LA Design Festival: Affordable Housing in LA today

This past Saturday, June 23, I attended one of a plethora of free lectures and tours offered in conjunction with the 2019 LA Design Festival. TALK: New Vision for LA x Designing Our Future featured a panel of Elizabeth Timme, co-director and architect of LA-Más and Jim White, Founder of “Home for Good” were moderated by Michela O’Connor Abrams of MOCA.

On the event webpage, the presentation is described as:

… how design thinking is positively informing civic planning…thought-provoking discussion about how creative collaborations are reshaping the future of Los Angeles and how you can be a part of it.

Elizabeth Timme is knowledgeable in a pragmatic way, twitching with intensity as she names a litany of agencies, partner contractors, and regulations vis-à-vis specific projects at high velocity. Jim White is a human resources executive at an entertainment company. Also a real estate investor on the side, he sees the cost of space in this city and how the overall real estate market makes it prohibitively expensive for those with moderate incomes. He also states that the cost of public assistance to the homeless (those without a fixed residential addresses) is exorbitant and wasteful. The money is better spent getting people into affordable or free housing, so they can start and benefit from treatment for whatever their ailments. Uncanny how he is able to translate humanitarian need into fiscal cost-effectiveness.

I thought this panel presentation was going to be on strategies of public engagement, public-private partnerships, and the image of the urban future. It was… and squarely in the domain of the cascading homeless crisis and the lack of social structures for mitigating, moreover eliminating it.

White talked about advocacy groups, including Everyone In LA, and the need for policy improvements while Timme spoke about the more telluric processes: community outreach, engagement, awareness, and navigating the multiplex of government regulation and contractor partnerships to forge new solutions for this housing issue.

The conversation found its plateau around ADU’s (Accessory Dwelling Units or “Granny Flats”) as a viable means of increasing Section 8 housing density in existing neighborhoods around transit hubs, without displacing longtime residents and houses. The triangle of daunting city permit acquisitions, rocketing marketplace prices, and well-meaning homeowners but who cannot stomach the $115K design/construction cost to convert their garages into ADU’s continue to be a barrier.

Both speakers recognized that easy access from housing to transportation is crucial to getting people back on their feet again. White said he takes the Metro 10 Local everyday to and from work, and asked for a show of hands of how many in the audience of 50 have never taken Metro bus or rail. Only one sheepishly raised her hand. Timme said transit must be more frequent in order to become a reliable mode. Transportation and housing remain inextricably intertwined basic necessities.

It seemed to me that these procedural and cost issues were overshadowing another huge obstacle: “homed” people don’t trust homeless people. As a mass transit employee, I have witnessed time and time again how drivers are skittish about trying mass transit and the attendant sharing of space with strangers. The fear of strangers looms large. Between personal vehicles and single-family homes encircled with fences, this very notion of personal possession or property has cultivated a very staunch private bubble mentality. To share means to pop that bubble — and that is a terrifying, unacceptable notion to many. Timme deemed this issue as “fringe” and collateral, as something that we need to move beyond, but I wouldn’t downplay the magnitude of social-psychological shift required to get us all into the necessary sharing and caring way of life. Many are still unapologetically myopic and peering out with parochial vision— and that is a BIG problem.

And I’m not sure where the “design thinking” figured into this talk beyond creative partnerships and pricing. If there was a mention of design, it was in the context of Timme lamenting the bane of Dwell magazine-type ADU. Stark, graphic and minimalist, these coveted mini-homes are realized at no small cost. These ADU’s become jewels of affluence rather than mitigation measures for affordable housing.

Can design become populist? Where is accessible, functional, beautiful design in the context of affordable dwellings near mass transportation? When does beauty and ease of function become an everyday enjoyment for everyone? Or, to put it bluntly, why does the financially accessible option have to be boring or ugly?

I hope next year, the Design Festival tackles the headier issues of how design both perpetuates and redefines aesthetics of class and power. As I strolled around The Row after the lecture, I was impressed by how the Brutalist concrete panopticon (the abandoned shell of the former American Apparel factories) has been re-appropriated for boutiques, a chocolatier, and restaurants. The veneer of the redesign is nearly transparent. The site of blue-collar working class industry is now the playground of the amply endowed. Our ability to embrace and mix up the different design vocabularies across classes gives me hope that we can do it in other essential aspects of life too, from housing to transportation to social relationships.

How You Get There is Everything

How you travel is like how you eat. We in LA have a tendency to eat this same meal everyday: Pulling out car keys and driving. There are actually way more travel options out there—each with its own tradeoffs. Being intentional about them can maximize reward for you and everyone else.

The Destination

One Saturday morning, I had to get to Plaza del Valle in Van Nuys for a Metro community event. Two journey options: one achievable in 28 minutes by car and the other, 1.5 hours by transit, bike, and walking.

 I chose the latter.

Why? These were my goals:

  1. To experience for the first time the phenomenon of a bus-only lane, the Metro Orange Line.
  2. To give the air quality a break.
  3. To get an up-close tour of neighborhoods new to me.
  4. To relax and leave the driving to a pro, and avoid affliction with road rage.
  5. To have an adventure.

Connecting to the First Ride on Bike

Off I sped, on my bike from home in East Pasadena to Raymond Avenue and Walnut in old town. One beat after my bike lock clicked into place, the bright orange of the 501 Metro Express from Pasadena to North Hollywood bus loomed on the horizon. The actual stop was only ten paces away, which I covered with an alacrity that, I would soon discover, is essential to getting around LA on mass transit.

Metro 501 Express

The speed of the 501 on the 134 East at 9AM on a Saturday morning is totally impressive. Metro express buses are fantastic at $2.50 paid with a TAP card. With free wifi onboard and plentiful seating, my satisfaction became pure delight when we rolled into North Hollywood Station’s lot a mere 20 minutes later. 

Metro Orange Line

At North Hollywood, I caught the Orange Line for the first time. I was practically shocked by its frequency and the pleasantness of traveling in a bus-only lane. It’s like the express but also secluded from car traffic and parallel only with walkways and verdant foliage. About 15 minutes later, I arrived in Van Nuys, where I would wait 10 minutes for the 233 Local bound for Pacoima. The fares for these connections are no additional charge if you paid for your initial ride with a TAP card and the connections occur within two hours.

Metro Local 233

Now, taking Metro Local buses, here’s a different experience: this is about slowing down and zeroing in on a neighborhood. The storefronts whizzed by through the windows: auto shops, neverias, pawn shops, mom and pop taquerias, county aid offices — signs of a neighborhood trying to get a foothold on LA life in its own way. Engrossed in studying the surroundings, I overshot my stop and would have to backtrack three miles.
Arrival Info Apps

My Transit app and Google both said the wait for the next bus would be ten minutes but, even after three minutes, the apps remained steadfast at ten minutes. It took 15 minutes for the bus to come. None of the buses have a  digital map onboard that shows where you are on the route, at any given time. Furthermore,  the apps don’t have a way to tell you where to get off the bus. You just end up having to look out the window and count the stops very carefully. 

Civic Engagement Event in Van Nuys

Without going into too much detail on the Van Nuys new light rail line, pedestrian walkway, and bike path improvement public engagement event at my destination (which was a blast and such an improvement over typical civic meetings, the details of which I wrote into a report for my Metro work), I’ll just say that taking Metro there gave me an authentic and insightful exposure into the people, cityscape, and overall vibe of Van Nuys Boulevard. I certainly would not have gotten that if I had driven there. 

The Return Trip

The ride back was not bad. The 233 arrived just like the Transit App said it would. However, when I got to North Hollywood, the app said that I had an extra ten minutes before the 501 would depart for Pasadena but, to my alarm, I spotted it pulling away from the stop and already exiting the bus terminal. OMG WTF! 

Remember the essential alacrity that I mentioned earlier? This is it. Recalling that the 501 took Lankershim Boulevard on the way over, I knew that it would take it going back. I bolted down the street. Fortunately, the 501 was hindered by a series of red lights behind me, but soon enough I was neck and neck with it at the last intersection preceding its last stop. 

Of course the bus got there before for I did, but not by long. The bus operator held as I ran up. Breathless, I put placed my fare card on the farebox TAP validator. 

Was it Worth it?

Yes, since I wanted the journey to be part of the destination. 

We can each have this adventure if we choose our transportation modes thoughtfully!

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Landfill & Sewage Plant Tour

This past Saturday morning until noon, my friend Michael and I, along with about 100 others of all walks, participated in a public tour led by the Los Angeles County Sanitation Districts at Puente Hills Landfill and San José Creek Water Reclamation Plant.

People in a long line getting ready for tour.

I was very excited to attend this tour because, five years ago, I worked with Los Angeles County Department of Public Works (LADPW) on a publication called the Countywide Siting Element, an integrated waste management plan for the County’s 10.16 million residents. The document made it clear that the County was running out of local landfill space. That time has now arrived. It had all been in the abstract until now.

The Landfill Tour

Puente Hills Landfill, the largest in the USA at 600 acres across and up to 500 feet deep, is now closed and no longer receiving dumps. The trash items are encased in a concrete-lined basin and buried at least five feet deep in soil. No water penetrates it. You can see a tree-studded mountain off of the 60-freeway.

It looks very natural but as you get closer, you see that the trees are all non-native: figs, eucalyptus, and myrtles, with pipes, full of liquid leakage or methane emissions from the trash, weaving among the tree trunks. You can also see croppings of mysterious tanks and pumps throughout the mountainside. Nonetheless, there are plans to transform it into a public park.

Row of heavy duty tanks surrounded by trees and foliage.

The methane leads to a furnace where it is burned and the heat is used to create electricity. Water is used to cool down the air from the energy conversion and the vapor is released through these stacks.

Large industrial towers releasing vapor into the air.

At the foot of the mountain is a giant warehouse, the size of which I’ve never seen so large in my life. The big trash trucks departing from them, after unloading, look like tiny dots.

Nearly aerial view of a humongous boxy warehouse-like plant at the foot of Puente Hills.

Inside, each truck must pay depending on what it is dropping off and how much. The types of trash are sorted into much more specific categories than just “recycling.” For example: wood, concrete, produce, paper, glass, etc.

Sorted trash in giant piles and bins inside the building.

After sorting and breaking down the categories of trash, they are either sold or transported by truck or train to distant processing sites.

The Sewage Tour

San José Creek water reclamation services existed before Puente Hills Landfill became a thing. It is the oldest sewage processing plant in LA County and a large one too. Check out these buttons. They don’t make them like this anymore!


Today, the largest one is right next to the coast, in Carson, the Joint Water Pollution Control Plant.

San José Creek Plant alone process some 100 million gallons per day. Sometimes, more sewage arrives than can be processed, particularly during storms. In such cases, the raw sewage goes straight into the ocean. A new plan, the Clearwater Project, will have large pipes built and installed into the Pacific, sending sewage a few miles out before it is released into the ocean, so it is away from the coast.

While this preserves the quality of water along the beaches and coastal properties, it does also send a bit of the wrong message: Out of sight, out of mind.

Not today — raw sewage is gross!


Our guide and Sanitation employee told us about the three stages of sewage processing. He said this is basically nature’s own process — accelerated.

Illustrated graphic of sewage processing.
  1. Primary – Raw sewage in tanks, settling beneath closed metal doors. Our guide opened some for us to see. It was too dark to see and the smell was too strong to approach.
  2. Secondary- The debris in the water is digested by the same kinds of microbes in your intestines. The liquid is exposed to the air to enable further breakdown through natural processes. The odor is strong but less so.
  3. Tertiary – The water goes through intense sediment filtration and becomes clear.

Our guide let us know that this water was clean enough for gardening and for washing our hands. He passed around a flask of this water and poured it over open palms of the audience. He also told us that about 1 billion of the world population is drinking water less clean than the tertiary grade.

The residual solids separated from the water are hauled to distant sites to be transformed into fertilizer. In fact, you may know the brand Kellogg from Home Depot’s nursery section (not the cereal brand). H. Clay Kellogg took the solids from sanitation filtration and transformed it into agricultural and residential garden fertilizer in the 1920s, launching his successful business.

Adjacent to the plant, concrete-lined San Jose Creek finds new life through the reclaimed water.


Over 50% of LA’s water is from Sacramento and from the Colorado River. With those sources reducing their exports to LA, we need to curb water waste and, when it does rain, let rainfall recharge our groundwater sources. This means letting it drain into the soil rather than let it run off into the sea.

As we face a city and world that are stretched thin for resources and changing as a result human impacts, what struck me the most during the tours was how much fuel and energy we are expending to manage waste. A toilet flushed in Pasadena must travel through a network of pipes to reach Whittier to be processed. Trash collected from a residential bin from Monrovia travels 30 miles in a heavy diesel truck to be sorted and then put on a diesel train to be hauled to Mesquite Canyon Landfill in the Mojave Desert. We are compounding our waste.

Some ways to conserve resources would be:
1. Worm-composting kitchen scraps. You can use the resulting fertilizer for your vegetable garden too.
2. Installing rain catchment bins and cisterns around buildings.
3. Building bioswales into garden landscapes. Grow native plants.
4. Recycling clean recyclable materials.
5. Buy only what you need and making it last.
6. Avoid single-use items.
7. Know what are poisonous chemicals and toxic materials and dispose of them responsibly.