segregation in America. He identifies the many specific governmental policies that led to discrimination, gentrification, and further division among races of people. As a result, the white-owned properties left in cities began to decline and decay. Minorities and people of color, essentially the poor and working-class, were left behind in cities with limited opportunities. Without work or resources (disinvestments due to a declining tax base), neighborhoods became blighted and public housing became the only option for the poorest people left abandoned in the downtown and first-ring suburbs of cities.

Rather than addressing the drivers of poverty, governments bulldozed vibrant neighborhood-scaled buildings and built poorly-designed large-scale affordable housing projects in the name of “urban revitalization”. The architecture of now infamous structures, such as the Pruitt-Igoe complex - a high-rise housing project in St. Louis - and many others like it were criticized for the destruction of large blocks within the neighborhoods where they were built. Although federal housing policy, government officials, urban planners and supporters of segregation were responsible for the creation of these poorly conceived projects, architects were primarily castigated for their failures. Because these projects were placed in the poorest neighborhoods; where few jobs existed, lack of proper maintenance created living conditions that were unsafe, unsanitary, and poverty was rampant; the common citizenry began to associate affordable “public housing” with destructive behavior, urban blight, poor people, drugs, crime and other non-desirable attributes.

Today many of these conditions have changed for the better. Most affordable housing projects in the US are now developed and managed by community-based nonprofit groups that are committed to housing people in need, while also being positive contributors to their respective communities. Even though housing policy is improving, the perception remains for the large majority of the general public that every affordable housing project contains mostly chronically homeless individuals with lengthy histories of homelessness, crime, and disabling health conditions living within the walls of the housing. While this population experiences high rates of serious mental illness, substance abuse and chronic physical illness, people with such conditions represent just a small fraction of the population who cannot afford housing. These “special needs” housing projects, which require medical and other social services, are not the norm, and although some of these individuals do live in affordable housing projects, they are mostly occupied by functioning individuals such as teachers, fire fighters, police, hotel workers, house cleaners, waiters and waitresses and other low-wage working-class individuals. These vulnerable populations are the most at risk. Low-paid service workers and the homeless are often unable to maintain a healthy physical distance from others, much less have the capacity to self-quarantine, as the recent pandemic has shown. They, like everyone else, need adequate housing to keep themselves and their communities safe.

A Path Forward, Changing Where Affordable Housing is Placed and How it is Financed

To make more affordable housing available to those in need, a paradigm shift is essential, not only with how affordable housing is perceived by society, but also how the policies and frameworks deliver affordable housing. Government mandates and funding still favors projects that are 100% designated for low-income populations, which are often inappropriately located in poor communities where there are fewer jobs, inferior schools and a lack of parks and other amenities that benefit residents, which only perpetuates the cycle of endless hope. These are exactly the kind of policies, discrimination and projects that are killing neighborhoods and cities by a thousand cuts and slow death. Instead of locating projects solely in poor communities and making them 100% affordable, a shift to a new model that incentivizes private developers to include affordable housing within market-rate projects is needed.

The current system of funding affordable housing through tax credits (LIHTC), where nonprofit groups are awarded tax credits by the federal government specifically to be sold on the private market to finance their affordable housing projects, should be phased out in favor of inclusionary policies, where market-rate and affordable housing co-exist in a single project. Under the current LIHTC system, large multi-billion-dollar corporations purchase these tax credits from the nonprofit developers, at less than full value but ultimately profit from the full amount of the tax benefit. The nonprofit developers then use these corporate dollars to build their affordable housing projects. Corporations profit from this system by getting a tax credit at a discount while taxpayers ultimately are the ones footing the bill. According to the Brookings Institute Tax Policy Center, the LIHTC program costs American taxpayers around $9 billion per year. Projects that are designated 100% affordable, in most cases, have priority over other more innovative delivery methods, and therefore most of the affordable housing over recent decades has been developed by nonprofit community groups. While these have done a magnificent job, change must occur if continued demand for increased housing, reduced costs and invigoration of neighborhoods is to be met.

Inclusionary housing transfers much of the taxpayer burden for developing and managing affordable housing from the public to the private sector. It means that market-rate housing would include a certain percentage of housing units set aside as affordable specifically for people at lower income levels. Market-rate and affordable units together would amalgamate people from a wide variety of classes, races and backgrounds which is the exact kind of interweaving that makes communities rich and vibrant. In the book The Well-Tempered City, Jonathan Rose points out that this “provides protection and prosperity of residents, to oversee the fair distribution of resources and to maintain a balance between human and natural systems in order to increase well-being”.

Inclusionary housing is not a new idea, but because governmental policies favor the public tax credit system of funding affordable housing through nonprofit community groups, inclusionary projects, unless mandated by law or city planning, are more the exception than the norm. Private developers generally avoid them unless a development agreement forces them to provide inclusionary units. Lacking financial incentives, such housing is rarely profitable and sadly carries the stigma that affordable units will devalue property; inclusionary housing has not come anywhere close to realizing its full potential and impact within cities. More innovative policies that allow communities to build denser, taller and more compactly must emerge if the problems of affordable housing are to be solved.

For example, in January of 2020, California voters passed an assembly bill which permits projects that include affordable housing to be built denser and taller through three modifications of current law. AB1763, as it is known, is one of over 20 housing bills approved by the California Legislature since 2019, each one taking a different approach to easing the state’s housing crisis. This bill is a small step forward, but more incentives are needed to stimulate higher density development. The answer to housing more people, affordably, is: Dense-City.

A worn adage in the planning industry is that Americans hate density. For many the word “density” conjures thoughts of poorly constructed public housing, business districts lacking in infrastructure and amenities, along with fears of over-crowding, high crime rates and a loss of privacy. That image is “bad density”, says a report from the Urban Land Institute (ULI) titled “Density: Drivers, Dividends and Debates”. Density on its own is an often-used measure to gauge merit in various development patterns. Some will argue that low densities ensure a higher quality environment while others think that low densities signal an unsustainable environment marked by high energy consumption and inefficient infrastructural development. The same lines of thinking will argue that high densities create overcrowding and lower standards in urban living, while the opposing view holds that high densities create vitality and convenient access to a wide range of goods and services. But the issue is more complex, as density is one measure among many (e.g., land-use proximity, street network connectivity, building type diversity and good design) by which to measure livability.

Given that the populations of the world’s cities will only keep rising, well planned and properly managed density can provide a workable way of dealing with an increasingly pressing challenges of providing affordable housing. Good density is not about stacking units upon units, but is more about bringing people together. So instead of thinking about density as impersonal “dwelling units per acre”, we should think about how people make great cities. “Let’s understand density as increasing the opportunities for social exchanges between people”, as Walter Chambers writes in “Density Isn’t a Dirty Word”, that it is the social exchanges per acre (sx/acre) or people and experiences that must be measured and “When you start to use social exchanges per acre as a measure of success for a community plan, you start to see everything differently”. Furthermore, ULI Europe CEO Lisette van Doorn states, “In most cases, density is the best way to accommodate economic change and population growth, providing the optimal returns for society and the environment while also creating value that can be captured and shared, and making our cities more flexible”.

In The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs states, “Densities are too low, or too high, when they frustrate city diversity instead of abetting it. We ought to look at densities in much the same way we look at calories and vitamins. Right amounts, are right amounts because of how they perform”. Regardless, the suburban model of building less that ten dwelling units per acre is neither healthy, cost effective nor sustainable. Communities should build at least 20 dwelling units per acre while providing more open public and private open space - 15 units per acre is considered the threshold to make good public transit viable. This is achievable through good design and the area where architects should be part of the solution. Architects should use their talents to show developers and skeptics alike how higher density, reduced parking, and more open space can contribute to complete streets and livable cities. We can collaborate with city leaders on demonstration projects and research proposals to solve seemingly intractable problems. Throughout history, successful leaders have shared the common characteristics of empathy, a willingness to take risk, a collaborative spirit, and a respect for humanity. Architects can and should join together with planners, city officials, politicians, and policymakers to tailor zoning to new uses and new ways to develop formats for living. Making connections between disparate elements to create a comprehensive whole is what architects and urban designers do - thus design can promote social change.

Because good housing design demands conceptual and technical rigor, formal and social intelligence, and solving for different scales and levels of detail simultaneously, it is one of the most challenging architectural problems a designer undertakes. Housing options between the scales of the duplex to the courtyard apartments; what planners call the “missing middle” because they have not been built since the 1940s; are all high-quality medium-density options which meet the density thresholds for viable transit neighborhoods and can be easily financed. Architects can provide understanding of the typological principles and housing patterns that sponsor living environments and attendant lifestyles. Design approaches focus on vocabularies of layered public, semi-public, and private spaces. Layered space using landscape architecture, spatial types, and architectural frontages, is essential to securing a balance among privacy, community, and density in a compact setting.

A Micro Study - Policies to Bring Density to Los Angeles

In Los Angeles, the lack of “good” density is in large part responsible for some of the most unaffordable housing in the world. In addition to the high cost of housing, Los Angeles has more than 60,000 homeless people living on city streets and growing at a rate of twelve percent annually. The problem has gotten so bad that, in recent years Los Angeles voters have passed two assembly bills in excess of $1 billion specifically to address homelessness and the housing crisis in Los Angeles County. Angelenos are desperate for solutions that not only increase the production of housing, but also reduce the costs. Since high-density housing is prohibited in the industrial zone of the downtown core and hamstrung by the abysmally low allowable Floor Area Ratios (FAR) of every commercial boulevard, providing adequate housing at better quality and lower costs has been extremely difficult. Rather than taking on the elephant in the room and looking at the big picture of density and current zoning, government officials and advocates of housing have instead pursued other piecemeal less effective approaches, while the answer lies right in front of city leaders.

For more than 100 years Los Angeles grew with little regulation. Zoning in commercial areas had a FAR of 3:1, a measure which allowed development to occupy three times the building area of developable properties. That code changed in 1986. Led by councilmen Zev Yaroslavsky and Marvin Braude and driven by fears about traffic and congestion in the suburbs of San Fernando Valley, “Proposition U” passed by a 2:1 margin; this city-wide initiative that cut by 50% the size of new buildings permitted on about 70% of the city’s 29,000 acres of commercial and industrial property. In short the FAR was reduced from 3:1 to 1.5:1. At the time it was the most extensive one-shot effort to limit future development in the city’s history. Its passage exacerbated the housing problem that is exhibited today in Los Angeles, effectively cutting the allowable density in half overnight. It is obvious why Los Angeles is seen as a massive sprawling city, with incredibly long commutes and expensive housing. Despite initiatives that have stymied density in Los Angeles, there is still hope to increase housing and particularly affordable housing in Los Angeles.

Proposition U needs to be repealed. By doing so, and allowing the city to return to by-right development at a 3:1 FAR, will provide a dramatic impetus to help solve the affordable housing crisis in Los Angeles. By rough estimate such an act could add hundreds of thousands of housing units at little taxpayer cost, generating massive amounts of value that could be used to fund parks, schools, infrastructure and expansion of public transit. This change could initiate a surge of more transit-oriented housing developments in walkable, amenity-rich neighborhoods and drive private investment into areas that have not yet attracted revitalization.

The repeal should not, however, be without conditions. In return for the repeal and “in effect” doubling the allowable density today, developers should be required to include 20-25% affordable housing in their projects, a condition which, in effect, will provide diverse mixed-income housing dispersed more evenly throughout the city.

Los Angeles voters are becoming increasingly aware of the high cost of housing, homelessness and the benefits of living more compactly. In 2015 voters passed “Measure JJJ” by a 2:1 margin, to amend the Los Angeles Municipal Code to create the Transit-Oriented Communities (TOC) program, a package of new incentives for building affordable housing near public transit. The ballot initiative also required Los Angeles City Planning to create guidelines for all housing developments within a half-mile radius of a major transit stop. In just one year since the measure went into effect, the city has received applications for 112 TOC projects which will yield 5,571 new housing units of which 1,145 will be reserved as affordable. At the time of this article there are at least another 83 requests for TOCs are pending.

Reducing the Cost of Housing

Another positive example is a 60-unit mixed-use inclusionary housing project that the architecture firm Brooks + Scarpa has under construction in Valley Village, Los Angeles. The developer took advantage of an earlier version of California’s Density Bonus Law(s) that allowed them to build more housing units by providing an additional 12 units designated specifically for low-income tenants. Doing so, not only provides more needed housing, but also places low-income workers closer to jobs and amenities within an affluent community. Unlike every 100% affordable housing project that Brooks + Scarpa have personally worked on over the last two decades, not a single NIMBY or BANANA showed up to protest the project. Inclusionary projects fit better in their respective communities and draw far less public scrutiny. The result - more quality housing, more quickly, less expensively and better for the community.

Another major problem with affordable housing is the rising costs, and not just construction cost, but rather the total development cost. The question, “how do we reduce costs?” is so pervasive that architects know this will be amongst the first questions asked once project bids are received. Astonishingly, when the question is asked, everyone looks at the architect as if they will deliver a magic formula to reduce costs. No doubt that the architect can bear some of the responsibility for the cost of a building, however, regulations surrounding publicly funded affordable housing are a far greater contributor to the cost. Policymakers are the key to solving the cost problem, not cheaper ways of building, not prefab construction, not more scale or greater project size; those things help, but the current preference of tax credit funding is the principal reason for significantly higher costs of affordable housing compared to normal market-rate projects of the same type and scale.

One project that showcases this point is a new affordable housing development called Estrella Vista in Emeryville, California (abutting Oakland and across the bay from San Francisco). It is an 84-unit mixed-use building near public transit. Total cost: $64 million or translated $700,000 per unit. In San Francisco one of the largest affordable housing projects located at 1950 Mission Street costs north of $600,000 per unit; staggering, but not an uncommon price point. A more reasonably priced 32-unit 100% affordable housing project now in construction in Venice, California has a cost of $355,000 per unit; still hard to swallow, but generally in the right direction. Private developers are able to build new multi-family housing at much lower costs. Why?

To begin with, publicly funded affordable housing must be built using prevailing wage guidelines while private developers’ wages are based on market conditions. This requirement adds roughly 20% to the cost over similar market-rate projects. In addition, if an affordable housing project includes parking or commercial space, those portions of the project are subject to even higher costs under commercial prevailing wage provisions. On the above mentioned 32-unit project in Venice the added cost for commercial prevailing wages was over $1 million. Other obstacles to reducing costs include the myriad of often conflicting funding regulations. Since most affordable housing projects require multiple sources of funding (often as many as five to eight or more sources) and every funding source has its own requirements, each project must incorporate into its design a long list of specific elements not required for market-rate housing. This adds unnecessary time and significant cost to each project. A comprehensive, common sense, single source lending policy is needed for all affordable housing. Such a modification will provide less confusion and reduce design and construction, ultimately saving money.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to meeting our affordable housing crisis and another large elephant in the room are the requirements for accessibility to housing or Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) as it is commonly known. Housing should obviously be accessible to each and every person with disabilities. But what percentage of units need to be ADA compliant?

According to the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization’s World Report on Disability, 26% of American adults and approximately 15% of the worldwide population have some sort of disability; 2-4% experience significant difficulties in functioning. The average person would likely assume that the percentage of required affordable units would closely mirror the actual demand from a percentage basis. Here is an analogy: image for a moment a public parking garage with every single parking space marked for people with disabilities but also available for the non-disabled to use. It does not make much sense to waste space building all disabled-accessible stalls and then letting anyone park in them. Also think about how much it would cost to make every parking stall in the garage accessible. An ADA parking stall requires about 25% more space than a conventional stall. Such a scenario seems irrational, yet that plan is exactly what is required for almost every affordable housing project. One hundred percent of the units in every housing project must be sized larger to become accessible when needed, but one does not need to have a disability to live in one. This requirement is an issue that must be on the table if we are going to be serious about reducing costs. We can and should provide housing for every sector of our community, but doing so does not mean each unit needs to be tailored to those specifications; it just means they should be of equal quality.

Even if 50% of the units were required to be accessible to people with disabilities, the demand could easily be met with room to spare, thus saving massive amounts of valuable space and construction costs. Like parking spaces, accessible units should be located close to building entries, amenities and other important social services; and would streamline the use vertical transportation and other costly forms of egress. In this way, we can be more effective with taxpayer money, allowing it to support more affordable units, making housing both more affordable and accessible.

Ironically, the high cost of housing also harms the quality of life in affluent communities. While jobs are abundant in cities like Santa Monica (CA), Sarasota, (FL) and many similar cities across America, affluent communities are finding it increasingly difficult to attract nurses, teachers and other working-class people vital to the survival of a community because these essential service workers cannot afford housing. Maintaining the status quo of many of these misguided and unnecessary policies are a recipe for continued failure. Collectively, communities, government and designers have to find new ways to make housing less expensive.

Sticks and Stones

Whether temporary shelter or luxury home, every human being needs a place to live. A more compact Dense-City that incorporates social equity and quality of life is how one can start, so that the planet will survive for future generations. In Sticks and Stones: A Study of American Architecture and Civilization, Lewis Mumford, one of the great American historians, wrote, “Our architectural development is bound up with the course of our civilization. To the extent that we permit our institutions and organizations to function blindly, as our bed is made, so must we lie on it […] The future of our civilization depends upon our ability to select and control our heritage from the past, to alter our present attitudes and habits, and to project fresh forms into which our energies may be freely poured”. The architectural profession’s success depends on its ability to lead on behalf of the greater good and to help those underserved by society. Architects are stronger - and more relevant - when they engage and are connected to the lives of everyone and the spaces of everyday.



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