Awesome? Are You Sure About That?

C.C. de Vere

C.C. de Vere

· 13 min read
Screenshot of the icon for "The Housing Terminology Playbook" in white letters on a green background, crossed by "Not So Fast" in black letters.

I never imagined I would have to write this post. In fact, I've been dreading it.

FORT: LA and Frances Anderton have collaborated on multimedia project "Awesome and Affordable: Great Housing Now!"

FORT has honored LA's architectural treasures with a number of self-guided tours. Frances Anderton is the author of Common Ground: Multifamily Housing in Los Angeles (an excellent book that I highly recommend).

On the surface, "Awesome and Affordable" seems like a great resource. But get into the page titled "The Housing Terminology Playbook", and there are some concerning entries.

Let's begin with their views on density. While I'm not opposed to adding more housing, a healthy balance needs to be struck. Higher housing density is, surprisingly, associated with WORSE affordability. That's not my opinion, that's based on research from top universities. Taller buildings also have to follow tougher construction requirements and use up more materials, which can mean a higher cost per square foot just to get the place built.

A too-dense neighborhood can negatively impact residents' mental health. (Again, this is a scientific study and not my opinion.)

Density, in and of itself, is just one piece of the "great housing" pie. Higher density housing also needs to be built well, managed well, and located reasonably close to things residents need in order to be "great". A poorly constructed building with management that won't fix anything will never be "great", no matter how many people it can hold. (And we know how common bad construction and bad management are in Los Angeles!)

Some newer developments are exempted from green space requirements. Human beings NEED green space. Green spaces are vital for better physical health, better mental health, and for building community. (Still don't believe it? Talk to any parent who couldn't take their kids to the park for months on end during the pandemic. Especially if their home is an apartment in a building with no courtyard. While temporarily closing parks and playgrounds likely saved some lives, there was a tradeoff, and that tradeoff was mental health. Hopefully we never have another pandemic.)

Insufficient green space also worsens urban heat island effect. It's not a coincidence that some of the hottest parts of the city are in South LA, where the city cruelly took away large mature trees decades ago.

Finally, here's a cautionary tale from the "other" megalopolis: New York is sinking because its skyscrapers are just too damn heavy. Some of the pro-density crowd wants to turn LA into New New York, but New York has apparently become too dense for its own good (I have friends in New York, so I do not say this gladly).

Healthy density is a balancing act, whether anyone likes it or not. Moving on...

The entry on Community Redevelopment Agencies, or CRAs, made me want to vomit. It states:

The CRA/LA in Los Angeles had a mixed record in creating affordable housing, uprooting residents and transforming neighborhoods. Most notably, in Bunker Hill, where gleaming skyscrapers filled with finance, banking, law, real estate, and other high-end firms were built by clearing thousands of units of low-cost housing that would take decades to replace throughout the city.

Excuse me? "Mixed record", my ass. The CRA blatantly ignored the will of voters (who had voted against clearing Bunker Hill), displaced thousands of low-income residents, and effectively ruined downtown LA for decades to come. Bunker Hill's residents were not rich, but they were still important supporters of downtown businesses. WIthout them, businesses struggled and closed, and downtown was effectively empty by 6pm each night. It wasn't until older buildings began to be converted into housing 30-ish years ago that downtown began its slow comeback.

Additionally, the annihilation of Bunker Hill was NOT "slum clearance"; most of the housing stock was still viable. While the skyscrapers did bring in business tenants like banks, they did not bring in the housing needed to support smaller businesses like restaurants, theaters, and stores.

You can read the whole story in another excellent Angel City Press book, Bunker Hill Los Angeles by Nathan Marsak.

Next, there's the discussion of AB 835, which:

Directs the State Fire Marshal to research and develop standards for single stairway multi-family buildings. This may seem like Latin to people not in the building industry. Basically, California currently requires two stairwells in all multi-family buildings above 3 stories. This limits the development of new housing by making it difficult to build high-density projects on small or constrained sites. The bill’s authors argue it would make it possible to build a wider variety of homes at a lower cost.

While AB 835 might be well-intentioned, single-stairway multi-family buildings are a bad, bad idea. Ask any firefighter.

I'm not a firefighter, but I once had to evacuate a three-story building by myself (long story). No one was hurt and everyone was out quickly. That building had SIX staircases.

While reducing staircases could indeed help increase density on smaller lots, fire safety and earthquake safety are of the utmost importance in Southern California. Housing needs to be safe to be great.

There was a snotty comment about preservationists that I will not repost here. But I will tell you that it is misleading. Preservation does indeed save existing affordable housing, and it can coexist with newer housing. Indeed, there are good reasons why it must. Here are the facts.

Additionally, neighborhoods with Historic Preservation Overlay Zones (HPOZs) tend to be more affordable and more diverse than other neighborhoods (see the study linked above). HPOZs are NOT a "rich white people" thing - not in practice, anyway.

Now let's talk about parking, shall we? Multiple entries reference reducing or eliminating parking minimums, which is a very common feature of TOC projects.

Yes, parking takes up a lot of space. Yes, parking minimums affect what can be built. But here's the thing: LA is a city of drivers for a reason.

The state of transit in LA is simply not what it was a hundred years ago, when Pacific Electric and LARy cars zipped all over the city and beyond. Talk to a transit user - transit is often slow, unreliable, dirty, and can be dangerous. It also still does not connect well to some places. Taking Metro is easy for a Koreatown resident, but not really feasible for someone who lives in Sun Valley.

I take absolutely no pleasure in saying any of that. I fully support mass transit because some people can't drive, a horrifying number of people shouldn't drive, and everyone who lives in a big city should have a transit option if they want one. But for as long as Angelenos find transit unsafe, too inconvenient, or unreasonably slow, most will keep driving. Taking away parking is unlikely to magically make residents' cars vanish.

I've mentioned previously that I used to manage apartments. I know from experience that when parking is in short supply, it can lead to nasty fights. It can lead to vehicle vandalism. It can lead to a selfish asshole routinely blocking in a neighbor and refusing to move, forcing them to miss work, school, or appointments (good luck getting parking enforcement to respond in time).

Ask anyone who has lived in the OTHER "other" big city - Chicago - where fights over parking spaces have led to gun violence.

While we're on the subject of transportation, let's touch on biking and walking. LA leads the country in pedestrian deaths, and is still not as bike-friendly as it should be. Walking or biking everywhere works in some parts of LA, but not all of them.

I'm hoping against hope for better bike infrastructure and better pedestrian safety (and MUCH better enforcement of traffic laws). But the city has a long way to go and keeps dragging its feet. We can't expect Angelenos to trade a car for a bike when they don't feel safe doing so.

Moving on from parking, let's discuss ED1.

Basically, Mayor Bass aims to build affordable housing in a faster and cheaper way by streamlining the process. While this is a noble goal, it is flawed on at least two counts.

First, ED1 exempts site plan review. Site plan reviews are done in part to examine potential problems with a plan and to evaluate feasibility. Skipping site plan review could very well lead to a preventable problem becoming an overlooked problem that isn't noticed until it's too late.

Second, the entry acknowledges that "tenants [sic] rights groups have raised concerns about the displacement of low-income residents living in buildings with low rents that are demolished to build new affordable housing projects."

Those tenants' rights groups are right to raise concerns. It isn't as though it's impossible to develop without displacement in a big city with a lot of empty commercial properties and a lot of low-slung strip malls...and parking lots that could be turned into buildings with several levels of subterranean parking.


The page includes several unkind comments on the AIDS Healthcare Foundation. AHF, which has invited the public to see their properties for themselves (how many nonprofits are willing to be that transparent?), has most likely done more to house some of the most vulnerable people in Los Angeles than anyone involved with "Awesome and Affordable". (And no, I am not in any way involved with AHF.)

In the screenshot below, take notice of the fact that the entry says absolutely nothing about the thousands of people AHF has housed by adapting existing older buildings. Additionally, AHF is not "anti-development" per se. While AHF did sponsor Measure S, which sought some restrictions for a two-year period, it did not seek to prevent development outright - and would have exempted projects with 100% affordable housing.

Another entry falsely claims that Fix the City is an "anti-development group". FTC is not, in fact, anti-development; the group supports a safe, livable, law-abiding and accountable LA. Check their website yourself - they are taking action on issues like a potentially unsafe development, lack of enforcement on Measure JJJ requirements, and finding a better and bigger site for interim homeless housing.

One issue that FTC addresses again and again is whether or not a particular location has the proper infrastructure and services available. If you've ever dialed 911 in LA (and I sincerely hope you've never had to), you don't need me to tell you how bad the response time is. Case in point: emergency response times are already dismal in the Expo Overlay Zone, but the city still wants to make it denser without fixing the problem.

Another page on the site refers to the collapsed Skid Row Housing Trust as "venerable". Are you F*CKING KIDDING ME?

Read all the SRHT dirt, from beginning to end, here. Just be aware that it's a very long and very messy story.

It's a shame. "Awesome and Affordable" does get SOME things right, and I will be checking back to read about the next Awesome Building of the Month. But the Terminology Playbook should be taken with a considerable amount of salt.

Regardless, do read Anderton's book. I wouldn't call it excellent if it wasn't.

C.C. de Vere

About C.C. de Vere

C.C. is a fourth-generation Angeleno and is horrified at what greed and hubris are doing to Los Angeles.

This website was built by her preservation pals at Esotouric.

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