ON LOS ANGELES: Part I: A Downtown in Downtown: Los Angeles’s Manifest Destiny




PART I: A Downtown in Downtown

BACK IN THE 1970s and 1980s, if you were a developer with a project awaiting a green light in downtown Los Angeles’s Ninth Council District, Valentine’s Day was when you’d visit Councilman Gil Lindsay with an envelope. You wouldn’t just send it in. Much better to walk it into his office in City Hall so you could make eye contact and the good councilman could associate your face with a name and a check. According to someone who actually delivered such Valentine’s Day cards, who spoke recently on the condition of anonymity, Lindsay would look you in the eye and tell you with all the practiced charm of a crusty old-timer about how he started out shining shoes as a “bootblack” on the streets of downtown L.A. Then he’d coolly slide out the wooden shelf from the upper right side of his desk to consult a list of donors scotch-taped to its top. He would tick your name off if you already subscribed to his Valentine campaigns, or else add it. Basically, you had just offered to buy a table at his re-election fundraiser. Two tables of course would be better, and three would really speed things up.

Lindsay died in 1990, but the envelope system survived him in some of the districts where real estate development pressure has been strong. Thanks to a recent FBI probe, former Councilman José Huizar is now under a 41-count indictment for allegedly receiving bribes and benefits from developers of downtown projects, with over 400 “overt acts” noted. Huizar wielded outsize power because for several years he also chaired the city’s influential Planning and Land Use Management Committee. In July, Mitchell Englander, a Councilman from the 12th Council District, pleaded guilty in federal court for his involvement in “pay-to-play” development schemes. He had also served on the City Council’s planning committee. According to a developer who spoke on the condition of anonymity:

Every land-use decision is at the discretion of a Council member. You can’t build anything by right, so you go to the Council people for variances. The stakes are huge for investor developers, so when they call and ask for money for a fundraiser, it’s hard to say no. You run the risk of very big losses.

That may be about to change. With long-term funding support arranged by Mayor Garcetti, the Los Angeles Department of City Planning, under the direction of Vince Bertoni, is now concluding drafts on Downtown Los Angeles 2040 (DTLA 2040), an ambitious and comprehensive plan to guide the development of the 4.7 square miles between the four freeways ringing greater downtown. It sets policy goals and a land use framework for the next two decades, calling for more housing in a densified city planned for walkability. The Downtown plan thinks the unthinkable: living without a car in a vertical Los Angeles.

Planning tools include expanding adaptive reuse, facilitating the transfer of development rights, and incentives, such as bonus zoning, for affordable housing and open spaces. The Planning Department, which will consider public comments through January 13, will send a completed proposal up the bureaucratic chain to the City Planning Commission in early 2021, then to the Planning and Land Use Management Committee, and finally to the full City Council for enactment in late 2021. The whole process, from start to approval, will have taken some seven years.

The proposed DTLA community plan may put an end to envelopes because it rationalizes the permitting process with clear criteria that facilitate approvals when projects follow the rules. The still operative old plan, a byzantine document layered with 75 years of amendments, has made building in downtown time-consuming, expensive, and treacherous. “Developers had to request additional density and waivers through political channels,” says John Welborne, publisher of the Larchmont Chronicle and long a downtown observer and advocate. “This plan now shifts the process from discretionary to ministerial rules in the Planning Department.” Council members will no longer dangle a rubber stamp over a project like a sword.

According to Tom Gilmore, the architect developer who helped jump-start the loft movement that started the downtown revival in the 1990s, the business community itself wants not only rules to play by but also a guiding philosophy. In a 2017 interview in The Planning Report, he noted that the existing entitlement process is “rudderless”: “[T]here is no overarching philosophy driving the city — just hundreds of one-off deals that don’t gel into a philosophy of urbanism of any real note.”

Beyond its corrosive effects on clean municipal government, the envelope system sidelined the city’s Planning Department, the very agency with the expertise to judge a project. Though projects will still require some level of City Council approval (for CEQA compliance and curb cuts and setbacks, for example), and Council members will always be looking for campaign contributions, the DTLA 2040 Plan to a large extent depoliticizes the process and leaves the planning to planners. DTLA 2040 is fortuitously timed since the embarrassment of recent scandals weakens whatever opposition council members might have to decreasing their discretionary powers over projects.

DTLA 2040 is actually a pilot plan for the department’s city-wide, six-year effort, the Community Planning Program (its buzz name is re:codeLA), a comprehensive revision of the city’s cumbersome 1946 zoning code. DTLA 2040 is just one of the 34 community plans based on re:codeLA, but the farthest along and the most impactful for all of Los Angeles.

In some ways, the new Downtown plan is traditional since it sensibly builds on what is already there: districts, neighborhoods, and the historic, early 20th-century core, all organized on a walkable street grid scaled to pedestrians. In no way is it a grand vision like Baron Haussmann’s late 19th-century redesign of medieval Paris, or even the 1950s and ’60s freeway redesign of metropolitan Los Angeles. Hardly “futuristic” or even sweeping as a vision, DTLA 2040 is reassuringly conventional: it values the street as a pedestrian realm and the existing grid as the structure of the urban fabric. It doesn’t raze downtown but basically reoccupies a space that was always a downtown, treating it as an existing armature for incremental change. Its up-zoning encourages residential growth to stimulate office and retail development.

But, in some ways, the plan is radical: given DTLA’s many public transportation options, it attempts to take Angelenos out of the car. The plan champions high-density, high-rise living in the very city that gave the world sprawl as an urban paradigm. The plan trades in driving for walking and a subway pass.

The other fundamental change is DTLA 2040’s shift from the blunt instrument of blanket planning to planning targeted to the nuances of streets and neighborhoods. New zone maps of downtown look like a box of 24 Crayolas, each color acknowledging the character and function of a different sector. The plan doesn’t zone downtown into sameness but builds on its differences, relaxing and mixing zoning categories (commercial mixed with residential, for example). The new zoning code, which Principal City Planner Craig Weber describes as a “sophisticated toolbox,” even advocates “form tools” in “form districts” and “context zones,” for example, that outline the massing of buildings and setbacks tailored to local conditions. The size that fits the Valley doesn’t fit San Pedro.

As in other community plans of the Community Planning Program (re:codeLA), DTLA 2040 outlines parameters for form, frontage and environmental standards, along with program and density rules, adapted to the existing and future character of their respective neighborhoods and districts.

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More than 75 years of planning changes have occurred since the Pasadena Freeway first started draining life from the central city, and 50 years since bulldozer planning reduced the fine-grained, largely residential Bunker Hill to a tabula rasa. After the failure of clean-slate modernist urban planning started becoming apparent in the 1960s, successive critiques reshaped planning theory. Urbanist Jane Jacobs famously championed the fine-grained neighborhood, while Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas wrote brilliantly on the benefits of high density and congestion in what he called urban delirium. America’s New Urbanists — postmodernists by a different name — extolled the intimate scale of small-town America. More recently, deconstructivist architects have layered their urban designs with strata of structure and infrastructure emulating the sedimented complexities of Paris or London. Lately, global warming advocates and protesters have stormed city planners with urgent concerns about the environment, public health, social inequities, and the related issues of affordability and homelessness. Incentivizing community benefits like affordable housing and open green spaces with up-zoning has become a common planning tool.

The planners in the Planning Department have absorbed decades of evolving planning theory, and DTLA 2040 is as a result more than just a dry, technical zoning document of interest only to the nerds among us: it is a good-faith, pro-equity effort at leveraging planning and capital investment to implement a comprehensive vision for development that includes, in theory at least, a strong social component. It aspires to a full urban ecosystem of many moving parts working in unison to create a densified, mixed-use, street-oriented, more inclusive downtown that’s energy smart and walkable, bikable, and livable, with affordability factored in. It’s an attempt at city building rather than just zoning, an attempt to create a live-work-play downtown of residents rather than commuters.

It’s unapologetically pro-growth because, tactically, DTLA has the space and infrastructure to sustain size, and because quantity there is quality: achieving critical mass will get the ball rolling as an ecosystem of interrelated, mutually supportive parts greater than the sum total of the individual buildings. Mass builds inertia.

History is on the plan’s side. Downtown is the only area in Los Angeles capable of accommodating a substantial part of the hundreds of thousands of people expected to move into the city over the next several decades. Its 4.7 square miles, now under-occupied by buildings and over-occupied by parking lots, offers the escape valve necessary to relieve densification pressures in low-rise, NIMBY districts that are resisting towers and large apartment blocks. Until the car and the freeways emptied downtown after World War II, the area was really a bedroom city whose old contours still exist, if only as a shell of its former self, its scale capable of welcoming back the ghosts. Densification is its manifest destiny.

Urban desire lines have been converging on downtown since about 2000 as Angelenos have voted with their feet instead of the gas pedal. Tens of thousands of downtown residents now invest that two-hour return-commute in pedestrian-happy, restaurant-hopping DTLA, mostly in South Park and the historic loft district. New businesses — some cool entertainment groups like Spotify and Warner Music, and design firms like Gensler — have located there. There’s also a simple, practical, gridlock-related reason to move a company downtown: you can schedule a meeting before 10:00 a.m. and after 4:00 p.m.

DTLA 2040 opens up much of under-occupied, under-developed areas in, around, and beyond South Park (above) to further high-density, high-rise development. Licensed under CC BY 3.0.

But if traffic is a primary driver bringing people downtown, there are — besides COVID-19 — brakes slowing the momentum. In increasing numbers, the population struggling with homelessness has spilled outside its core area around Skid Row over the last five or six years. There are now about 6,000 homeless people living downtown (out of 60,000 in Los Angeles County), and that community is expanding. One developer who established a new hotel on Broadway and another building in the Arts District left downtown saying, “I can’t take it anymore.” Even before COVID-19 turned downtown into a ghost town over the last year — a temporary condition? — out-migration was chilling the good news that the area was happening. DTLA 2040 addresses the homeless issue but without really solving the problem.

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I was born in a suburb 10 minutes by streetcar northeast of DTLA shortly after the war in what was then largely an Italian community. But in 1950 we piled into our DeSoto and headed out Huntington Drive for a better school district in the suburbs of the San Gabriel Valley. We kept property near downtown, and even if I grew up building forts in the backyard and chasing tadpoles in the wash, I retained an emotional tie to downtown and the sidewalks where you saw everybody in the neighborhood on your way to get a haircut. Later, in the early 1980s, as the architecture critic for the Herald Examiner, I covered downtown issues, including the Central Library, Grand Central Market, the Museum of Contemporary Art, and the mothballed movie palaces on Broadway. I believed in downtown, or at least in the idea of its potential density and intensity. Downtown’s very existence as a word in the language demanded that it exist in fact, and in its absence, I missed it.

But, strangely, despite the thousands of words I wrote about downtown, no one seemed to care. When I wrote a two-part series on the $1 billion competition to design what became California Plaza, a mega-project on a super-block on Bunker Hill, I got only one letter, maybe two. Meanwhile hundreds of readers would deluge the editor when, for example, a lane of the Santa Monica Freeway went carpool: hell hath no fury like a commuter facing lane subtraction. Freeways mattered, but downtown had no constituency. The middle class no longer slept there. In 1959, the downtown population was 62,000, but by 1983, when I left the Herald to write for the New York Times, it had dropped to 15,000. Everybody else had hopped into their DeSotos. Jobs, too, were suburbanized, as well as shopping. Only the city, federal, and state bureaucracies stayed put, anchored in their granite monuments, along with attendant law and accounting offices. Large corporations also stayed, but they decamped from the old Spring Street business district for Councilman Lindsay’s new skyscrapers on the new Gold Coast on downtown’s west side.

101 Freeway. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

Before decamping to New York, I wrote a three-part valedictory in the Herald about DTLA, by then an urban invalid in need of zoning rehab. Only a residential repopulation — tens of thousands of people living and working there, walking and shopping on the streets — could bring it back as a vibrant center. But I cautioned that warm bodies alone could not jump-start the city if housing complexes were self-contained like downtown’s canister office buildings, where people drive in and out of garages without leaving their silos.

Downtown needed a vision with teeth, but until DTLA 2040, what developer Gilmore calls “a philosophy of urbanism” never arrived. Downtown did start a slow, glacial revival, however, clawing its way back building by building, but with little urban coordination and no synergy beyond the property line. Planning ideas fashionable at the time aggravated the situation. Calvin Hamilton, chief city planner from 1964 to 1985, separated pedestrians from traffic with bridges on Bunker Hill, chilling street life. The twin ARCO Towers went up — as pristine as granite tombstones — but killed the street by relegating shopping to the basement.

Still, there was some movement, partially because the Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA), with planning jurisdiction over downtown, took independent initiative. The CRA brought the Museum of Contemporary Art to Bunker Hill in 1986, and the adjacent Colburn School of Music opened about a decade later, joining the Music Center in establishing a cultural beachhead. Besides Gilmore, Ira Yellin, the original downtown loft pioneer, along with investor and lifestyle entrepreneur Cedd Moses later, unleashed downtown’s potential as a loft district, giving it an energizing, vitamin-B injection of city living. The remarkable stock of Beaux Arts buildings a century old kicked off downtown’s future as a residential district.

Several urban catalysts flipped downtown’s switch to “on” around 2000. Staples Center (1999), the Southern California Institute of Architecture (2001), the Los Angeles Cathedral (2002), Disney Hall (2003), and later L.A. Live (2007, with the Microsoft Theater and the Grammy Museum) arrived. Under Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, zoning and development rules changed to allow denser developments that included affordable housing. Equity capital flowed in. High-rise apartment buildings rose, many predicated on the loft themes borrowed from the nearby loft district, but with in-building gyms and pools. A lifestyle rooted. A residential population of 29,000 in 2006 swelled to 40,000 by 2008, attracting Whole Foods. Star chefs unpacked their knife sets and opened destination restaurants. In 2012, the city and county opened the first phase of a vast user-friendly civic park connecting the Music Center and City Hall. In 2013, a wave of national and international capital poured into downtown. By 2017, the population had grown to over 60,000.

In 2012, the first phase of the 12-acre Grand Park was opened, which replaced the 1966 Civic Center Mall with a greener, larger park stretching in a grand civic axis between city and county administrative buildings.

The ancient Roman architect Vitruvius wrote that buildings needed to embody delight along with what he called “firmness” and “commodity.” Downtown followed suit in the delight department: ground-floor bars and restaurants, arenas and movie theaters turned downtown into a hip place especially attractive to young professionals — along with empty nesters tired of cleaning the leaves out of the gutters. Developer Dan Rosenfeld compares Los Angeles attractions to the E-tickets at Disneyland because downtown offered the best rides in the city: Staples Center, L.A. Live, the Music Center, Disney Hall, the Central Library, the Colburn Center, the Convention Center, the Cathedral, and, nearby, Dodger Stadium, the Coliseum, and the Natural History Museum.

Staples Center and L.A. Live. Licensed under CC BY 2.0.

It took decades for the pieces of a vibrant urban puzzle to fall into place, but downtown was no longer a pass-through district that you drove by with the doors locked. Downtown was happening. Contrary to what Woody Allen might say, Angelenos were willing to get out of their cars, willing to swap their patios for a sidewalk restaurant. People liked being around people. The Paris principle rooted. Downtown started becoming chill, a cool place to be, a place of its own, self-sufficient. You didn’t need a car to go somewhere else because there were so many reasons to stay put. Besides, you could always dial Uber and Lyft for safaris beyond the freeway belt. Newspapers profiled millennials living downtown. They had broken their addiction. They were giving up their wheels.

The contours of a new demography took hold. Young, college-educated, career-pursuing strivers came in, fueling Spring Street and South Park with their energy and credit cards. The keystone cementing the new downtown is the Apple Store in the Beaux Arts Tower Theatre on Broadway. Even my old alma mater, the Spanish Revival Herald Examiner building by Julia Morgan, is being repurposed as a university outpost. Gentrification was not a problem since there was no population to displace.

On Broadway, the Tower Theater, one of Broadway’s early 20th century movie palaces, is being repurposed as an Apple Store, an “event” as symbolic of downtown’s revival and shifting demographics as Whole Foods moving into downtown several years ago. Apple store depiction via Cultural Heritage Commission

The freeways that depleted downtown three-quarters of a century ago were bringing Angelenos back in reverse, the centrifugal spoke-and-wheel system now working centripetally. Even if incomplete, the subway had also taken hold, along with a regional light-rail network, not to mention Union Station, once again a transportation hub. Freeways and surface roads mapped lines of desire into downtown. The middle class had returned.

Now, whenever I turn off the 110 onto the Pico-Olympic Exit, I feel like Rip Van Winkle, blinking at all the lights climbing into the sky, astounded at how it has transformed since my 1983 valedictories in the Herald.

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Downtown, however, is still far from attaining its happily-ever-after stage: its resurgence is not yet self-sustaining. Incentivized development, first of all, has not yet produced wide social benefits, particularly affordable housing. And there are big holes in the fabric. Many projects, both office and residential buildings, are hermetically sealed environments, generating no multiplier effect outside their walls. The worst offenders are all the Tuscan-styled, full-block, self-contained apartment fortresses — the Orsini, Da Vinci, Lorenzo, Medicis, and Visconti, all developed by Geoffrey Palmer as gated communities that import a suburban lifestyle, complete with gonzo banana-tree courtyards equipped with pools, gyms, and basketball courts. The style is — how shall I put it? — vulgar. The American-Italian Anti-Defamation League would have every right to sue. Urbanistically, these introverted, wagon-train complexes, popular with students who are bused to and from USC, sanitize the surrounding streets, even though an extroverted design would give the city a street life.

Before he passed away in 2016, TV producer, preservationist, loft-developer, downtown booster, and single-family-neighborhood advocate Leonard Hill warned Angelenos against the “Orsini-zation” of downtown.

But there have been smart developments. For a project called The Bloc, downtown architects Scott Johnson and Bill Fain (of Johnson Fain) took the lid off the atrium of the old Macy’s Plaza on 7th Street for developer Wayne Ratkovich, opening it up as an outdoor plaza and shopping mall, creating an active public space just off the street. Frank Gehry’s plan for The Grand, a major, high-rise, multi-use complex opposite Disney Hall, now under construction, inserts a street-oriented project in an under-populated block on Bunker Hill. A shopping lane cuts through the middle, extroverting the complex to the surrounding grid to catalyze an active streetscape.

But without a coordinating vision, the city has been playing like a team without a coach, and the hit-or-miss projects have failed to generate the synergies that would accelerate and intensify a robust city: it has underperformed as a downtown.

DTLA 2040 posits that the first step in intensifying urbanism is residential densification. The plan encourages a large increase in housing because it’s the only area in Los Angeles where this is feasible, effective, and desirable. The region faces a deficit of 1.3 million housing units in the next decade, and the plan anticipates about 175,000 residents in 100,000 new units giving access to 86,000 new jobs. With one percent of the city’s land and 12 percent of the city’s jobs, downtown will host 20 percent of the city’s new housing units.

But DTLA 2040 aspires to more than a Houston of glassy towers. Though the money shot will be a skyline of 40- to 60-story apartment towers joining the existing asparagus patch of office buildings, DTLA 2040 focuses on the street to cultivate the well-being of pedestrians. The plan builds on downtown’s manageably sized blocks and existing grid, blurring the interface between street, sidewalk, and building facade so that the ground floors are visually porous and active rather than hermetically sealed in tall architectural tubes.

A key to a walkable, bikable downtown is the risky business of reducing parking. Downtown is already transportation rich as the hub of subway, light rail, and bus, with Union Station and the Downtown Regional Connector (to be opened in 2022). Building housing around transportation nodes reduces the need for parking, which reduces housing construction costs, which makes housing more affordable. Eliminating parking requirements is critical for building micro-units, for example.

The elephant in the room is the homeless population already threatening downtown’s resurgence. The plan does not pretend to correct the problem, though it does suggest a climbable stepladder of assets for reabsorbing the homeless socially: emergency shelters and support housing in a range of types, along with social services and job training. The size of the problem really exceeds the scope, authority, and purpose of a planning document. Still, success downtown cannot be achieved without solving the problem, which will have to be addressed by a collective effort of many agencies at multiple levels of government.

An overview of downtown with low-rise Skid Row at the door step of the loft district and, beyond, high-rise Bunker Hill and South Park. Without housing solutions, the homeless populations in and around Skid Row threaten the success of DTLA 2040 to develop downtown intensively, a proposal intended to help solve Los Angeles’s chronic housing shortage and traffic problems. Photo by Iwan Baan.

Directly related to the issue of homelessness is affordable housing, necessary for diversity in a market-driven downtown. The plan has to guarantee developers incentives that are sufficiently profitable to prompt cooperation. The plan ties affordable housing directly into their bottom line. But diversity remains a big question mark since incentives do not force developers to provide affordable housing, and up-zoning does not necessarily mean progressive policy. It may just end up creating a high-rise Beverly Hills circled by a moat of freeways.

The other major worry in the document is COVID-19. Downtown Los Angeles has been a ghost town now for a half year and counting. Remote working, business and office closures, and the explosion of Amazon have delivered body blows to retail, office, and cultural life, actually confirming and encouraging suburban sprawl rather than reversing it. With crossed fingers, planners contend that DTLA 2040’s answer to the uncertainty is the flexibility already built into its treatment of the public realm. The recent collapse of retail during the pandemic only aggravated a problem already acknowledged in the plan. Planners didn’t anticipate enough retail to line downtown’s streets. “How many Starbucks can you have on a block?” asks Welborne.

Rather than requiring ground-floor retail everywhere, the plan calls for “active” architectural zones at the street: visually porous street walls that allow reciprocal views from the street into, for example, gyms or preschools. Welborne says that not every block needs to look and behave the same. He cited the precedent of townhouses built into the base of high-rise apartments as an example of an architectural solution that would give the sense of a friendly neighborhood within a high-rise forest. But cultivating a granular street life at the foot of towers is tricky.

Los Angeles’s 30-year-old tradition of adaptive re-use, first deployed to give the old office district along Spring and Main a second life, may serve office buildings in other parts of downtown, even in the Gold Coast, that have been losing tenants. Adaptively reusing towers as housing would diversify the hardcore business districts, giving them life after hours. But the plan as it now stands allows adaptive reuse only for buildings built up through 1974. The plan ignores today’s occupancy failure in far newer structures, missing an opportunity.

Spring Street circa 1905
Spring Street today: many of the once vacant buildings, formerly offices, in this historic district have been brought back to life with their adaptive re-use as residential lofts. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

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Over the next several months, the job of the city is to introduce and explain a very promising plan to a public that probably doesn’t even know that DTLA 2040 and the larger re:codeLA exist. Though traffic, housing, and homeless issues have reached crisis status, and the recent history of corruption in City Hall is alarming, most of the public hasn’t made any connection between the nerdy arcana of codes and the problems that are dragging down the city’s quality of life and pushing up housing prices. There will be public feedback and probably pushback, and inevitable changes that may improve the plan.

In-the-know stakeholders and citizen groups have already raised important, concrete issues. Just how to minimize the impact of new parking downtown remains an ongoing, unresolved debate, as does the question of whether affordable housing should be built within towers or in other areas, or both. Preservationists are fighting for greater protection of the “contributing” but unsung historic buildings, especially the one-story brick bow-truss warehouses now endangered by rising land values: they embody the character of the urban fabric that draws people downtown. River advocates object to zoning that allows a wall of buildings along the river instead of a height gradient from low to high so the river won’t feel tunneled and privatized. The influential Central City Association, a coalition of 300 business leaders, has sent in a detailed letter suggesting, among other pro-development corrections, that zoning density in Chinatown, with its good public transportation, not be reduced from current levels, as proposed.

But in general, these are all valid, negotiable issues, not deal-breakers. Basically, the 2040 Plan is a great step forward, and a commendable piece of planning. DTLA 2040 represents a necessary and perhaps historic effort to update and reform an urban plan that has been shortchanging and failing the city — and its political integrity — for decades. It is not, however, a magic bullet, and it does not come with billions from government. It banks on the marketplace.

What it does do is alter downtown L.A.’s DNA, shifting enough chromosomes around so that, going forward, the city — conducting business as usual but without councilmembers putting their fingers on the scale — can grow in a healthier and more robust way through corrective and directive planning. It’s an incremental plan that is at once modest and ambitious, proposing a more organic, integrated downtown ecosystem engineered to achieve critical mass. Remodeling the code promises to remodel downtown and, with it, Los Angeles. Angelenos may at last be able to retire the old saw that Los Angeles is a collection of 100 suburbs searching for a city.

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PART II: A CONSTITUENCY OF THE POWERLESS: HOMELESS IN LOS ANGELES

December 27, 2020

IN A ZOOM CONFERENCE three weeks ago, sponsored by Harvard’s Graduate School of Design Alumni Council, Leilani Farha, a Toronto-based housing rights advocate, brought the deep pain of homelessness home point blank with one piercing observation you didn’t want to hear: being homeless, she said, means “struggling to find a place to defecate.”

Think about it.

And then multiply the thought by 6,000. Because there are about that many homeless people in downtown Los Angeles who, on a daily basis, have to figure out where to brush their teeth, wash their faces and bodies, and cadge a cup of coffee. Deny a human being territory, a space of her own, and you deny her agency. Deny her running water, and you take away her self-respect. Taking the floor out from under her and the faucet out of her life creates two of the most dehumanizing aspects of homelessness.

That’s even before you get to the social invisibility: people don’t look at you. You don’t exist. You no longer really have a name. Then factor race into the equation. A disproportionate 34 percent of the homeless in Los Angeles are homeless while being Black. Now multiply 6,000 by 10, since there are 60,000 homeless altogether in Los Angeles County, and then by about nine, since there are 560,000 nationwide. Meanwhile, an unknown number of “hidden homeless” are in the wings, just a friend and a couch away from a tent, including tens of thousands of students nationally.

You can, however, subtract an estimated 1,000 from the Los Angeles total, because that’s approximately the number who die on the streets here in a given year.

As in the United States in general, the homeless problem in Los Angeles has reached crisis levels not seen since the Depression, to the extent that homelessness is now systemic: it’s in the bloodstream of a city that not only hasn’t cured the condition despite years of city initiatives but actually manages to perpetuate it by mixing the country’s systemic racism with local indifference, inertia, NIMBYism, relentlessly rising real estate values — and, for nearly a year now, COVID-19.

The Harvard-sponsored Zoom conference, “Straight-Up Talk: Homelessness — Ethics/Policy/Action,” was designed to unpack the homeless problem in all its dimensions, to understand its complexities and scale, its logjams and hopes, and to suggest ways to relieve an intractable national trauma that is particularly intense in cities, especially Los Angeles. And, since this symposium was sponsored by alumni from a design school, what role might architecture play in a solution?

Surprisingly, the first architect to speak, Michael Lehrer — who presented a portfolio of thoughtful, successful, even beautiful low-income and homeless housing projects in Los Angeles — declared that architecture is not the solution: the scope of the issues is way larger than questions of design and construction.

A second speaker, Rosanne Haggerty, president of New York–based Community Solutions, said that housing itself was not a solution, since all the agencies vetting potential tenants are too balkanized to match the homeless with suitable shelter: build it and they can’t come. Service organizations have to pool data to track individuals and communities at risk. Housing is ineffectual without coordinated agencies coordinating data

Haggerty also pointed out that money alone won’t solve the problem since the long process of entitling and funding a project is mired in byzantine procedures that result in years of unspent money even when there is funding. The public money that is available comes burdened with regulations that both add to cost and stifle innovation.

The conference veered into doubt almost immediately as the participants declared that neither architecture nor housing nor money alone would solve the trauma. But they also offered lessons learned from their collective experience: they all believed there are paths forward.

First, Leilani Farha, director of The Shift, an international housing advocacy group, set the record straight by correcting the common misperception that the homeless are homeless because they have failed themselves.

When you walk by people living in homelessness on the street, instead of looking at that person and saying, oh, drug addict; oh, criminal; oh, lazy; oh, bad luck misfortune, what you should say and what you should understand is, No: that is the failure of governments to implement the right to housing.

Reframing the whole discussion, she invoked the human right to shelter, referring to the foundational 1948 speech delivered by Eleanor Roosevelt at a Paris meeting of the United Nations, “The Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” which declared housing as a basic and universal human right along with food, health care, and education.

Since the 1930s, the homeless in Los Angeles’s Skid Row have been a constituency of the powerless, living in a condition of statelessness that has made it easy to sweep their plight under the rug. In L.A., that rug lay mostly downtown, where the inconvenient truth was easily kept out of sight in a city that, after the war, abandoned downtown for the suburbs. Nithya Raman, the newly elected City Council member from Los Angeles’s Fourth District who won her seat this fall in no small part on the issue, noted in the Zoom symposium that, six years ago, when she was writing a report in City Hall about homelessness in the city,

It was not as big of an issue in the public consciousness because homelessness was concentrated in a handful of neighborhoods, primarily in the Skid Row neighborhood in downtown. Since then, there has been a growth of encampments across Los Angeles. It has become the most important issue in Los Angeles for so many residents.

She pointed out that there are currently only a quarter the number of shelter beds available for the number of homeless who need them. The gap is, she said, “enormous.”

Recently elected City Council member Nithya Raman

Over the last several years, because of the growing numbers and Los Angeles’s very suburban nature, the city has effectively suburbanized Skid Row, turning a concentrated urban condition into sprawl by exporting the homeless even to posh ZIP codes normally immunized by distance. In 2017, the Skirball Fire, which started along the 405 Freeway at a homeless encampment in the Sepulveda Pass, approached the mansions of Bel Air and Brentwood, landing the issue at the threshold of gated estates. Property owners in other parts of the city have gated their driveways to keep homeless from using the seclusion of the shrubbery. In what would have been an unthinkable event just a few years ago, the homeless are pitching tents on patches of public green space in Hancock Park, opting for a landscaped suburban setting. And, at the heart of our city government in Civic Center, Kathryn Barger, the County’s sole Republican supervisor, who has championed help for the homeless, was simply walking down the street when she was chased by a mentally ill homeless person wielding a machete.

No longer somewhere else or only downtown, homelessness in Los Angeles touches everyone. Authorities use heat-seeking drones to find people who have even dug holes in the desert to find shelter.

But its new ubiquity is now getting increased official attention in what is, for Los Angeles, perhaps the most effective form of argument: real estate. Even as the city rolls out Downtown Los Angeles 2040, its plan to densify downtown residentially and alleviate its housing and traffic problems, the homeless are venturing out of Skid Row into high-rent South Park, the Arts District, and the loft district on Main and Spring, threatening downtown’s resurgence. The highly promising plan for developing downtown into an urban magnet and escape valve for coming growth is now in growing conflict with a social dynamic working relentlessly against its success. Besides spreading out from its edges, the homeless community occupies a no-go zone for many Angelenos in the core of downtown, a 50-block, 2.7-square-mile area between the towers of Bunker Hill to the west and the fashionable Arts District east of Alameda. This middle ground represents a poverty gap that shades the very idea of the good life in the city: it’s hard to focus on a black truffle risotto when someone shuffling past, pushing a shopping cart, asks you for the price of your lunch.

In Los Angeles, homelessness has joined freeway gridlock and a deepening housing shortage in a trifecta of urban crises. In the last municipal election, pressure from alerted citizens, many of them renters themselves facing and fearing housing insecurity in the pandemic, forced the issue to the top of the city’s agenda. Council members were elected on their position vis-à-vis the homeless, marking the first time that housing became so important in the vote.

Phase 1 of Skid Row Super Mural. Photo by Stephen Zeigler. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.
An overview of a polarized downtown, from the sprawling, low-rise Skid Row, looking west at the mid-rise buildings of historic downtown with the towers of the financial district and Bunker Hill, right, and the towers of South Park, left. Photo by Iwan Baan.

Policy and the Welfare Queen

What makes homelessness systemic is not just the massive and sustained failure to correct it at multiple levels of government, but what might be understood as the perverse and intentional success governments have had in perpetuating it. The systems for housing in place through the 1970s, including Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty and Roosevelt’s New Deal decades before, have been relentlessly weakened in subsequent administrations by laws and funding cutbacks. The devolution is not accidental. From Reagan on, the problem was politicized and then institutionalized into core policy that perpetuates its grip on the system, as if by design. Dog whistles then already signaled what they still signal now: an underlying political agenda, with racism high among the pitched notes. In Boston, 64 percent of the homeless population is African American, which is especially shocking given that the city’s Black population is 25 percent. Nationally, African Americans make up 40 percent of the total homeless population.

Trump’s own medley of dog whistles has joined the chorus that has long been ringing in housing law and finance, but perhaps his plan for a “beautiful border wall” is the shrillest and loudest. Its $21 billion estimated cost could pay the hard construction costs for some 200,000 housing units: the expense of building a racially motivated wall would house nearly half the estimated homeless in the United States, who are disproportionately people of color.

Speakers at the Harvard Zoom conference, which was curated by Los Angeles architects Alice Kimm and John Friedman (who themselves have extensive experience designing affordable housing), attributed the beginning of California’s long postwar slide in dealing with homelessness to Reagan’s two terms as California governor (1967–’75), especially the Lanterman-Petris-Short Act he signed in 1967. That legislative bill released a large population from mental institutions on their own recognizance into communities that, theoretically, would absorb them into a more supportive social fabric. Decentralizing the responsibility for care was an attempt to localize, individualize, and even humanize care.

Didn’t happen. Many landed on the streets, and those who did find SROs and boarding houses eventually ended up on the streets too, victims of escalating rents in cities undergoing gentrification. Some went to prison. The state government handed off the problem on the assumption that local communities would take up the slack, but local governments and institutions, underfunded and underequipped, failed to erect a social safety net.

Pershing Square in Downtown Los Angeles (DTLA). Photo by Levi Clancy. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

Reagan had approved a plan that absolved the state government of responsibility. Like Pontius Pilate, but unlike the homeless, he could wash his hands of the problem.

Signing Lanterman-Petris-Short characterized what would become his policies as governor. As a candidate, Reagan had run and won his campaign on the theme “send the welfare bums back to work,” and early in his term as governor, he cut funding for the state university system, incensed at the demonstrators at Free-Speech Berkeley — “bums” with books. Why would he support anyone who was not going to vote for him anyway?  The policies would prove a warm-up for his presidency.

He imported that attitude to Washington, where he basically withdrew support from people who didn’t and wouldn’t vote for him. That included largely Democratic cities, where the homeless were concentrated. The strategy had the added electoral advantage of disenfranchising probable Democractic voters. Subtracting them from voting rolls for “address unknown” subtracted their vote.

Johnson’s War on Poverty effectively became Reagan’s war on the poor. Re-gendering his “bum,” he invented the “Welfare Queen” to demonize minorities as freeloaders living off the government. We’ll never know whether Reagan was aware of Eleanor Roosevelt’s UN speech about housing as a human right, but a year after his inauguration, appearing on ABC’s Good Morning America, he made his own declaration: “People who are sleeping on the grates […] the homeless […] are homeless, you might say, by choice.”

He soon proceeded to turn this opinion into policy, using the Welfare Queen as both the message and cornerstone of racially inflected programs that would eventually make homelessness systemic. He lavished money on defense but starved social programs that turned moms receiving social assistance, including housing, into queens. He sought to abandon government support for housing in favor of deregulated markets and, in his first year, dramatically cut housing subsidies: he halved the budget for public housing and HUD’s Section 8, to about $17.5 billion. In subsequent years, he worked to eliminate federal housing assistance to the poor altogether. Send the Welfare Queen back to work.

By the end of his second term, still beating up on the apocryphal “Welfare Queen,” he slashed federal assistance to local governments by 60 percent, eliminating general revenue sharing with cities and cutting public transit, legal services for the poor, and anti-poverty block grants while he was at it. Subsequent administrations — even Clinton’s, whose Welfare Reform Act of 1996 reduced the percentage of low-income families receiving cash assistance from 76 percent to 23 percent — never restored cutbacks for low-income housing and other benefits.

Federal disinvestment in housing was not total and immediate. Attention shifted primarily from funding for housing to the slippery slope of vouchers — basically food stamps awarded to qualified individuals to subsidize rents in market-rate housing. The transition harbored a political agenda. Vouchers privatized the government’s approach to shelter, taking the “socialism” out of direct government support by affirming the private sector’s housing production. Housing was no longer considered Eleanor Roosevelt’s human right but a market commodity. Voucher programs themselves were easy to cut, and they were. President George W. Bush, who often claimed Reagan’s mantle, proposed cutting one-third of the Section 8 housing vouchers — which two million poor families used to avoid homelessness. By 2003, 34,000 vouchers were provided to families, as opposed to the 400,000 given in 1976 at the end of Gerald Ford’s presidency. Cuts in Section 8 housing programs were aggravated by a decline in federal grants to local communities to develop housing. Local communities were left to put Humpty Dumpty back together with increasingly diminished resources.

Of course, other forces beyond government disengagement exacerbated the crisis. Since the 1990s, mass incarceration has been a major driver of homelessness. Trivial by comparison, Airbnb also contributed later, turning existing housing stock into short-term rentals. Through the decades, the dramatic decrease in affordable housing caused an increase in homelessness in cities, as rising property values and rents displaced people whose incomes had become stagnant. Starting with Reagan and continuing afterward, the gulf between the haves and have-nots widened. The dramatic rise in homelessness in Los Angeles (and New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Seattle, Atlanta, and elsewhere) is directly related to a decreasing pool of affordable units driven by the financialization of housing. Even SROs and rooming houses, a last refuge, disappeared from housing stock. The marketplace on which national housing policy is based was not kind to the poor in rich cities.

Ironically, some of those people with nowhere to go wound up camping out in the Bel Air hills, near Reagan’s last home. They had come back to haunt him, knocking at his door with fire.

Ethics

Enter Los Angeles City Attorney Mike Feuer, perhaps the most controversial figure in the city’s contentious homelessness quagmire. In what is basically a libertarian interpretation of the Lanterman-Petris-Short bill, Feuer — Reagan reincarnated as a Democrat — maintains that it is a person’s right to choose to live on the street, and that no authority can legally round her up to impose shelter against her will. Feuer’s argument seems specious given that, according to the Harvard Zoom speakers, an overwhelming percentage of the homeless, when actually asked, say they would like to be able to take a shower in the morning, and make a cup of coffee, in their own home. It’s doubtful that Feuer ever visited a tent pitched outside City Hall to ask residents himself, but whatever the philosophical basis of his position, it has given legal if not moral license to the city to ignore the urgency of the question.

Last year, US District Judge David O. Carter joined the issue with his decision to compel Orange County to find housing for homeless persons sleeping along the Santa Ana River. The county found accommodations in motels, where the homeless lodged for several months. This year, Carter presided over a suit brought against the city and county by an alliance of downtown business owners furious at the unsafe, inhumane, and unhealthy living conditions of the homeless in their community.

Feuer’s hands-off argument is a narrow interpretation of the fact that no existing law allows the government to remove citizens from the street. Carter contradicted that argument by ordering the city to find housing, making it law: per his order, the city had the right and responsibility to remove homeless people from the street and put them in housing. Feuer may still righteously use his position to argue his views, but the tents pitched around City Hall stand as indictments of the government and its leaders for failing its citizens.

Homeless tents in Los Angeles Skid Row. By Russ Allison Loar. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

The impasse downtown seems intractable, and increasingly out of control, but a Zoom conference participant, Shaun Donovan — Obama’s Secretary of Housing and Urban Development — recalled succeeding with Michelle Obama in their targeted effort at cutting the homeless rate among veterans by 50 percent, from 75,000 to 35,000 (a population only slightly larger than Los Angeles’s homeless). “All we need is the money and the will,” he said. They had the will and found the money, but he also had the organizational skill: with his formation as an architect, Donovan knew how to restructure and redesign the housing system to address the problem. Inventive and adaptable problem solvers, architects are trained to deal with the many levels of building, from zoning to construction to cost, and are accustomed to handling complexities and negotiating among numerous stakeholders. “Architects have the power to reimagine and see what no one has seen,” he said, concluding: “If there’s one thing I want you to remember from this discussion today it’s that homelessness is a solvable problem.”

Donovan is now running for mayor of New York City, with a stated aim to help solve the homeless problems there, which are not dissimilar to Los Angeles’s. 

Action

Reagan’s marginalization of the housing issue by trickle-down economic starvation was so successful that, barring the unlikely return of a Roosevelt or a Johnson, cities like Los Angeles have been left to solve the homeless problem locally.

The Garcetti administration has tried. In 2016, the city passed Proposition HHH, a $1.2 billion bond to help subsidize up to 10,000 supportive housing units. “The voters of Los Angeles have radically reshaped our future — giving us a mandate to end street homelessness over the next decade,” Garcetti announced proudly, and, it would turn out, prematurely. Theoretically, $1.2 billion and 10,000 units would put a dent in the problem. But, to date, even a year after all the funds have been allocated and nearly five years after the bill’s approval, only several hundred units have been built. A mea culpa note that Garcetti signed at the end of an official announcement basically explained that the dog ate his homework, that it was all very complicated. It turns out that the city had needed to restructure the way housing production was administered rather than work within a broken system. As it stands, only 7,500 of the anticipated 10,000 units will ever be built, if that, and even then, only by about 2028, 12 years after funding, according to an expert who asked not to be named.

HHH failed for two reasons. Overbearing regulations and time-consuming funding procedures made what should have been a well-funded sprint to the finish line a slog through bureaucratic quicksand. The list of obstacles slowing the process is long and cumulative, no one hurdle or setback causing the defeat in itself, but all contributing to a well-funded failure.

To cite a few: Rules established by the Americans with Disabilities Act require that each unit, not just a percentage of units, comply with handicapped rules, including wheelchair access, turning radii, bespoke cabinetry, even the amount of space on either side of a bed. Factor into that minimal size requirements (no micro-apartments allowed), mandatory closet space minima, a set ratio of parking spaces per unit (for people mostly without cars), density limits on a parcel, exigent fire exiting rules, and HUD’s own rules for any developer who needs renters’ vouchers to secure loans. By the time you’ve satisfied all the requirements, a one-bedroom unit costs around $600,000 to build, according to Roger Sherman, an architect in the Los Angeles office of Gensler who specializes in the homeless issue. That’s well over the construction costs for market-rate housing of the same type: “The perfect has been made the enemy of the good,” Sherman said.

Then add time to cost. Even with HHH bonds, the development timeline ranges from three to six years, a calendar that fails anyone now on the street. The composite of funding sources necessary for any one project, known as “stack,” requires that funding applications and approvals be obtained in an exasperatingly slow sequence, one agency at a time: each agency has to stamp its approval before the project moves “up the stack” to the next. But that’s the good news. Success on the stack only works if and when federal vouchers — the holy grail of the stack and a precondition to obtaining everything that follows — are available. Since Trump’s presidency and the increase in applicants due to the homelessness crisis, supply has fallen far short of demand.

Often the notion of a housing czar comes up: the need for someone who can cut through the Gordian knot of red tape. Sherman, however, suggests that a czar might not be necessary, just a mayor leveraging a disaster: the level of the homeless crisis in Los Angeles could easily be construed as a slow-motion earthquake or slow-moving fire, a condition that would put the issue on an emergency basis that would lift overbearing restrictions and liberate subsidies from the attached strings.

“The systems [in place] have already been designed to perpetuate homelessness,” said Haggerty, president of New York–based Community Solutions. “What if the way we’ve understood homelessness reflects not individual misfortune but a massive system design failure?” Her epiphany about system failure occurred when her team built thousands of affordable and permanent supportive housing units in and around New York City, and everyone expected the homeless to disappear from the street into housing. “Well, that’s not what happened,” she said.

It seems that all the organizations, including her own, independently had their own requirements and eligibility criteria, which turned the tenant vetting process into an impassable uphill slalom that made it impossible for applicants to escape the street. Each housing assistance group was funded to provide a service that had to be checked off in sequence, and collectively they added up to another “stack,” this time not for funding but for vetting residents. The perfect now had become the enemy of the urgent: the well-intended regulations attached so adhesively to each source were never considered relative to the equally adhesive requirements of other sources, or considered relative to the pace and success of the project. Streamlined coordination was in order.

The new system that Haggerty’s group (and others) have devised to replace the failed one is a data-driven approach, adapted from public health procedures, that collects information in a shared homeless and at-risk registry based in on-the-ground research. Organizations have climbed out of their silos to work in information collectives, with the key players getting together to look at the same data to calculate their next moves. The granular data necessary to build usable information are not coming from an algorithm but from interviewers in the field making eye contact and taking notes: “It’s built from the ground up by people doing the work” she said.

Getting Down to Cases

Even without a czar or an empowered mayor, some L.A. architects have succeeded building housing with the resources at hand. Though Michael Lehrer said early in the conference that he knew homelessness is a problem too large for architecture alone to solve, he has worked in the trenches for decades fighting the good fight from his office in Silver Lake. Twenty years ago, he started designing drop-in centers on Skid Row that provided showers, laundries, temporary beds, meals, TV, and even classes. The James M. Wood Community Center has received three million visits in its two decades of operation. The clean modernist lines of the building (along with patios landscaped by Mia Lehrer with palms and bougainvillea) reveal his Harvard Design School background, and they echo the midcentury modernism of the famous Case Study Houses built in the decades after the war.

The James M. Wood Community Center by Michael Lehrer, fronted by a white colonnade that defines an interior courtyard.

But more fundamental than style and minimalist elegance is the humanism that underlies what Lehrer intended as a “sanctum,” a complex built with a quality of design and construction that honors its users. (When I first saw the complex and how it was enthusiastically embraced and used not long after it opened, I was moved nearly to tears.) His two drop-in “sanctuaries” teach lessons of architectural empathy: that beauty is, he says, “a rudiment of human dignity.” Lehrer also showed more recent projects in his Zoom presentation, including one for at-risk youths in East Los Angeles, most designed with micro-units along single-loaded exterior corridors that allow cross-ventilation. The shed roofs of Willowbrook, a single-story garden complex of seven 300-square-foot micro-units, built on an infill lot in East Los Angeles, blends right into its residential neighborhood, with no hint of its institutional origins in a nonprofit organization. His latest project, a village of about 40 prefabricated, eight-by-eight-foot, one-story modular rooms, each with a house-like gable, arrived on palettes for erection on an irregular lot in the San Fernando Valley. Sponsored by a nonprofit developer, the project will have taken 13 weeks from design to end of construction next month (no thanks to the city’s Bureau of Engineering, however, whose regulations greatly increased its costs).

Addressing the chronic issue of NIMBYism, Lehrer said, “It is absolutely critical that these projects honor and enhance the neighborhoods and become projects of desire in every neighborhood to form complete communities.” In none of his projects did Lehrer design down to his clients. He created spirited complexes, designs into which he factored what he called “joy.” Design matters.

Attitude matters, too. The architectural empathy Lehrer showed the homeless — now magically transformed into residents simply because of a roof — stems from his direct contact with homeless people themselves, from talking with his ultimate clients, “with the sisters and brothers who have lived experiences that only they can know and understand.” Lehrer emphasized the human need for what he calls the “primal hut.” Building the rudiments is, for Lehrer, as fundamental as a doctor’s Hippocratic Oath — “to do no harm or injustice.”

Leilani Farha found that, when she shot “little videos” during her interviews with the homeless, “Each and every one of them articulated almost the exact same thing. They all want and expect to be treated as human beings, and to be able to live as human beings.”

Other than his palette project in the Valley, most of Lehrer’s projects used conventional construction. His younger Harvard colleague, Kevin Hirai, chose an industrialized approach to permanent housing in order to achieve, through modular construction, the savings in time and cost that replicability and scale make possible. Co-founder and COO of FlyawayHomes, Hirai built a three-story, multi-family shipping container structure in South Los Angeles; he anticipates that the current half-million-dollar cost per unit will — if built in quantity with modular components — eventually drop by a third, while taking one-third less time. A second project will be finished in February.

Instead of funding mechanisms tied to traditional tax-credit grants for low-income housing, his outfit put together a privately financed package, hoping to prove that what he calls “social impact funding” is profitable and attractive to investors. The private-equity solution bypassed HUD and all its impediments. With modular, systematized construction creating high-quality, low-cost housing, Hirai hopes “to jump off from the first two developments to create an alternate development ecosystem where we could build 50 developments.”

Thinking beyond his own project, Hirai, with degrees in finance and real estate development, suggested alternative paths to affordability. Lowering interest rates from around six percent to three percent would alone greatly reduce product cost, he suggested, especially if paired with land that could be up-zoned for density. Leilani Farha agreed: “Governments haven’t given capital a chance to respond,” she said, meaning that the financialization occurring at so many levels in American society hasn’t occurred in housing. If one wants to harness the market forces driving capitalism, she asked, “What are the levers?”

One entrepreneur, Los Angeles–based Martin Muoto, is doing just that, using market levers to finance a large-scale project in South Los Angeles. Muoto, with a strong background in the financial industry, has designed a sophisticated social impact funding tool to finance a mixed-use neighborhood, with the goal of establishing a socially and economically dynamic community that would stimulate growth in the larger community. On land he acquired on Central Avenue around 70th Street, he intends to build The Beehive, a mixed-used complex designed to fit into the area organically, with housing itself just one part of a sustainable social and economic ecosystem that includes job creation and workplaces.

Unlike Kevin Hirai, however, Muoto has started by raising the social impact capital first. The Beehive is not a building in search of funding. So far, FlyawayHomes is operating at a cottage-industry scale focused on housing as a single issue. The Beehive represents a different, more expansive and diverse paradigm with greater profit opportunities that make it more attractive to private equity. The larger scale and wider scope leverage more investment opportunities. Muoto’s operation represents a sophisticated, privately financed operation rather than a sophisticated architectural project: that comes later. The private equity funding of both projects, however, avoids the regulatory bureaucratic glue that has slowed others.

In the Zoom conference, Claire Elizabeth Williams, co-founder and CEO of Foundations for Social Change in Vancouver, suggested another approach that dissolves the glue. In a process whose great advantage is its streamlined simplicity, her organization has given $7,500 cash grants to individuals and families who are homeless. These stipends have succeeded in stabilizing lives that had been spent on the street. Recipients have used them for security deposits for housing and other hard costs, including food.

The Star Apartments, a housing complex in Skid Row for the long-term homeless, opened in 2014. Los Angeles architect Michael Maltzan elevated the 102 units apartments above an existing one-story commercial building. Photo by Iwan Baan.

COVID-19 and BLM

“Never waste a good crisis,” said Shaun Donovan, quoting his Obama colleague Rahm Emanuel (who was channeling Churchill, who was channeling Machiavelli). For Los Angeles, the advantage of the homeless crisis is that the public has finally recognized the crisis as a crisis. The encampments and even villages on freeway cloverleafs, in parks, around City Hall, and along thoroughfares are facts on the ground that both cause concern and shame the public.

But it took two other crises to bring the housing crisis to a head. Heidi Marston, executive director of the LA Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA), credits the pandemic — with its devastating threat to the health of homeless communities — for bringing resources together quickly, generating momentum. FEMA funded “Project Room Key,” established in March 2020 as a state response to COVID-19, which placed nearly 6,000 people experiencing homelessness in hotel and motel rooms in Los Angeles within a two-month period. The disaster that Garcetti could have used to lift regulations found the crisis without the mayor. Marston qualified her enthusiasm, however: “It would really be a shame to go back to the status quo after COVID just because we don’t see it as a crisis anymore.”

The second crisis compounding the base crisis was the systemic racism highlighted by Black Lives Matter. “The largest civil rights movement in American history,” according to Raman, BLM gives homelessness a context, linking the country’s race-related systemic homelessness to systemic racism. BLM points out that the disproportionate percentage of minorities now on the streets traces back to the Welfare Queen, when racism was baked into the country’s housing policy.  BLM has compounded the moral incentive of curing homelessness, at least in Los Angeles. “We’ve seen a real investment in closing that gap here in Los Angeles over these past few months,” she said.

Hovering over it all, and further accelerating the pace, is the public health issue that Farha had raised early in the conference. Defecation in the streets has spawned a number of hepatitis outbreaks in Los Angeles.

The current mobilization has united a small army of individuals, nonprofits, institutions, and politicians, who have joined forces to confront what is now a clearly identified and intractable problem. Increasingly linked and less balkanized, the effort is more collective and better informed than it was even five years ago. There is already a considerable well of experience, some of it painful, about strategies that do and do not succeed; the working list is long:

Responsive capitalism. Streamlined regulations. Funding alignment. Modular construction. Government land. Vertical bureaucratic integration. Cash allocations. Collective will. Wraparound social services. Transitional housing. Permanent housing. Data. Staged re-entry. Security deposits. Job training. NIMBYism. State legislation against NIMBYism. And, of course, compassion, ingenuity, leadership, architecture.

With HUD’s Section 8 vouchers in decreasing supply, the current, most effective solution to the housing crisis seems to be a grassroots reaction to Washington’s systemic disengagement and recalcitrance. Advocates are coming together in a para-governmental and extra-governmental network that is establishing an alternate system to the system already failing in place. Their solution is pragmatic and agnostic — and opportunistic in the best sense of the word — in its methods to forge a combination of paths aimed at maximizing door count.

It’s a sad irony that solving the problem means making good on the local initiatives necessitated by the Lanterman-Petris-Short Act and its national consequences. Waiting for the compassionate conservatism of Washington, waiting for Mitch McConnell, is like waiting for Godot.

We are at an inflection point in the crisis. COVID-19, Black Lives Matter, the failure of Proposition HHH, the recent City Council race, growing homelessness, and the DTLA 2040 initiative all are repositioning homelessness in public awareness and on the city’s agenda. We don’t yet know if the recent momentum is sustainable. We do know that there are still more people entering the ranks of the homeless than are escaping, due in no small part to the decline in federal grants given to local communities. The gap between the number of housing units and the number of homeless is huge and growing, certain to be gravely aggravated if impending evictions due to the COVID crisis occur.

Washington is conspicuous by its absence: the HUD system is a shell of the robust agency it once was. The Biden administration might step into the hollowed shell and revitalize the agency, perhaps even playing Reagan’s original movie in reverse, spooling back the incremental changes that have diminished its viability and purpose. In his campaign, candidate Biden acknowledged the problem and promised housing vouchers to every American who needs government assistance. Currently vouchers are available to only a quarter of the people eligible. The example set by Obama’s former HUD secretary, Shaun Donovan, in helping homeless veterans proves that solutions are achievable and sustainable. The problem is political will, not money: helping every homeless person in America for a year costs the price of a single aircraft carrier.

As Heidi Marston, LAHSA’s director, said: “I completely agree that homelessness is an issue that can be solved, mostly because we caused it.”

A formerly homeless resident of the Star Apartments in the kitchen of his studio apartment. Photo by Iwan Baan.

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Joseph Giovannini is a critic, architect, and teacher based in New York. Trained at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, he has written for The New York Times, the Los Angeles TimesNew York MagazineArchitect Magazine, and Architectural Record, and has taught at Columbia, Harvard, UCLA, USC, and SCI-Arc. His book Architecture Unbound: A Century of the Architectural Avant-Garde will be out in 2021. 

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Featured image: “Skid Row Campers in downtown Los Angeles” by Russ Allison Loar is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

Joseph Giovannini is a critic, architect, and teacher based in New York. Trained at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, he has written for The New York Times, the Los Angeles TimesNew York MagazineArchitect Magazine, and Architectural Record, and has taught at Columbia, Harvard, UCLA, USC, and SCI-Arc. His book Architecture Unbound: A Century of the Architectural Avant-Garde will be out in 2021. 

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Featured image: “Palace Theater (Los Angeles)” is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

Banner image: “Los Angeles, Winter 2016” by salewskia is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

 

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