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.

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