October 30, 1993 - From the October, 1993 issue

Affordable Housing: An Evolving Debate on “Doing More with Less”

by Elizabeth Bar-El 

Non-profit developers, city official, and other members of SCANPH (Southern California Association of Non-Profit Housing), the driving forces behind today's public housing development in the region, gathered on October 1 at the downtown Hyatt for the organization's fifth annual conference to share ideas and evaluate the current direction of public housing, both from the perspective of cost and design. 

SCANPH's first awards for achievement were presented to New Economics for Women for their Casa Loma project for single Latina mothers in East Los Angeles, to the West Hollywood Community Development Corporation for their generally successful approach to development, to Citibank and the Los Angeles CRA for their roles as funders, and to the Legal Aid Foundation law firm for their support as community advocates. 

While honoring their peers for past successes, workshop discussions focused on the future of affordable housing in Los Angeles. Much of this focus was not surprisingly on funding sources. The last several years of recession have seen the drying up of some sources of public funds, although on the bright side, some recent state legislation is forcing cities to utilize funds that have become "use it or lose it." The necessity of chasing limited resources to put together the financing for new projects is sharpening the issues in the affordable housing debate. Specifically, How can the public housing community strive to maximize benefits and minimize costs?

For example, although there is agreement that creative design and service provision are desirable, is it affordable to build the "best" or is it more efficient to build more housing of a slightly lower quality? Or, in the long run, will less "beautiful" projects prove to be more costly in their maintenance, perhaps inspiring less tenant pride and participation in the building's upkeep? Do social services, an investment in the tenants, indirectly represent an investment in the whole project? 

There is a certain irony to the evolving situation in which regulated "affordable" housing maybe more expensive than unregulated private housing; but is this perhaps an acceptable irony in the interest of bettering the living environment of low-income people and sheltering the homeless. 

A Closer Look at Some Recent "Model" Projects 

To put a focus on the debate, TPR has examined more closely three housing projects in the Los Angeles area, representing efforts to meet the needs of three different populations. The projects chosen highlight some of the most positive aspects of recent development, and are as varied as the sites on which they are located and the constituencies to which they cater. 

The first, located downtown on Skidrow, is the Produce Hotel, single-room occupancy (SRO) project geared towards the area's homeless, who are either unemployed, on disability income or employed in very low-wage jobs. 

Today in the Skid Row area, there are about 11,000 people in these categories, of which 8,000 are already in SRO units. The rest are either in missions, shelters or on the streets. 

The 97-unit project of the Skid Row Housing Trust (SRHT), which already manages 550 SRO's and is developing hundreds more, is located in a rehabilitated building at 7th and Central, across from the Produce Market and was designed by Cavaedium Architects. The Produce Hotel is unique in that it is a mixed-use development. In addition to the SROs, 13 artists’ lofts have been incorporated into space previously used for offices and 20,000 sq.ft. of retail space with newly renovated street front facades are included. Thus, when the project opens its doors in January, 1994, it will give the area not only new residents but new commercial activity and life. 

The Produce Hotel's design emphasizes historical rehabilitation of the exterior of the classic brick building and improvement of the street facade. Inside, the SRO units are designed for efficiency and comfort in small spaces. Two community kitchens with private lockers and a community lounge are also featured. The artist lofts were created by combining two floors to achieve high ceilings and light. In addition to the CUP obtained for the new uses, a variance was granted for the parking which includes only 53 spaces, primarily for the loft and retail users. SRHT Project Manager David Kramer noted that the Bradley administration supported and expedited the permit process once the property was acquired in January, 1991.

The financing package for the $11.9 million project included significant funding from the CRA, a sizable private loan from Citibank, low-interest loans from the California Dept. of Housing and the Federal Home Loan Bank's affordable housing program and money from tax credit investors. The project has been approved for a HUD Section 8 rental subsidy, which allows tenants to pay rent based on 30% of their income.

The mixed-use design of this project may be key in making it viable in the long-term as commercial rents are a means of subsidizing losses from low-income rents. In addition, especially in areas like downtown, mixed-use projects have some less tangible benefits such as providing more interesting and diverse development that gives life to the street 24 hours a day. as well as badly-needed lodging at the lowest end of the housing spectrum. 

Harper Community Apartments 

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Catering to a very different constituency are the Harper Community Apartments in West Hollywood, a city with an HIV-positive population that is proportionately six times larger than that of the county in general, according to Paul Zimmerman, executive director of

the West Hollywood Community Housing Corporation (WHCHC), the project’s developer. While hospices and other facilities provide shelter for the HIV-positive community, this project was the first to build independent housing, completely accessible to the disabled, which also provides services without seeking to organize the lives of its tenants. 

The Harper project was built with a great deal of support both from the City Council and community groups. Qualifying tenants must have a proven disability, with preference to HIV-related illness, and earn a maxi­mum of 60% of the median area income. The small, 22-unit facility is now full and has a waiting list of about 150. Tenants are assured that their units will be held for them during hospitalizations, until such time that they and their doctors decide that they can no longer care for themselves in the independent setting. 

The colorful, modem design and bright, airy courtyards were designed by Archeplan, a Los Angeles firm, to deliberately create an optimistic and cheerful atmosphere. Each unit has oversized bedrooms to allow for hospital beds, a full-sized kitchen and its own balcony, many facing into an inner courtyard. In addition, the building contains a common room and library, (both adjacent to the office shared by the manager and representatives from social service agencies who have hours on the premises), a laundry and underground garage. 

The $2.7 million project was financed by a number of sources including a Tax Credit syndicated to a group of 49 investors, two 30-year low-interest loans from the city of West Hollywood and the Century Freeway Housing Program and a loan from the State of California Rental Housing Construction Program. The CHC manages the building, charging rents ranging from $300 for a one-bedroom to $600 for a two-bedroom unit. 

The CHC has already planned a larger 40-unit facility for HIV tenants on Palms Ave. The new structure is to be very different from the Harper apartments, due to site constraints including the incorporation of two designated historical bungalows. Some of the sources tapped for Harper are no longer available, and the CHC is now searching for new sources. 

Ward Villas Senior Apartments 

The last project, Ward Villas, is noteworthy both for its planning and building process as well as for the product itself. The 120-unit apartment complex for low-income seniors in the West Adams district, is the result of community-based development that began in protest of a planned CRA-approved condominium project on Adams Blvd. The Ward AME Church, aided by then Councilmember Bob Farrell, successfully fought the condo project, which was deemed insensitive to the community’s needs including a demand for senior housing to which the CRA had made an earlier commitment. Ward EDC then succeeded in its bid to act as developer, despite the fact that the non-profit corporation then had no proved track record. 

The project received much publicity as a landmark in that it was the first of its kind in which 100% of the work was contracted to minority and women’s business enterprises (MBE/ WBE), in keeping with the developer’s policy of creating jobs in the community, according to Jackie Dupont-Walker, president of Ward EDC. The $10 million project was financed through a low-interest loan from the CRA, a Bank of America loan and tax credits. 

The Victorian-style building, designed to blend in with the surrounding neighborhood, includes 108 one-bedroom units and 12 two bedroom units, 12 of which are handicapped accessible. It includes an impressive range of facilities including lounges, sun decks, library, arts & crafts room, putting green, exercise trail, T. V. room and even a large conference hall for community events. 

The design was completed following three months of planning sessions to which local seniors, the potential consumers, were brought by the busload to participate. Grassroots-organized non-profit corporations bring a special sensitivity to the development of low-income housing, and in building the Ward Villas, the church-based group worked with the community to define its needs and create a project that meets those needs at an affordable cost. 

Finally, the three projects highlighted here represent just a few examples of the many unique affordable housing projects in the Los Angeles area. As the need for affordable housing increases, while funding sources decrease, innovation and efficiency are going to be key words in the debate for continuing the important production of affordable housing.

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